Body language can also be heard
“When people move their hands and arms while using their voices, listeners are able to hear it. Even without seeing the messenger, we can pick up each other’s body language. Wim Pouw of the Donders Institute has published this finding in PNAS this week.
Most people gesture while talking. From a small wrist movement to complete sign language involving arms, hands and fingers. This form of non-verbal communication supports what someone says, and, in some cases, it is even indispensable in order to explain something properly.
This is difficult if you cannot see the other person, you’d think. But even during phone calls, or when shouting from another room, we often talk with our hands. And that is not pointless at all, according to the study conducted by Wim Pouw and his colleagues from the University of Connecticut: your gestures resonate in your voice.
Louder and higher
It’s all about acoustics: the pitch and volume of a voice change together with the movement of arms and hands. “That change is very subtle with a wrist movement,” says Pouw. “It is less subtle with an arm movement. The pitch jumps up slightly whenever a movement slows down.”
According to Pouw, there are two different causes for these acoustic differences. One of the causes is the creation of vibrations. The forces involved in a movement cause vibrations in your body. Through the connective tissue that holds your body together, vibrations end up in your lungs, affecting the pressure in your lungs.
The second cause is muscle tension around your lungs that is needed to maintain balance. We do not merely use our arm muscles when we move our arms. “When starting the process of stopping your arm from moving, for example, other muscles are suddenly addressed to prevent your body from falling over. These muscles that maintain balance include muscles around your lungs.”
Unconsciously hearing an arm movement
As part of this study, Pouw instructed 3 men and 3 women to make a monotone sound, such as ‘aaaa’, while using all kinds of different hand and arm movements. After that, 30 subjects were asked to listen to the recordings. Not only did they guess which movements were made, but, in many cases, they were also able to mimic these movements simultaneously.
It is easy to measure differences in pitch and volume. It is remarkable that listeners unconsciously identify at what point movement causes these differences. “The subjects not only picked up the speed of the movement, but they also heard the location of the movement.”
Emphasize words by hand
Hence, a voice is more than just an abstract collection of sounds, according to the researcher, “When you hear a voice, you literally hear aspects of a person’s entire body.”
These findings go against the assumption that gestures basically only serve to depict or point out something. “It contributes to the understanding that there is a closer relationship between spoken language and gestures. Hand gestures may have been created to support the voice, to emphasize words, for example.”
The insights contribute to knowledge about ourselves and to knowledge about speech recognition. Think of systems such as Google Home and Siri. “When developing speech recognition, we have to take movement into account. Think of gestures, but also of someone running while talking, for example.”
By means of information about changes in voice, the way how systems can interpret meanings and weights of words can be improved. Or the other way around: noises in a voice produced by a speaker while running, does not affect the meaning of a word. “We can teach these kinds of systems what they should or should not filter out.”
Bilingualism delays the brain’s aging process
“The next time you get the urge to lapse into English while conversing in your other language, try not to and your brain will thank you for it.
Researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) examined and found that active bilingualism – the regular balanced use of two languages and language switching – will offer protection against the brain’s aging process. The paper was published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.
Current literature on the effects of bilingualism on the adult brain were inconsistent and lacking in clear trends – some reported that second language proficiency meant greater neural efficiency, whereas others concluded that it made no difference whatsoever. So the researchers from SUTD set out to explore the executive control mechanisms and context under which bilingualism can be a protective source against cognitive decline in the normal aging process.
Executive functions are complex, higher order processes that the brain performs. These functions mainly allow people to maintain their attention by focusing on relevant information and ignoring distractors, maintain information until execution as well as motor planning.
In the study that was conducted in Singapore, cognitively healthy seniors aged between 60 to 84 years old who were bilingual were tasked to complete an array of computerized executive control tasks.
Tasks selected were commonly used in previous studies and identified with reference to well-established theories involving older adults that showed decreased performance with aging. For a more holistic examination, the researchers measured six different domains of executive control using four different tasks, all of which had been previously associated with bilingualism, while controlling for individual variables such as age, processing speed and fluid intelligence.
It was found that active usage of two languages with less frequent language switching predicted better performance in the goal maintenance and conflict monitoring aspects of executive control. This suggests that bilingualism can be a protective source against cognitive decline in the normal aging process. Importantly, active bilingualism can be seen as a lifestyle factor that could buffer against cognitive declines that are associated with normal aging.
“The effort involved in not switching between languages and “staying” in the target language is more cognitively demanding than switching between languages while actively using both languages. Our study shows that the seniors developed more efficient neural organization at brain regions related to language control, which also overlap with areas involved in executive control,” explained lead principal investigator and corresponding author Associate Professor from SUTD.”
Privacy and psychological issues of Video Conferencing
Zoom, Meet, Room and …all have privacy issues.
There’s a reason video apps make you feel awkward and unfulfilled.
“Last month, global downloads of the apps Zoom, Houseparty and Skype increased more than 100 percent as video conferencing and chats replaced the face-to-face encounters we are all so sorely missing. Their faces arranged in a grid reminiscent of the game show Hollywood Squares, people are attending virtual happy hours and birthday parties, holding virtual business meetings, learning in virtual classrooms and having virtual psychotherapy.
But there are reasons to be wary of the technology, beyond the widely reported security and privacy concerns. Psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists say the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making you feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (or more than you were already). You might be better off just talking on the phone.
The problem is that the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized introduces all kinds of artifacts: blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.
Jeffrey Golde, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, has been teaching his previously in-person leadership class via Zoom for about a month now and he said it’s been strangely wearing. “I’ve noticed, not only in my students, but also in myself, a tendency to flag,” he said. “It gets hard to concentrate on the grid and it’s hard to think in a robust way.”
This is consistent with research on interpreters at the United Nations and at European Union institutions, who reported similar feelings of burnout, fogginess and alienation when translating proceedings via video feed. Studies on video psychotherapy indicate that both therapists and their patients also often feel fatigued, disaffected and uncomfortable.
Sheryl Brahnam, a professor in the department of information technology and cybersecurity at Missouri State University in Springfield, explains the phenomenon by comparing video conferencing to highly processed foods. “In-person communication resembles video conferencing about as much as a real blueberry muffin resembles a packaged blueberry muffin that contains not a single blueberry but artificial flavors, textures and preservatives,” she said. “You eat too many and you’re not going to feel very good.”
To be sure, video calls are great for letting toddlers blow kisses to their grandparents, showing people what you’re cooking for dinner or maybe demonstrating how to make a face mask out of boxer briefs. But if you want to really communicate with someone in a meaningful way, video can be vexing.
This is foremost because human beings are exquisitely sensitive to one another’s facial expressions. Authentic expressions of emotion are an intricate array of minute muscle contractions, particularly around the eyes and mouth, often subconsciously perceived, and essential to our understanding of one another. But those telling twitches all but disappear on pixelated video or, worse, are frozen, smoothed over or delayed to preserve bandwidth.
Not only does this mess with our perception, but it also plays havoc with our ability to mirror. Without realizing it, all of us engage in facial mimicry. Whenever we encounter another person. It’s a constant, almost synchronous, interplay. To recognize emotion, we have to actually embody it, which makes mirroring essential to empathy and connection. When we can’t do it seamlessly, as happens during a video chat, we feel unsettled because it’s hard to read people’s reactions and, thus, predict what they will do.
Our brains are prediction generators, and when there are delays or the facial expressions are frozen or out of sync, as happens on Zoom and Skype, we perceive it as a prediction error that needs to be fixed,” said Paula Niedenthal, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who specializes in affective response. “Whether subconscious or conscious, we’re having to do more work because aspects of our predictions are not being confirmed and that can get exhausting.”
Video chats have also been shown to inhibit trust because we can’t look one another in the eye. Depending on the camera angle, people may appear to be looking up or down or to the side. Viewers may then perceive them as uninterested, shifty, haughty, servile or guilty. For this reason, law scholars and criminal justice activists have questioned the fairness of remote depositions, hearings and trials. But as anyone who has been on a video call knows, people tend to look more at themselves than at the camera or even at others on the call. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t super aware of my appearance on video chats,” said Dave Nitkiewicz, a recently furloughed employee of Experience Grand Rapids, the convention and visitors’ bureau in Grand Rapids, Mich. “I have the skin of Casper the Ghost right now — it’s, like, fluorescent — so I’m always concerned with framing and lighting.”
Craving company while confined at home, Mr. Nitkiewicz frequently arranges Zoom meet-ups with family and friends and he even went on a Zoom date. And yet he doesn’t find these interactions terribly satisfying.
“On video chat there’s literally a glowing box around your face when you’re talking, so you feel like every eyeball is on you, like a very intimidating job interview,” Mr. Nitkiewicz said. “The conversation kind of defaults to trivial drivel because people don’t want to take a risk.” And the delay in people’s feedback makes him feel that it wouldn’t be rewarding to share a good story anyway.
He doesn’t feel the same reserve when he talks on the phone, which he does for two or three hours every other Sunday with his cousin in Los Angeles. “We have for years and it’s never occurred to us to video chat,” said Mr. Nitkiewicz. “Our comfort place is still on the phone.”
This makes sense given that experts say no facial cues are better than faulty ones. The absence of visual input might even heighten people’s sensitivity to what’s being said. It could be why Verizon and AT&T have reported average daily increases of as much as 78 percent in voice-only calls since the start of the pandemic, as well as an increase in the length of these calls.
