Author Archives: Aaron Jacob Harris

Why all the hate?

Unfortunately, one of the most prevalent parts of today’s society is racism. Much of what makes today’s news has to do with tragic events that could be tied to some prejudice. Just in the last two days, a Texas high-schooler was arrested for carrying a clock that he built in to school to show his teacher. If this doesn’t seem like an action worthy of arrest, that’s because it’s not. School administrators believed the clock to be a bomb. This student was Muslim, it is believed that the administrators and police acted the way they did due to prejudice and profiling. Ahmed’s story is just one example of all the hate and prejudice in the world, but why does it exist? What causes millions of people to be so hateful when everyone is created equal?

Upon an initial search of why people are racist, I quickly realized it is important to distinguish between outward racists, and those that just have a few prejudiced thoughts and don’t act on them, as this article suggests. In a study conducted by NYU researcher David Amodio, it was found that typically, the average white college student, like many of the kids in SC200, has racist tendencies. This was evidenced by a study of 150 students in which they were asked to associate words with white or black faces. In the majority of cases, the students being studied associated the words with negative connotation with black faces. As for why this occured, Amodio cited implicit bias, which The Kirwan Institute at Ohio State suggests is an unconscious attitude or stereotype that affects our behavior or mannerisms.

So now that I discovered where our racist tendencies manifest themselves, I wanted to investigate how much racism affects the scientific community. Although, as we have learned in class, good science is based purely off of causation developed through experimental studies, bias does exist in science and that could include implicit bias, the whole basis of racism. As this abstract from research done by the State University of New York Plattsburgh shows, scientific racism, as the term has been coined, is mostly predominant in the field of anthropology. This would lead me to believe that racism is not very impactful in other fields of science, as it should be. I was not able to find any additional literature that speaks to whether racism is prevalent in science but I sure hope it’s not because that would possibly cause some of the most biased studies of all time.

Puppy Love

I know this is a matter of opinion and purely subjective, but I don’t think I have to provide any evidence that shows how cute puppy dogs are. Whether it’s a newborn Golden Retriever, a newborn Husky, or a tiny little Bulldog, they are just irresistible to most people, me included. As the old adage goes, “It’s just impossible to say no that face”. But question remains, why do we love dogs so much, what is it about their adorable faces?

A report published earlier this year in Science answers the question of why we seem to love dogs. The study, chiefly authored by Miho Nagasawa, focused on our biological reaction to gazing into the eyes of a dog. The study found that a spike of Oxytocin occurs. Oxytocin is commonly referred to as the love hormone; its release in the brain marks a feeling of love or affection. According to the study, even if we have no emotional connection to the dog, we will experience a spike in Oxytocin, making us love the dog and how cute they are.

Eyes drooped, lips pouted, quick blinking; the classic puppy dog face has melted hearts of their owners for years, and it always seems to work. A study by the University of Portsmouth has found that dogs intentionally employ this “sad puppy face” in order to apologize to their owners and show general cuteness (According to the article, previous studies have shown humans find bigger eyes more attractive, this is one of the techniques that puppies use.). The study goes on to suggest the possibility that this muscle-movement was not always ingrained in the head’s of our pooches. Instead, dogs have evolved over time to learn how to show such sorrow through their faces. The study of shelter dogs found that the dogs would turn on their “puppy dog face” when a possible adopter came in, in order to appeal to the human. Dogs can intentionally make us humans believe their cute, whether we want to or not.

It’s not just their soft fur or their loving licks, we love dogs because of science. Our hormones spike when we come in contact with them and they have evolved to make sure that this love never stops. Puppies are adorable creatures, and I’d be perfectly fine loving them for no reason, but as with everything, science is the reason for our love.

Cutest thing ever? I sure think so!

Cutest thing ever? I sure think so!

 

Why aren’t all our dreams happy?

Nothing is better than a goodnight’s rest. Feeling refreshed and ready to go because of a solid 10 hours of sleep is the best feeling in the world. Most nights, I sleep fine, with dreams or unicorns and rainbows floating through my mind. Occasionally, however, my sleep is rudely interrupted by a bad dream, or nightmare. I am awoken and don’t get the sleep that science has proven I need to survive. So why, if nightmares interrupt my sleep pattern, why do we have them every so often?

