'Tis the Season: Be Nice to Others
Losang Samten: Be Mindful. Be Kind. Be Patient.
The Venerable Losang Samten, a renowned Tibetan scholar and a former Buddhist monk, stresses the virtues of being mindful, kind, and patient.
Sheryl WuDunn: Helping Others Is Good for You
Sheryl WuDunn explains the complex worlds of charitable giving, volunteering, and altruism. WuDunn is the co-author of "A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities."
Why You Should Be Nice, with Stephen Post
Stephen Post discusses the mental and physical benefits of altruistic behavior. Post is the author of Is Ultimate Reality Unlimited Love? (http://goo.gl/T6Qjdx)
Robert Thurman: Love Your Enemy
Lovingkindness, Thurman says, is not an abstract idea but rater a practice that allows us to appreciate that everyone, including our enemies, want to be happy. And so instead of reflexively categorizing people as bad and wasting our energy by fighting them, we can elevate kindness and compassion "as the strengths they really are."
Thurman explains how the concept of "love your enemies" is sometimes difficult to understand in a modern setting. "People get nervous about it because they think if you love your enemies it means you're going to cave to them, you're going to be a martyr, you're going to invite them to come and destroy you and just be a masochist and so forth," he says.
However, that is not what love means.
"You can have fierce compassion," Thurman says, pointing to the example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who told his followers during a Civil Rights march in Birmingham that hatred was "a ridiculous waste of our energy."
"If you go around nursing hatred and vindictiveness" and how to get back at your enemy, Thurman says, "you're hurting yourself."
Tony Robbins: The Secret to Living is Giving
The acclaimed self-help expert recently visited Big Think to discuss his new book and share stories about what wealth and generosity mean to him.
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
Our new research shows that a common genetic variant in the skeletal muscle gene, ACTN3, makes people more resilient to cold temperatures.
Around one in five people lack a muscle protein called alpha-actinin-3 due to a single genetic change in the ACTN3 gene. The absence of alpha-actinin-3 became more common as some modern humans migrated out of Africa and into the colder climates of Europe and Asia. The reasons for this increase have remained unknown until now.
Our recent study, conducted alongside researchers from Lithuania, Sweden and Australia, suggests that if you're alpha-actinin-3 deficient, then your body can maintain a higher core temperature and you shiver less when exposed to cold, compared with those who have alpha-actinin-3.
We looked at 42 men aged 18 to 40 years from Kaunas in southern Lithuania and exposed them to cold water (14℃) for a maximum of 120 minutes, or until their core body temperature reached 35.5℃. We broke their exposure up into 20-minute periods in the cold with ten-minute breaks at room temperature. We then separated participants into two groups based on their ACTN3 genotype (whether or not they had the alpha-actinin-3 protein).
While only 30% of participants with the alpha-actinin-3 protein reached the full 120 minutes of cold exposure, 69% of those that were alpha-actinin-3 deficient completed the full cold-water exposure time. We also assessed the amount of shivering during cold exposure periods, which told us that those without alpha-actinin-3 shiver less than those who have alpha-actinin-3.
Our study suggests that genetic changes caused by the loss of alpha-actinin-3 in our skeletal muscle affect how well we can tolerate cold temperatures, with those that are alpha-actinin-3 deficient better able to maintain their body temperature and conserve their energy by shivering less during cold exposure. However, future research will need to investigate whether similar results would be seen in women.
Skeletal muscles are made up of two types of muscle fibres: fast and slow. Alpha-actinin-3 is predominantly found in fast muscle fibres. These fibres are responsible for the rapid and forceful contractions used during sprinting, but typically fatigue quickly and are prone to injury. Slow muscle fibres on the other hand generate less force but are resistant to fatigue. These are primarily the muscle you'd use during endurance events, like marathon running.
Our previous work has shown that ACTN3 variants play an important role in our muscle's ability to generate strength. We showed that the loss of alpha-actinin-3 is detrimental to sprint performance in athletes and the general population, but may benefit muscle endurance.
This is because the loss of alpha-actinin-3 causes the muscle to behave more like a slower muscle fibre. This means that alpha-actinin-3 deficient muscles are weaker but recover more quickly from fatigue. But while this is detrimental to sprint performance, it may be beneficial during more endurance events. This improvement in endurance muscle capacity could also influence our response to cold.
