Thursday, October 20, 2011

Being in a Cocoon is Like Getting Drunk, Kinda

Warning: this study includes insect torture. Weird insect torture.

Retention of Memory through Metamorphosis: Can a Moth Remember What It Learned As a Caterpillar.

Author:Blackiston, Douglas J.; Silva Casey, Elena; Weiss, Martha R.
Publisher:Public Library of Science

Shockingly adorable. 

If you wanted to figure out whether certain creatures remembered experiences and these creatures did not talk (or really do very much at all), what would you do? Researchers in the Department of Biology at Georgetown decided the best route was to traumatize the hell out of them.

In a study titled “Retention of Memory through Metamorphosis: Can a Moth Remember What It Learned As a Caterpillar?,” they tested the effects of “conditioned odor aversion” by using “classical conditioning” (2) techniques, i.e. buzzing them. The “[l]arvae were subjected to 10 seconds of the odor alone, followed by 10 seconds of odor plus a continuous electrical shock,” (5-6). Then, they waited for them to turn into beautiful, delicate butterflies to see if they were still fucked up from that crazy day when the caterpillar gods frowned upon them.

Turns out, they were still fucked up.

Only those larva, though, in the last instar (read stage of larval development). M. sexta have five instars. If you get zapped earlier on, apparently your brain gets so muched up in the cocoon you forget about it. The cocoon is apparently the inverse of a night of heavy drinking: you forget everything except for what happened just before it.

(Un)surprisingly, this study is not unique. There are tons of studies on the memory of instincts employing sometimes even more bizarre methods. My (least) favorite is  one called “Food-aversion learning in two polyphagous caterpillars.” (Dethier VG (1980) Food-aversion learning in two polyphagous caterpillars, Diacrisia virginica and Estigmene congrua. Physiological Entomology 5: 321–325.) Instead of giving them shocks, they give them toxic food. Even the authors of this study are surprised: stimulus. Interestingly, larval food aversion learning has not been observed in Manduca sexta, nor in several other lepidopteran taxa, despite the extreme negative consequences of ingestion of the noxious or toxic food. Speaking for caterpillars everywhere, you can say that again.

Memorable Quotations: To investigate learning in M. sexta larvae, we used classical conditioning to train caterpillars to avoid the odor of ethyl acetate (EA) by pairing it with a mild electric shock. (2)

We saw neither attraction nor aversion to EA in moths that as larvae were not exposed to EA, were exposed to EA alone, or were shocked in the absence of EA. (2)

[C]ontrol pupae were washed and demonstrated no change in behavior as adults compared to unwashed larvae. (4)

Individual caterpillars received a 16–18v (AC) shock depending on their size and position. (6)

Strange Findings: If olfactory memories are retained across metamorphosis, they are likely to be located in the mushroom bodies (MB), paired structures in the larval and adult insect brain that receive input from the antennal lobes [13–15]. The fate of the MB cells during the transition from larva to adult is poorly understood. (2)

If synaptic connections do indeed persist through metamorphosis, the carryover of larval memory into adulthood might depend on the timeframe of larval experience. In Drosophila, those MB neurons that are pruned prior to pupation form early in larval development, whereas those that persist through metamorphosis are formed later. Thus memory of later larval experience may persist into adulthood, while memory of early experience may not. (2)

For example, washing the pupal cases of Drosophila that had been reared as larvae on menthol-scented diet eliminated an adult attraction to the odor, whereas application of menthol to the pupal cases of larvae naive to that odor resulted in an increased attraction to menthol in the emergent adults. (1)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Girl Monkeys Prefer Dolls, Boy Monkeys Prefer Their Balls

Sorry for not having posted in a while. Sometimes I do other things than reading quantitative data spreads about president name sounds. Sometimes. 

As I was researching edible toys (<------- worth the read), I came across a bizarre study that will likely rancor some of my readers. The researchers put “a ball, a police car, a soft doll, a cooking pot, a picture book and a stuffed dog,” (469) into a cage with some adorable monkeys in order to see if the girl-monkeys liked dolls more and if boy-monkeys instinctively liked toy cars. Weird thing is: it seems they did.

Well, kinda. The researchers recorded two variables for each vervet: approach and contact. Approach meant getting within a meter of a toy. Contact meant anything from touching it to playing with it. The relative times of the vervets’ interactions with each toy was recorded and then analyzed.

Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus)
Gerianne M. Alexander, Melissa Hines
Evolution and Human Behavior 23 (2002) 467 – 479

“In some instances, we also noted that vervet monkeys contacted toys in ways that appeared to resemble children’s contact with them, such as moving the car along the ground. They also interacted with the doll in ways that resembled female vervet contact with infants, such as inspecting it physically,” (472).