First, I want to look into why we dream in general. The jury is still mostly out for why we dream, but one of the leading philosophies on dreams is Freud’s understanding of the psychodynamic and subconscious, as described in his book The Interpretation of Dreams from 1900. In this book he describes that dreams come from our desire to express our deepest and most hidden secrets in a way that is acceptable to society. A more scientific approach to dreams is summarized by J Allan Hobson, who believes dreams come from the random firing of neurons and neurochemicals in our brain.

The descriptions I found to describe why we dream offer no insight to why we have nightmares despite the harm that it does to our body by limiting the amount of sleep that we get. After looking into studies on brain activity during nightmares and failing to find any significant data, I began to instead look at what causes nightmares on a less biological level. This is when I found Michael Rodio’s Axis of Fear. Described in his brief article, Rodio describes how the Axis of Fear, or the region of the brain occupied by the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex, comes to the forefront when we dream, amplifying our negative thoughts during dreams, causing us to remember what we dreamed. Dr. Ross Levin elaborates on the idea of negative emotions coming to the forefront saying that bad memories “get thrown into a room together and get jumbled around”, resulting in a bad dream. His analysis is that most of our dreams are bad dreams, but many aren’t traumatic enough to wake us or even startle our nervous system in the least. In a study conducted by Dr. Genevieve Robert and Dr. Antonio Zadra, it was found that the content of nightmares widely varies based on the person, giving no real explanation as to why the dreams occur. This is interesting because it included self-reporting reasons for what type of dream the participant had, our interpretation of dreams mattered. Like dreams, there is no real way to study the subconscious as it relates to nightmares and a result, no real information exists as to why we have them.

Although my initial question could not be answered based on available studies, I still wanted to delve deeper into the idea of dreams and nightmares. In doing so, I realized one very strange fact. For some reason, I always remember my nightmares in vivid detail, but I can never recall my good dreams. Even the most basic ideas, I cannot remember in my dreams no matter how hard I try. Meanwhile, I am still able to remember some of the worst bad dreams I had as a little kid, and could recall them to someone easily, even 10 years later. If I were extend my research, I would want to look into why we can remember nightmares but not dreams and what this says about the human subconscious (I think this plays a big part in Robert and Zadra’s study because the participants might have not remembered a good dream and could only recall and a report a nightmare).

Dreams

How does cigarette smoking affect plants?

Yesterday, a classmate posted a blog about whether or not cigarette smoke is harmful to our household pets, like cats and dogs. Corey came to the conclusion that yes, a household pet living in an environment with significant cigarette smoke can lead to an increase in the risk for different lung related diseases in pets. Corey’s post gave me a thought that I chose to investigate for one of my blog posts, does cigarette smoke also cause a negative effect on plants and flowers that we keep in our homes?

Many studies have been conducted to determine whether smoke from forest fires can cause harm to trees (like this one from the International Journal of Forestry Research). These studies have found that regular wood-burning smoke can have negative effects on the photosynthesis levels of trees and how efficiently they grow. Although these results appear very conclusive, I am still left wondering whether cigarette smoke might have a more destructive effect on plants due to the harmful chemical makeup in them.

In an experiment conducted by Victoria Garcia, she found that in a closed environment, cigarette smoke stunted the growth of cabbage and celery plants. In her experiment, cigarettes were placed in very close proximity to the plants whereas in a common household, the smoke would not be so close to the plants because smoke would just linger in the air in a larger environment. Unfortunately, this is as far as the research in this field goes.

If I were able to conduct a study to test my hypothesis that stems from the idea that cigarette smoke is harmful to household pets, I would need a large environment and a control group along with the experimental group that has cigarette smoke in the environment. Over time, I would measure whether the growth of common household plants or flowers was stunted when exposed to cigarette smoke for 10 minutes every 2 hours. My hypothesis would be that, yes, tobacco smoke and the other lethal chemicals in cigarettes negatively effect the growth of household plants. I’m disappointed that I could not come to a definitive conclusion in this blog post, but I believe that this could be the beginning of an interesting discussion about the further effects of cigarette smoke on not just ourselves and our pets, but also our green and leafy friends as well!