While alpha-actinin-3 deficiency does not cause muscle disease, it does influence how our muscle functions. Our study shows that ACTN3 is more than just the "gene for speed", but that its loss improves our muscle's ability to generate heat and reduces the need to shiver when exposed to cold. This improvement in muscle function would conserve energy and ultimately increase survival in cold temperatures, which we think is a key reason why we see an increase in alpha-actinin-3 deficient people today, as this would have helped modern humans better tolerate cooler climates as they migrated out of Africa.
The goal of our research is to improve our understanding of how our genetics influence how our muscle works. This will allow us to develop better treatments for those who suffer from muscle diseases, like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, as well as more common conditions, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. A better understanding of how variants in alpha-actinin-3 influences these conditions will give us better ways to treat and prevent these conditions in the future.
Victoria Wyckelsma, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Muscle Physiology, Karolinska Institutet and Peter John Houweling, Senior Research Officer, Neuromuscular Research, Murdoch Children's Research Institute
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
While few people would contest that fruit and vegetables are good for you, there can be some confusion over how many servings of them you're supposed to eat in a given day. The USDA advises people to eat anywhere from five to nine a day, with international standards similarly converging around five or six, though some go much higher.
Luckily, a new study that reviewed the health and diets of 100,000 people and combined it with meta-studies of the available data puts the debate over how many servings a day you should get to rest.
The researchers followed 66,719 women from the Nurses' Health Study and 42,016 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study to see how their diet affected their long-term health and mortality rates. Over the three decades of follow-ups, a clear, non-linear relationship developed between how many servings of fruit and vegetables people consumed per day and their risk of death.
That overall risk reached its lowest point at five servings a day—two of fruit and three of vegetables—with further increases having no additional benefit. What type of vegetable was consumed mattered as well, with starchy veggies like corn and potatoes having fewer benefits than other types. Fruit juices were also less helpful than just eating the fruit. On the other hand, leafy greens, carrots, citrus fruits, and berries all demonstrated health benefits.
The net benefits of this compared to only getting two servings a day (roughly what the typical American is eating) are notable. It averages to about a 13 percent lower risk of death from all causes, a 12 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, a 10 percent lower risk of death from cancer, and a 35 percent lower risk of death from respiratory disease.
To confirm the findings, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 26 other studies involving two million people. The results were similar, with the greatest reduction in mortality occurring at the five-a-day mark, though one study found that eating 10 servings a day offered some improvement on that.
For those who are unsure, a serving of fruit is one medium-sized fruit (like an apple), half a cup of something canned, or a fourth of a cup of something dried. When it comes to vegetables, a cup of leafy greens is a serving, as is half a cup of anything else which is fresh, canned, or frozen.
The study is not without issues. The dietary data is self-reported and could be inaccurate. Participants could also choose to eat better as their health declines, reducing the observed benefits. Above all, the study was observational, and causation cannot be proven. Despite these limitations, the study provides a great deal of support for the idea that eating more fruit and veggies is good for you.
Now to just settle the problem of getting them into your meals.
- Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
- The test subjects could wait up to two minutes for a better tasting treat.
- The study suggests cuttlefish are smarter than you think but isn't the final word on how bright they are.
The Stanford marshmallow test, an experiment asking kids to hold off on eating one marshmallow for 15 minutes in exchange for two as a reward, was introduced in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel. The study checked in on the participants years later and noted that those who could delay their gratification a bit generally turned out better than those who could not.
The study has attracted attention since the day it was published. Attempts to recreate it have confirmed its basic findings, although some of those attempts suggest that how well the kids turn out is partly attributable to factors other than the ability to delay gratification.
While we debate how important the ability to wait for rewards is, science continues to find out which other animals are capable of it. A new variation on the experiment adds cuttlefish to that list.
Proof that some people are less patient than invertebrates
The common cuttlefish is a small cephalopod notable for producing sepia ink and relative intelligence for an invertebrate. Studies have shown them to be capable of remembering important details from previous foraging experiences, and to adjust their foraging strategies in response to changing circumstances.
In a new study, published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers demonstrated that the critters have mental capacities previously thought limited to vertebrates.
After determining that cuttlefish are willing to eat raw king prawns but prefer a live grass shrimp, the researchers trained them to associate certain symbols on see-through containers with a different level of accessibility. One symbol meant the cuttlefish could get into the box and eat the food inside right away, another meant there would be a delay before it opened, and the last indicated the container could not be opened.
The cephalopods were then trained to understand that upon entering one container, the food in the other would be removed. This training also introduced them to the idea of varying delay times for the boxes with the second symbol.