You can have a sense of hyper-presence on the telephone because of that coiled relationship where it feels like my mouth is right next to your ear, and vice versa,” said Dr. Brahnam during a telephone interview. Provided you have a good connection, she said, you end up hearing more: slight tonal shifts, brief hesitations and the rhythm of someone’s breathing. When it comes to developing intimacy remotely, sometimes it’s better to be heard and not seen.” NY Times
Origins of human language pathway in the brain: 26 million years old
“Scientists have discovered an earlier origin to the human language pathway in the brain, pushing back its evolutionary origin by at least 20 million years.
Previously, a precursor of the language pathway was thought by many scientists to have emerged more recently, about 5 million years ago, with a common ancestor of both apes and humans.
For neuroscientists, this is comparable to finding a fossil that illuminates evolutionary history. However, unlike bones, brains did not fossilize. Instead neuroscientists need to infer what the brains of common ancestors may have been like by studying brain scans of living primates and comparing them to humans.
Professor Chris Petkov from the Faculty of Medical Sciences, Newcastle University, the study lead said: “It is like finding a new fossil of a long lost ancestor. It is also exciting that there may be an older origin yet to be discovered still.”
The international teams of European and US scientists carried out the brain imaging study and analysis of auditory regions and brain pathways in humans, apes and monkeys which is published in Nature Neuroscience.
They discovered a segment of this language pathway in the human brain that interconnects the auditory cortex with frontal lobe regions, important for processing speech and language. Although speech and language are unique to humans, the link via the auditory pathway in other primates suggests an evolutionary basis in auditory cognition and vocal communication.
Professor Petkov added: “We predicted but could not know for sure whether the human language pathway may have had an evolutionary basis in the auditory system of nonhuman primates. I admit we were astounded to see a similar pathway hiding in plain sight within the auditory system of nonhuman primates.”
The study also illuminates the remarkable transformation of the human language pathway. A key human unique difference was found: the human left side of this brain pathway was stronger and the right side appears to have diverged from the auditory evolutionary prototype to involve non-auditory parts of the brain.
The study relied on brain scans from openly shared resources by the global scientific community. It also generated original new brain scans that are globally shared to inspire further discovery. Also since the authors predict that the auditory precursor to the human language pathway may be even older, the work inspires the neurobiological search for its earliest evolutionary origin – the next brain ‘fossil’ – to be found in animals more distantly related to humans.
Professor Timothy Griffiths, consultant neurologist at Newcastle University, and joint senior author on the study notes: “This discovery has tremendous potential for understanding which aspects of human auditory cognition and language can be studied with animal models in ways not possible with humans and apes. The study has already inspired new research underway including with neurology patients.”
The study involved Newcastle University, Faculty of Medical Sciences; Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences; Birkbeck UCL Centre for NeuroImaging; University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, USA; University of Iowa, USA.
Aerosolized particles carrying virus stay in the air longer than previously thought
The model revealed the aerosol-cloud containing COVID-19 spreads outside the immediate vicinity of the coughing person and dilutes in the process, but the dilution occurs over several minutes.
“A joint project carried out by four Finnish research organizations has studied the transport and spread of coronavirus through the air. Preliminary results indicate that aerosol particles carrying the virus can remain in the air longer than was originally thought, so it is important to avoid busy public indoor spaces. This also reduces the risk of droplet infection, which remains the main path of transmission for coronavirus.
Aalto University, Finnish Meteorological Institute, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and University of Helsinki have studied how extremely small airborne aerosol particles emitted from the respiratory tract when coughing, sneezing or even talking are transported in the air. Such particles can carry pathogens such as coronaviruses.
The researchers modeled a scenario where a person coughs in an aisle between shelves, like those found in grocery stores; and taking into consideration the ventilation. Aalto University, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Finnish Meteorological Institute each carried out the modeling independently, using the same starting conditions.
The researchers obtained the same preliminary result: in the situation under investigation, the aerosol cloud spreads outside the immediate vicinity of the coughing person and dilutes in the process. However, this can take up to several minutes. ‘Someone infected by the coronavirus, can cough and walk away, but then leave behind extremely small aerosol particles carrying the coronavirus. These particles could then end up in the respiratory tract of others in the vicinity’, explains Aalto University Assistant Professor Ville Vuorinen.
‘The preliminary results obtained by the consortium highlight the importance of our recommendations. The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare recommends that you stay at home if you are unwell and that you maintain physical distance with everyone. The instructions also include coughing into your sleeve or a tissue and taking care of good hand hygiene’, says Jussi Sane, Chief Specialist at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare.
‘Based on the modeling of the consortium, it is not yet possible to directly issue new recommendations. However, these results are an important part of the whole, and they should be compared with the data from real-life epidemic studies,’ Sane adds.
The spread of diseases through social networks has been studied extensively. From these infection models, it is known that the spread of a virus may slow down or even be suppressed altogether as mobility decreases at ‘nodal points’ – places where lots of people gather, such as shops, restaurants and public transport. Avoiding busy indoor areas reduces the risk of droplet infection while in close proximity to others, which, according to current information, is the main cause of coronavirus infection.
The researchers of the consortium modeled the airborne movement of aerosol particles smaller than 20 micrometers. For a dry cough, which is a typical symptom of the current coronavirus, the particle size is typically less than 15 micrometers. Extremely small particles of this size do not sink on the floor, but instead, move along in the air currents or remain floating in the same place. Studies of influenza A have confirmed that the influenza A virus can be found in the smallest particles, which measure less than 5 micrometers.
Supercomputer used for modeling
The project involves around 30 researchers, whose specializations include fluid dynamics, aerosol physics, social networks, ventilation, virology, and biomedical engineering. The research is being carried out in conjunction with Essote (the joint municipal authority for social and health services in South Savo), which proposed the research project, as well as infectious diseases specialists from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. The airborne transport and preservation of droplets leaving the respiratory tract were simulated using a supercomputer, and 3D visualization of the results was then carried out. CSC – Finnish IT Center for Science Ltd. made its supercomputer available to researchers at very short notice. Thanks to the high computing capacity and close, multidisciplinary cooperation, the first results were produced in around a week.
The physics of the phenomena now being modeled are very familiar from previous research. The consortium aims to use visualization to create a better understanding of the behavior of aerosol particles. Researchers will continue to work on the modeling and further refine it. Experts in infectious diseases and virology will examine the results and their importance in relation to the information being gathered on coronavirus and coronavirus infections. The involvement of two Swedish universities has further strengthened the consortium.” Neuroscience Journal
Researchers Identify Virus and Two Types of Bacteria as Major Causes of Alzheimer’s
“A worldwide team of senior scientists and clinicians have come together to produce an editorial which indicates that certain microbes – a specific virus and two specific types of bacteria – are major causes of Alzheimer’s Disease. Their paper, which has been published online in the highly regarded peer-reviewed journal, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, stresses the urgent need for further research – and more importantly, for clinical trials of anti-microbial and related agents to treat the disease.
This major call for action is based on substantial published evidence into Alzheimer’s. The team’s landmark editorial summarises the abundant data implicating these microbes, but until now this work has been largely ignored or dismissed as controversial – despite the absence of evidence to the contrary. Therefore, proposals for the funding of clinical trials have been refused, despite the fact that over 400 unsuccessful clinical trials for Alzheimer’s based on other concepts were carried out over a recent 10-year period.
Opposition to the microbial concepts resembles the fierce resistance to studies some years ago which showed that viruses cause certain types of cancer, and that a bacterium causes stomach ulcers. Those concepts were ultimately proved valid, leading to successful clinical trials and the subsequent development of appropriate treatments.
Professor Douglas Kell of The University of Manchester’s School of Chemistry and Manchester Institute of Biotechnology is one of the editorial’s authors. He says that supposedly sterile red blood cells were seen to contain dormant microbes, which also has implications for blood transfusions.
“We are saying there is incontrovertible evidence that Alzheimer’s Disease has a dormant microbial component, and that this can be woken up by iron dysregulation. Removing this iron will slow down or prevent cognitive degeneration – we can’t keep ignoring all of the evidence,” Professor Douglas Kell said.
Professor Resia Pretorius of the University of Pretoria, who worked with Douglas Kell on the editorial, said “The microbial presence in blood may also play a fundamental role as causative agent of systemic inflammation, which is a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease – particularly, the bacterial cell wall component and endotoxin, lipopolysaccharide. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that this can cause neuroinflammation and amyloid-β plaque formation.”
The findings of this editorial could also have implications for the future treatment of Parkinson’s Disease, and other progressive neurological conditions.”
Turning Back the Clock on Aging Cells
Researchers report that they can rejuvenate human cells by reprogramming them to a youthful state.
“Researchers at Stanford University report that they can rejuvenate human cells by reprogramming them back to a youthful state. They hope that the technique will help in the treatment of diseases, such as osteoarthritis and muscle wasting, that are caused by the aging of tissue cells.
A major cause of aging is thought to be the errors that accumulate in the epigenome, the system of proteins that packages the DNA and controls access to its genes. The Stanford team, led by Dr. Thomas A. Rando and Vittorio Sebastiano, say their method, designed to reverse these errors and walk back the cells to their youthful state, does indeed restore the cells’ vigor and eliminate signs of aging.
In their report, they described their technique as “a significant step toward the goal of reversing cellular aging” and could produce therapies “for aging and aging-related diseases.”
