Author Archives: Brian Cunningham

Is telekinesis possible?

The topic of psychokinesis, or “telekinesis”, being used in science is a blurry one. While the null hypothesis states that it doesn’t exist and it’s impossible, with no other existent “magical” forms having been found yet, it’s impossible to say it most certainly doesn’t exist. However, I wouldn’t get your hopes up too high.

In an online survey conducted by psychologist Richard Wiseman which surveyed 400 magicians worldwide, the question “Do you believe that psychokinesis exists (i.e., that some people can, by paranormal means, apply a noticeable force to an object or alter its physical characteristics)?” was met with a mostly negative response. In fact, 83.5% of the magicians surveyed said NO, while only 9% said YES. The other 7.5% were UNCERTAIN. While this in itself is not evidence by any means, it gives a good sample of what those who practice the art of deception have to weigh in on the subject.

While many believe that because we supposedly only use 10% of our brains, meaning there’s nearly infinite possibilities for what we may be able to do if we were to access the other 90%, this is in fact a myth, as we have been shown to use 100% of our brains through the use of imaging (including PET scans). As a matter of fact, according to the same article, if our brain waves were able to have some sort of impact on the physical realm, it would be rendered useless, as the waves would only travel a few millimeters away from our heads.

On the contrary, a longitudinal study cited in this article highlights the potential of our mind’s power through the use of Random Event Generators (REG). While the results may have appeared promising, though subtle, we run into the same problem that we did with the studies on preemptive prayer. As such, with the lack of additional studies to back this work up, as well as the lack of a mechanical explanation for it, it’s very possible that this study suffers from a false positive.

The problem is, without a mechanic that can undeniably explain it, save for some more wild theories on quantum mechanics, it’s hard to make progress on the possibility. But at the same time, we run into the opposite end of the spectrum: The fact that it can’t be proven that a mechanic doesn’t exist out there. Until we have definitive evidence that things like quantum superposition exists beyond just theories, you probably shouldn’t expect to see any breakthroughs in telekinesis that aren’t surrounded by a LOT of superstition and caution.


How safe is it to hold frogs and toads?

There are all kinds of myths and urban legends surrounding the harms of human contact with frogs, toads, and the likes of such. These supposed “harms” range from the possible health effects to humans, as well as to the amphibians themselves. But how many of them are actually true, and for the ones that don’t quite make the cut, where the hell did those ideas come from in the first place? Is there any truth to them?

For starters, the most common fear about amphibians, toads specifically, is that they give you warts. The means of which they’re transferred to us have been described as anywhere from touching a toad, to outright kissing a frog! Well, according to dermatologist Jerry Litt, frogs and toads do not carry the wart virus, because rather, it is exclusively a human virus. Specifically, Jeff Benson, M.D. says that warts are actually cased by what’s known as human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a skin cell infection. He also says that the only known carriers of HPV are us humans. However, Litt warns that the wart-like bumps we see on toads, specifically behind the ears, aren’t completely safe, and can cause harms in many other ways, as these glands are meant for infecting and irritating the mouths of predators with poison. The assumption that these wart-like glands were actually warts, combined with the fear that touching warts will transmit the virus (only true in some cases) is what lead people to believe that touching a warty toad would make them warty. Additionally, frogs can also transfer bacteria and diseases to humans that could be fatal if you were not to use a strong antibacterial soap after making contact with them. So while you may not get warts from touching amphibians, you should always make sure your hands are clean afterwards, because they can be harmful.

A common fear of holding amphibians, for the sake of the creatures themselves, is that by holding them, you’ll harm them… In some way. As a matter of fact, there are all kinds of myths that circulate about how you can kill a frog just by holding it, but some of these myths are combinations of assumptions with actual dangers for the creature. While you may not cause a frog psychological damage that’ll make it commit suicide after being held, you could cause it to dislocate a leg, making it helpless and sentenced to death upon release. When you hold a frog too tight, aside from the obvious effects of squeezing it until it literally bursts, it may start kicking in order to escape. This vigorous kicking is what tends to cause dislocations and other injuries for the frog. Of course, many people simply believe that something you do by picking them up causes them so much stress that they stop moving for whatever reason and are left to die, but this is not the case. However, the danger is still there for those inexperienced in handling amphibians! Just maybe not for the reason you think.

