Author Archives: Rebecca Aronow

Is Secondhand Smoke as Bad as We Think It Is?

A large majority of my friends smoke cigarettes, and I also work at Chronic Town—a hookah bar downtown—so I’m often around various types of tobacco smoke. It’s odd being one of a few who don’t smoke cigarettes, especially because at this point everyone knows the negative effects of tobacco smoke on our health. But recently, I began to worry that even though I have made the conscious decision to refrain from smoking cigarettes, being surrounded by other smokers may still be detrimental to my own health.

First, let me define secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke consists of two forms of smoke: mainstream smoke, which is smoke that is released from the smoker’s mouth after inhaling, and sidestream smoke, which is smoke that comes from the lit end of a cigarette. This second type of smoke has larger amounts of carcinogens and also contains smaller particles that are more capable of being absorbed into the lungs and cells of the body. According to the American Cancer Society, when people who don’t smoke inhale secondhand smoke, they are absorbing nicotine and cancerous chemicals the same as people who smoke do, and the more you breathe around this smoke, the more of those chemicals make their way into your body. The American Cancer society also states that secondhand smoke, containing over 7,000 chemicals, 70 of which can cause cancer, definitely causes cancer, even in non-smokers. This, sadly, is believed to negatively affect children whose parents smoke at home; they are at an increased risk for sickness, lung infections, ear infections, and general coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Furthermore, The American Lung Association states that over 41,000 people die due to secondhand smoke per year—approximately 7,330 from lung cancer and 33,950 from heart disease. I question these facts though because, how can you determine that secondhand smoke was the cause of someone’s death? There are so many factors that go into a person’s death; how can their lung cancer or heart disease definitively be linked to secondhand smoke? It just seems like a stretch to me, especially because they provided no scientific proof.


So I set out to find that scientific proof. This study looked at over 76,000 women and found that there is a strong link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer, which at this point is a well-known fact, but they did not find a link between lung cancer and secondhand smoke. The study consisted of data from the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study to look at women between the ages of 50-79 at the time that they enrolled in the study. The studies had data on smoking as well as other related data points such as exposure to secondhand smoke. Out of the 76,304 participants, 901 of them developed lung cancer over a mean of 10.5 years after the initial study. But out of the women who had never smoked, overall exposure to secondhand smoke showed no statistically significant correlation to risk of getting lung cancer. However, women who lived in the same house as a smoker for 30 years or more was associated with an increased risk for lung cancer, but that association was only mildly statistically significant.

The study, however, only covers the link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer, and doesn’t take into account its effects on asthma, heart disease, and other negative consequences that are generally believed to be associated with secondhand smoke. This study seemingly doesn’t actually have that surprising of a conclusion, as it is already largely believed and known that at low exposure levels to secondhand smoke, the risk will not be that great. The study also only looked at women, so we cannot generalize the conclusions to any other gender. In an article in Forbes, the author draws attention to the fact that most of the studies that examined and concluded the strongest associations between secondhand smoke and cancer were case-control studies—studies, a study that compares patients who have a disease with patients who do not have the disease and then look back to factors that could have increased the risk of contracting that disease. This, the author of the article states, could result in recall bias, where people who have a disease will be more likely to recall moments that may have led to that disease, and as we all know, memory is feeble. And out of the 76,000 participants, only 4,000 reported that they had never been exposed to secondhand smoke, so the two groups were incredibly uneven and therefore it’s difficult to show any sort of connection between the independent and dependent variables and also any differences between the two groups.

Multiple researchers also submitted a criticism of the above study, which stated that the study lacked the statistical strength to even detect an association between passive smoking and lung cancer if the association actually existed. Out of the 40,000 women who reported never having smoked, approximately 10% of them—about 4,000—reported no exposure to secondhand smoke and only 152 of them developed lung cancer during the follow-up. These numbers are incredibly small, especially compared to the 76,304 participants, and you cannot draw any hard conclusions, especially one that is so strong and contrary to normal thought, from this small of a sample size. It is also very hard to determine whether someone has actually never been exposed to secondhand smoke, and the amount of secondhand smoke that one has been subjected to is very hard to quantify.