Leonard P. Guarente, an expert on aging at M.I.T., said the method was “one of the most promising areas of aging research” but that it would take a long time to develop drugs based on RNA, the required chemical.
The Stanford approach utilizes powerful agents known as Yamanaka factors, which reprogram a cell’s epigenome to its time zero, or embryonic state.
Embryonic cells, derived from the fertilized egg, can develop into any of the specialized cell types of the body. Their fate, whether to become a skin or eye or liver cell, is determined by chemical groups, or marks, that are tagged on to their epigenome.
In each type of cell, these marks make accessible only the genes that the cell type needs, while locking down all other genes in the DNAs. The pattern of marks thus establishes each cell’s identity.
As the cell ages, it accumulates errors in the marking system, which degrade the cell’s efficiency at switching on and off the genes needed for its operations.
But the Yamanaka factors are no simple panacea. The trial on mice resulted in the death of all in the lab. Applied to whole mice, the factors made cells lose their functions and primed them for rapid growth, usually cancerous; the mice all died.
In 2016, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, found that the two effects of the Yamanaka factors — erasing cell identity and reversing aging — could be separated, with a lower dose securing just age reversal. But he achieved this by genetically engineering mice, a technique not usable in people.
In their paper on Tuesday, the Stanford team described a feasible way to deliver Yamanaka factors to cells taken from patients, by dosing cells kept in cultures with small amounts of the factors.
If dosed for a short enough time, the team reported, the cells retained their identity but returned to a youthful state, as judged by several measures of cell vigor.
Dr. Sebastiano said the Yamanaka factors appeared to operate in two stages, as if they were raising the epigenome’s energy to one level, at which the marks of aging were lost, and then to a higher level at which cell identity was erased.
The Stanford team extracted aged cartilage cells from patients with osteoarthritis and found that after a low dosage of Yamanaka factors the cells no longer secreted the inflammatory factors that provoke the disease. The team also found that human muscle stem cells, which are impaired in a muscle-wasting disease, could be restored to youth. Members of the Stanford team have formed a company, Turn Biotechnologies, to develop therapies for osteoarthritis and other diseases.
The study is “definitively a step forward in the goal of reversing cellular aging,” Dr. Izpisua Belmonte said.” NY Times
How Long Will Coronavirus Live on Surfaces or in the Air Around You?
A new study could have implications for how the general public and health care workers try to avoid transmission of the virus.
“The coronavirus can live for three days on some surfaces, like plastic and steel, new research suggests. Experts say the risk of consumers getting infected from touching those materials is still low, although they offered additional warnings about how long the virus survives in air, which may have important implications for medical workers.
The new study suggests that the virus disintegrates over the course of a day on cardboard, lessening the worry among consumers that deliveries will spread the virus during this period of staying and working from home.
When the virus becomes suspended in droplets smaller than 5 micrometers — known as aerosols — it can stay suspended for about a half-hour, researchers said, before drifting down and settling on surfaces where it can linger for hours. The finding on aerosol in particular is inconsistent with the World Health Organization’s position that the virus is not transported by air.
The virus lives longest on plastic and steel, surviving for up to 72 hours. But the amount of viable virus decreases sharply over this time. It also does poorly on copper, surviving four hours. On cardboard, it survives up to 24 hours, which suggests packages that arrive in the mail should have only low levels of the virus — unless the delivery person has coughed or sneezed on it or has handled it with contaminated hands.
That’s true in general. Unless the people who handle any of these materials are sick, the actual risk of getting infected from any of these materials is low, experts said. Everything at the grocery store and restaurant takeout containers and bags could in theory have infectious virus on them,” said Dr. Linsey Marr, who was not a member of the research team but is an expert in the transmission of viruses by aerosol at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. “We could go crazy discussing these ‘what-ifs’ because everyone is a potential source, so we have to focus on the biggest risks.”
If people are concerned about the risk, they could wipe down packages with disinfectant wipes and wash their hands, she said.
It is unclear why cardboard should be a less hospitable environment for the virus than plastic or steel, but it may be explained by the absorbency or fibrous quality of the packaging compared with the other surfaces.
That the virus can survive and stay infectious in aerosols is also important for health care workers.
For weeks experts have maintained that the virus is not airborne. But in fact, it can travel through the air and stay suspended for that period of about a half-hour.
The virus does not linger in the air at high enough levels to be a risk to most people who are not physically near an infected person. But the procedures health care workers use to care for infected patients are likely to generate aerosols.
“Once you get a patient in with severe pneumonia, the patients need to be intubated,” said Dr. Vincent Munster, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who led the study. “All these handlings might generate aerosols and droplets.”
Health care workers might also collect those tiny droplets and larger ones on their protective gear when working with infected patients. They might resuspend these big and small droplets into the air when they take off this protective gear and become exposed to the virus then, Dr. Marr cautioned.
And another study, published in JAMA, also indicates that the virus is transported by air. That study, based in Singapore, found the virus on a ventilator in the hospital room of an infected patient, where it could only have reached via the air.
Dr. Marr said the World Health Organization has so far referred to the virus as not airborne, but that health care workers should wear gear, including respirator masks, assuming that it is.
Based on aerosol science and recent findings on flu virus,” she said, “surgical masks are probably insufficient.”
Dr. Marr said based on physics, an aerosol released at a height of about six feet would fall to the ground after 34 minutes. The findings should not cause the general public to panic, however, because the virus disperses quickly in the air.
“It sounds scary,” she said, “but unless you’re close to someone, the amount you’ve been exposed to is very low.”
Dr. Marr compared this to cigarette smoke or a foggy breath on a frosty day. The closer and sooner another person is to the exhaled smoke or breath, the more of a whiff they might catch; for anyone farther than a few feet away, there is too little of the virus in the air to be any danger.
To assess the ability of the virus to survive in the air, the researchers created what Dr. Munster described as “bizarre experiments done under very ideal controllable experimental conditions.” They used a rotating drum to suspend the aerosols, and provided temperature and humidity levels that closely mimic hospital conditions.
In this setup, the virus survived and stayed infectious for up to three hours, but its ability to infect drops sharply over this time, he said.
He said the aerosols might only stay aloft for about 10 minutes, but Dr. Marr disagreed with that assessment, and said they could stay in the air for three times longer. She also said that the experimental setup might be less comfortable for the virus than a real-life setting.
For example, she said, the researchers used a relative humidity of 65 percent. “Many, but not all viruses, have shown that they survive worst at this level of humidity,” she said. They do best at lower or much higher humidity. The humidity in a heated house is less than 40 percent, “at which the virus might survive even longer,” she said.
Mucus and respiratory fluids might also allow the virus to survive longer than the laboratory fluids the researchers used for their experiments.
Other experts said the paper’s findings illustrate the urgent need for more information about the virus’ ability to survive in aerosols, and under different conditions.
“We need more experiments like this, in particular, extending the experimental sampling time for aerosolized virus beyond three hours and testing survival under different temperature and humidity conditions,” said Dr. Jeffrey Shaman, an environmental health sciences expert at Columbia University.
Dr. Munster noted that, overall, the new coronavirus seems no more capable of surviving for long periods than its close cousins SARS and MERS, which caused previous epidemics. That suggests there are other reasons, such as transmission by people who don’t have symptoms, for its ability to cause a pandemic.” NY Times
Pandemics Damages Compassion, Too
“Some disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can bring people together, but if history is any judge, pandemics generally drive them apart. These are crises in which social distancing is a virtue. Dread overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection.
In “The Decameron,” Giovanni Boccaccio writes about what happened during the plague that hit Florence in 1348: “Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinfolk held aloof, and never met … “
In his book on the 1665 London epidemic, “A Journal of the Plague Year,” Daniel Defoe reports, “This was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distresses of others. … nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate….The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.”
Fear drives people in these moments, but so does shame, caused by the brutal things that have to be done to slow the spread of the disease. In all pandemics people are forced to make the decisions that doctors in Italy are now forced to make — withholding care from some of those who are suffering and leaving them to their fate.
In 17th-century Venice, health workers searched the city, identified plague victims and shipped them off to isolated “hospitals,” where two-thirds of them died. In many cities over the centuries, municipal authorities locked whole families in their homes, sealed the premises and blocked any delivery of provisions or medical care.
Frank Snowden, the Yale historian who wrote “Epidemics and Society,” argues that pandemics hold up a mirror to society and force us to ask basic questions: What is possible imminent death trying to tell us? Where is God in all this? What’s our responsibility to one another?
Pandemics induce a feeling of enervating fatalism. People realize how little they control their lives. Anton Chekhov was a victim during a TB epidemic that traveled across Russia in the late 19th century. Snowden points out that the plays he wrote during his recovery are about people who feel trapped, waiting for events outside their control, unable to act, unable to decide.
Pandemics also hit the poor hardest and inflame class divisions.
Cholera struck Naples in 1884, especially the Lower City, where the poor lived. Rumors swept the neighborhood that city officials were deliberately spreading the disease. When highhanded public health workers poured into Lower City, the locals revolted, throwing furniture at them, hurling them down stairs.
The city thought the disease was passed on by people eating unripe or overripe fruit. The peasants responded by bringing baskets of fruit to City Hall and gorging on it in public — a way to hold up a defiant middle finger against the elites who were so useless in the face of the disease.