Finally, avoid any form of oral contact with amphibians. Contrary to the belief that kissing a frog will turn him into a prince, it won’t, and it might even give you salmonella. The myth obviously comes from popular fairy tales and children’s books, but believe it or not, that doesn’t add any truth to it. All in all, do not try this at home. Or anywhere, really.
So if you’re confident in your ability to hold an amphibian without breaking its legs or failing to fight the temptation to get intimate, you shouldn’t worry about holding most common (and nonpoisonous, of course) frogs, as long as you keep your hands clean!

Jeff Benson, M.D.

Dogs: Self-awareness and understanding names

Every dog is capable of responding to the sound of its name being called. Whether it responds by performing a specific action, being summoned to their owner, turning to look toward someone, or even just have their ears perk up a little, a trained dog knows when its name is being called.

Experts say that certain kinds of names may work better than others. Specifically, dogs have the ability to hear an ‘s’ sound to a much more intense degree than we do. In addition to that, dogs also respond better to shorter names with two consonant sounds. The idea is that more intense sounding names are more likely attract the attention of a dog, while at the same time, having too many sounds in a longer name may cause confusion and tend to be much harder to learn and understand.

Dogs actually have the ability to understand on average 165 words, according to studies. These words range from simple commands, to specific objects. While they don’t necessarily always understand what the object’s purpose is, they can usually identify them. (For example: a leash or a ball.)

The difference between a name being a simple trigger word and having a self-meaning to the dog, we must first understand whether or not dogs are actually self-aware. While studies have been done to test whether or not they are self-aware through the use of a mirror (and subsequently failed, as many dogs could not recognize their own reflection), Marc Bekoff developed a test that was designed specifically for dogs. In this test, he was able to show that a dog was less interested in their own “mark”, while they appeared interested and sniffed the marks of other dogs. The conclusion established that there are simply degrees to awareness among creatures. While dogs may lack many of the traits that allow us to identify ourselves, they do have a sense of what their body can do and what’s theirs.

So what does this have to do with names? Well, it all comes down to how names are interpreted in general. Isn’t a human’s name just as much of a “trigger” as a dog’s would be? We respond to what we are called, just as a dog does. Our own degree of self-awareness is unaffected by the name that we identify with. In addition, a dog can learn to know somebody else by name, the same way we do.

The truth is, we don’t know exactly what dogs think. However, we do know that they can memorize and understand words, be that in the form of triggers and commands, or just identification of objects. If a dog has the ability to identify itself and associate a name with having their attention desired, it’s fair to say that a name may mean to them the same it means to us, on a basic level.

Also, here’s a video that shows a group of dogs that each responds individually to their own name.


Can you actually “break your eardrums” from too much noise?

I’m sure almost everyone has a parent who has warned them to turn down loud music or else they’d go deaf. While these warnings may sound exaggerated, there is some truth to them. As a matter of fact, overexposure to loud noise, from any number of different sources, does in fact put you at risk of both temporary and permanent hearing loss.

Being exposed to loud noises for a period of time results in just temporary loss of hearing. This sort of hearing loss usually recovers by the end of the day with rest. The function the ear performs protects the inner ear hair cells by stiffening of the eardrum, which reflects some of the sound off of it. However, evolution is still in action, and the fact that longer durations of loud noises from day to day in workplaces are more abundant than ever, especially in jobs requiring construction or factory work. Because we’ve only been exposed to this for the last thousand years or so, we’ve yet to fully adapt to such consistent damage, and as such, the two muscles in your middle-ear that cause your ear drum to stiffen fatigue after extended periods of time, allowing sound to sometimes cause permanent damage when exposed frequently.

Many people experience what is called tinnitus, which is a term for what is sometimes referred to as a “ringing” in your ears, or a feeling of “fullness”. However, tinnitus is actually considered a symptom, rather than a condition. It’s related to general loss of hearing, and appears when you experience ear injuries or hearing loss related to age.

All in all, our ears are delicate, and very much still developing, and it’s better to play it safe.