The dissenting researchers suggested conducting a meta-analysis. They cited a study conducted by researchers of the International Lung Cancer Consortium that studied over 2,500 people who had never smoked and found a statistically significant association between passive smoking and lung cancer. However, like I previously stated, this was a case-control study and may have suffered from recall bias. They also stated that an unpublished study that they conducted found statistically significant evidence that there is an association with secondhand smoke and lung cancer. So maybe this suffers from the file drawer problem, because so many people hold it to be true that secondhand smoke is associated with lung cancer that they don’t feel that it’s necessary to publish their findings. They also bring up that studies that research the effect of genes on the effects of secondhand smoke shows that people’s increased risks to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke as it relates to lung cancer differ. They declare that we all should know that there is an association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer and even the most minimal amount of exposure is unsafe.

Given the many shortcomings of the initial study, I definitely would recommend airing on the side of caution and treating secondhand smoke as dangerous to your health. This isn’t to say that you should shun any of your friends who smoke or run every time someone lights a cigarette near you, but definitely be aware of the chemicals that are going into your body and try to remove yourself from the harmful toxins if possible.

Does Flossing Actually Help?

I will admit it, I pretty much never floss. The days before my checkups at the dentist I will frantically floss in hopes that they won’t realize my lack of flossing and scold me. But despite my bad flossing habits, I’ve never had a cavity, so I started wondering if flossing actually makes that much of a difference.

The most recent addition of the dietary guidelines as stated by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services did not include flossing, which had previously been included, as a necessary action for your health. This is believed to have been left out because we don’t have enough scientific evidence to actually prove the health benefits of flossing, even though it’s a widely held belief that flossing is necessary to maintaining good gum and teeth health. But The American Dental Association still states on their website that flossing is necessary to maintain clean dental hygiene. This definitely made me, and many others, skeptical as to whether flossing actually matters, so I delved into some studies.

This study looked at the effects of professional flossing on children aged 4 to 13 years old. Six trials of 808 subjects were conducted, and the researchers stated that there was potentially bias involved, which is good to know and very important to keep in mind, although the bias and why there may have been some was not explained. The study concluded that professional flossing reduces the risk of cavities, and the addition of fluoride is particularly helpful. This study, although it is somewhat large, was stated as possibly biased and also bases its evidence on professional flossing. Most children and adults do not have a professional regularly flossing their teeth, so it would be a much more applicable study if the children had flossed themselves.

How to floss properly.

How to floss properly.


So I continued to search for studies that looked at self-flossing effects, and found two meta-analyses. This meta-analysis, conducted by The Cochrane Library, studied the results of twelve randomized control trials that examined the effects of just brushing your teeth versus brushing your teeth and flossing on adults’ dental hygiene (i.e. plaque and gingivitis). 1,083 participants made up the twelve total studies—582 in the flossing and toothbrushing group and 501 in just the toothbrushing group. Flossing plus brushing your teeth was shown to be associated with a decrease in gingivitis, but there was no statistically significant evidence that the addition of flossing reduced plaque. However, out of the twelve studies, the researchers thought that five of the studies could very likely be biased, leaving just seven that were believed to be well-conducted and therefore without bias. The studies also were relatively short term, so long-term problems related to not flossing like tooth decay was not able to be measured. But this meta-analysis also concluded that flossing is not scientifically supported, leaving me still wondering whether the benefits of flossing are real and as strong as dentists make us believe them to be.

Another experiment looked at various teeth cleaning techniques and their effect on plaque. After randomly assigning 156 healthy people to four groups: toothbrushing and rinsing with chlorhexidine and fluoride, toothbrushing and rinsing with cetylpyridiniumchloride and fluoride, toothbrushing and flossing, and just toothbrushing, the researchers found after 8 weeks that mouthwash was better than flossing or just brushing your teeth for decreasing plaque. The scientists concluded that mouthwash may actually be better for reducing plaque than flossing. So maybe using mouthwash is really the solution, and for lazy me that seems like a much better solution to flossing. But once again, this study was relatively small and short-term, so I wouldn’t make any rash decisions based off of the results.