The Spanish flu pandemic that battered America in 1918 produced similar reactions. John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza,” reports that as conditions worsened, health workers in city after city pleaded for volunteers to care for the sick. Few stepped forward.
In Philadelphia, the head of emergency aid pleaded for help in taking care of sick children. Nobody answered. The organization’s director turned scornful: “Hundreds of women … had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy. … Nothing seems to rouse them now. … There are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high, and they still hold back.”
This explains one of the puzzling features of the 1918 pandemic. When it was over, people didn’t talk about it. There were very few books or plays written about it. Roughly 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the flu, compared with 53,000 in battle in World War I, and yet it left almost no conscious cultural mark.
Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed. In her 1976 dissertation, “A Cruel Wind,” Dorothy Ann Pettit argues that the 1918 flu pandemic contributed to a kind of spiritual torpor afterward. People emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued. The flu, Pettit writes, had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.
There is one exception to this sad litany: health care workers. In every pandemic there are doctors and nurses who respond with unbelievable heroism and compassion. That’s happening today.
Mike Baker recently had a report about the EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland, Wash., where the staff showing the kind of effective compassion that has been evident in all pandemics down the centuries. “We have not had issues with staff not wanting to come in,” an Evergreen executive said. “We’ve had staff calling and say, ‘If you need me, I’m available.”
Maybe this time we’ll learn from their example. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to take steps to fight the moral disease that accompanies the physical one.” NY Times
How smell, emotion, and memory are intertwined
“…. I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.”
It’s a seminal passage in literature, so famous in fact, that it has its own name: the Proustian moment — a sensory experience that triggers a rush of memories often long past, or even seemingly forgotten. For French author Marcel Proust, who penned the legendary lines in his 1913 novel, “À la recherche du temps perdu,” it was the soupçon of cake in tea that sent his mind reeling.
But according to a biologist and an olfactory branding specialist Wednesday, it was the nose that was really at work.
This should not be surprising, as neuroscience makes clear. Smell and memory seem to be so closely linked because of the brain’s anatomy, said Harvard’s Raymond Leo Erikson Life Sciences Professor and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. He walked the audience through the science early in the panel discussion “Olfaction in Science and Society,” sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the Harvard Brain Science Initiative.
Smells are handled by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the other areas of the body’s central command for further processing. Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory. “The olfactory signals very quickly get to the limbic system,” He said.
But, as with Proust, taste plays a role, too, whose lab explores the neural and algorithmic basis of odor-guided behaviors in terrestrial animals.
When you chew, molecules in the food, he said, “make their way back retro-nasally to your nasal epithelium,” meaning that essentially, “all of what you consider flavor is smell. When you are eating all the beautiful, complicated flavors … they are all smell.” He said you can test that theory by pinching your nose when eating something such as vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Instead of tasting the flavor, he said, “all you can taste is sweet.”
For decades individuals and businesses have explored ways to harness the evocative power of smell. Think of the cologne or perfume worn by a former flame. And then there was AromaRama or Smell-O-Vision, brainchildren of the film industry of the 1950s that infused movie theaters with appropriate odors in an attempt pull viewers deeper into a story — and the most recent update, the decade-old 4DX system, which incorporates special effects into movie theaters, such as shaking seats, wind, rain, as well as smells. Several years ago, Harvard scientist David Edwards worked on a new technology that would allow iPhones to share scents as well as photos and texts.
Today, the aroma of a home or office is big business. Scent branding is in vogue across a range of industries, including hotels that often pump their signature scents into rooms and lobbies, noted the authors of 2018 Harvard Business Review article.
“In an age where it’s becoming more and more difficult to stand out in a crowded market, you must differentiate your brand emotionally and memorably,” they wrote. “Think about your brand in a new way by considering how scent can play a role in making a more powerful impression on your customers.”
Someone who knows that lesson well is Dawn Goldworm, co-founder and nose, or scent, director of what she calls her “olfactive branding company,” 12.29, which uses the “visceral language of scent to transform brand-building” in the actual buildings where clients reside (mostly through ventilation systems or standalone units).
Among Goldworm’s high-profile customers is the sportswear giant Nike. Its signature scent, she explains in a video on her company’s website, was inspired by, among other things, the smell of a rubber basketball sneaker as it scrapes across the court and a soccer cleat in grass and dirt. Her goal, she said, is to create “immediate and memorable connections between brands and consumers.”
Goldworm, who designed signature fragrances for celebrities for more than a decade before starting her own company, knows the science, too. She spent five years in perfumery school followed by a master’s degree at New York University where her thesis focused on olfactory branding.
During the talk she explained that smell is the only fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb, and it’s the one that is the most developed in a child through the age of around 10 when sight takes over. And because “smell and emotion are stored as one memory,” said Goldworm, childhood tends to be the period in which you create “the basis for smells you will like and hate for the rest of your life.” She also explained that people tend to smell in color, demonstrating the connection with pieces of paper dipped in scents that she handed to the audience. Like most people, her listeners associated citrus-flavored mandarin with the colors orange, yellow, and green. When smelling vetiver, a grassy scent, audience members envisioned green and brown.
People do tend to lose their sense of smell as they age, she added. But not to worry. Your nose is like a muscle in the body that can be strengthened, she said, by giving it a daily workout, not with weights, but with sniffs.
“Just pay attention,” with your nose, said Goldworm. “When you are walking down the street, consciously indicate what you are smelling … the more you use [your nose], the stronger it gets.” Neuroscience Journal
Extraordinary Life of André Bamberski and his fight for justice
Frustrated with Germany’s refusal to hand Krombach over, Bamberski hired a kidnap team to snatch the doctor from his home in Scheidegg, Bavaria, bundle him into a blacked-out limousine and bring him to France.
Doctor who murdered French girl is freed 11 years after her father ( André Bamberski ) kidnapped him in Germany and smuggled him across border to stand trial
The Cardiologist was jailed 2011 after being kidnapped by victim’s biological father
A German ex-doctor and serial rapist who killed André Bamberski’s teenage daughter by lethal injection 38 years ago has now been freed on medical grounds.
Dieter Krombach, 84, was whisked by ambulance from his Paris prison last week after serving nine of his 15-year sentence for the death of Kalinka Bamberski.
It draws a line under one of the most dramatic cases of recent times, which saw the 14-year-old victim’s biological father kidnap Krombach and drag him to France after Germany refused to hand him over for trial.
After his bound and gagged body was dumped outside a courthouse, Krombach was tried and jailed in 2011.
Last October, a parole committee decreed his sentence should be suspended on medical grounds, which resulted in the doctor taken away by ambulance from a prison near Paris.
A German investigation in 1987 had found there was not enough evidence to charge Krombach of the murder of Kalinka, who was found dead in her bed during the summer holidays of 1982.
But the doctor’s credibility was damaged when in 1997 he was found guilty of drugging and raping a 16-year-old patient, emboldening Kalinka’s biological father, Andre Bamberski, in his campaign to see Krombach arrested.
Frustrated with Germany’s refusal to hand Krombach over, Bamberski hired a kidnap team to snatch the doctor from his home in Scheidegg, Bavaria, bundle him into a blacked-out limousine and bring him to France.
The doctor was left, bound and gagged, near a courthouse in the border town of Mulhouse, and later put on trial.
The doctor, whose lover Daniele Gonnin was Kalinka’s mother, is said to have injected the girl with an overdose of a substance used for tanning.
After Krombach was convicted by a French court in 2011, Kalinka’s father was also put on trial and convicted in 2014 over the kidnapping.
He was handed a suspended one-year jail sentence.
The two men who carried out the kidnapping – Anton Krasniqi of Kosovo and Georgian Kacha Bablovani – were sentenced to a year in prison each.
The drama of Andre Bamberski’s fight for justice has been turned into the 2016 movie, ‘Au Nom de Ma Fille,’ with the English title ‘Kalinka’.” Daily Mail
Sitting still linked to increased risk of depression in adolescents
“Too much time sitting still – sedentary behavior – is linked to an increased risk of depressive symptoms in adolescents, finds a new UCL-led study.
The Lancet Psychiatry study found that an additional 60 minutes of light activity (such as walking or doing chores) daily at age 12 was associated with a 10% reduction in depressive symptoms at age 18.
“Our findings show that young people who are inactive for large proportions of the day throughout adolescence face a greater risk of depression by age 18. We found that it’s not just more intense forms of activity that are good for our mental health, but any degree of physical activity that can reduce the time we spend sitting down is likely to be beneficial,” said the study’s lead author, PhD student Aaron Kandola (UCL Psychiatry).
“We should be encouraging people of all ages to move more, and to sit less, as it’s good for both our physical and mental health.”
The research team used data from 4,257 adolescents, who have been participating in longitudinal research from birth as part of the University of Bristol’s Children of the 90s cohort study. The children wore accelerometers to track their movement for at least 10 hours over at least three days, at ages 12, 14 and 16.
The accelerometers reported whether the child was engaging in light activity (which could include walking or hobbies such as playing an instrument or painting), engaging in moderate-to-physical activity (such as running or cycling), or if they were sedentary. The use of accelerometers provided more reliable data than previous studies which have relied on people self-reporting their activity, which have yielded inconsistent results.
Depressive symptoms, such as low mood, loss of pleasure and poor concentration, were measured with a clinical questionnaire. The questionnaire measures depressive symptoms and their severity on a spectrum, rather than providing a clinical diagnosis.
