Category Archives: science

Optimal Caffeine Consumption

Wheth­er caf­feine serves any pur­pose oth­er than remov­ing with­draw­al symp­toms is a top­ic of study with con­flict­ing res­ults, but if you’re an optim­ist as well as a fan of caf­feine in any of it’s many forms you’re most likely con­sum­ing it sub-optim­ally.

Why not improve your caf­feine know­ledge and learn­ing about the optim­al way of con­sum­ing the world’s most-used stim­u­lant; caf­feine:

  • Con­sume in small, fre­quent amounts: Between 20–200mg per hour may be an optim­al dose for cog­nit­ive func­tion.
  • Play to your cog­nit­ive strengths: Caf­feine may increase the speed with which you work, may decrease atten­tion­al lapses, and may even bene­fit recall – but is less likely to bene­fit more com­plex cog­nit­ive func­tions, and may even hurt oth­ers. Plan accord­ingly.
  • Play to caf­feine’s strengths: Caf­feine’s effects can be max­im­ized or min­im­ized depend­ing on what else is in your sys­tem at the time.
  • Know when to stop – and when to start again: Although you may not grow strongly tol­er­ant to caf­feine, you can become depend­ent on it and suf­fer with­draw­al symp­toms. Bal­ance these con­cerns with the cog­nit­ive and health bene­fits asso­ci­ated with caf­feine con­sump­tion – and appro­pri­ately timed resump­tion.

So that’s one cup of reg­u­lar cof­fee — with sug­ar and/or soy milk — every hour when per­form­ing rel­at­ively simple cog­nit­ive tasks.

Labelling Homeopathic Products

Earli­er this year the UK’s MHRA opened a con­sulta­tion to help them decide how homeo­path­ic products should be labelled when sold to the pub­lic. As expec­ted, Ben Gol­dacre — devoted crit­ic of homeo­pathy, pseudos­cience and gen­er­al quack­ery — sug­ges­ted a label of his own and asked his read­ers for fur­ther sug­ges­tions.

Some of the sug­ges­tions were truly fant­ast­ic (and proved that I could­n’t come up with an ori­gin­al joke, no mat­ter how hard I tried), and so Gol­dacre pub­lished some of the best sug­ges­tions for homeo­path­ic labelling in his column for The Guard­i­an:

On instruc­tions, we have “take as many as you like”, since there are no ingredi­ents. The pro­posed bel­ladonna homeo­pathy pill ingredi­ents label simply reads “no bel­ladonna”, which is a con­ven­tion the MHRA could adapt for all its dif­fer­ent homeo­pathy labels. Oth­er sug­ges­tions include “none”, “belief”, “false hopes”, “shattered dreams”, and “the tears of uni­corns”.

For warn­ings, we have: “not to be taken ser­i­ously”, “in case of over­dose, con­sult a life­guard”, and “con­tains chem­ic­als, includ­ing dihydro­gen monox­ide”. This, of course, is a scary name for water, which became an inter­net meme after Nath­an Zohner­’s school sci­ence pro­ject: he suc­cess­fully gathered a peti­tion to ban this chem­ic­al on the grounds that it is fatal when inhaled, con­trib­utes to the erosion of our nat­ur­al land­scape, may cause elec­tric­al fail­ures, and has been found in the excised tumours of ter­min­al can­cer patients.

The com­ments on both art­icles are real gems for those in need of a laugh today.

via @IrregularShed

The Evolutionary History of the Brain

The devel­op­ment of the human brain is intric­ately linked with almost every moment of our evol­u­tion from sea-dwell­ing anim­als to advanced, social prim­ates. That is the the over­whelm­ing theme from New Sci­ent­ist’s brief his­tory of the brain.

The enga­ging art­icle ends with a look at the con­tin­ued evol­u­tion of the human brain (“the visu­al cor­tex has grown lar­ger in people who migrated from Africa to north­ern lat­it­udes, per­haps to help make up for the dim­mer light”), and this on why our brains have stopped grow­ing:

So why did­n’t our brains get ever big­ger? It may be because we reached a point at which the advant­ages of big­ger brains star­ted to be out­weighed by the dangers of giv­ing birth to chil­dren with big heads. Or it might have been a case of dimin­ish­ing returns.

Our brains are pretty hungry, burn­ing 20 per cent of our food at a rate of about 15 watts, and any fur­ther improve­ments would be increas­ingly demand­ing. […]

One way to speed up our brain, for instance, would be to evolve neur­ons that can fire more times per second. But to sup­port a 10-fold increase in the “clock speed” of our neur­ons, our brain would need to burn energy at the same rate as Usain Bolt’s legs dur­ing a 100-metre sprint. The 10,000-calorie-a-day diet of Olympic swim­mer Michael Phelps would pale in com­par­is­on.