The American Dental Association, in addressing the recent published reports of the lack of effectiveness of flossing, stated that just because there isn’t strong evidence doesn’t mean that flossing is actually ineffective. They want the public to know that dentists know best because they know each patient individually. They also state that just because flossing was dropped from the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines doesn’t mean that people should stop flossing, it just means that the committee decided to focus on food consumption’s effects on tooth decay, especially sugary foods. They still recommend brushing twice a day, flossing once a day, and going to regular dental checkups. The ADA also contended that self-reported flossing is not reliable data, as people do not always tell the truth about their flossing habits. I can definitely agree with this, as I used to lie to my dentist all the time about how frequently I flossed so they wouldn’t yell at me.

So based on these studies, I can’t say that flossing is effective or ineffective. The results that conclude that flossing does not lead to a decrease in plaque and gingivitis may be true, but they also may be biased because of the way data was collected, because many people do not floss correctly, or because of various other factors. I would advise myself and everyone else to just floss, because it only takes a little bit of time and it definitely doesn’t have a negative impact. And swishing around some mouthwash is definitely a good option too. It’s better to look after our teeth now than to find twenty years down the line that our teeth are going to fall out (extreme, I know, but wow what a nightmare!).

Why Do Some People Like Spicy Food While Others Can’t Stand It?


I love spicy food. I put red chili flakes on almost everything I eat and when I eat out I almost always ask for the dish to be extra spicy (if it’s a dish that’s supposed to be spicy of course). My friend in high school though hated spicy food. She thought even the mildest food was spicy; she thought that the chicken at Chipotle was spicy, and I still don’t know how. I couldn’t understand how she could think such a mild flavored food was so torturous while I was loving the burning sensation of the spiciest hot sauce. So I began to wonder, why do some people love eating spicy food while others can’t stand the spice?

This observational study looked at the mechanisms behind people’s enjoyment of spicy foods and found that increased exposure to chilies in food led people to begin liking the spice of the food. It’s not that people who like spicy food don’t feel the spiciness of that food, but they grow to enjoy that feeling. The researchers believe that this change could be because of relations of the food with positive experiences, including enhanced flavor of food or rewards. The scientists also hypothesized that maybe our initial dislike of chilies is to warn us of the heat, but the pleasure that some feel while eating spicy foods may be a result of enjoying a food that the body has deemed potentially harmful. The enjoyment and consumption of spicy foods may also be a form of thrill seeking. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the methods and procedure behind this study, so I am unable to assess it based on any criteria, but I found the abstract to be rather interesting and informative of some of the possibilities of why people enjoy spicy foods.

While looking for other possible factors at play, I found this study that used twins from Finland—47 monozygotic and 93 dizygotic twins plus 51 twins without the other twin—to look at how genetics influence our enjoyment of spicy foods. They had the subjects eat strawberry jelly with and without capsaicin and then rate how pleasant and pungent the food was. Based on their answers, the subjects were then divided into three groups—non-likers, medium-likers, and likers. They found that genetics accounted for 18-58% of the variation in how the subjects rated the pleasantness of spicy foods, and the sensations they feel when consuming the food. How pleasant one found the spicy food was correlated with the shared genes. Based on these results, the researchers felt that genetics play a role in the enjoyment of spicy foods. This could explain why both my dad and myself love those extra hot meals. The study, however was relatively small and relied heavily on self-evaluations of responses to spicy food, which is not the most accurate form of data collection. But it definitely offers an interesting explanation as to why some people prefer spicy food, although the exact genes that may be at play and why only some people have the gene for preference of spicy food is not known.

Personality differences is also an explanation as to why some people show a stronger affinity toward spicy food. This study looked at the relation between personality, which they defined in terms of body awareness/consciousness, sensation seeking, sensitivity to punishment, and sensitivity to reward and the enjoyment of food with capsaicin (spicy foods). They found a strong relation between people enjoying spicy food and how frequently they consumed said food, which is not at all surprising. But they did not find an association between how often one ate spicy food and the perception of the burning of that spicy food.

I find this hard to believe because of my own experiences. I feel like the more I eat spicy foods, the spicier foods I’m able to consume. In an article in The Atlantic, John Hayes, director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at this very university, stated that desensitization plays a role in the enjoyment of spicy foods. To allow yourself to enjoy spicy foods more, you must consume them more to get your body used to the feeling, after which your body will crave more of that spicy heat. TRPV1, a pain receptor in our bodies, regulates the feeling that comes when we consume capsaicin. Capsaicin lowers the amount of energy that causes these receptors to activate, which makes your body and mind react as though your mouth is on fire when in reality you’re really doing just fine. So, although there was no evidence found in this study that the perception of how spicy something is changes with the frequency of consumption, my experiences and the words of John Hayes makes me question that.