Two of the cuttlefish recruited for the study "dropped out," at this point, but the remaining six—named Mica, Pinto, Demi, Franklin, Jebidiah, and Rogelio—all caught on to how things worked pretty quickly.
It was then that the actual experiment could begin. The cuttlefish were presented with two containers: one that could be opened immediately with a raw king prawn, and one that held a live grass shrimp that would only open after a delay. The subjects could always see both containers and had the ability to go to the immediate access option if they grew tired of waiting for the other. The poor control group was faced with a box that never opened and one they could get into right away.
In the end, the cuttlefish demonstrated that they would wait anywhere between 50 and 130 seconds for the better treat. This is the same length of time that some primates and birds have shown themselves to be able to wait for.
Further tests of the subject's cognitive abilities—they were tested to see how long it took them to associate a symbol with a prize and then on how long it took them to catch on when the symbols were switched—showed a relationship between how long a cuttlefish was willing to wait and how quickly it learned the associations.
All of this is interesting, but what use could it possibly have?
A diagram showing the experimental set up. On the left is the control condition, on the right is the experimental condition.
Credit: Alexandra K. Schnell et al., 2021
As you can probably guess, the ability to delay gratification as part of a plan is not the most common thing in the animal kingdom. While humans, apes, some birds, and dogs can do it, less intelligent animals can't.
While it is reasonably simple to devise a hypothesis for why social humans, tool-making chimps, or hunting birds are able to delay gratification, the cuttlefish is neither social, a toolmaker, or is it hunting anything particularly intelligent. Why they evolved this capacity is up for debate.
Lead author Alexandra Schnell of the University of Cambridge discussed their speculations on the evolutionary advantage cuttlefish might get out of this skill with Eurekalert:
"Cuttlefish spend most of their time camouflaging, sitting and waiting, punctuated by brief periods of foraging. They break camouflage when they forage, so they are exposed to every predator in the ocean that wants to eat them. We speculate that delayed gratification may have evolved as a byproduct of this, so the cuttlefish can optimize foraging by waiting to choose better quality food."
Given the unique evolutionary tree of the cuttlefish, its cognitive abilities are an example of convergent evolution, in which two unrelated animals, in this case primates and cuttlefish, evolve the same trait to solve similar problems. These findings could help shed light on the evolution of the cuttlefish and its relatives.
It should be noted that this study isn't definitive; at the moment, we can't make a useful comparison between the overall intelligence of the cuttlefish and the other animals that can or cannot pass some variation of the marshmallow test.
Despite this, the results are quite exciting and will likely influence future research into animal intelligence. If the common cuttlefish can pass the marshmallow test, what else can?
- Everyone wants to know if there is alien life in the universe, but Earth may give us clues that if it exists it may not be the civilization-building kind.
- Most of Earth's history shows life that is single-celled. That doesn't mean it was simple, though. Stunning molecular machines were being evolved by those tiny critters.
- What's in a planet's atmosphere may also determine what evolution can produce. Is there a habitable zone for complex life that's much smaller than what's allowed for microbes?
"Do you think we are alone?" That question is, without fail, one of the first things people ask me when they learn I'm an astronomer. And I get why. It's also the question I most want an answer for. But that answer may depend a lot on what kind of life the universe favors (if it favors any at all). So, the question I want to briefly touch on today is how common will it be for any life that appears on any planet in the universe to start climbing up the evolutionary ladder of complexity?On Earth, the history of life is mainly a story of single cells. Earth's origin lies some 4.5 billion years ago, and the best fossil records put the emergence of life as single-celled creatures about a billion years later. After life's first appearance, almost two billion years go by during which all evolutionary activity was on those single-celled organisms. There was some really amazing biochemical machinery evolving within those little cells but if you are interested in multicellular creatures, they don't appear until sometime around 700 million years ago.
... if there is one thing we know is true, it's that nature is more clever than we are. That means it may know lots of ways to produce animals without oxygen around or even in the presence of buckets of CO2.
What are we to make of this incredibly long run of Earth as Planet Bacteria? (Note, there were actually other kinds of single-celled creatures too). Well, it certainly tells us that evolutionary success does not demand multicellularity. During these long eons, life invented the most amazing array of nano-machines for a jaw-dropping variety of purposes. For example, single-celled critters invented photosynthesis for turning sunlight into sugars, metabolisms for turning sugars into energy, and complex intracellular transport mechanisms to move stuff where it was needed and get rid of waste. Earth before plants and animals was already a fertile place full of life that had, in its way, become spectacularly complex at least on the level of biochemistry.