 “Toys preferred by boys, such as the ball and police car used in this research, have been characterized as objects with an ability to be used actively or objects that can be propelled in space,” (475). Hmm, I have a pretty distinct impression that any object can be “propelled in space.” Girls like anvils? I’m confused.

Strange Findings: “[M]ale animals were more likely to approach and contact toys overall,” (470).
 “Whereas the approach of these Old World Primates to individual toys was unrelated to their sex or to toy category, their contact with the toys was,” (473).

“A preference for red or reddish pink has been proposed to elicit female behaviors to infants that enhance infant survival, such as contact. The hypothesis that reddish pink or red may be a cue signaling opportunities for nurturance and thus eliciting female responsiveness could explain our finding of greater female contact with both the doll (with a pink face) and the pot (colored red),” (474-5).

“[A]ndrogens appear to influence the development of two primate visual pathways that are differentially involved in the processing of object features (such as color or shape) and object movement,” (475).

“However, although female vervets preferred ‘‘feminine’’ toys over ‘‘masculine’’ toys, male vervets did not appear to prefer ‘‘masculine’’ toys over ‘‘feminine’’ toys. This difference between male vervets and boys may indicate that toy preferences in boys are directed by gender socialization to a larger degree than are toy preferences in girls,” (476).

“[I]t seems that, like chromatic color vision, sex-related object preferences appeared early in human evolution, prior to the emergence of a distinct hominid lineage. Primate color vision appears to have evolved to facilitate foraging for fruit and edible leaves. It may be that differential selection pressures based on diverse processing requirements of tasks that are conducted more by males or females (such as infant care) may have contributed to the formation of perceptual categories of objects with differential adaptive significance for males and females,” (476).

I wonder if similar “see-what-the-girl-monkey-touches” would be credible if they had some slight statistical significance. “It was seen that the female spent 23% more time watching Desperate Housewives while the males threw their shit at the TV during this time. This study was not designed to interpret such behavior, but we all know what it means.”

There may be something to the androgen-color perception stuff though. Several other studies confirm similar findings. The explanation for the female vervets’ attraction to the “feminine” red pot/pan is that its redness is linked to a female evolutionary sex adaptation that makes it likely to respond to reds and pinks. That is, maybe, to the little hairless pink faces of their progeny. And since the male monkeys seem to enjoy throwing stuff, maybe it’s better that they are less interested in dolls/babies.

Ok, Evolution and Human Behavior. But maybe if you could consistently differentiate a pot from a pan I would believe you more. 

But one thing all baby monkeys like, regardless of gender, is being flipped upside-down: 

Get the full scoop on baby monkey toy choices on Ziddu.

And leave comments! Enough of you are coming now that I know you are just being lazy. Especially the Germans. I know you have something to say. Keep looking forward to future posts on how you can see things without using your eyes (but with a different organ...), why you can say your night of heavy drinking is like becoming a butterfly, and Malaysian ant sports. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How the Sound of Your Name Can Win You the Presidency

What’s in a name? Well, possibly the Presidency.

This study shows how certain rhythmic and aural traits of the last names of Presidential candidates show a statistically significant correlation to which candidate gets elected.

Credit: Kim Raff/The News & Advance
Taking the name pairings for candidates from every Presidential election from 1842 (when the popular vote began to be recorded) to 1992, the study's name analysis is 83% accurate in predicting who would win the election. That is, only seven poorly-named candidates won. The study even goes on to give some explanations for those occurrences. For instance, when Van Buren beat Harrison in 1836, his campaign was completely an Andrew Jackson show. Jackson’s name beats Van Buren’s. Since Van Buren kept a low profile, many people were voting for the establishment and for Jackson who had endorsed Van Buren (17).

The reason? Well, probably because the candidates appeal to undecided, centrist, “swing” voters and in attempting not to alienate them do not give very clear stances on the issues that matter to them. Or they all occupy the same stances. So those that go into the voting booth “undecided” don’t have much to decide on. And so they go with their gut. And in this case, the gut is really the ear.

This is the list of name characteristics. Note that category C is a weaker predictor than A and B. 

So how does this all break down for the upcoming election? I’ve scored it below. The three categories correspond to rhythm, vowels, and consonants in that order.

