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Chris Hadfield
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College students choose smartphones over food, researchers find

Phone usage was found to have similar reinforcing tendencies as eating or doing drugs.

Artur Debat / Moment Mobile / Getty Images
  • An experiment out of Buffalo shows that students are willing to put off eating in order to look at their phones.
  • The subjects were willing to pay ever increasing amounts of money to use their phones even as the price of food remained the same.
  • The finding doesn't prove phone addiction is a thing, but it makes it possible.

In a turn of events that should surprise nobody, researchers at the University of Buffalo recently discovered that college students would rather go hungry than be separated from their phones.

Though the study's data gives us new evidence that smartphone addiction does, indeed, exist, it doesn't quite settle the issue.

What does the study say?

In a series of tests where subjects had to choose to spend pretend money on time with their phones or food, they went with their phones by a shocking margin.

In the experiment, students were separated from their phones for two hours and had no food for three. At the end of the separation period, they were taken to a computer where they could complete a task to earn either time with their phone or a snack. After they chose what they wanted, the cost of their selection was increased the next time they were asked.

The cost of the items was measured in two ways: one test involved fake money, with minutes of cell phone use costing up to 1,000 dollars earned by computer tasks. The other test measured the cost in pure work, such as the number of mouse clicks needed to complete the required tasks to gain more phone time.

In almost every case, the amount that the students were willing to pay to use their phones outpaced the amount they would spend on food. The researchers stated they were, nevertheless, "very surprised by the results."

What does that mean?

The press release claims this is the first study to suggest that smartphone use is a reinforcing behavior. That means that it is an activity with a positive consequence that causes an individual to want to do it again. While the researchers are quick to remind us that reinforcement is not identical to addiction, it is a prerequisite. They were also shocked to find that the subjects valued phone time over eating, which is also a reinforcing behavior.

Study lead author Sara O'Donnell explained,

We knew that students would be motivated to gain access to their phones, but we were surprised that despite modest food deprivation, smartphone reinforcement far exceeded food reinforcement across both methodologies.

So, am I addicted to my phone? I can stop anytime I want, I promise!

It is too soon to say that. Addiction is a medical term that implies several things. Just because people have a self-feeding drive to use their phones doesn't mean they are addicted to their phone in the same way they are addicted to nicotine or alcohol. As always, more studies are needed.

This is still a great starting point for learning the answer to that question and even for understanding why some people use their phones much more than others. Sara O'Donnell explained that, "While reinforcing value does not equate to addiction, it seems likely that if smartphone addiction becomes a valid diagnosis, those individuals would have high smartphone reinforcement, just as individuals with alcohol use disorders have high alcohol reinforcement."

Ask yourself, have you ever been willing to give up food in order to check your phone? It seems you aren't alone if you have. While the jury is still out on if this means we can be addicted to the things, maybe taking a break isn't a bad thing.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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