The Science of Temptation: Why You Can (or Can’t) Resist

It's all in your mind. Really. Everything bad in the world might be coming from one particular part of the human brain.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So when we look at the world’s ills one of the biggest sources of it is us failing to do the right thing when it’s the harder thing to do—giving in to temptation, giving in to impulse. Giving in to emotional sort of immediacy. And the part of the brain that’s most central to whether or not that happens is the frontal cortex. Most recently evolved part of the brain, we’ve got more of it proportionally or more complexly than any other primate species out there. It’s the part of the brain that does impulse control, long term planning, emotional regulation. It does all the stuff where it’s the frontal cortex that whispers in your ear saying, “Do you really really want to do that right now? If you do that you’re going to regret it. It seems like a great idea.” Frontal cortex about that.
Okay, so when we look at our moments of life where there’s that enormous temptation to do the impulsive thing and—what’s going to determine whether the world will be freed of impulsive horrors?“If only we could all get stronger frontal cortices trained in childhood to be able to hold out where you could have one marshmallow right now but if you wait you can get two later, and training from early age so that your frontal cortex has the most like fabulous aerobic metabolism ever, and it could just make you—“
And what the studies suggest is: at all sorts of junctures of doing the harder thing yes, having a really robust studly frontal cortex may do you a lot of good there.
But when you do sort of the truly difficult thing, when you see people who are the ones who run into the burning building to save the child and they leap into the river when everybody else is standing there like headless chickens—When you look at those people they’re not doing it because they’ve got the most amazing frontal cortexes on earth that could reason through the long-term consequences of “oh, what if nobody in society came to the aid of strangers?”
What they do is: they do it automatically.
You ask anybody who does one of these heroic acts what were you thinking when you jumped in the river. And the answer is always the same: “I wasn’t thinking. Before I knew it I had jumped in.”
When we do our most amazingly wondrous altruistic acts it’s not because we’ve got the most incredible frontal cortexes on earth that could like reason us. It’s because it’s out of the realm of the frontal cortex and it’s out of the realm of temptation and limbic stuff. We do the harder thing in a case like that because for us it’s not the harder thing. It’s become automatic, and that’s where you see it. You see the best success with temptation when it isn’t tempting, when it’s automatic, when we’ve distracted ourselves. All of that frontal like “work your way through the right decision” gets you only so far.
A fabulous study addressing this. This was work by a guy at Harvard named Josh Green who put people in a study in a brain scanner, of some task where if they got it right they get a reward afterward. So there’s an incentive to get it right. And this wonderful manipulative setup where at various points people were under the impression that there was a glitch in the system and the computer wasn’t registering their answers, so all they had to do was think what their answer was and then tell you afterward when they heard the correct answer had they had the right answer or not.
In other words they could cheat. And what you would see is it was a random task, so most of the time people were having about a 50 percent success rate and along comes the opportunities to cheat.
And if people’s accuracy suddenly jumps up at that point, aha, that’s how you detect a cheater or someone who’s lying at that point. So the question becomes what’s going on with brains of people who cheated at those opportunities and what you saw was as soon as that act came up their frontal cortexes activated like mad. They’re wrestling with Satan! They’re wondering if they should do it not! They’re wondering if they should have done it the last time when they were honest! They’re wondering if they’re ever going to – they’re wrestling all of that.
Okay, so that makes sense. Then you look at the people who cheating opportunity or otherwise never cheat. So what’s going on with them. And we’ve got the two models there. One of willpower: It’s because they’ve got frontal cortexes that can just like be stoic and Calvinist and gumption out the yazoo there.
Or is it a state of grace? They don’t cheat because you don’t cheat.
And the prediction there is if it’s all about willpower, as soon as the opportunity to cheat comes up their frontal cortices are going to go through the roof in terms of activity. If it’s a matter of grace, whatever.
And it was a matter of grace. The people who never cheated: it wasn’t because they had the strongest frontal cortexes. It’s because you don’t do that. It was that simple. It wasn’t a temptation. And that’s much more of a model of “it’s not a realm of just having to work so, so hard to feel for somebody else or not pocket that thing even though nobody’s looking. You just don’t do that.” It’s automatic.

Ever hear the expression "it's all in your mind"? Well, according to Robert Sapolsky all the negativity in the world might all be coming from one part of the brain: the frontal cortex. The science of temptation runs parallel to the science of why people make "bad" decisions. Sapolsky talks about how active the frontal cortex can be in some people when they have the opportunity to do a bad thing... and how calm it can be in other people when presented with a similar situation. Performing full-frontal lobotomies on the world's population to rid the world of negativity isn't exactly in the cards—but understanding the basis of the world's problems on a scientific (not to mention cranial level) might help make future generations much more adept at stopping humanity's biggest mistakes. Robert Sapolsky's most recent book is Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

Outer space capitalism: The legal and technical challenges facing the private space industry

The private sector may need the Outer Space Treaty to be updated before it can make any claims to celestial bodies or their resources.

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  • The Outer Space Treaty, which was signed in 1967, is the basis of international space law. Its regulations set out what nations can and cannot do, in terms of colonization and enterprise in space.
  • One major stipulation of the treaty is that no nation can individually claim or colonize any part of the universe—when the US planted a flag on the Moon in 1969, it took great pains to ensure the world it was symbolic, not an act of claiming territory.
  • Essentially to do anything in space, as a private enterprise, you have to be able to make money. When it comes to asteroid mining, for instance, it would be "astronomically" expensive to set up such an industry. The only way to get around this would be if the resources being extracted were so rare you could sell them for a fortune on Earth.
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Is NASA ignoring proof of Martian life from the 1970s?

One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
Surprising Science
  • A former NASA consultant believe his experiments on the Viking 1 and 2 landers proved the existence of living microorganisms on Mars
  • Because of other conflicting data, his experiments' results have been largely discarded.
  • Though other subsequent evidence supports their findings, he says NASA has been frustratingly disinterested in following up.

Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

Breast cancer vaccine could be available in 8 years, says Mayo Clinic

A new immunotherapy treatment is showing positive signs in early-stage clinical trials.

BSIP / Getty
Surprising Science
  • Clinical trials of an immunotherapy treatment for breast cancer showed positive signs, and the researchers hope to move to larger trials in coming years.
  • Immunotherapies train the body's immune system to find and kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells.
  • Recent trials of immunotherapies for other cancers have also showed positive signs.
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