Bachmann: 3 + 1 + .5  or -.5 = 4.5 or 3.5 (discrepancy due to the ambiguity of the "special harshness" category) 
Romney: 3 + 1 + -.5 = 3.5
Cain: -.5 + 0 + 1.5 = 1
Pawlenty: 0 + .5 + 0 = .5
Santorum: 0 + 1 + -.5 = .5
Paul: -.5 + 0 + 0 = -.5
Gingrich: 3 + -1.5 + -2.5 = -1

Funny. That's kind of how I see the likelihood myself. How does Obama do? 

Obama: 0 + 1 or 2 + 0 = 1 or 2 (discrepancy based upon possible expansion of category B4, which could apply to other ending-vowels according to the authors) 

But Obama fans, don’t worry yet. No Presidential candidate has ever won having two medial stops in their family name. Bachmann (ch and m) and Romney (m and n) would fall into this category. Though Romney’s stops are both affricatives which are particularly presidential sounds.

Strange Findings: Adlai Stevenson resigned dropped out of an Illinois 1986 state election because of well-named competition to the party: “Janice Hart beat Aurelia Pucinski, while Mark Fairchild out-polled George Sangmeister,” (159).

Apparently, people have suspected this phenomenon’s potency for a long time. In a 1986 study, fake pollsters asked students would they rather vote for the candidates Fairchild and Sangmeister. These were real candidates but not for the region that the students were eligible voters! Fairchild won easily and only 30% of students refused to answer without additional information! (159)

High back vowels tend to be associated with elites. This explains why Van Buren in the 1840 election was easily characterized as an aristocratic snob even though he was from a working-class background. (170) 

As always, the full article is available on Ziddu. More importantly, e-mail me at how your name ranks on the scale. Would you be able to beat Bachmann? Romney? Or the most confidence-inducing, Presidential, and unsuccessful candidate name of all-time (with a whopping 6.5): Bryan

The History of Bedwetting

This latest article is an uncomfortable narrative of enuresis, more commonly known as bed-wetting. If you are wondering why anyone would be in need of a history of something we would all rather forget, you may find it worthwhile to read the full article on Ziddu. Hint: it's a Foucauldian treatment of the issue. 

Luckily, this contraption is now longer in common use.

Memorable Quotations: Bedwetting has posed a slippery problem for the human sciences. Between waking and sleeping, infancy and childhood, it exists in a fluid space. (49) Serious face. 

Praising the treatment of incontinence of urine by ‘mechanical means’, a doctor argues in a prominent medical journal in 1864 for the utility of a vice, which he describes as a ‘formidable rat-trap looking instrument’ for retaining urine in male children. ‘It must be accommodated to the size of the penis, and taken off whenever the patient finds an inclination to make water’ (53)

In his article, ‘Enuresis in Murderous Aggressive Children and Adolescents’, Michaels (1961) insisted that bedwetting was indicative of deeper psychological problems that posed a menace to the social order. (58)

Proctor & Gamble has added a size to its stretch diapers, accommodating children 36 pounds (16.3 kg) and up. The new diapers are advertised by celebrity paediatricians encouraging parents to let their kids toilet-train at their own pace. (60)

[I]n recent advertisements the stigma attached to bedwetting is heavily emphasized: ‘For him there’s nothing worse than waking up cold, wet and alone. Except waking up cold, wet and surrounded by friends.’ (60)

Strange Findings: 
Until the 17th century, it was widely thought in Europe that eating the bladders of animals would help with bladder control. (51)

Taking your business inside was not a "natural" development. All the way until the 19th century in Europe public places were the primary sites (54)

There is an increasing trend of longer delays in toilet training since the 1960s. (60) 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why Super Mario Bros Is Fun

In honor of Ninetendo's upcoming release of Wii U, we are returning to the original reason for Nintendo's success: Super Mario Bros. Before reading further, I suggest you play a few rounds

This awesome study offers empirical evidence for what makes SMB fun and perhaps even more awesome shows how this process can be used to optimize the fun-factor of automatically generated game content. The authors show that, using artificial neural networks (ANN), they can predict with up to 88.66% whether a level will be frustrating to a player and with almost 70% accuracy whether it will be fun. (For a familiar example of gameplay that relies upon ANN, click here.) 

Modeling player experience in Super Mario Bros
Author(s): Pedersen, C.;   Togelius, J.;   Yannakakis, G.N
Source: Computational Intelligence and Games. Sept. 2009. 132 – 139. 