 

Plant Smoking for SC200

Why do we bite our nails?

A nervous coping mechanism, an addiction, a way to relieve stress, or maybe just some disgusting habit that a lot of people have. There are many ways to describe the simple act of biting your fingernails. For years I have done this and although it’s not something I’m particularly proud of, I know it’s not really harmful to me. By now it’s so ingrained in my mind that biting my fingernails every once in a while has become almost second nature, an instinct almost. I don’t remember the first time I chewed on my fingernails and thus, I have no clue why I did it.

According to a 2012 NPR article written by Amy Standen, nail-biting is a form of Pathological Grooming. This disorder has been recognized by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) an American Psychiatric Association publication, as a mental disorder similar to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

So as I sit here writing this blog post, I have already answered my original question of whether or not nail-biting is more than just a habit. It is definitely a psychological disorder with some sort of scientific reason, even if it is rather tame. Finding such an easy answer to my initial query made me think deeper; what caused me and my fellow Pathological Groomers to begin chewing at our nails and develop this disorder?

In a study conducted by Dr. Alexander Leung, he finds that approximately 45% of North American adolescents bite their nails. What could possibly lead nearly half of all teenagers and young adults to start exhibiting the same common behavior? Although much research has been conducted over the years about the origins of these habits, many of the hypotheses have been discounted by other scientists. Early Psychodynamic psychologists believed that nail-biting came from some sort of oral fixation that is developed early on in our lives, an innate need to bite our fingerprints imprinted on us early in our lives. Unfortunately, no experiments were done to support or deny this claim, therefore no causation could be determined. In a study conducted just a couple months ago by Sarah Roberts, evidence was found to support that nail-biting and other “Body-focused Repetitive Behaviors” occurred as a result of boredom, frustration, or many other emotions. Roberts surveyed 47 individuals to see what causes them to partake in Pathological Grooming behaviors. She found that these behaviors were often a response to an imbalance in emotions and that nail-biting helps certain people to bring their emotions back to balance.

Although the jury is still mostly out about what causes nail-biting, I tend to agree with Roberts in my own personal experience. Whenever I am stressed, over-worked, or just plain tired, I find that I bite my nails in order to calm myself down. In the future, studies can be done to determine if a specific event in a child’s life is likely to have a direct causation to nail-biting or whether it is just some unexplainable phenomenon that science cannot figure out. For now, I just have the reassurance in knowing that the mental disorder I believe to be most prominent in myself is not in any way harmful!

Nail Biting Pic for SCBlog

 

Initial Blog Post

Hi everyone! My name is Aaron Harris and I can’t wait to be learning with everyone in SC200 this semester. I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where I lived for my entire life before starting my collegiate career here at Penn State. I’ve grown up a Nittany Lion fan, both my parents were graduates in the 80’s and my older sister currently goes to school here, so getting to be in University Park for the best four years of my life is definitely a lifelong dream come true for me.

I’m currently enrolled in the Division of Undergraduate Studies but I’m leaning toward going into Marketing (far from any science related courses!). Despite this, I’ve always had a strong interest in many fields of science, especially Forensic Science. If you were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up about 10 years ago, I would’ve gleefully responded, “I want to be scientist that blows stuff up!”. For many years I had my sights set on a science career but then 10th grade Honors Chemistry and 11th grade AP Physics happened. In these courses, I discovered I didn’t quite have the knack for the hard sciences like I thought I did. This led me to change my future career path and steer myself away from the difficult course load of a science major that I would no doubt struggle with. Therefore, when I discovered Andrew’s SC200 course, I knew it was perfect for me. It was the science I was interested in without the difficult parts.I’m extremely excited to be a student in this course and learn everything that I can from Andrew, the TA’s, and my classmates.

 

Being a Pittsburgher is a proud part of my identity, so here’s a picture of the beautiful city I call home.

PittsburghNight