But the study also found that personality traits did not correlate with the perceived burning of spicy food. Sensation seeking, however, was positively correlated with how much people enjoyed spicy food. And sensitivity to reward was slightly associated with the liking of spicy food as well. How often one ate spicy food was also associated with people who are sensation seeking and sensitive to reward. This thrill seeking mentality could be part of why people feel the need to consume spicier and spicier foods. Maybe those people enjoy extreme sensations, or maybe they enjoy being able to declare their strength in terms of the amount of spice that they can handle. Either way, it’s an interesting finding that I hadn’t thought about before.

Another study looked at gender differences in the liking of spicy food in relation to personality traits and found that sensitivity to reward was more associated with the liking of spicy food in men and sensation seeking was more associated with the liking of spicy food in women. The researchers hypothesized that men may enjoy spicy foods because of external factors while women may enjoy spicy food because of more intrinsic factors. The subjects were actually from Penn State, which is very cool, and there were 246 participants between the ages of 18 and 45. They accounted for many confounding variables such as pregnancy, defective taste or smell, the taking of prescription pain medications, and race and ethnicity. The data however was self-reported, which always may lead to some bias. I have found my male friends to enjoy spice more than my female friends, so this study definitely holds up with my own experiences. And another study found that men with more testosterone added more hot sauce to their mashed potatoes, but not more salt, further supporting that gender may be a predictor of how much one enjoys spice.

Overall, it seems like there are many factors that may be at play here. But, if you’re female, or not adventurous, don’t think that you’re incapable of enjoying some good spicy food. Instead, see where your own personal threshold is, and maybe after consuming spicy food more frequently you will be able to increase your own tolerance and eat that extra fiery hot sauce your friends have been raving about. And if you don’t care about being able to tolerate that spice, then just keep on avoiding those spicy foods, that way they can’t hurt you.

Is Heartbreak More Than Just an Emotion?


I recently went through a breakup, and the sadness I felt was eerily similar to how I felt after the death of a loved one; my chest hurt, I was increasingly tired and unable to focus, and I just felt overall depressed. I expected to feel these emotional reactions, but I was somewhat surprised to feel physical pain rather than just those negative emotions and thoughts. When people go through a breakup, they always say their heart was broken, and that pain in felt in my chest honestly felt like my heart was hurting. So I began to wonder, is heartbreak just a saying to describe the feeling of lost love, or is it an actual physical feeling?

The American Heart Association actually defines Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiopyopathy, as a sudden intense chest pain that can be at first thought to be a heart attack. This occurs because of an increase in stress hormones that is caused by a particularly stressful and emotional experience. The heart physically becomes larger and isn’t able to effectively pump blood to the rest of your body, but no arteries are blocked like during a heart attack. This, however, is a severe physical reaction to a breakup or feeling of loss. Although most of us may feel that hurt in our chest, it’s usually not this drastic.

So to look into the milder cases of a broken heart, I first needed to find out how our body reacts to love, as love is a fairly subjective concept. But rooting the idea in science would help me qualify and quantify the effects of this somewhat abstract feeling. Helen Fisher used fMRIs to study 17 people who were “in love” and examine the effects of love on the brain. When thinking about his/her loved partner, two areas in the subject’s brain that are highly concentrated with dopamine and therefore associated with pleasure, reward and motivation showed increased activity. Fisher concluded from this that dopamine and reward pathways in the brain lead to the arousal that occurs for people that are in love. In other words, love is mainly an innate animal tendency related to motivation, not an emotion.

Fisher then decided to further her research to examine the effects of breakups on the brain, which perfectly coincided with my train of thought and interest as well. The researchers used fMRI scans to study 15 people—10 women and 5 men—who had just been broken up with by their partners but still were in love with them. The subjects were shown a photograph of the person they were still in love with and a photograph of a familiar person. These photographs were split up by a task that required the attention of the subject and therefore distracted them, allowing their brain activity to reset.