If you want to experiment with the effects of your every day life on your hearing, a common test is to wear a single earplug in one ear, and not in the other. Proceed to go about your day normally. At the end of it, remove the ear plug, and you should notice the difference in hearing between your ears. You’d be surprised to know how much they’re affected, even if it’s only temporary!

Images: https://s-media-cache-

Will Chimpanzees Ever Speak?

Chimpanzees are known for being the closest relatives to humans genetically, sharing over 98% of our DNA. Though, it doesn’t take a biologist to figure out some of the major differences between us and our genetic cousins. However, one question that comes up a lot regarding all animals is the difference in our ability to communicate through speech. Why is it that chimpanzees, as well as other great apes, who so closely resemble our DNA, can’t perform one of the simplest staples of human interaction?

Contrary to some beliefs, the issue is not one that has to do with the brain. At least not entirely. Chimpanzees, as well as other apes, have proven their capability to understand language on a basic level through the use of sign language. It’s hard to say whether or not they have the ability to think in terms of grammar, because within their current “language,” apes tend to only speak about the present. This means that we don’t know if they haven’t developed a form of past and future tense due to actual mental restrictions, or simply the lack of the need to. Regardless of their brain’s capacity to understand grammar and complex language, the use of sign language still proves that the speech barrier between humans and apes does not have to do with the genetic ability to learn some kind of language, simple as one may be, but rather comes down to more physical reasons.

Physically speaking, apes, such as chimpanzees, have their vocal chords located higher in their throat than humans. Additionally, as mentioned in a special on NPR which quotes Dr. Philip Lieberman, one of the reasons our necks got longer was the downward movement of our tongues over time, which also brought the larynx down with it. With this space in our mouth and the shape of our tongues, we have the ability to move them up and down, as well as forward and backward, contrary to chimpanzees, whose tongue movement is mostly in-out.

While many of the details of these reasons are still being researched, unless the need arises for natural selection and evolution among the great apes to allow for changes in their tongues and vocal structures, it can be assumed that we won’t be hearing any chimpanzees speaking full sentences any time soon. However, if studies continue down the path of developing complex sign language between us and our fellow great apes, we could see any number of breakthroughs in understanding the actual mental capacity of these creatures, and whether or not they posses the ability to think beyond the present tense.


World of Warcraft: Online Education?

Video games are a touchy subject when it comes to their benefits to kids, vs. their many negative side effects. However, not all video games are made the same. It’s important to consider the different aspects that different games bring to the table, and a very good example of a game that involves everything from reading literature, to social interaction and cooperation, and even to some mental scientific processes and calculations, is World of Warcraft, the massively popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game).


The game, which has been around in a developing form since 2004, with a story that began in 1994, is set primarily in the world of “Azeroth.” It is home not only to the fictional residents, but also to over 11 million subscribers worldwide, as of 2008. That’s a bigger population than most U.S. cities. In a game that requires social interaction and a community investment, players are required to spend more time on the characters they create and play as in the world. For example, there is some content in the game that simply cannot be done alone with a single character’s toolkit. Instead, players must team up to take down the harder bosses within the game. For example, somebody who designs their character around being a “tank” would be the one holding the focus of the enemy and protecting their allies, including basic damage dealers that may sometimes put out more damage than they can take (thus, the benefit of having a tank), while someone designated as a “healer” would make sure the tank, or anyone else, doesn’t die. Additionally, each player in the encounter must sometimes follow mechanics such as avoiding “area of effect”, or “AoE,” damage, while also remaining in the line of sight of the healer in order to be saved from going to low on health. This sort of coordination must be done either by studying the fights yourself and applying the tactics, or by listening to and cooperating with a “raid leader” telling you what to do. Furthermore, as players become more experienced themselves, they’re able to pass on what they know to newer players. This sort of practice in leadership is also beneficial.


Aside from social benefits, studies that analyzed official World of Warcraft forum posts showed 85% of players demonstrating scientific literacy within the posts, evidenced by the interactions and discussions around endgame content. This included the use of statistics and hypotheses to make points about strategies and game mechanics. Many of these mechanics also get younger children thinking mathematically, as described by Jill Palmer, a mother who spends time with her kids playing games like World of Warcraft. In her example, she explains how her son Luke pondered the question of what would happen if a character in the game in a disease cloud could infect other characters. In other words, if a character walked into a room and infected four other characters, how quickly would the disease spread as each of those four characters infected characters that they encountered? It’s this kind of problem solving that is really not too far off from what scientists are doing in the real world, says Constance Steinkuehler, an educational researcher.


