Dying to Preserve Life: the Risks of Fighting Ebola

The Ebola outbreak in Africa is an unprecedented epidemic of one of the world’s deadliest viruses. Doctors and scientists are working furiously to try to stem the tide of the epidemic, by putting measures in place to prevent infection, isolating and treating those who have been infected and attempting to develop more effective treatments.

A paper published in Science two days ago analyzed the genetic data of the 2014 Ebola patients and concluded that the 2014 outbreak can be traced back to one individual who was infected from the “natural reservoir” of the Ebola virus, which is to say, the natural host of the Ebola virus. The paper ends with this:

In memoriam: Tragically, five co-authors, who contributed greatly to public health and research efforts in Sierra Leone, contracted EVD in the course of their work and lost their battle with the disease before this manuscript could be published. We wish to honor their memory.

Science, sometimes, is dangerous.

Language and Thought

When you think, how do you think?  For me, it feels like I am having a conversation with myself.  Which came first in each of us, though?  Language or thought?  It’s really a fascinating question, when you stop and think about it.  Are language and thought inextricably intertwined?  If you didn’t have language, could you think the thoughts you think?  Or is our higher-level thinking only possible because of our faculty with language?  It seems like more and more that the answer is the latter rather than the former. Continue reading

Political Decisions, Part Three: Sex and Politics

Before we looked at how the structure of the brain may affect (or be affected by) your political beliefs and how a candidate’s appearance affects voter preferences.  There’s another way voter preferences can be swayed by a candidate’s appearance: the sex of the candidate.  As you’ll see, sex and politics comes down to more than just scandals. Continue reading

Political Decision Marking, Part Two

This is the second of a series on the intersection of science and politics which looks at how people make their political decisions.  In the first post, we looked at how the shape of the brain is correlated with political thinking.  Now we’ll look at something else: how your brain reacts to a candidate’s appearance.  A big shout out to Emily Dennis at Rockefeller University for turning me on to these studies and guiding me through some science of ill-repute with this subject.

Politics . . . in your face!

We’ve known for a long time that the appearance of a political candidate affects whether people vote for that candidate or not.  A team of scientists led by Michael Spezio of Scripps College took this a bit further and looked into how the brain processes the appearance to get to this result.  Their results showed something they did not expect: the effect is not influenced by positive appearance aspects of the winning candidate.  Instead, the effect purely came from the negative appearance aspects of the losing candidate, meaning that people were voting against the loser rather than for the winner.

The team actually conducted two different experiments with different sets of people.  In the first, the subjects were given pictures of two candidates and were asked to vote for one.  The pictures were actual candidates from the 2006 midterm elections, but the subjects were unfamiliar with the candidates they were presented.  In the second experiment, the subjects were shown pictures of unfamiliar political candidates and were asked whether, based on the picture, a particular candidate was attractive or not, whether he/she was competent or not, whether he/she was publicly deceitful or not, and whether he/she was personally threatening or not.  They used fMRI brain scans in both studies to see what areas of the brain were active when making these judgments.  fMRI looks for increased blood flow in the brain, which lets you deduce that a particular area of the brain is active.

In both experiments, they found that the brain was active when looking at negative aspects of a candidates appearance, and not when looking at the positives of the winning candidate.  So, when appearance affects voting, it appears that the voter is voting against the negative aspects of a candidate and not for the positive aspects.

One thing to remember is that the subjects in these experiments were reviewing unfamiliar candidates.  My suspicion is that this effect plays a much bigger role with uninformed voters than it does with more informed voters.  People that know nothing about a candidates or their parties will vote more based on appearance than those who are voting based on parties or the beliefs of the candidate.

Political Decision-Making, Part One

After all the physics and space stuff I have been posting lately, I figured that a diversion would be good.  And what better to talk about (and potentially ramp up some page views) than politics!  Specifically, about how people make political decisions.

For a long time, the assumption was that voters made rational decisions after consulting the data and reviewing the candidates and the issues they were voting on.  Research in the past few years has changed that perception.  I will just briefly summarize the research as there is not room here for extremely thorough analysis.  Also, I’m not choosing sides on anything; we are just looking at how people make their political decisions.  Here is part one of this series.  I honestly have no idea how long this particular series will be, but lets run with it!  In this post, we’ll look at the structure of the brain itself.

Continue reading