While looking at photos of the person that had rejected them, the areas of the brain associated with gains and losses, craving and emotion regulation, and reward were activated. The increased activation of the reward system areas are consistently activated whether one is experiencing love, or lost love, but the activation of the other areas suggest that heartbreak has very specific and acute physical responses. Another interesting finding was that the same area that is activated during the consumption and craving of cocaine also lit up when the subject viewed the picture of their loved one. This suggests that love is like addiction, and the loss of love can physically feel like withdrawal. And not surprisingly, areas associated with physical pain and pain regulation were more active when viewing a photograph of their loved one, but the greater number of days since the person had been broken up with, the less activity was shown in the brain. This shows that time really does heal.

This study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal that examined 21 healthy women and 19 healthy men who had within the past six months gone through a break-up where they were the ones who were dumped showed similar results to the above study. They found that the same areas of the brain lit up when the participants were burned by a hot cup of coffee as when they looked at a photo of the one who broke their heart while also remembering past experiences with their loved one.

The connection between the emotion and physical parts of our body really do make sense. In an article in the Scientific American, two psychology professors discussed the physical manifestations of negative emotions such as heartbreak. They say that heartache is a combination of emotional stress and physical manifestations of that stress such as tightening of the muscles, increased heart rate, odd stomach activity and shortness of breath. They also state that emotional pain and physical pain use some of the same areas of the brain, but we still don’t know the mechanism behind how our emotions lead to those physical sensations.

But in terms of how to cure that heartache, in my experience, I too found that time made the pain decrease, however this report discussed some interesting information about another possible way to help heal your broken heart. Two experiments in which the subjects took acetaminophen or a placebo every day for three weeks showed that the drug led to a decrease in social pain, even though the drug is typically taken for physical pain and discomfort. Also, FMRI scans showed that the drug led to a decrease in the brain’s response to social rejection. The areas of the brain which are involved with stressful situations were not as active. This illustrates a significant association between social and physical pain, although I do not know enough about how the study was conducted to declare if there is actually causation involved.

So, it seems as though that heartbreak we feel really does have some ties to the brain and our bodily sensations. But time really does heal, and focusing your mental energy on other positive activities will help to decrease that pain in your chest. It will eventually go away.

Can You Catch Up On Sleep?

Being in my second year of college, I’ve come to accept my abnormal sleep habits at school. I get, on average, six hours of sleep per night, sleep for 10-12 hours on the weekend to “catch up”, and then the cycle starts all over again. But I have started to realize that I pretty much always feel tired, no matter how much sleep I get, so I began to wonder—can we actually catch up on lost sleep, or once we lose those hours are they gone forever?


Lack of sleep is a really common problem, especially among college students, and it leads to many negative consequences including weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, general moodiness—even mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, a weakened immune system, and an overall lowered life expectancy. These health effects are well-researched and well-known, but sometimes it’s just impossible to squeeze in those needed hours of sleep between studying for that test, working, and doing whatever else we need to do. So it would be helpful to know if the lack of sleep during the week can be made up during those blissful weekend days.

I first looked at this article, published in 2016 in the Diabetes Care Journal. They conducted a study to determine if the effects of lack of sleep on diabetes risk could be reversed by increasing the amount of sleep one gets for just a couple nights. In the study, nineteen healthy young men were allowed four nights of normal sleep—8.5 hours in bed—and four nights of restricted sleep—4.5 hours in bed. The two nights following the four nights of only 4.5 hours of sleep were designated recovery nights; the men were allowed 12 hours of sleep on the first recovery night and 10 hours of sleep on the second recovery night. After each phase of the study—normal sleep, sleep deprivation, and recovery sleep—the men’s insulin sensitivity—how our body regulates blood sugar— and response to glucose was measured.

Insulin sensitivity was found to decrease by 23% after the nights of just 4.5 hours of sleep, but the sensitivity was improved after the nights of recovery sleep. The insulin response to glucose, however, did not change according to the amount of sleep one received. The disposition index, which is insulin sensitivity multiplied by the insulin response to glucose, decreased by 16% after sleep deprived nights relative to the nights of 8.5 hours of sleep. This amount of decrease is a predictor of increased diabetes risk. The disposition index, however, went back to normal after the two nights of recovery sleep. This shows that just two nights of increased sleep following four nights of sleep deprivation is enough to reset the body’s insulin sensitivity and reactivity and therefore save the body from being at an increased risk for diabetes.