Plus, video games in general can be beneficial to us as well, as the results of another study consisting of 33 laparoscopic surgeons show that the surgeons who played video games performed their advanced procedures 27% faster than those who didn’t, and made 37% fewer errors. Additionally, more research using the WoW forums showed that, within the discussions, 86% of people utilized the community to share information in order to help figure out in-game problems, and 58% of them demonstrated the use of systematic and evaluative processes. Not only that, but World of Warcraft‘s expansive quest text and item names also contain advanced use of vocabulary that can help in school. Even if you don’t know exactly what a word means, you can make a fairly educated guess based on where you remember seeing the word. For me, off the top of my head, I remember knowing words from vocab units in high school English classes thanks to World of Warcraft, including words like malevolent, vindicator, maelstrom, and feint, among many other words.


As long as it’s regulated, gameplay and communication like that in World of Warcraft proves to be beneficial in many ways. Though, there are dangers to spending too much time in Azeroth, but it’s fair to say that many beneficial things become hazardous when done too much, with little other activity outside of the fact. That being said, when played a healthy amount in addition to regular exercise and other activities, the social and academic benefits to World of Warcraft can be a real “game changer” for some students that need the extra interactivity to focus and succeed.

World of Warcraft Video Game Succeeds in School
Can ‘World of Warcraft’ Make You Smarter?
World of Warcraft hits 11.5 million subscribers
Game Logo
Student playing World of Warcraft
In-Game Screenshot #1
In-Game Screenshot #2

Does SpongeBob “absorb” some of younger viewers’ brains?

It’s not unusual to hear about parents who never let their kids watch SpongeBob SquarePants when they were younger, in many cases due to the commonly held belief that watching SpongeBob can lower your IQ, or be detrimental to the brains of young children in other ways. But how much of that is actually true?


study conducted by the University of Virginia took 60 4-year-olds and split them into 3 groups of 20. Each group was assigned a different task for 9 minutes. The first group watched a 9-minute clip of SpongeBob, the second, a clip of the same length from the children’s show Caillou, and the third simply had 9 minutes to doodle with crayons and markers. The contrast between the TV shows in the study involved great differences in pace and action, with changes of the camera and/or scene approximately every 11 seconds in SpongeBob, and every 34 seconds in Caillou. After the 9 minutes were up, the 4-year-olds were given tasks that involved learning, such as doing the opposite action of what they’re told to do (for example, touching their head when told to touch their toes), as well as being tested on the ability to recite a string of digits in reverse. The results of the tests showed that children in both of the other categories performed better in every category than the children who watched SpongeBob.


But this doesn’t mean what many people assume it to mean. While the first assumption of many is to conclude that watching SpongeBob simply makes kids “dumber”, it’s important to note that that’s not what the study measured. The study measured the show’s effect on attention span, and the results show that SpongeBob is taxing on the minds of children, which fatigues their brains and causes problems focusing on other tasks. In fact, representative of Nickelodeon, David Bittler told ABC news that he thought the methodology of the study was questionable, stating that the subjects of the study were not an accurate representation of the intended audience for SpongeBob, and were in fact two years younger than the specified target demographic. Another problem with this particular study was explained by Jane Gould, former Senior Vice President of Consumer Insights at Nickelodeon, in a video interview (2:43 in the video on ABC News), stating that SpongeBob is designed to entertain, rather than educate, where as the other show used to compare in the study, Caillou, is both designed for that purpose, and for the age demographic used in the study. Additionally, Bittler accused the study of not using enough diversity in the studies, and both Bittler and Gould said that not enough subjects were used.


So does SpongeBob have an effect on young viewers’ brains? Yes. Does it make young viewers “dumber”? Well, not exactly. Or at least, it has yet to be proven to. The fast paced clips and action in SpongeBob stimulate the children, with the aim to entertain them. While it doesn’t educate kids, it’s important to understand that that’s not it’s aim. The fatigue to the minds of kids is not dangerous on it’s own. While attention spans are shown to be shorter after watching SpongeBob, it can be explained without suggesting any detrimental long term effects.