Between the ages of 12 and 16, total physical activity declined across the cohort, which was mainly due to a decrease in light activity (from an average of five hours, 26 minutes to four hours, five minutes) and an increase in sedentary behaviour (from an average of seven hours and 10 minutes to eight hours and 43 minutes).
The researchers found that every additional 60 minutes of sedentary behaviour per day at age 12, 14 and 16 was associated with an increase in depression score of 11.1%, 8% or 10.5%, respectively, by age 18. Those with consistently high amounts of time spent sedentary at all three ages had 28.2% higher depression scores by age 18.
Every additional hour of light physical activity per day at age 12, 14 and 16 was associated with depression scores at age 18 that were 9.6%, 7.8% and 11.1% lower, respectively.
The researchers found some associations between moderate-to-vigorous activity at earlier ages and reduced depressive symptoms, although they caution that their data was weaker due to low levels of activity of such intensity in the cohort (averaging around 20 minutes per day), so the findings do not clarify whether moderate-to-vigorous activity is any less beneficial than light activity.
While the researchers cannot confirm that the activity levels caused changes to depressive symptoms, the researchers accounted for potentially confounding factors such as socioeconomic status, parental history of mental health, and length of time wearing the accelerometer, and avoided the possibility of reverse causation by adjusting their analysis to account for people with depressive symptoms at the study outset.
“Worryingly, the amount of time that young people spend inactive has been steadily rising for years, but there has been a surprising lack of high quality research into how this could affect mental health. The number of young people with depression also appears to be growing and our study suggests that these two trends may be linked,” Kandola added.” Neuroscience Journal
Amazon’s first and second employees:
Amazon “scares me”, “is unfair”
“Now Amazon’s first employee, Shel Kaphan, says a breakup of Amazon “could potentially make sense.”
In an interview for a new PBS Frontline documentary about Amazon viewed by Recode, which airs February 18th, Kaphan said the company’s rise to power has left him conflicted.
“On one hand I’m proud of what it became,” Kaphan told the documentary’s host, James Jacoby. “But it also scares me.”
“I think not all of the effects of the company on the world are the best,” he added. “And I wish it wasn’t so, but I had something to do with bringing it into existence; it’s partly on me.”
Asked if he favors a breakup of the company, which has been advocated by Senator Elizabeth Warren and some anti-monopoly activists, Kaphan said, “I think they’re now at the scale where that could potentially make sense.”
Warren wants to separate Amazon’s retail platform, on which other merchants sell goods, from where Amazon sells its own lines of goods, like AmazonBasics. Her plan is fueled by an argument that Amazon uses data it collects from other merchants in its marketplace to boost its own brands. Other critics have called for Amazon to separate its Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud computing business from its retail business, based on a belief that Amazon uses profits from AWS to subsidize low prices in its retail business.”
Kaphan’s views, combined with recent comments from Amazon’s second employee, Paul Davis, highlight how some early employees of tech giants are grappling with their roles in birthing companies that have amassed so much power in society today. Davis told Recode in December that Amazon’s role as both a retailer and the operator of a retail marketplace on which other merchants sell goods — and Amazon’s access to their data that can be used to compete against them — is unfair.” VOX
Despite being banned, Big Tobacco is still on social media
“Big Tobacco likes to stay ahead of the curve – to survive, it has to. Its fundamental problem is that one in two of its long-term users die from tobacco-related diseases. To hook a new generation into addiction, it has to try every advertising and marketing trick in its playbook.
And it has to be innovative. As one ex-marketing consultant remarked: “The problem, is how do you sell death?” He said the industry did it with great open spaces, such as mountains and lakes. They did it with healthy young people and iconic images. So the Marlboro Man became a symbol of masculinity and, for women, the industry promoted smoking as a “torch of freedom”.
In August 2018, the New York Times investigated Big Tobacco’s social media influence. The paper found 123 hashtags associated with companies’ tobacco products, which had been viewed a staggering 25 billion times. Robert Kozinets, a professor at the University of Southern California, told the newspaper that what the industry was doing was a “really effective way” to get around existing laws to restrict advertising to young people.
The pressure on the industry to act increased in May 2019 when 125 public health organisations called on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to immediately end the promotion of cigarettes and e-cigarettes. This included banning the use of social media influencers. The social media companies ignored the request.
In December 2019, in a landmark decision, the UK Advertising Standards Authority ruled against British American Tobacco and three other firms for promoting their products on Instagram, after a complaint by Action on Smoking and Health, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Stopping Tobacco Organisations and Products, of which the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group is a partner.
In a follow-up statement, Facebook and Instagram announced what many saw as a long-overdue update to their policy on tobacco. It said that branded content that promotes goods such as vaping, tobacco products and weapons “will not be allowed”. The statement made the bold claim that their advertising policies had long “prohibited” the advertisement of these products. The platforms promised that enforcement would begin in the coming weeks.” Independent
Living near major roads linked to risk of dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and MS
“Living near major roads or highways is linked to a higher incidence of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis (MS) suggests new research published this week in the journal Environmental Health.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia analyzed data for 678,000 adults in Metro Vancouver. They found that living less than 50 meters from a major road or less than 150 meters from a highway is associated with a higher risk of developing dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and MS–likely due to increased exposure to air pollution.
The researchers also found that living near green spaces, like parks, has protective effects against developing these neurological disorders.
“For the first time, we have confirmed a link between air pollution and traffic proximity with a higher risk of dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and MS at the population level,” says Weiran Yuchi, the study’s lead author and a PhD candidate in the UBC school of population and public health. “The good news is that green spaces appear to have some protective effects in reducing the risk of developing one or more of these disorders. More research is needed, but our findings do suggest that urban planning efforts to increase accessibility to green spaces and to reduce motor vehicle traffic would be beneficial for neurological health.”
Neurological disorders–a term that describes a range of disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and motor neuron diseases–are increasingly recognized as one of the leading causes of death and disability worldwide. Little is known about the risk factors associated with neurological disorders, the majority of which are incurable and typically worsen over time.
For the study, researchers analyzed data for 678,000 adults between the ages of 45 and 84 who lived in Metro Vancouver from 1994 to 1998 and during a follow-up period from 1999 to 2003. They estimated individual exposures to road proximity, air pollution, noise and greenness at each person’s residence using postal code data. During the follow-up period, the researchers identified 13,170 cases of non-Alzheimer’s dementia, 4,201 cases of Parkinson’s disease, 1,277 cases of Alzheimer’s disease and 658 cases of MS.
For non-Alzheimer’s dementia and Parkinson’s disease specifically, living near major roads or a highway was associated with 14 percent and seven percent increased risk of both conditions, respectively. Due to relatively low numbers of Alzheimer’s and MS cases in Metro Vancouver compared to non-Alzheimer’s dementia and Parkinson’s disease, the researchers did not identify associations between air pollution and increased risk of these two disorders. However, they are now analyzing Canada-wide data and are hopeful the larger dataset will provide more information on the effects of air pollution on Alzheimer’s disease and MS.
When the researchers accounted for green space, they found the effect of air pollution on the neurological disorders was mitigated. The researchers suggest that this protective effect could be due to several factors.
“For people who are exposed to a higher level of green space, they are more likely to be physically active and may also have more social interactions,” said Michael Brauer, the study’s senior author and professor in the UBC school of population and public health. “There may even be benefits from just the visual aspects of vegetation.”
Brauer added that the findings underscore the importance for city planners to ensure they incorporate greenery and parks when planning and developing residential neighborhoods.” Neuroscience Journal
You Are Now Remotely Controlled
By Shoshana Zuboff
the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.”
“The data flows empty into surveillance capitalists’ computational factories, called artificial intelligence.A broad term used to describe a process in which machines learn from experience and potentially perform tasks previously done by humans. It is also a field of computer science dedicated to simulating intelligent behavior in computers: Glossary, where they are manufactured into behavioral predictions that are about us, but they are not for us. Instead, they are sold to business customers in a new kind of market that trades exclusively in human futures. Certainty in human affairs is the lifeblood of these markets, where surveillance capitalists compete on the quality of their predictions. This is a new form of trade that birthed some of the richest and most powerful companies in history.
In order to achieve their objectives, the leading surveillance capitalists sought to established unrivaled dominance over the 99.9 percent of the world’s information now rendered in digital formats that they helped to create. Surveillance capital has built most of the world’s largest computer networks, data centers, populations of servers, undersea transmission cables, advanced microchips, and frontier machine intelligence, igniting an arms race for the 10,000 or so specialists on the planet who know how to coax knowledge from these vast new data continents.
With Google in the lead, the top surveillance capitalists seek to control labor markets in critical expertise, including data science and animal research, elbowing out competitors such as start-ups, universities, high schools, municipalities, established corporations in other industries and less wealthy countries. In 2016, 57 percent of American computer science Ph.D. graduates took jobs in industry, while only 11 percent became tenure-track faculty members. It’s not just an American problem. In Britain, university administrators contemplate a missing generation” of data scientists. A Canadian scientist laments, “the power, the expertise, the data are all concentrated in the hands of a few companies.”