Given the long run of this version of Earth, it may be that there is no reason that more complex life should be expected to form in all or even most cases on other planets.
Protozoa—a term for a group of single-celled eukaryotes—and green algae in wastewater, viewed under the microscope.
Credit: sinhyu via Adobe Stock
Another way the story of life on Earth might not get repeated elsewhere in the cosmos relates to the composition of planetary atmospheres. Our world did not begin with its oxygen-rich air. Instead, oxygen didn't show up until almost two billion years after the planet formed and one billion years after life appeared. Earth's original atmosphere was, most likely, a mix of nitrogen and CO2. Remarkably it was life that pumped the oxygen into the air as a byproduct of a novel form of photosynthesis invented by a novel kind of single-celled organism, the nucleus-bearing eukaryotes. The appearance of oxygen in Earth's air was not just a curiosity for evolution. Life soon figured out how to use the newly abundant element and, it turns out, oxygen-based biochemistry was supercharged compared to what came before. With more energy available, evolution could build ever larger and more complex critters.
Oxygen may also be unique in allowing the kinds of metabolisms in multicellular life (especially ours) needed for making fast and fast-thinking animals. Astrobiologist David Catling has argued that only oxygen has the right kind of chemistry that would allow for animals to form on any world.
Atmospheres may play another role in what can and can't happen in the evolution of life. In 1959, Su-Shu Huang proposed that each star would be surrounded by a "habitable zone" of orbits where a planet would have temperatures neither too hot nor too cold to keep life from forming (i.e. liquid water could exist on the planet's surface). Since then, the habitable zone has become a staple of astrobiological studies. Astronomers now know that the outer part of the habitable zone will be dominated by worlds with lots of greenhouse gases like CO2. A planet in a location like Mars, for example, would require a thick CO2 blanket to keep its surface above freezing. But all that CO2 could present its own problems for life. Almost all forms of animal life on Earth, including sea creatures, die when placed in CO2-rich environments. This has led astronomer Eddie Schwieterman and colleagues to propose a habitable zone for complex life: A band of orbits where planets can stay warm without requiring heavy CO2 atmospheres. According to Schwieterman, animal life of the kind we know would only be able to form in this much thinner band of orbits.
So, we have three lines of evidence that may suggest multicellular life (including thinking animals) may not be the road most taken across the universe. If this were true, then the galaxy might be awash with life but be sparse in terms of tentacles, paws, or boots on the ground.
Now, before your shoulders sag in sadness, it's important to note some facts. First, there are likely 400 billion planets in our galaxy alone. This provides a lot of leeway for experimentation. Second, if there is one thing we know is true, it's that nature is more clever than we are. That means it may know lots of ways to produce animals without oxygen around or even in the presence of buckets of CO2.
We just won't know until we start looking. And here is the good news. We finally are ready to start looking.
An international team of scholars has read an unopened letter from early modern Europe — without breaking its seal or damaging it in any way — using an automated computational flattening algorithm.
The team, including MIT Libraries and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) researchers and an MIT student and alumna, published their findings today in a Nature Communications article titled, "Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography."
The senders of these letters had closed them using "letterlocking," the historical process of folding and securing a flat sheet of paper to become its own envelope. Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson Conservator at MIT Libraries, developed letterlocking as a field of study with Daniel Starza Smith, a lecturer in early modern English literature at King's College London, and the Unlocking History research team. Since the papers' folds, tucks, and slits are themselves valuable evidence for historians and conservators, being able to examine the letters' contents without irrevocably damaging them is a major advancement in the study of historic documents.
"Letterlocking was an everyday activity for centuries, across cultures, borders, and social classes," explains Dambrogio. "It plays an integral role in the history of secrecy systems as the missing link between physical communications security techniques from the ancient world and modern digital cryptography. This research takes us right into the heart of a locked letter."
This breakthrough technique was the result of an international and interdisciplinary collaboration between conservators, historians, engineers, imaging experts, and other scholars. "The power of collaboration is that we can combine our different interests and tools to solve bigger problems," says Martin Demaine, artist-in-residence in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a member of the research team.
The algorithm that makes the virtual unfolding possible was developed by Amanda Ghassaei SM '17 and Holly Jackson, an undergraduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and a participant in MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), both working at the Center for Bits and Atoms. The virtual unfolding code is openly available on GitHub.
