Archive | September, 2012

The Placebo Effect

18 Sep

The other day, I came across this comic, on the neurobiology of the placebo effect, from Scientific American:

It is pretty great. For a more detailed information of how the brain can decrease our perception of pain, check out the gate control theory of pain.


Books You Haven’t Read

10 Sep

My (soon to be concluded!) summer of unemployment has been filled, predictably, with reading. Fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, not enough poetry, even some shameful rereads (shameful only to the extent that my lifetime is finite and the number of possible books is essentially infinite).

I just started reading If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, and within the first pages, he divides up the books in a bookshop into the following categories:

  • Books You Haven’t Read
  • Books You Needn’t Read
  • Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
  • Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
  • Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
  • Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
  • Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
  • Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
  • Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
  • Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
  • Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
  • Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
  • Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
  • Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
  • Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
  • Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
  • Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
  • Books Read Long Ago Which Now It’s Now Time to Re-read
  • Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them Continue reading

A Sense of Smell

6 Sep

Olfaction is not one of the topics most people look forward to with bated breath when going into a neuroscience course; at least, that hasn’t been my experience. Most people (often myself included) are looking out for the trendier stuff — consciousness, phantom limbs, schizophrenia, hallucinations. But it should come as no surprise that the neuroscience of olfaction, or the sense of smell, is both a hotbed of current research and a fascinating area of study. The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Linda Buck and Richard Axel for their discovery of the family of genes (about 1,000 genes total) which code for olfactory receptors in humans.

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Astronaut Life Insurance

1 Sep

I came across this article on NPR about what the Apollo astronauts did in lieu of life insurance, and I thought it was kind of an ingenious idea, perhaps not surprising from people clever enough to fly to the moon.

The Apollo astronauts needed life insurance.  Understandably, this was a problem:  being the first humans to walk on the moon carried with it a certain amount of risk.

Since they couldn’t get conventional life insurance, the astronauts, knowing their signatures would be valuable no matter what the outcome of their mission, signed hundreds of “covers,” or envelopes which they later had a friend bring to a post office to be postmarked on important dates during the mission.  Had things gone wrong, the families of the astronauts could have made thousands of dollars by selling these covers, which even now can be sold for $30,000.

It was a clever solution to a complex problem.  I can’t help but wonder, though, why at least one insurance company didn’t offer to help out — I feel like the financial risk would have been balanced out by the publicity of being the company who believed in America’s heroes-of-the-day strongly enough to offer them life insurance.  Of course, there may be fiscal or ethical issues I’m overlooking; it probably wouldn’t be the first time.