Google created the first insanely lucrative markets to trade in human futures, what we now know as online targeted advertising, based on their predictions of which ads users would click. Between 2000, when the new economic logic was just emerging, and 2004, when the company went public, revenues increased by 3,590 percent. This startling number represents the “surveillance dividend.” It quickly reset the bar for investors, eventually driving start-ups, apps developers and established companies to shift their business models toward surveillance capitalism. The promise of a fast track to outsized revenues from selling human futures drove this migration first to Facebook, then through the tech sector and now throughout the rest of the economy to industries as disparate as insurance, retail, finance, education, health care, real estate, entertainment and every product that begins with the word “smart” or service touted as “personalized.”
Unequal knowledge about us produces unequal power over us, and so epistemic inequality widens to include the distance between what we can do and what can be done to us. Data scientists describe this as the shift from monitoring to actuation, in which a critical mass of knowledge about a machine system enables the remote control of that system. Now people have become targets for remote control, as surveillance capitalists discovered that the most predictive data come from intervening in behavior to tune, herd and modify action in the direction of commercial objectives. This third imperative, “economies of action,” has become an arena of intense experimentation. “We are learning how to write the music,” one scientist said, “and then we let the music make them dance.”
This new power “to make them dance” does not employ soldiers to threaten terror and murder. It arrives carrying a cappuccino, not a gun. It is a new “instrumentarian” power that works its will through the medium of ubiquitous digital instrumentation to manipulate subliminal cues, psychologically target communications, impose default choice architectures, trigger social comparison dynamics and levy rewards and punishments — all of it aimed at remotely tuning, herding and modifying human behavior in the direction of profitable outcomes and always engineered to preserve users’ ignorance.
We saw predictive knowledge morphing into instrumentarian power in Facebook’s contagion experiments published in 2012 and 2014, when it planted subliminal cues and manipulated social comparisons on its pages, first to influence users to vote in midterm elections and later to make people feel sadder or happier. Facebook researchers celebrated the success of these experiments noting two key findings: that it was possible to manipulate online cues to influence real world behavior and feelings, and that this could be accomplished while successfully bypassing users’ awareness.
In 2016, the Google-incubated augmented reality game, Pokémon Go, tested economies of action on the streets. Game players did not know that they were pawns in the real game of behavior modification for profit, as the rewards and punishments of hunting imaginary creatures were used to herd people to the McDonald’s, Starbucks and local pizza joints that were paying the company for footfall in exactly the same way that online advertisers pay for “click through” to their websites.
In 2017, a leaked Facebook document acquired by The Australian exposed the corporation’s interest in applying “psychological insights” from “internal Facebook data” to modify user behavior. The targets were 6.4 million young Australians and New Zealanders. “By monitoring posts, pictures, interactions and internet activity in real time,” the executives wrote, “Facebook can work out when young people feel ‘stressed,’ ‘defeated,’ ‘overwhelmed,’ ‘anxious,’ ‘nervous,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘silly,’ ‘useless’ and a ‘failure.’” This depth of information, they explained, allows Facebook to pinpoint the time frame during which a young person needs a “confidence boost” and is most vulnerable to a specific configuration of subliminal cues and triggers. The data are then used to match each emotional phase with appropriate ad messaging for the maximum probability of guaranteed sales.
Facebook denied these practices, though a former product manager accused the company of “lying through its teeth.” The fact is that in the absence of corporate transparency
Taking appropriate measures to provide any information relating to processing to the data subject in a concise, intelligible and easily accessible form, using clear and plain language.
Glossary and democratic oversight, epistemic inequality rules. They know. They decide who knows. They decide who decides.
The public’s intolerable knowledge disadvantage is deepened by surveillance capitalists’ perfection of mass communications as gaslighting. Two examples are illustrative. On April 30, 2019 Mark Zuckerberg made a dramatic announcement at the company’s annual developer conference, declaring, “The future is private.” A few weeks later, a Facebook litigator appeared before a federal district judge in California to thwart a user lawsuit over privacy invasion, arguing that the very act of using Facebook negates any reasonable expectation of privacy “as a matter of law.” In May 2019 Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google, wrote in The Times of his corporations’s commitment to the principle that “privacy cannot be a luxury good, but five months later Google contractors were found offering $5 gift cards to homeless people of color in an Atlanta park in return for a facial scan.
Facebook’s denial invites even more scrutiny in light of another leaked company document appearing in 2018. The confidential report offers rare insight into the heart of Facebook’s computational factory, where a “prediction engine” runs on a machine intelligence platform that “ingests trillions of data points every day, trains thousands of models” and then “deploys them to the server fleet for live predictions.” Facebook notes that its “prediction service” produces “more than 6 million predictions per second.” But to what purpose?
In its report, the company makes clear that these extraordinary capabilities are dedicated to meeting its corporate customers’ “core business challenges” with procedures that link prediction, microtargeting, intervention and behavior modification. For example, a Facebook service called “loyalty prediction” is touted for its ability to plumb proprietary behavioral surplus to predict individuals who are “at risk” of shifting their brand allegiance and alerting advertisers to intervene promptly with targeted messages designed to stabilize loyalty just in time to alter the course of the future.
That year a young man named Christopher Wylie turned whistle-blower on his former employer, a political consultancy known as Cambridge Analytica. “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” Wylie admitted, and built Models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.” Mr. Wylie characterized those techniques as “information warfare, correctly assessing that such shadow wars are built on asymmetries of knowledge and the power it affords. Less clear to the public or lawmakers was that the political firm’s strategies of secret invasion and conquest employed surveillance capitalism’s standard operating procedures to which billions of innocent “users” are routinely subjected each day. Mr. Wylie described this mirroring process, as he followed a trail that was already cut and marked. Cambridge Analytica’s real innovation was to pivot the whole undertaking from commercial to political objectives.
In other words, Cambridge Analytica was the parasite, and surveillance capitalism was the host. Thanks to its epistemic dominance, surveillance capitalism provided the behavioral data that exposed the targets for assault. Its methods of behavioral microtargeting and behavioral modification became the weapons. And it was surveillance capitalism’s lack of accountability for content on its platform afforded by Section 230 that provided the opportunity for the stealth attacks designed to trigger the inner demons of unsuspecting citizens.
It’s not just that epistemic inequality leaves us utterly vulnerable to the attacks of actors like Cambridge Analytica. The larger and more disturbing point is that surveillance capitalism has turned epistemic inequality into a defining condition of our societies, normalizing information warfare as a chronic feature of our daily reality prosecuted by the very corporations upon which we depend for effective social participation. They have the knowledge, the machines, the science and the scientists, the secrets and the lies. All privacy now rests with them, leaving us with few means of defense from these marauding data invaders. Without law, we scramble to hide in our own lives, while our children debate encryption
The process of obscuring information, often through the use of a cryptographic scheme, in order to make the information unreadable without special knowledge.
Glossary strategies around the dinner table and students wear masks to public protests as protection from facial recognition systems built with our family photos.
In the absence of new declarations of epistemic rights and legislation, surveillance capitalism threatens to remake society as it unmakes democracy. From below, it undermines human agency, usurping privacy, diminishing autonomy and depriving individuals of the right to combat. From above, epistemic inequality and injustice are fundamentally incompatible with the aspirations of a democratic people.
We know that surveillance capitalists work in the shadows, but what they do there and the knowledge they accrue are unknown to us. They have the means to know everything about us, but we can know little about them. Their knowledge of us is not for us. Instead, our futures are sold for others’ profits. Since that Federal Trade Commission meeting in 1997, the line was never drawn, and people did become chattel for commerce. Another destructive delusion is that this outcome was inevitable — an unavoidable consequence of convenience-enhancing digital technologies. The truth is that surveillance capitalism hijacked the digital medium. There was nothing inevitable about it.
American lawmakers have been reluctant to take on these challenges for many reasons. One is an unwritten policy of “surveillance exceptionalism” forged in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the government’s concerns shifted from online privacy protections to a new zeal for “total information awareness. In that political environment the fledgling surveillance capabilities emerging from Silicon Valley appeared to hold great promise.
Surveillance capitalists have also defended themselves with lobbying and forms of propaganda intended to undermine and intimidate lawmakers, confounding judgment and freezing action. These have received relatively little scrutiny compared to the damage they do. Consider two examples:
The first is the assertion that democracy threatens prosperity and innovation. Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt explained in 2011, “we took the position of ‘hands off the internet.’ You know, leave us alone … The government can make regulatory mistakes that can slow this whole thing down, and we see that and we worry about it.” This propaganda is recycled from the Gilded Age barons, whom we now call “robbers.” They insisted that there was no need for law when one had the “law of survival of the fittest,” the “laws of capital” and the “law of supply and demand.”
Paradoxically, surveillance capital does not appear to drive innovation. A promising new era of economic research shows the critical role that government and democratic governance have played in innovation and suggests a lack of innovation in big tech companies like Google. Surveillance capitalism’s information dominance is not dedicated to the urgent challenges of carbon-free energy, eliminating hunger, curing cancers, ridding the oceans of plastic or flooding the world with well paid, smart, loving teachers and doctors. Instead, we see a frontier operation run by geniuses with vast capital and computational power that is furiously dedicated to the lucrative science and economics of human prediction for profit.
The second form of propaganda is the argument that the success of the leading surveillance capitalist firms reflects the real value they bring to people. But data from the demand side suggest that surveillance capitalism is better understood as a market failure. Instead of a close alignment of supply and demand, people use these services because they have no comparable alternatives and because they are ignorant of surveillance capitalism’s shadow operations and their consequences. Pew Research Center recently reported that 81 percent of Americans believe the potential risks of companies’ data collection outweigh the benefits, suggesting that corporate success depends upon coercion and obfuscation rather than meeting peoples’ real needs.