This study was well conducted; meals were standardized, the subjects were under controlled experimental conditions, and the type of men studied were relatively similar in their age and health, which eliminated confounding variables such as the influence that one’s bed has on sleep, the effect of diet on sleep, the effect of age on the ability to recover from sleep loss etc. But the study was very small with just 19 subjects studied and the subjects were only men, so the results cannot be generalized to females. The study also only looked at a short period of sleep deprivation, and in the case of many people, especially college students, we are more sleep deprived than just four nights of lacking sleep.

Also, this study only looked at how lack of sleep and recovery sleep affects diabetes risk, which is a concern, but not as applicable to college students as say, how sleep affects school performance. So, although this doesn’t conclude that a weekend of extra sleep allows us to reverse the accumulated sleep debt of the week, it does give us hope that getting those extra hours of sleep over the weekend at least positively affects our body’s metabolism, which leads me to believe that maybe those extra hours could positively affect other bodily functions and mechanisms.

I next looked at this experiment, which studied 30 healthy young men and women for 13 nights, and what I was most interested to see was how sleep recovery affected their performance levels, as this is something that particularly applies to us as students. Four of those 13 nights allowed for eight hours of sleep, the next six were just six hours per night, and the final three nights—the recovery nights—were 10 hours per night. The researchers measured IL-6 and cortisol levels as well as used subjective and objective tests to record how sleepy the subjects felt. They found that after recovery sleep, sleepiness, fatigue, IL-6 levels and cortisol levels were corrected, but the lack in performance functioning was not. So it seems that the overall effects of a long-term pattern of sleep deprivation during the week and “catching-up” on the weekend are still not known, but from this small study it seems that performance levels are negatively affected whether we catch up on that sleep over the weekend or not, which is bad news for us.


A meta-analysis of 19 studies expanded on this conclusion and found that sleep deprivation overall impairs general functioning ability and that mood is the most affected by lack of sleep compared to cognitive or motor functioning. It was also found that partial sleep deprivation—a period of time in which one consistently gets less sleep than they need, affects functioning more than long-term or short-term sleep deprivation. This means that college students, who according to this recent study conducted by Jawbone receive on average 7.03 hours of sleep during the week, are in this category of partial sleep deprivation, the most detrimental kind of sleep deprivation. And according to this same study, the average amount of sleep that Penn State students get on a weekday night is just 6.94 hours, lower than the overall average. Upon first glance, it may seem that 6.94 hours of sleep is not too bad—it’s only a few minutes less than the recommended 7-9 hours per night, but remember, this number is just the average, meaning that a large majority of students are getting even less sleep than the recommended amount.

So it seems like catching up on sleep, although it may help a little bit, still doesn’t reverse many of the negative consequences that come from lack of sleep. But there are still ways for us to overcome our sleep debt.

The Harvard Medical School recommends that, if we aren’t getting enough sleep, we should add three to four hours of extra sleep over the weekend and an extra hour or two per night for the entire next week. But if getting that extra hour or two in per night doesn’t seem possible, perhaps take a cat-nap of around 20 minutes, as that has been found to equal one hour of extra sleep at night. And most importantly, focus on the long-term and work to reset that biological clock. Thanksgiving break would be a great time for this. Allow yourself to go to bed when you’re tired and wake up without an alarm clock every day. This will let your body find its natural rhythm, so that you can come back to school refreshed and ready to succeed!

Is Kombucha Really A Super Drink?

Kombucha has become the new hip drink within the past year or so, taking over the shelves of supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. It has spiked in popularity because of its high content of probiotics and antioxidants and its supposed health benefits, such as its ability to help with indigestion, arthritis, and even cancer (source). The owner of one of the biggest Kombucha suppliers, Synergy drinks claims that Kombucha stopped his mother’s breast cancer from spreading throughout her body and saved her life.

The fermented tea, filled with sugar, bacteria and yeast, which you can often see floating at the bottom of the bottle, tastes slightly tart and vinegary, and has a very low alcohol content of about 0.5%. You can buy Kombucha at your local grocery store or even ferment it yourself. Over the summer I actually began buying Kombucha from a local brewery near my house and it was quite delicious. The process of making the tea is really interesting to watch, and creates this weird blob-like, gross-looking substance like this that is really weird (I totally understand why she’s making that face). But with all of the hype surrounding this drink and its sudden rise in the market, I wondered if the health benefits that people believe Kombucha to have are true.
According to this article from the Washington Post, the health benefits that are associated with the consumption of this beverage have no actual scientific basis. There have been no research studies on people and very few on animals. However, the drink is known to have many probiotics, which we do know are good for your health and immune system. But the probiotics are only present in unpasteurized Kombucha, and if unpasteurized Kombucha isn’t made in very clean places there could be very negative health consequences because of leftover harmful bacteria.

