Thursday, August 31, 2006

Tickle My God Spot!

A few weeks back during my pilot broadcast, I discussed the article Hopkins Scientists Show Hallucinogen In Mushrooms Creates Universal 'Mystical' Experience. The article describes a study done at Johns Hopkins by Roland Griffiths. In the study, 36 subjects were given either psilocybin (the active ingredient in "magic" mushrooms) or the placebo methylphenidate (th active ingredient in Ritalin -- it has similar physiological effects to psilocybin, but without the hallucinagenic ones). Most of the subjects who took the psilocybin reported having mystical experiences and furthermore reported that they were happier and more satisfied in the two months following the exposure.

I'm all for this type of research. For one, the taboo against doing serious research with illegal psychoactive drugs is counterproductive. To not be able to even investigate certain substances just because some non-medical authority says they have no medicinal value is plainly irrational. For another, I'm personally fascinated with the human "mind" and would love to know more about how the devoutly religious mind works. It appears to work like it's high on shrooms.

But there were a couple things that bothered me.

In the study, more than 60 percent of subjects described the effects of psilocybin in ways that met criteria for a "full mystical experience" as measured by established psychological scales.

What exactly is a "full mystical experience" and what "established phychological scales" were used to measure it? I just don't know what that means. Does it mean that the vocabulary used to describe it is very similar to the way people have been describing these experiences for centuries? I don't know. Perhaps the actual paper describes this to my satisfaction--I haven't read it yet.

In the present work, 36 healthy, well-educated volunteers-most of them middle-aged-with no family history of psychosis or bipolar disorder were selected. All had active spiritual practices. "We thought a familiarity with spiritual practice would give them a framework for interpreting their experiences and that they'd be less likely to be confused or troubled by them," Griffiths says.

So I guess an atheist who took psilocybin would be utterly confused due to his lack of proper framework. Methinks that the purpose of this study was to prove how safe and helpful psilocybin-like substances are; that way
their sponsors could market their own version at some point down the road. So naturally they recruited volunteers who were predisposed to see delusional experiences as positive events in ther lives.

Personally, I would have done it all differently: I would've included atheists as controls. I would've compared the descriptions of the believers and non-belivers to see how they differed. Finally, I would have had the subjects monitored by fMRI during their "experiences" to see exactly what was going on, and if believers and non-believers were having actually different mental experiences, or just interpreting them differently.

Then yesterday, I saw this other article about another study that did (some) of that. Okay, no psilocybin and no atheist controls, but si to "mystical experiences" during fMRI. In No 'God Spot' in the Human Brain, a University of Montreal study involving 15 cloistered Carmelite nuns was described.

The nuns were not asked to try and actually achieve a state of spiritual union with God during the experiment because, as the nuns put it, "God cannot be summoned at will."

Nevertheless, the researchers believe their method was justified because previous studies have shown that actors asked to enter a particular state activated the same brain regions as people actually experiencing those emotions.

Gee, didn't they know that a little psilocybin would've done the trick? Seriously though, here's the kicker.

The study found that mystical experiences activate more than a dozen different areas of the brain at once.

So it seems that the magical "God Spot" is just a myth. The brain actually has quite a few religenous zones. (Yes, I did just make up that word)

Which Muppet Am I?

I noticed that some bloggers over at Scienceblogs have taken The Muppet Personality Test, so I thought I would too. A few weeks ago I was really into taking those blogthings tests (I'm 52% Evil), so I don't know how I missed this one; maybe it's a new test.

The reason I really wanted to take this particular test is that the subject of which muppet I am came up just last weekend. I was talking to a fellow member of my neighborhood association who told me that I reminded him of a particular muppet. I naturally asked "Is it Beaker?" You see, Beaker and I have the same profession (lab assistant, not experiment victim -- I think). I also really enjoyed Beaker's attitude. He always started each skit layed-back and calm. Then the intonation of his "meems" would (hilariously) change right when Dr. Honeydew got to the part of his description where he describes exactly what his assistant's participation in the experiment would entail. I loved Beaker.

But that's not the muppet he had in mind. It seems I reminded him of Sam the Eagle. At first I thought he was making fun of my scalp, but the more I thought about it and the more I heard his reasoning, the more it made at least some sense. Could it be?

Okay, he might be onto something. I can kind of see it. It's by no means a perfect match, but hmm... So the big question is "Which muppet would I be when I took the test?" Would I be Beaker? Would I be Sam the Eagle? Only the test would reveal the true muppet trapped inside of me.

So I took the test.

You Are Dr. Bunsen Honeydew

You take the title "mad scientist" to the extreme -with very scary things coming out of your lab.
And you've invented some pretty cool things, from a banana sharpener to a robot politician.
But while you're busy turning gold into cottage cheese, you need to watch out for poor little Beaker!
"Oh, that's very naughty, Beaker! Now you eat these paper clips this minute."