In his prizewinning history of regulation, the historian Thomas McCraw delivers a warning. Across the centuries regulators failed when they did not frame “strategies appropriate to the particular industries they were regulating.” Existing privacy and antitrust laws are vital but neither will be wholly adequate to the new challenges of reversing epistemic inequality.
These contests of the 21st century demand a framework of epistemic rights enshrined in law and subject to democratic governance. Such rights would interrupt data supply chains by safeguarding the boundaries of human experience before they come under assault from the forces of datafication. The choice to turn any aspect of one’s life into data must belong to individuals by virtue of their rights in a democratic society. This means, for example, that companies cannot claim the right to your face, or use your face as free raw material for analysis, or own and sell any computational products that derive from your face.
On the demand side, we can outlaw human futures markets and thus eliminate the financial incentives that sustain the surveillance dividend. This is not a radical prospect. For example, societies outlaw markets that trade in human organs, babies and slaves. In each case, we recognize that such markets are both morally repugnant and produce predictably violent consequences. Human futures markets can be shown to produce equally predictable outcomes that challenge human freedom and undermine democracy. Like subprime mortgages and fossil fuel investments, surveillance assets will become the new toxic assets.
In support of a new competitive landscape, lawmakers will need to champion new forms of collective action, just as nearly a century ago legal protections for the rights to organize, to strike and to bargain collectively united lawmakers and workers in curbing the powers of monopoly capitalists. Lawmakers must seek alliances with citizens who are deeply concerned over the unchecked power of the surveillance capitalists and with workers who seek fair wages and reasonable security in defiance of the precarious employment conditions that define the surveillance economy.
Anything made by humans can be unmade by humans. Surveillance capitalism is young, barely 20 years in the making, but democracy is old, rooted in generations of hope and contest.
Surveillance capitalists are rich and powerful, but they are not invulnerable. They have an Achilles heel: fear. They fear lawmakers who do not fear them. They fear citizens who demand a new road forward as they insist on new answers to old questions: Who will know? Who will decide who knows? Who will decide who decides? Who will write the music, and who will dance?”
Air Pollution, Evolution, and the Fate of Billions of Humans
It’s not just a modern problem. Airborne toxins are so pernicious that they may have shaped our DNA over millions of years.
“The threat of air pollution grabs our attention when we see it — for example, the tendrils of smoke of Australian brush fires, now visible from space, or the poisonous soup of smog that descends on cities like New Delhi in the winter.
But polluted air also harms billions of people on a continuing basis. Outdoors, we breathe in toxins delivered by car traffic, coal-fired plants and oil refineries. Indoor fires for heat and cooking taint the air for billions of people in poor countries. Over a billion people add toxins to their lungs by smoking cigarettes- more recently, by vaping.
Ninety-two percent of the world’s people live in places where fine particulate matter — the very small particles most dangerous to human tissues — exceeds the World Health Organization’s guideline for healthy air. Air pollution and tobacco together are responsible for up to 20 million premature deaths each year.
Airborne toxins damage us in a staggering number of ways. Along with well-established links to lung cancer and heart disease, researchers are now finding new connections to disorders such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists are still figuring out how air pollution causes these ailments. They are also puzzling over the apparent resilience that some people have to this modern onslaught.
Some researchers now argue that the answers to these questions lie in our distant evolutionary past, millions of years before the first cigarette was lit and the first car hit the road. Our ancestors were bedeviled by airborne toxins even as bipedal apes walking the African savanna, argued Benjamin Trumble, a biologist at Arizona State University, and Caleb Finch of the University of Southern California, in the December issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology. But our evolutionary legacy may also be a burden, Dr. Trumble and Dr. Finch speculated. Some genetic adaptations may have increased our vulnerability to diseases linked to air pollution.
It is “a really creative, interesting contribution to evolutionary medicine,” said Molly Fox, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the new study.
The story begins about seven million years ago. Africa at the time was gradually growing more arid. The Sahara emerged in northern Africa, while grasslands opened up in eastern and southern Africa.
The ancestors of chimpanzees and gorillas remained in the retreating forests, but our ancient relatives adapted to the new environments. They evolved into a tall, slender frame well suited to walking and running long distances.
Dr. Finch and Dr. Trumble believe that early humans faced another challenge that has gone largely overlooked: the air.
Periodically, the savanna would have experienced heavy dust storms from the Sahara, and our distant ancestors may have risked harm to their lungs from breathing in the silica-rich particles.
“When the dust is up, we’re going to see more pulmonary problems,” Dr. Finch said. Even today, Greek researchers have found that when Sahara winds reach their country, patients surge into hospitals with respiratory complaints.
The dense foliage of tropical forests gave chimpanzees and gorillas a refuge from dust. But the earliest humans, wandering the open grasslands, had nowhere to hide.
Dust was not the only hazard. The lungs of early humans also may have been irritated by the high levels of pollen and particles of fecal matter produced by the savanna’s vast herds of grazing animals.
Dr. Finch and Dr. Trumble maintain that scientists should consider whether these new challenges altered our biology through natural selection. Is it possible, for instance, that people who are resilient to cigarette smoke have inherited genetic variants that protected their distant ancestors from cave fires?
One way to answer these questions is to look at genes that have evolved significantly since our ancestors moved out of the forests.
One of them is MARCO, which provides the blueprint for production of a molecular hook used by immune cells in our lungs. The cells use this hook to clear away both bacteria and particles, including silica dust.
Later, our ancestors added to airborne threats by mastering fire. As they lingered near hearths to cook food, stay warm or keep away from insects, they breathed in smoke. Once early humans began building shelters, the environment became more harmful to their lungs.
“Most traditional people live in a highly smoky environment,” Dr. Finch said. “I think it has been a fact of human living for us even before our species.”
Smoke created a new evolutionary pressure, he and Dr. Trumble believe. Humans evolved powerful liver enzymes, for example, to break down toxins passing into the bloodstream from the lungs.
Gary Perdew, a molecular toxicologist at Penn State University, and his colleagues have found evidence of smoke-driven evolution in another gene, AHR.
This gene makes a protein found on cells in the gut, lungs and skin. When toxins get snagged on the protein, cells release enzymes that break down the poisons.
Other mammals use AHR to detoxify their food. But the protein is also effective against some of the compounds in wood smoke.
Compared to other species, the human version produces a weaker response to toxins, perhaps because AHR protein is not the perfect protector — the fragments it leaves behind can cause tissue damage.
Clean water, improved medicines and other innovations drastically reduced deaths from infectious diseases. The average life expectancy shot up. But our exposure to airborne toxins also increased.
“If we compressed the last five million years into a single year, it wouldn’t be until Dec. 31, 11:40 p.m., that the Industrial Revolution begins,” Dr. Trumble said. “We are living in just the tiniest little blip of human existence, yet we think everything around us is what’s normal.”
The Industrial Revolution was powered largely by coal, and people began breathing the fumes. Cars became ubiquitous; power plants and oil refineries spread. Tobacco companies made cigarettes on an industrial scale. Today, they sell 6.5 trillion cigarettes every year.
Our bodies responded with defenses honed over hundreds of thousands of years. One of their most potent responses was inflammation. But instead of brief bursts of inflammation, many people began to experience it constantly.
Many studies now suggest that chronic inflammation represents an important link between airborne toxins and disease. In the brain, for example, chronic inflammation may impair our ability to clear up defective proteins. As those proteins accumulate, they may lead to dementia.
Pathogens can hitch a ride on particles of pollutants. When they get in our noses, they can make contact with nerve endings. There, they can trigger even more inflammation.
“They provide this highway that’s a direct route to the brain,” Dr. Fox, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said. “I think that’s what makes this a particularly scary story.”
Some genetic variants that arose in our smoky past may offer some help now. They might allow some people to live long despite smoking, Dr. Finch and Dr. Trumble suggest.
But the researchers have studied another gene for which the opposite seems to be true: a variant that was once helpful has become harmful in an age of rising air pollution.
More recently, researchers have also discovered that ApoE4 increases the risk that exposure to because it drastically raises the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The air pollution leads to dementia.
But these studies were restricted to industrialized countries. When researchers looked to other societies — such as farmers in poor villages in Ghana, or indigenous forest dwellers in Bolivia- ApoE4 had a very different effect. In these societies, infectious diseases remain a major cause of death, especially in children. Researchers have found that in such places, ApoE4 increases the odds that people will survive to adulthood and have children.
Natural selection may have favored ApoE4 for hundreds of thousands of years because of this ability to increase survival. But this gene and others may have had harmful side effects that remained invisible until the sooty, smoky modern age.”
Food textures affect perceptions of healthiness
“New research has demonstrated how food producers could change the surface texture of products to change people’s perceptions and promote healthy eating.
The study, led by Consumer Psychologist Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), investigated people’s perceptions of identical biscuits with six different textures.
Published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, the research involved 88 people rating the six oat biscuits on healthiness, tastiness, crunchiness, chewiness, pleasantness and likelihood of purchase based only on their visual appearance, not on their taste or touch.
Previous studies have shown that packaging, labelling and even the texture of a cup or plate can alter people’s perception of food. This new study looked at how a food product itself can be perceived differently depending on its appearance.