Not only did the growth in the size of our brains cease around 200,000 years ago, in the past 10,000 to 15,000 years the aver­age size of the human brain com­pared with our body has shrunk by 3 or 4 per cent. Some see this as no cause for con­cern. Size, after all, isn’t everything, and it’s per­fectly pos­sible that the brain has simply evolved to make bet­ter use of less grey and white mat­ter. That would seem to fit with some genet­ic stud­ies, which sug­gest that our brain’s wir­ing is more effi­cient now than it was in the past.

Oth­ers, how­ever, think this shrink­age is a sign of a slight decline in our gen­er­al men­tal abil­it­ies.

via @mocost

Our Amazing Senses

As neur­os­cient­ist Brad­ley Voytek points out, “we’re used to think­ing of our senses as being pretty shite”, and this is mostly thanks to the pleth­ora of anim­als that can see, hear, smell and taste far bet­ter than we can. “We can­’t see as well as eagles, we can­’t hear as well as bats, and we can­’t smell as well as dogs”, he con­cludes… and that seems to be the con­sensus on every nature doc­u­ment­ary I’ve ever watched.

How­ever our brain is a mag­ni­fi­cent con­struc­tion (and our senses are equally as won­drous), and so Voytek tries to reverse this idea by explain­ing just how sens­it­ive and amaz­ing our senses really are:

It turns out that humans can, in fact, detect as few as 2 photons enter­ing the ret­ina. Two. As in, one-plus-one. It is often said that, under ideal con­di­tions, a young, healthy per­son can see a candle flame from 30 miles away. That’s like being able to see a candle in Times Square from Stam­ford, Con­necti­c­ut. Or see­ing a candle in Can­dle­stick Park from Napa Val­ley.*

Sim­il­arly, it appears that the lim­its to our threshold of hear­ing may actu­ally be Browni­an motion. That means that we can almost hear the ran­dom move­ments of atoms.

We can also smell as few as 30 molecules of cer­tain sub­stances. […]

These facts sug­gest that we all have some level of what we’d nor­mally think of as “super human” sens­ory abil­it­ies already.

But what the hell? If I can sup­posedly see a candle from 30 miles away, why do I still crack my frakkin’ shin on the cof­fee table when it’s only slightly dark in my liv­ing room?

It may not sur­prise you to hear that the answer to that ques­tion is atten­tion.

* For the Europeans among you, that’s more than a fifth longer than the Chan­nel Tun­nel’s under­wa­ter sec­tion (or Hyde Park to Stansted Air­port for the Lon­don­ers).

The Brain on Food: Everyday Chemicals

Regard­ing all the foods that we con­sume as a drug­s is a won­drous way to exam­ine and com­pre­hend the com­plex inter­ac­tions and subtle forces behind how everything we put in our mouths affects “how our neur­ons behave and, sub­sequently, how we think and feel”.

In a com­pel­ling art­icle that sug­gests our shared evol­u­tion­ary his­tory with the plants and anim­als that we eat is the root cause of them hav­ing an affect on our body’s beha­viour, Gary Wenk, author of Your Brain on Food, briefly describes how some of the chem­ic­als present in ‘drugs’ such as chocol­ate, bana­nas, alco­hol and nut­meg affect us:

We have all exper­i­enced the con­sequences of our shared evol­u­tion­ary his­tory with the plants we eat. For example, unripe bana­nas con­tain the neur­o­trans­mit­ter sero­ton­in. When you eat an unripe banana, its sero­ton­in is free to act upon the sero­ton­in neur­ons with­in your digest­ive tract. The con­sequence is likely to be increased activ­a­tion of the muscles in the wall of your intest­ines, usu­ally exper­i­enced as diarrhea.

Many plants con­tain com­pounds that should be able to enhance your brain’s per­form­ance. For example, pota­toes, toma­toes, and egg­plants con­tain solan­ine and α-chaconine, sub­stances that can enhance the action of acet­ylcholine, a chem­ic­al in your brain that is vital to memory form­a­tion. Your mood might be enhanced slightly by eat­ing fava beans because they con­tain L‑DOPA, a pre­curs­or to the pro­duc­tion of dopam­ine, the reward chem­ic­al in your brain. Wheth­er these food-borne com­pounds actu­ally affect your brain depends upon how much you con­sume and your own per­son­al physiology. This might explain why some people find it quite reward­ing to eat pota­toes or egg­plants.

Morphine-like chem­ic­als cap­able of act­ing upon the brain are pro­duced in your intest­ines when you con­sume milk, eggs, cheese, spin­ach, mush­rooms, pump­kin, and vari­ous fish and grains. Dairy products in par­tic­u­lar con­tain a pro­tein known as case­in, which enzymes in your intest­ines can con­vert into beta-caso­morph­in. In new­borns, that beta-caso­morph­in can eas­ily pass out of the imma­ture gut and into the devel­op­ing brain to pro­duce euphor­ia.

There’s much more like that in the art­icle, con­cluded with Wenk arguing that this shared evol­u­tion­ary his­tory is why plants and anim­als from oth­er plan­ets will prob­ably not harm or sus­tain us if we ever travel to dis­tant, Earth-like bod­ies.