Memorable Quotations: “Several statistical features are extracted from playing data which are logged during gameplay and include game completion time, time spent on various tasks (e.g. jumping, running), information on collected items (e.g. type and amount), killed enemies (e.g. type, amount, way of killing) and information on how the player died.” (2)

“Statistically significant correlations are observed between reported fun and seven features: number of times the player kicked a turtle shell, proportion of coin blocks that were “pressed” (jumped at from below), proportion of opponents that were killed, number of times the run button was pressed, proportion of time spent moving left, number of enemies killed minus times died, and proportion of time spent running. All of these were positive correlations.” (5)

“The fun inherent in setting of complex chains of events with simple actions is something many players can relate to and which features prominently in many games, but which is to our knowledge not part of any of the “established” theories of what makes games fun.” (5) Is this an explanation of what makes Portal so addictive? 

“To the authors, cannons are perceived as some of the most difficult elements on a level. However, players reported lower challenge on levels where they ducked many times. We have yet to find an explanation for this.” (5)  

Strange findings: How you perform during your last life is a large determinant in how frustrating you find a particular level. (7)

Here is that frustration in action. It's intense: 

And now you can get even more excited for the upcoming release. 

Download the full, fun article on Ziddu

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Grading Olympic Mascots

Which are the three best (and worst) mascots? The results of the study (yes, studying this question) are at the bottom of the post.See if you can guess!

A study of cognitive human factors in mascot design
Source: International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics 23 (1999) 
Author(s): Rungtai Lin, P.C. Lin, K.J. Ko

If you’re a sports fan (or alternatively someone who likes to get drunk and argumentative in sports bars), you’ve probably had a debate about which team has the best mascot. Thankfully, for baseball at least, the debate has been settled correctly.

Nonetheless, cognitive ergonomists have found a way to empirically measure which Olympic mascot design is the most appealing to different audiences. 110 Taiwanese participants ranked random pairings of mascot designs in 14 categories (Subject-centered, Active, Attractive, Artistic, Unique, Cute, Striking, Creative, Regional, Energetic, Memorable, Merry, Symbolic, Modern). This data is then plotted endlessly. I highly recommend you download the PDF for the lulz.

But after all the charts, graphs, and statistical analysis, the stock closing gives us our one Memorable Quotation:

These results, based on a small sample, should be regarded only as a preliminary. Further studies involving more subjects and more mascots are necessary. Future works should examine the expression of mascot (Fig. 11), the design element of mascot (Fig. 12), and the motion of mascot (Fig. 13). (117)
Yes, further studies are necessary. Fingers crossed.  In the meantime, everyone joins in the parade!


Most popular: D, 7, 2
Least popular: 4, A, C, G
But the designers preferred 5 and 8, i.e. the drunk donkey and the schizoid cat. Well, go figger. 

Email me your favorite photoshopped...erm, favorite mascot at

Imaginary Bad Breath

Apparently, it’s not always clear whether someone actually has bad breath, even to doctors. So things like this have been invented. Though note the Wikipedia page on the Halimeter®: it is “an adjunct method for determining halitosis (bad breath, oral malodor) levels, alongside human assessment of odor levels (the latter is considered the gold standard).” In other words, the nose knows. 

The pigeon isn't imagining anything. 
This brief (one-page) article from the renowned British Medical Journal is everything you ever did (not) want to know about the phenomenon of bad breath and its weird sister, imagined bad breath.

Real And Imaginary Halitosis
Author(s): Clifford Hawkins
Source: British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Edition), Vol. 294, No. 6566 (Jan. 24, 1987),pp. 200-201

Memorable Quotes: The first question to ask yourself when confronted with a patient who complains of bad breath is: "Can I smell it?" (200)

[I]maginary halitosis is worse than real halitosis for it can become an obsession that dominates the victim's life and turns him into a social outcast. (200)

[T]he flavoured belch of the aerophagist is usually pleasant and depends on the previous meal. (200)

[T]he breath can provide an invaluable clue to a doctor when faced with a patient first seen in coma: the fetor hepaticus of liver failure is like the smell of mice or a freshly opened corpse; uraemia produces a fishy ammoniacal smell; and diabetic coma an acetone odour like sweet apples or hay. (200-1)

Strange Findings: Those who imagine they have bad breath are likely to suffer from hypochondriasis, depression, temporal lobe epilepsy, or schizophrenia. (200)

“Morning breath” is an effect of there being little or no movement of the mouth and saliva during the night which cleanse the mouth during the day. (200)

They used to prescribe enemas for bad breath! (200) I wonder if that was why Gandhi enjoyed them...

If you rub garlic on your feet, you will get bad breath. Also, you will be kicked out of my house. (200)

Regular use of mouthwashes increases your risk for thrush and resistant strains of bacteria. (201) Reader beware: the link contains some gross pictures. 

If you find you may be suffering from actual bad breath, here's another Brit who weighs in on the matter. He's a dentist, so you know he's experienced. 

As always, you can get the full article in PDF form on Ziddu