Research sources:
NewScientist report
ABC News interview

Image Sources:
Title and Characters
Cast of Characters
SpongeBob and Patrick (Cropped Edit)

Video Sources:
ABC News interview

The Effect of “Aquatic Ambiance”

Video game music has come a long way since its beginnings in the late 20th century, from chiptunes to, nowadays, sometimes full orchestra settings. However, some of the greatest music of all time came from the earlier stages of sound development for games, including David Wise’s compositions for the Donkey Kong Country series. Opinions aside, looking objectively at possibly one of Wise’s most famous works, “Aquatic Ambiance” has a unique effect on players that sets it above many other game tracks.


Super Nintendo version of Donkey Kong Country’s North American cover.

According to an interview with David Wise, he was inspired by a technique called “Wave Sequencing” on the Korg Wavestation, and attempted to replicate it on the SNES. In his replication of “Wave Sequencing” that used single cycle waveforms, he actually discovered effects that he liked and kept, such as distortions and harmonics.


“Coral Capers,” the first level in Donkey Kong Country to feature the theme “Aquatic Ambiance.”

But what made the music great was the strategic placement of it, and the psychological effects that resulted. PsychCentral’s article, The Power of Music To Reduce Stress, describes how certain music can affect us in calming ways. It has the power to slow your pulse and heartrate, as well as lower blood pressure, and decrease stress hormone levels.

Now consider the levels where this theme is used. It plays in all of the water levels in the game, which are known for being tricky, as the controls are different when swimming. Additionally, the characters move slower than on land, which sometimes messes with reaction time when trying to avoid certain enemies. Placing tranquilizing music in levels like these serves to calm players who are having a frustrating time in these difficult moments in the game.


Artwork for the Super Nintendo version.

Research sources:
David Wise interview
Music and Stress Reduction

Image sources:
American SNES Cover
Coral Capers

Video sources:
Aquatic Ambiance

Can carrots really make you orange?

It’s a common belief that eating enough carrots will turn you into one, at least in terms of color. Well, as it turns out, this urban myth actually has a lot of truth to it. Carrots contain what’s called “beta-carotene”, which according to who cites their Dermatology Clinic, does in fact cause the skin to change colors to a more yellowish tone, which can be perceived as “turning orange” to some people.

Hand with carotenemia (left) vs. no carotenemia (right). Retrieved from:

Hand with carotenemia (left) vs. no carotenemia (right). Retrieved from:

As you can see in the photo, no, you don’t actually become a carrot. However, the condition shown in the photo above on the left, known as carotenemia (also known as “carotenosis”), is what results from consuming too much carotene.

Similar effects on the body include jaundice, though unlike jaundice, the whites of the eyes do not take to the discoloration. In fact, with carotenemia, the clearest effects take place in the palms and soles, and generally effects younger children more than adults.
The effects of beta-carotene is based on the consumer’s level of metabolism. Not everyone becomes “orange” in the same dosage of carrots.

Thankfully, this condition usually doesn’t cause other health problems or diseases, and carrots, being a great source of vitamin A, and can also benefit eyesight (Jill B Koury, MD).

So yes, carrots can in fact convert you into an rather orange-looking human, however, you really don’t need to worry about it happening to you too easily. But hey, you are what you eat!

Science is cool, but numbers are boring

Hey, I’m Brian Cunningham.
I’ve always been interested in the way the world works, and the ways the world COULD work in the future depending on how things happen. That being said, I’ve always been more on the sensible description vs. the mathematical calculation to determine those sorts of things. As a result of that, I hardly even considered the idea of majoring in science simply due to the requirements in math and calculations that I would get too bored and distracted to complete thoroughly. However, I’m hoping this course takes a look at the side which I prefer, and simply uses the ideas of science in the world around us to explain things, as opposed to predictions based on equation after equation.
So I’m happy to skip all of the research and concise formulations of hypotheses to just look at what it actually means to me, and why.
Also, if you’re looking for a great show with no boring math or equations involved, check out It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Best show on TV. And it’s on Netflix.