And according to WebMD, the health benefits are really only based on personal testimonials and those few studies on animals as indicated in the Washington Post article. Because there have been no experiments conducted, we cannot say that Kombucha is the cause of these health benefits, as there may be some other confounding variables involved. So, I’m not saying that we should stop consuming this tasty drink, but I am saying that until we have more evidence, don’t drink this tea thinking that it will definitely cure your cancer or boost that immune system, because we just don’t know.

Do Our Dogs Really Love Us?

I love my dog more than I love most people in the world. It’s that overwhelming sort of love in your gut that you can’t really articulate. But my dog is also terribly annoying and horribly trained, mostly in regards to food; he will bark incessantly for food (seriously, it doesn’t stop until he gets food, and often he’ll keep barking even after he’s eaten). His barking drives my dad, sister, and myself totally crazy, but my mom consistently makes excuses for his awful behavior, saying things like, “aw, he’s just trying to talk to us” or “but he’s just hungry!”. So of course he’s going to continue barking for food when his barking always results in my mom feeding him (it’s a prime example of classical conditioning).
This is how my dog looks at you when you’re eating.

And my dog loves my mom the best, you can just tell. When we all walk in the door after dinner or a family vacation, she’s the first he runs to. If we take him on a car ride and she leaves the car for a second to run into the grocery store, he will stare out the window crying until she comes back. But I always wondered, does he truly love her most because he spends the most time with her, going on walks and sitting around the house, or does he love her because she’s the one who most frequently feeds him? Does he love all of us? The type of love that we feel toward him? Or does he just want food?

So I decided to delve into this topic and try to find an actual scientifically proven answer instead of continuing to speculate on my own—I really do hope that my dog truly loves me though, or else my heart will be broken. I first found this Mic article, which discussed a recent study that attempted to find out exactly what I was wondering—do dogs really love us? This study, conducted by researchers at Emory University, measured twelve dogs’ brain responses to various smells, their strongest sense, using fMRIs. They tested five smells: a familiar person (e.g. their owner), an unfamiliar person, a familiar dog, an unfamiliar dog, and itself. The brain scans showed that the dog’s caudate nucleus, an area of the brain associated with reward, experienced increased levels of activity when given the smell of a familiar person. I believe that this shows that dogs have positive associations with their owners, but I’m not sure that it proves that they love us. This could mean that the dogs associate their owner with a reward (i.e. food), and that is why their reward center in the brain is activated with the presence of the familiar person’s smell.

So I kept looking to see if I could find more evidence as to whether dogs really love us or not, and found this article, which used the results of another Emory University study to claim that our dogs do love us.

The study trained fifteen dogs to associate various objects with various outcomes: a pink toy was associated with receiving food, a blue toy with praise from their owner, and a hairbrush (the control) was associated with no reward. The researchers then used fMRIs to determine the brain’s reaction to the sight of the different toys. The results: nine of the fifteen dogs were equally excited by the pink toy (food) as they were with the blue toy (praise), four of the fifteen were more excited by the blue toy (praise), and two of the fifteen were more excited by the pink toy (food).

The researchers then tried to observe the dogs and see whether their behavior would show a preference toward food or praise. The dogs had to navigate their way through a maze and at the end of the maze they could either choose to eat a big bowl of food or go toward their owner. The four dogs who in the fMRI scans showed the most excitement about praise went right toward their owner, the two who showed a preference toward food went right to the food, but the nine who showed equal preference switched between which choice they made, and often seemed distressed about which to choose. I think that this also shows that most dogs do have an attachment toward their owners, but once again it doesn’t show the mechanism—is it because of love or is it because of food and praise?

Unfortunately, it seems as though I still don’t have a clear answer to my question. I will continue to analyze my dog’s every move, thinking that his cuddling up to me in bed is a sign of his affection toward me, but maybe he is just cold. I guess I’ll just have to keep hoping that my dog, although he may love us for giving him food, loves us equally for our companionship.