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Katrina remembered

This Monday, August 28th is the 1 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans. Since our President has warned us against placing too much importance on this, I thought I would join Shakespeare's Sister (via Coturnix) in blogging on this date.

For starters, let's review the entire 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.

My view a year later is:

Besides the above video, I am also including footage shot by my sister when the eye passed over Hollywood, FLA. This was back when Katrina was still a cat. 1 storm--before it morphed into the mass killer it would eventually become. I realize that the idea of the blogswarm is to remember the tragedy in New Orleans, but what can I really add that all the other blogswarmers won't have already said? My sister's video is definitely original. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Seeing Ghosts in Space

One of the best layman’s responses I’ve seen to Intelligent Design’s “problems with Evolution” argument is

Every time you hear them say the word “evolution,” substitute the word “gravity.”

This statement is concise and doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty biological details. It points out the absurdity of the ID argument by drawing a parallel to something we all can understand: gravity. We all can see an apple falling from a tree; we all can (sort of) see the Moon orbit the Earth; we can all feel gravity’s effects when we ride a roller-coaster (well, all the time really). The above statement basically says that we can in fact see evolution happening, just as clearly as we see the effects of gravity. No serious biologist doubts that evolution is real just as no serious physicist doubts that gravity is. The devil is in the details.

What I always found ironic about that statement is that biologists actually know more about the workings of evolution than physicists know about the nature of gravity. Ask ten different physicists to explain the nature of gravity and you might get less than ten different answers only if more than one admits that they don’t really know.

Among the fundamental forces in nature, gravity is the rogue oddball. It doesn’t want to play by the same rules as everyone else. For decades, physicists have been searching for a grand unification theory that will unite all the fundamental forces under one umbrella. Many consider it the last great frontier of science. Michael Faraday made the first move in this direction when he showed the relationship between the electric and magnetic forces. Over the years physicists have been able unite them all, except for one: gravity. They have been able to quantize them all, except for one: gravity. It just wants to be different—so different that astronomers have discovered a type of matter that seems to be impervious to all the fundamental forces, except for one.

Dark matter is a funny animal. We know it’s there because we can see it’s gravitational effect on regular matter. You see, galaxies don’t have enough regular matter in them to keep them from flying apart. So there must be some other type of matter out there (in huge quantities, it turns out) that’s supplying the extra gravitational force to keep things together. Yet, apart from gravity, this dark matter doesn’t seem to interact with regular matter. It doesn’t come together to form atoms, or molecules or stars. It’s just there.

That’s why many physicists feel that it might not exist at all. Perhaps there’s another explanation for this observed gravitational effect. One of the more popular alternative explanations is MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics). MOND says that the laws of gravity (i.e. Newton’s and Einstein’s formulae) are wrong and that at galactic distances, gravity is proportionately stronger than the reciprocal of the square of the distance. These hypotheses have recently been dealt a blow by a new discovery made by astronomers around the world.

This discovery relies on the hypothesis that dark matter only weakly interacts with regular matter. One way to think about this is that dark matter only interacts with regular matter gravitationally. This would be like a movie ghost that walks through walls but is gravitationally bound to the earth. (However, most movie ghosts that can walk through walls can also fly, so perhaps ghosts aren’t made of dark matter after all.) But there’s another school (we don’t know who’s right—another mystery of dark matter) that says that dark matter can interact with regular matter if there’s a direct collision between particles of dark and regular matter. These collisions, however, should be so rare as to be practically ignored. Imagine an atom as filling an area the size of a soccer stadium, with a soccer ball sized object at roughly mid-field, several marble sized objects racing around the stands, and all the empty space in between filled by a powerful force field holding it all together. Now imagine trying to hit this atom with a pistol shot. If the bullet is affected by the force field, then hitting the atom is like hitting a stadium-sized target. However if the bullet is made of some dark material which is completely unaffected by the force field, then the atom becomes a soccer ball sized target—almost impossible to hit.

Therefore if two large objects (such as galaxy clusters) should collide, then the regular matter from the objects should interact, slowing down each object’s momentum, while each object’s dark matter, which doesn’t interact, should initially overshoot the collision before being brought back into the fold by gravity, like a stretched spring. If this indeed happens, then the effect should be observable using a technique called gravitational lensing. This method works because light is affected by gravity. Therefore light passing near a massive object—say, the dark matter from a galaxy cluster—will be bent (according to General Relativity) and focused, just as if it were passing through a lens. We should be able to observe this effect from earth, and we did! Furthermore, this observation is incompatible with MOND.

Does this finally prove that dark matter exists? Not quite. Can there still be another explanation for what we’re seeing? Yes, but that is becoming increasingly remote. Are we any closer to actually knowing what dark matter is? No, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.

And if that doesn’t satisfy you, then you can always just chalk it up to the designer.