Oat biscuits were chosen as they can represent both a “healthy” and “unhealthy” snack. The research found that the surface texture of the oat biscuit clearly communicated to people how healthy it was likely to be and the participants viewed the biscuits that had an explicit, pronounced texture, as healthier.
However, the biscuits that had a less explicitly textured surface were perceived to be tastier, crunchier and more likely to be purchased. The study found that perceived tastiness increases as healthiness decreases, and the likelihood of purchasing the biscuit increases when perceived healthiness is low and decreases when healthiness is higher.
Therefore having a ‘healthy looking’ texture is considered to be a negative attribute in that it reduces perceived tastiness, a key criteria for purchasing biscuits. This has implications for producers of many different food types.
Dr Jansson-Boyd, Reader in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said: “The findings are really exciting as they give food manufacturers a means to design foods that can help consumers make healthier choices.
A sweet item, such as a biscuit, benefits from having an appearance as being less healthy as that increases the perception of tastiness and increases the likelihood of purchase. To guide healthier purchasing decisions, food producers can therefore look to use non-healthy looking, smoother textures to overcome this perception that healthy is not tasty.
“At a time when the World Health Organisation has declared that there is an obesity epidemic, it is essential to think of ways to encourage improved eating patterns. Our research provides a good starting point in how to promote healthier food products.” Neuroscience Journal
Microsoft Pushes Cloud Services to Retailers Anxious to Avoid Amazon
“Microsoft Corp. is unveiling new cloud tools designed for retail customers, seeking to position itself as an alternative to Amazon and corporate software companies like Slack Technologies Inc. and Salesforce.
Microsoft is adding a feature to its Slack rival, the Teams corporate chat program, that lets store workers push a button to turn their mobile phones into walkie-talkies for in-store communications. In a speech on Jan 12 at a retail industry event, Microsoft Chief Executive Officer plans to discuss how Ikea shifted more than 70,000 workers to Teams, using the service for meetings and chat. The home furnishing giant’s largest store, in Stockholm, also started using a scheduling feature to manage the shifts of 150 restaurant staffers.
Ikea is also working with Microsoft to determine if Teams can play a role in its “store of the future” concepts. The Swedish company may put video screens in stores that use Teams to connect customers with kitchen design advisers, said Kenneth Lindegaard, an Ikea vice president. The company plans to have the rest of its 165,000-person workforce on Office 365 cloud software and Teams by the end of spring, although Ikea still has some smaller groups using Slack and Google’s G Suite, he said. Ikea also uses Microsoft’s Azure and Google Cloud, he said.
The retail industry has been one of Microsoft’s most successful as the software maker tries to gain ground in cloud computing against market leader Amazon Web Services and lure more customers to its internet-based Office products. Some retailers are loath to work with e-commerce rival Amazon. Nadella and Google Cloud chief Thomas Kurian are set to speak next week at the annual show of the National Retail Federation, the biggest retail trade group, underscoring how significant the industry is to Amazon’s biggest cloud competitors.
“A key part of our offering is that we partner and we don’t compete,” said Bransten, the vice president who oversees Microsoft’s work with retailers and consumer goods companies. But there are other benefits to working closely with retailers, she said in an interview. Some of the software products built for retailers will be useful for companies in other industries.
For example, the walkie-talkie feature in Teams can help manufacturers, said Williams, a Microsoft vice president who is charged with adding features to Office and Teams for use by customers in health care, retail, manufacturing and finance.” Financial Post
Will Science Ever Give Us a Better Night’s Sleep?
“We humans spend a third of our lives asleep, oblivious to our surroundings and temporarily paralyzed. It’s a vulnerability that would seem to diminish our odds of survival, so evolutionarily speaking it must also somehow confer tremendous benefits. Yet our best guesses about what those benefits are tend to come from observing what happens when sleep is curtailed. As far as we know, all animals sleep in some way; deprive most of them of it for long enough, and they will die, but exactly why is unclear. In 2015, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society published a joint statement, based on a comprehensive review of research, saying that “sleeping less than seven hours per night on a regular basis” — which is the case for an estimated 35 to 40 percent of Americans during the workweek — is associated with adverse health outcomes. These include weight gain and obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke, depression, impaired immune function, increased pain, greater likelihood of accidents and “increased risk of death.” The National Institutes of Health reported last year that sleep deficits may increase the beta-amyloid proteins in the brain linked with Alzheimer’s disease. But when it comes to “what sleep is, how much you need and what it’s for,” says Louis Ptacek, a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, “we know almost nothing — other than it’s bad not to get enough of it.” Indeed, says David Dinges, one of the statement’s authors and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, “All of this makes it really tough to send out simple messages to the public about when you should sleep and how much you should sleep.”
Scientists believe that there are two separate but interrelated internal systems that regulate sleep. The first is the circadian system that tells our body when to sleep. Medicine already knows a great deal about how it works: Approximately every 24 hours, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, a small region in the hypothalamus, orchestrates physiological changes to prepare us for sleep, like lowering body temperature and releasing dopamine. But the second system — the one that tells our body the amount of sleep it needs — is still mysterious. One way to elucidate it would be to find genes that govern how long or deeply people sleep and observe where those genes are active. This fall, Ptacek announced, in the journals Neuron and Science Translational medicine, the discovery of two genetic mutations that seem to cause certain people to sleep far less than average. This brought the number of genes known to be involved in sleep duration to just three.
To learn what genes underlie a given trait or behavior, researchers look for anomalies. If you sequenced the genes of any two random people, you would find millions of variations between them, and there would be no telling which variation contributed to what traits. But diseases or disorders have discrete and relatively uncommon collections of symptoms that, when seen in families, suggest a genetic cause; if you look at the genes of five relatives who all have a particular type of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, for example, and find a mutation that they all share, it’s much likelier to be related to their symptoms. Scientists can then engineer the same mutation in mice to see if it produces a similar effect in them. If it does, by observing where the gene is active in the brain, researchers can begin to study the processes that give rise to that specific collection of symptoms; the hope is that those processes will also offer clues to what neural mechanisms initiate more prevalent forms of the disease. Ptacek began the career hunting for genes responsible for neurological diseases and disorders, including Alzheimer’s and epilepsy. Then a colleague, a sleep neurologist, approached them with an intriguing case: a woman whose circadian clock seemed to be set four hours early, which caused her to go to sleep around 7:30 p.m. and wake around 4:30 a.m. Even more intriguing, she came from a large family with many members who shared her unusual behavior. This seemed like a rare opportunity. Distinctive sleep traits can be hard to spot, because of all the ways we can manage or obscure them — for example, by altering our natural sleep rhythms with environmental inputs like lights, LED screens, alarm clocks and caffeine. And this wasn’t a debilitating disorder for which people would necessarily seek treatment. (The woman did so only because she didn’t like waking up when it was “cold, dark and lonely,” Ptacek says.) In 2001, the research group, then at the University of Utah, announced it had found a genetic mutation responsible for the woman and her relatives’ early rising. After their discovery generated headlines, they were contacted by others who believed they had the “morning lark gene.” By giving them detailed questionnaires to identify those whose early rising was innate, rather than environmentally influenced, the researchers happened upon a family with members who woke up early but did not also go to bed early — they averaged only 6.25 hours of sleep per night yet reported feeling fine afterward. Ptacek, by now at U.C.S.F., found that they shared a genetic mutation that caused their short sleep. The publication of that finding in 2009 inspired others who habitually sleep less than seven hours per night to contact the group, leading to the identification of the two additional mutations reported this fall, which appear to cause other forms of so-called naturally short sleep. When engineered in mice, those mutations truncated their sleep without any obvious ill effects; in particular, mice engineered with the second mutation performed just as well on memory tests as non-sleep-deprived mice. The naturally short-sleeping people they’ve met, the researchers wrote in Science Translational Medicine, seem especially healthy, too; they are also “optimistic, with high pain threshold.” (The second of the mutations alters a gene that has also been shown to facilitate learning and memory, reduce anxiety and block the detection of pain.) It’s possible, the researchers theorize, that the mutations that cause short sleep are also somehow “compensating for” or rendering people “impervious to” the negative health outcomes typically tied to sleep deficits. If researchers can understand how the mutations alter brain activity, “we can help everybody to sleep more efficiently” — possibly by formulating a drug that achieves the same effect. Because a lack of sleep is associated with such a wide range of negative outcomes, a sleep-optimizing drug could transform almost every aspect of human health. The question remains, though, how to tell whether sleep is being optimized if we don’t fully know its purpose. The “work” of sleep, whatever that is, may be getting done more efficiently in the short-sleepers than in the rest of us. Or they may be compensating for less sleep more effectively. “How do we know if you’ve accomplished the work?” says William J. Schwartz, a neurologist at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. “At the moment, still, the routine clinical measure that you’re getting enough sleep is that you’re not sleepy. That’s not going to get us very far.” But it is a starting point, however crude, for identifying sleep anomalies, and characterizing more of them in finer detail has begun to reveal other potentially heritable traits. Sleep apnea, for instance, was once thought to be a structural problem with a person’s airway; it is now thought to encompass several subtypes, classified by subtly different symptoms throughout the body, some of which might be genetic, says Clete Kushida, medical director of the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Division. “In the next couple of years, there’s going to be more exploration and more findings that will show maybe some of the disorders we thought weren’t genetic might be genetic, and some that we thought were more homogeneous aren’t,” he says.” NY Times