Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Processed food – an illusion of choice?

February 24, 2013
Snickers bar

Mmmm… Snickers

Mmmm… Snickers. It’s one of my absolute favourite guilty pleasures – a perfect combination of salt, sugar and fat, chewy and crunchy and DELICIOUS. So when, briefly, there were plans to reformulate Snickers so they would no longer be vegetarian, I was incensed.

How dare they deny me the choice to eat my Snickers? Ok, so it’s not the healthiest snack, but dammit I can make my own decisions. Luckily, the worst did not come to pass and I am still free to eat my favourite chocolate bar when the mood takes me. Or am I… ?

I’ve been reading a lot about ‘unhealthy’ foods recently. There’s a growing wave of opinion that processed foods need to be regulated, because they make unhealthy lifestyles that little bit too easy and appealing, landing health services with huge problems like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

But so far no one has hit on the best way to do this – and part of the reason why is because of the ingenious re-framing of the question by the huge companies that stand to lose the most. You might be outraged at the thought of extra tax on unhealthy foods – why should you pay for other people’s obesity problems? But, without sounding too much like a crazy conspiracy theorist… that’s exactly what they want you to think. (more…)


Why do people believe crazy stuff?

October 13, 2012
Black cat

A black cat – lucky, unlucky, or just a cat?

We all like to think of ourselves as rational beings. Trouble is, this immediately sets up a paradox. If we are rational, we should be swayed by convincing evidence. And convincing evidence shows that human beings are very often not rational at all – we play the lottery, we are superstitious, and we ‘go with our gut’.

That’s why the beautiful concept of ‘rational thought’ will nearly always be a goal we can only strive to achieve. I have to remind myself of this every time I think ‘why would anyone sensible believe in homeopathy/conspiracy theories/creationism/hell/delete as appropriate’. It’s easy to tell yourself that these people must be stupid and irrational. But that’s not what the evidence really shows. (more…)

Downloading your brain is nothing new

July 17, 2011
Brain image

Not much space in here!

Yet another reason why Google is a bit sinister – this week it’s being blamed for modern man’s rubbish memory. According to research in the journal Science, we’re relying on computers to be a permanent extension of our brains – Google remembers so we don’t have to.

But is this really a portentous development warning us of the perils of technology? Surely anyone who’s ever used a textbook is doing exactly the same thing. And books certainly didn’t herald the decline of the human race.  (more…)

What is consciousness?

June 14, 2011
Neuron by MethoxyRoxy

From neurons to consciousness - it's a giant leap (image by MethoxyRoxy)

Consciousness could probably be described as one of the most interesting problems in science – how do we explain that ‘feeling of feeling something’? What is consciousness for? Do other animals have it? Will we ever know the answers to these questions?

As usual it’s a good idea to break the task down into more manageable chunks, and you can split the conundrum of consciousness into two unequally sized bits: the easy problem and the hard problem.

The easy problem is finding out how brain activity matches up with conscious experiences – perception of movement or pain for example. But the hard problem really is a tricky one – how do all these molecules shuttling around the cells in your brain coalesce into the ‘you’ that exists at any one moment in time?

Research out this week illustrates the hard and easy problems nicely. Scientists have monitored the activity of the brain as it slips into unconsciousness – you can watch the video (it’s really interesting), but you can be damn sure it won’t explain the feeling of becoming unconscious.


Asparagus wee: the riddle of the genes

May 22, 2011

Something smells suspicious...

As a somewhat rabid vegetarian, I often enjoy a bit of asparagus (especially with hollandaise). And as a curious person, I also enjoy its interestingly-scented side effects. You know what I’m talking about. Or, as I recently discovered, perhaps you don’t…

I’m happy to admit that asparagus makes my wee smell. Plenty of people I know well enough to mention this to have said the same thing, but why doesn’t everyone remark on this? Science has the answer, and it turns out it could all be down to a genetic mutation. (more…)

Sunshine – the wonder drug

January 30, 2011

sunshine makes me smile!

When I was little I visited some incredible caves in central Italy – the Grotte di Frasassi. I was a bit of a nervous child, and walking down into the dark through a huge tunnel carved out of solid rock was pretty scary. I was happier when the caverns opened up inside, into a space bigger than St Paul’s cathedral and filled with stalactites and stalagmites.

The thing I remember most clearly is a scary story the guide told us, about a group of monks who had become hopelessly lost inside the caves. They tried to trace their way back out by running their hands along the walls of the passages in the rock, but after days and days they still hadn’t escaped, and their fingers had worn down to the bone. Luckily I wasn’t quite little enough to believe this, but I still felt very relieved when we walked out into the sunshine again.

You certainly don’t have to go underground to feel the mood-enhancing effects of sunshine. January in London is a pretty dismal month, especially if you’re getting up when it’s still dark. So a few sunny days in the past couple of weeks have really cheered me up – I can almost feel the corners of my mouth twitching when the sun comes out.

This isn’t just about my mood. The bright light is affecting my brain directly, through special cells in my retina. The cells send signals to an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, and from here signals travel on to the pineal gland. This tiny gland secretes melatonin, the hormone that  controls the body’s rhythms, regulating everything from the activity of enzymes in the liver to processes in the brain. (more…)

Social marketing: making the right choices?

November 29, 2010

Hard to resist...

There’s a quote that runs, ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions’. I’m not a big believer in hell, but it’s certainly true that we’ve all got a lot of ‘best laid plans’ that never quite worked out. Finding ways to encourage people to succeed in their resolutions is a huge business opportunity (think of all those different diet books), and something that many charities and governments are involved in too.

Persuading someone to spend a month eating cabbage soup and LOSE A WHOLE DRESS SIZE IT REALLY WORKS is probably not the most ethical thing to do, but there’s meant to be a more responsible, caring side of this technique called ‘social marketing’. (more…)

Do you believe in magic?

August 11, 2010

I love this picture. But it's not the 'real' thing...

Would you say you’re superstitious? Or that you have magical beliefs?

a)      Of course not!

b)      Maybe a bit, but not really

c)       Only on Friday the 13th!

I would want to answer (a) to that question – but I’d have to admit that I was lying. It’s not as if I believe in fairies (or even God), but I still touch wood and wish people luck. I even read a horoscope every now and then (just for fun, I tell myself).

But there are far more unconscious, unquestioned magical beliefs than this. I really did think I was a fairly rational person until I heard a lecture by Dr Bruce Hood, at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. He asked the married people in the audience a simple question – would you exchange your wedding ring for an exact replica?

Of course not, we all thought (whether we were married or single). What a stupid question. But the next one left us stumped. Why not? (more…)