Why Music Makes Us Feel So Good

Since I was a baby, I’ve always had a strong love for music. There are home videos of me at two years old bopping to Paul Simon and at seven quietly singing along to the Grease soundtrack. Through my teenage years I relied on music as an escape; I would go home after a bad day at school and immediately put on a Fleetwood Mac record, because I knew that would cheer me up. I always have known that music has a strong effect on me and my emotions, especially music that reminds me of past memories (I still love to listen to Graceland, the same Paul Simon album that I listened to as a toddler), but I never really looked into why.

I first wanted to find out why music has such an emotional effect on people, having the ability to make us happy, sad, or allow for an emotional release. This Time article explains the connection between music and the brain by discussing a recent Science report by neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor, which claims that listening to music increases the neural activity in the nucleus accumbens—the area of the brain that releases dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure, and it can be released during a variety of rewarding activities including sex, eating, drug use, exercise, or in this case, music. The researchers also found that music activated the amygdala—the area of the brain that processes our emotions. This discovery provides one explanation as to why music allows us to feel such a rush of pleasant emotions or helps us decompress after a stressful day. If music causes a release in dopamine, that means that music is triggering positive emotions.

But I didn’t just want to find out the connection between music and our emotions, I was also curious about why we often cling onto old, familiar music and typically feel stronger emotions toward those nostalgic songs. This Mic article interestingly explains some of the reasons behind why we listen to the same song over and over again, but what I found most interesting and helpful toward my own question was the idea known as the mere exposure effect.

The mere exposure effect states that we experience an increased liking toward things that we have more exposure to. So in the case of music, we enjoy music more when it is something that we are more familiar with. For example, that “something familiar” could be a particular artist, because we would be familiar with their voice and therefore experience greater pleasure in listening to any of their songs, it could be a particular song that we’ve grown to know very well by repeatedly listening to it, or it could even be a particular sound or style, which would explain why people generally have a favorite genre of music, because within genres there are repeated sounds, shared styles, forms etc.

The idea of the mere exposure effect’s relation to music isn’t just conjecture. A recent experiment studied the relationship between music and the brain, specifically testing if familiar music had a different effect on the brain than unfamiliar music. With the use of fMRI scans, the researchers began by playing various pop and rock songs to the subjects, which the subjects then individually rated by familiarity and how much they liked the song. With these ratings, the researchers developed a different grouping of songs for every subject, which they then played to the subjects while using an fMRI to track their brain activity. The collected data revealed that familiar music versus unfamiliar music led to much more increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with emotion and pleasure/reward. This shows that familiarity with music leads to a stronger emotional reaction in the brain—a scientific illustration of the mere exposure effect. For more scientific evidence, here’s another study that was conducted at UC Davis, which found that there is a direct correlation between the strength of a past memory’s connection to a song and the amount of brain activity in the emotion centers of the brain.

So, with all of this newfound information, I think that we can clearly see that there’s a reason why we love music so much, why we rely on it to cheer ourselves up, or why we feel a rush of emotion when we listen to that Backstreet Boys song that we used to play all the time as a kid. It’s nice to know that the pleasant reactions that we have while listening to music come directly from pleasure-transmitters in our brain, and that those great childhood memories really can be carried through time just by the tune of a song.

Science is Cool

Hey ~ My name is Rebecca Aronow and I’m a sophomore Integrative Arts major from outside Philly. The straightforward/simple answer to why I’m taking this course is because I need to fulfill the Science GenEd requirement. I chose this specific science course because it 1) seemed to involve the least amount of “typical” science and 2) actually sounded interesting and engaging to my science-loathing self. I actually find the earth around me incredibly awesome but most science classes don’t teach us the cool parts of science, like this, but the basic memorizable parts that don’t actually affect me/my life perspective. This course seems like it will do the exact opposite: challenge me to critically think about myself and my surroundings and allow me to actually engage in science instead of just observe what others before me have already discovered.

I’m not planning on being a Science major because I do not historically enjoy science or math based courses and have never been very good at them. fa5

I also desire to be in a more art based field such as photography, graphic design, concert/event planning etc. These things have pretty much nothing to do with science.