"When we got back the first scans of the letter packets, we were instantly hooked," says Ghassaei. "Sealed letters are very intriguing objects, and these examples are particularly interesting because of the special attention paid to securing them shut."
"We're X-raying history," says team member David Mills, X-ray microtomography facilities manager at Queen Mary University of London. Mills, together with Graham Davis, professor of 3D X-ray imaging at Queen Mary, used machines specially designed for use in dentistry to scan unopened "locked" letters from the 17th century. This resulted in high-resolution volumetric scans, produced by high-contrast time delay integration X-ray microtomography.
"Who would have thought that a scanner designed to look at teeth would take us so far?" says Davis.
Computational flattening algorithms were then applied to the scans of the letters. This has been done successfully before with scrolls, books, and documents with one or two folds. The intricate folding configurations of the "locked" letters, however, posed unique technical challenges.
"The algorithm ends up doing an impressive job at separating the layers of paper, despite their extreme thinness and tiny gaps between them, sometimes less than the resolution of the scan," says Erik Demaine, professor of computer science at MIT and an expert in computational origami. "We weren't sure it would be possible."
The team's approach utilizes a fully 3D geometric analysis that requires no prior information about the number or types of folds or letters in a letter packet. The virtual unfolding generates 2D and 3D reconstructions of the letters in both folded and flat states, plus images of the letters' writing surfaces and crease patterns.
"One of coolest technical contributions of the work is a technique that explores the folded and flattened representations of a letter simultaneously," says Holly Jackson. "Our new technology enables conservators to preserve a letter's internal engineering, while still giving historians insight into the lives of the senders and recipients."
This virtual unfolding technique was used to reveal the contents of a letter dated July 31, 1697. It contains a request from Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, a French merchant in The Hague, for a certified copy of a death notice of one Daniel Le Pers. The letter comes from the Brienne Collection, a European postmaster's trunk preserving 300-year-old undelivered mail, which has provided a rare opportunity for researchers to study sealed locked letters.
"The trunk is a unique time capsule," says David van der Linden, assistant professor in early modern history, Radboud University Nijmegen. "It preserves precious insights into the lives of thousands of people from all levels of society, including itinerant musicians, diplomats, and religious refugees. As historians, we regularly explore the lives of people who lived in the past, but to read an intimate story that has never seen the light of day — and never even reached its recipient — is truly extraordinary."
Advancing a new field
In the Nature Communications article, the team also unveils the first systematization of letterlocking techniques. After studying 250,000 historical letters, they devised a chart of categories and formats that assigns letter examples a security score. Understanding these security techniques of historical correspondence means archival collections can be conserved in ways that protect small but important material details, such as slits, locks, and creases.
"Sometimes the past resists scrutiny," explains Daniel Starza Smith. "We could simply have cut these letters open, but instead we took the time to study them for their hidden, secret, and inaccessible qualities. We've learned that letters can be a lot more revealing when they are left unopened."
The research team hopes to make a study collection of letterlocking examples available to scholars and students from a range of disciplines. The virtual unfolding algorithm could also have broad applications: Because it can handle flat, curved, and sharply folded materials, it can be used on many types of historical texts, including letters, scrolls, and books.
"What we have achieved is more than simply opening the unopenable, and reading the unreadable," says Nadine Akkerman, reader in early modern English literature at Leiden University. "We have shown how truly interdisciplinary work breaks down boundaries to investigate what neither humanities nor the sciences can hope to understand alone."
Computational tools promise to accelerate research on letterlocking as well as reveal new historical evidence. Thanks to this research, adds Rebekah Ahrendt, associate professor of musicology at Utrecht University, "we can now imagine new affective histories that physically connect the past and the present, the human and the nonhuman, the tangible and the digital."
The research team includes Jana Dambrogio, Thomas F. Peterson Conservator, MIT Libraries; Amanda Ghassaei, research engineer at Adobe Research; Daniel Starza Smith, lecturer in early modern English literature at King's College London; Holly Jackson, undergraduate student at MIT; Erik Demaine, professor in EECS; Martin Demaine, robotics engineer in CSAIL and Angelika and Barton Weller Artist-in-Residence in EECS; Graham Davis and David Mills, Queen Mary University of London's Institute of Dentistry; Rebekah Ahrendt, associate professor of musicology at Utrecht University; Nadine Akkerman, reader in early modern English literature at Leiden University; and David van der Linden, assistant professor in early modern history at Radboud University Nijmegen.
This research was supported in part by grants from the Seaver Foundation, the Delmas Foundation, the British Academy, and the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek.