Is Drinking Coffee Good or Bad For Your Health?

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Picture Credit: USA Today

There is no doubt that America loves its coffee. According to a 2017 study by the National Coffee Association, 62 percent of Americans drink this caffeinated beverage on a daily basis, consuming close to 400 million cups per day. That’s more than 140 billion cups of coffee per year.

On top of that, Americans have no intention of straying from this path. Studies have found that 31 percent of coffee drinkers consider brewing coffee to be the most important activity in the morning and 52 percent of drinkers stated they would rather skip the morning shower than their cup of joe. It’s safe to say neither Starbucks nor your local coffee shop will fall out of fashion anytime soon.

But while coffee’s immense popularity is unquestionable, can we say the same in regards to its health benefits? This has been a contentious issue for a long time, as countless studies over the past several years have either branded this beverage as a cure-all that increases lifespan or a deadly toxin that shortens it. Case in point: In 1981, Harvard published a study that connected coffee with a high risk of pancreatic cancer, which sent the entire nation into a frenzy. Later, those same Harvard researchers concluded that smoking may have been the real culprit instead. Like with dark chocolate and red wine, it’s incredibly difficult to pin down any definitive answer regarding coffee’s effects on the body because it’s by nature impossible to prove cause-and-effect in food studies. However, we should still be able to gather a general idea of its effects and whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

So what does science really say about the health effects of coffee? For the most part, it’s good news—or at the very least, coffee won’t kill you. There are numerous studies that suggest that drinking coffee regularly offers a wide range of health benefits, such as lowering the risk of stroke and dementia .

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be an end to the good news. A 2012 study indicates that the caffeine in coffee could decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. The study featured almost 80,000 women and more than 40,000 men and controlled for all major lifestyle and dietary risk factors. After more than 20 years, they discovered that coffee consumption was associated with an eight percent risk decrease in women and four percent risk decrease in men.

The same could even be said for heart disease. In a 2015 meta-analysis of studies investigating long-term coffee consumption, Harvard researchers found that people who drank about three to five cups of coffee a day had the lowest risk of heart disease among more than 1,270,000 participants. Not only that, but those who consumed five or more cups a day did not suffer any higher risk than those who didn’t drink coffee at all. This information lines up with what a team of cardiologists at the University of California, San Francisco, stated all the way back in 1994: “Contrary to common belief, [there is] little evidence that coffee and/or caffeine in typical dosages increases the risk of [heart attack], sudden death or arrhythmia.”

On the other hand, studies investigating the supposed ill effects of drinking coffee have surprisingly come up short. To begin with, most of the negative connotations that surround coffee are mere myths. For instance, the old wives’ tale about how kids shouldn’t drink coffee because it stunts their growth is just not true. Years of studies have shown that there is no scientifically valid evidence that suggests that coffee affects a person’s height.

Likewise, the idea that drinking coffee will lead to lower bone density and greater risk of osteoporosis is also dubious. Scientists believe that this fear likely stemmed from early studies that linked caffeine with reduced bone mass. However, those early studies were mostly conducted on elderly people whose diets already lacked milk and other sources of calcium. To top it all off, even fears that coffee increases the risk of hypertension turned out to be unfounded thanks to a 2002 study by Johns Hopkins. Exactly what is it in coffee that provides all these benefits? Most studies point to coffee’s high antioxidant content, which protects the body from free radicals that harm the body and factor into cancer development. In fact, according to the American Chemical Society, coffee is the leading source of antioxidants in American diets due to how often we drink it.

Does this mean that coffee is a miracle drink after all? It’s difficult not to come to that conclusion, especially since two new studies published this year concluded that those who drink coffee regularly tend to live longer than those who do not. However, it’s best not to get carried away since, as stated earlier, food studies are notoriously inconsistent. These are all correlations, not causations. The caffeine in coffee is still a drug that has widespread effects that we’re not even close to uncovering. Coffee is still linked to insomnia, heartburn, addiction and digestion problems, as well as weight gain if consumed in excess (even without cream and sweeteners).

Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the International Food Information Council recommend that you don’t exceed 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, which is roughly equivalent to four regular cups of coffee or one Starbucks Venti. As always with food or drink, moderation is key.

Originally published on September 7, 2017, in The Miscellany News: Coffee in moderation beneficial to health

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Declaring Your Major: The Absurd Dichotomy Between STEM and the Humanities

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No matter who you are and what your background may be, every college student will face the question that will haunt them throughout their undergraduate experience: Did I choose the right major given the increasingly competitive and cutthroat job market of the real world? While people sometimes joke about how screwed they are after graduation or how the next step in their illustrious career path is living in a cardboard box for the rest of their life, the fathomless, pitch-black uncertainty that surrounds life after college generates so much terrifying fear and anxiety for students that most will structure their four years in college with the sole purpose of minimizing that uncertainty as much as possible.

Thus, it is inevitable to hear both students and adults discuss fervently which major is the most financially secure or which has the greatest likelihood of success. And within these discussions, the most vocal opinion is that majoring in the hard sciences like computer science, economics and math will obviously lead to more financial stability and employment offers than majoring in something “impractical” like philosophy, art history or English. After all, in today’s digital, market-driven society, everyone knows that STEM majors are “more valuable” than humanities majors.

Speaking as someone who absolutely loves the sciences and strives to convince others of its awe-inspiring brilliance, this laughably wretched sentiment is one of the most deceitful claims I have ever heard.

Unsurprisingly, the counter arguments are many and quite intimidating at first. According to a recent salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, Class of 2016 college graduates who majored in STEM are expected to receive the highest starting salaries, with majors in engineering and computer science expected to earn an average of over $60,000 per year. In contrast, the average salary for new graduates who majored in the humanities is projected to be around $46,000.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also compiled a list of the top “most valuable” college majors in 2012 based on median salary rate, job growth projections through 2020 and wealth of job opportunities available and ranked biomedical engineering at the top followed by biochemistry, computer science, software engineering and civil engineering. On top of all that, countless politicians (both Republicans and members of the Obama administration) have pushed to distribute education funding based on post-college performance and student earnings after graduation in order to combat the shortage of STEM workers, placing the humanities departments in serious jeopardy.

However, I want to point out that just because certain STEM jobs have astronomically high salary rates doesn’t mean that majoring in STEM will guarantee you an easier or more financially stable life with a higher chance of employment.

In truth, the idea that there is this crisis-level shortage of scientists and engineers in the United States is largely baseless. Studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Corporation and the Urban Institute have all been unable to find any compelling evidence indicating the presence of some widespread labor market shortage or hiring difficulties in science and engineering occupations that require bachelor’s degrees or higher. Not only that, the overall consensus was that the United States produces too many science and engineering graduates every year and not enough STEM job openings. The only disagreement among the studies was whether there are 100 percent more STEM graduates than job openings or 200 percent more.

That’s right: the unemployment rate is shockingly high among scientists and engineers, especially for recent graduates and PhDs. This includes graduates who majored in engineering (7.0 percent), computer science (7.8 percent) and information systems (11.7 percent). Of course, this doesn’t even factor in other problems such as unstable careers, slow-growing wages, high risk of jobs moving offshore and the impossibility of landing a tenure-track academic position. Most depressing of all, a recent survey of 3.5 million homes from the U.S. Census Bureau found that almost 75 percent of the people who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline don’t even work at a STEM job.

Given this bleak situation, does that mean majoring in the humanities is a far better choice for students than majoring in STEM? After all, those who stand against the STEM hype have often argued that the humanities bring a sort of “richness” and “complexity” to society that science cannot replicate. Nope, because that is also wrong. While claims that the humanities teach students about critical thinking and communication skills are valid, they aren’t nearly convincing enough to sway the minds of students worried about their substantial college debt.

If neither STEM nor the humanities are objectively better than the other, then what should financially conscious college students major in? Surely, the answer isn’t something sappy and unhelpful like “pursue your dreams.” No, what I’m proposing is that students create an integrated curriculum that combines elements from both the humanities and STEM to introduce a new perspective to a pre-existing discipline.

But what does that mean? Am I suggesting that low-income students double or triple major in contrasting subjects? Quite the opposite: Students should combine subjects and pursue a path that sheds light on a certain STEM path using elements of a specific humanities discipline or that sheds light on a certain humanities path using elements of a specific STEM discipline. In other words, stray from the “pure” science or “pure” humanities.

Celebrated geniuses of the past were successful not because of they were the master of a single discipline but because they were creative enough to pull inspiration from a wide range of sources and view conventional ideas in radically different ways. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci used his mastery in painting, writing, engineering and biology to study the anatomy of the human body. By choosing to explore the human body in the context of both art and science, da Vinci produced his famous drawings of the human figure that revolutionized the entire world.

Rather than focus solely on philosophy or solely on neuroscience, try to find a new approach by combining the two, like award-winning cognitive scientist David Chalmers, who came up with the concept of naturalistic dualism to explain the nature of consciousness. Instead of majoring in pure physics or pure history, discover a more creative and integrated career path like the famous physicist and historian Thomas Kuhn, who was arguably one of the most influential historians of science in the world. Employers are not looking for college graduates with conventional majors and a one-track mind; they are looking for people who seek new perspective and are willing to explore new territory. If you want success after college, make full use of all the courses that are available and pursue combinations that no one has tried before.

Originally published on May 3, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsMoving beyond the science/humanities dichotomy

How Religion Physically Changes Your Brain

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Picture Credit: JupiterImages | The Huffington Post

It seems that more and more young Americans don’t feel quite as deeply connected to deities as their parents or their grandparents. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans under 30 who “never doubt the existence of God” has dropped from 83 percent in 2007 to 67 percent to 2012. In addition, only 18 percent of Millennials reported that they attend religious services at least once a week, compared with 26 percent of Boomers in the late 1970s.

With more people turning away from God and the church, questions surrounding the scientific implications of this generational trend can’t help but arise: How would this historic trend affect the minds and brains of young Americans, who will become the future of this country? In order to find an answer, we can turn toward a relatively obscure discipline in science: Neurotheology.

Neurotheology is the study of spirituality in the context of neuroscience, striving to explain the religious experience in neuroscientific terms.

“[We] evaluate what’s happening in people’s brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer. This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, an established neuroscientist and Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

So, what do studies of the brain tell us about the impact of religion? In 2014, when Dr. Newberg compared the brain scans of Franciscan nuns, Buddhist monks and staunch atheists in prayer, he found something interesting. The brain scans indicated that praying and meditation caused increased activity in the limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion, and decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the brain region responsible orienting oneself in space and time.

“It seems that the brain is built in such a way that allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily, furthering our belief in a greater power,” says Newberg. According to him, this discovery explains why spirituality is one of the defining characteristics of our species.

Surprisingly, the connection between the parietal lobe and spirituality runs deep. All the way back in the 1990s, Canadian cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger tried to artificially replicate the mental effects of religion with his invention, the “God helmet,” a helmet that directed complex magnetic fields to parts of the brain including the parietal lobe. While crowds of Evangelical Christians protested outside his lab, Persinger invited participants to test the helmet. To his delight, more than 80 percent of the participants reported sensing a presence in the room that they took to be their deity. As a result, they became deeply emotional and, once the experiment concluded, were filled with a sense of loss.

Persinger theorized that the electromagnetic disruption created by the helmet caused one hemisphere of the participant’s brain to separate from the other and sense it as an entirely separate presence. Funnily enough, Persinger’s experiment then supports the claims of Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose 1976 book proposed that the left and right hemispheres are like two separate beings and that signals from the right brain were interpreted by the left brain as the voice of God. Ultimately, this would mean that supernatural occurrences such as divine visions and out-of-body experiences are merely the result of environmental disturbances.

However, there are still skeptics. Graham Ward, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University states that these claims are still shaky at best and that the temporal lobes “light up for any kind of excitement, not just religious experience.”

A more recent research study has found that humans naturally suppress the analytical parts of their brain and more heavily use the parts linked to empathy when they believe in God. Not only that, but the opposite occurs when humans think about the physical world instead. Anthony Jack, a Professor of Psychology at Case Western Reserve University who led the study, claims that humans use two different networks of neurons, one that enables critical thinking and one that promotes empathy. He explains that not only does this discovery broaden our understanding of spirituality in the history of cultures, but it also suggests that a healthy brain can choose which network to depend on and which to suppress when confronted with a logical problem or an ethical dilemma.

This idea that religion may arise from pathways in the brain rather than physical brain regions has been gaining traction recently. In a different study led by researchers at Auburn University showed that subjects who perceived supernatural agents in their daily lives were more likely to use brain pathways associated with fear when asked to think about their religious beliefs. They also found that devout believers tend to use neural pathways connected to language, while atheists tend to use pathways associated with visual imagery.

Most interestingly, while religion has been shown to heavily influence the brain, the brain can actually change how a person views religion. According to Boston University Professor of Neurology Patrick McNamara, changes in brain chemistry caused by Parkinson’s disease has been shown to erode a patient’s faith and devotion to God. These patients, McNamara discovered, lacked the neurotransmitter dopamine, which made him suspect that religiosity is connected to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. This theory fits surprisingly well in the context of a completely different study, one where researchers used functional MRI scans and found that religious and spiritual experiences activate the same reward systems in the brain that become active when listening to music or doing drugs.

But even if spirituality is just a matter of brain chemistry, several theories point to religion as an evolutionary adaptation. A number of reports have found that churchgoers live about seven years longer than atheists and tend to have greater success with recovery from diseases like breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. They are also more likely to have lower blood pressure and less likely to have depression. So while cultural trends may shift away from god, it won’t be all that surprising if religion continues to persist for years to come.

Originally published on April 19, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsNeuroscience of religion reveals hidden cultural trends

No Matter Matter What Trump Says, Coal Is Not Coming Back

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Picture Credit: Declan Walsh | The New York Times

Like some ancient relic from the past, Donald Trump has written off the consequences of climate change numerous times and has instead vowed to bring back coal to America. Give America black lung again, I suppose. But while some believe that Trump’s mission would provide many well-needed jobs to lower-income, blue-collar workers in rural America, what they don’t know is that the coal industry is dying and no executive order from the White House can truly “revive” it. Those jobs that Trump promised to revive don’t exist anymore because the coal-mining process has largely become automated by new technology.

Already, countless different self-driving machines have taken over the business, such as autonomous long-distance haul trains, automated drilling and tunnel-boring systems, and automated long-wall plough and shearers. According to a recent report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, fully autonomous equipment “would reduce the workforce of a typical open-cut, iron-ore mine by approximately 30 to 40 percent,” while automation could reduce the number of truck, dozer and drill operators in open pit mines by up to 75 percent. Why would coal companies bring back workers when they already have machines that can do their jobs better?

“People think of coal mining as some 1890s, colorful, populous frontier activity, but it’s much better to think of it as a high-tech industry with far fewer miners and more engineers and coders. The regulatory changes are entirely outweighed by these technological changes … Even if you brought back demand for coal, you wouldn’t bring back the same number of workers,” stated Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. One other reason why the coal-mining industry is on its last legs is because it’s being overtaken and, quite frankly, smothered by a different energy industry–natural gas. Last year, the Energy Information Administration published a report that clearly showed the natural gas industry displacing coal: Over the past 60 years, the annual share of coal has slowly dropped from nearly 60 percent of the total U.S. electricity generation to 33 percent, while natural gas has climbed up from about 10 percent to 32 percent.

The explanation is simple: Natural gas is ridiculously cheap and abundant compared to coal. So while natural gas has been enjoying a tremendous boon, countless coal factories have been shut down not because of regulations, but because they simply can’t compete. Even if Trump were to succeed in reviving the coal industry, he would cause a decline in natural gas consumption instead since the two are in direct competition with each other. The result? Thousands of natural gas workers without a job. On a side note, environmentalists were eager to point out that renewable energy has been steadily growing as a reliable source of energy. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, renewable energy was “responsible for 64% of all new electrical generating capacity installed [in 2015].” Speaking of renewable energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council has stated that jobs related to clean energy and energy efficiency are projected to increase by as many as 274,000 through 2020 under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. That was, of course, before President Trump started to dismantle the Clean Power Plan piece by piece, from easing pollution restrictions to opening federal lands to coal companies for leasing. But even the leaders of the coal industry say that Trump’s efforts won’t be enough to make any real dent in the problem. At most, dismantling all these regulations would restore perhaps 10 percent of the coal companies’ market share.

Meanwhile, various other countries in the world are actively seeking to replace coal with alternative sources of energy. For instance, China has recently announced its plan to spend more than $360 billion on renewable power sources through 2020. In fact, China already surpassed Germany in 2015 as the world’s largest solar power market, boasting 43.2 gigawatts of solar capacity compared to Germany’s 38.4 gigawatts and America’s 27.8 gigawatts. Not only that, China already has plans to triple that amount by 2020, aiming for a total of 140 gigawatts. To put that into context, the world solar capacity is estimated to be 200 gigawatts in 2015. China is essentially turning into one giant sunflower.

Yes, China, formerly one of America’s biggest customers of coal, is hard at work in getting rid of its reputation as “the world’s largest polluter.” Maybe it’s because this plan would create 13 million new jobs in China’s renewable energy sector? Maybe it’s because China truly believes in the dangers of global warming? Or gee, maybe it’s because the air pollution in China is so deathly toxic that about 4,400 people die every day as a result of China’s infamous smog?

Of course, China isn’t alone in abandoning coal. Ambitious plans in renewable energy are currently in motion in countries like Australia, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam. So not only is coal dying in the U.S., but every other country on the planet knows that it’s dying and is trying to expedite that process even further. With all that being said, I beg of you, Mr. Donald Trump, to just let this prehistoric behemoth die already. There’s no point in trying to save a collapsing coal industry, just like how there’s no point in trying to revive the VHS movie industry–the entire world has moved on, and quite frankly, it’s about time you stop living in the 1870s and start living in 2017.

Originally published on April 5, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsTrump couldn’t save coal industry if he tried

Do Your Talents Depend on Your Genes?

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Picture Credit: tadtoonew.com

What if you were able to discover what your talents were the moment you were born? Would it have helped you at all in school if you knew that you were naturally gifted in sports or solving math problems or playing an instrument? According to certain health institutions in China, you no longer have to spend time wondering, thanks to the power of gene sequencing.

According to a recent article by The Telegraph, China is seeing an incredible surge of these so-called “talent detection” facilities that claim to be able to sequence a person’s DNA and uncover that person’s natural talent for a fee of about $500. Despite the dubious nature of these businesses, this type of direct-to-consumer genetic testing has become so popular among competitive Chinese parents that thousands of children are dragged by their mothers to these institutes to have their genomes sequenced in order to gain an extra advantage in the already cut-throat academic environment. As a result, China is already seeing the rise of the “talent detecting” industry, with companies promising to predict the future potential of children as well as their general level of intelligence, their emotional understanding and even their personality.

Wang Junyi, the president of the highly successful 1Gene health institute in Hangzhou, Zhejiang explains why these facilities are all the rage in China: “Many of my friends are anxious about deciding what their children should learn, as they fear making stupid decisions could result in lost opportunities. They will be wasting money and destroying their children’s confidence if they push them into something they are not good at, and this is where genetic testing can help.”

Of course, no matter how convincing they may sound, none of these claims are backed by actual scientific evidence. Genealogy expert Chang Zisong at the Tianjin International Joint Academy of Biomedicine states that all these predictions are ultimately meaningless and that the main reason why these institutions aren’t illegal is because banning them “would suggest that they have scientific value.”

But this opens up the question–how much impact does our DNA have on our talents? After all, the human genome is supposedly our body’s “blueprint.” While using gene sequencing to determine success in becoming the next Einstein or Mozart may be a farce today, would genetically detecting talent ever become standard practice in the future?

Let’s first examine athletic ability. One of the more controversial arguments regarding this subject is the athletic prowess of Jamaican sprinters. For some reason, the world’s best sprinters seem to come from this island nation in the Caribbean. Both Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson, two Olympic champions who hold the title of fastest man and woman in the world respectively, are Jamaican. In addition, Jamaican athletes make up 19 of the 26 fastest times ever recorded in 100-meter races.

These numbers are a bit too bizarre to be mere coincidences, seeing how Jamaica has a population of only 2.8 million people. Many people have come up with different theories, from the diet of yams in local regions of the country to the island’s aluminum-rich soil. However, scientists who examined the DNA of Jamaican sprinters have suggested the existence of a “speed gene” and located the ACE gene as the culprit.

According to their explanations, this particular gene variant increases the chance of you developing a larger-than-average heart that can pump highly oxygenated blood to your muscles quicker than the average person’s. The data has shown that Jamaicans have a higher frequency of this gene variant than Europeans or even inhabitants of West Africa.

Funnily enough, 75 percent of Jamaicans, both athletes and non-athletes, also possess the ACTN3 gene, which helps develop muscle strength. In contrast, only 70 percent of U.S. international-standard athletes have this desirable variant.

So is your potential athletic ability primarily determined by these two genes? It’s difficult to tell.

For one thing, the genetics of sports is incredibly complicated, and it’s more likely that an entire pathway of genes is involved rather than a specific anomaly. In addition, Yannis Pitsilandis, a biologist at the University of Glasgow studied the genetics of Jamaican sprinters and could not genetically distinguish a subgroup that made them run faster than everyone else. Instead, Pitsilandis argues that Jamaica has a lot of fast sprinters because the entire country promotes the sport of running, similar to how the United States obsesses over the sport of football.

If the data on athleticism is inconclusive, then let’s look at a different but equally desired talent–the ability to solve math problems easily. Unfortunately, there is even less conclusive data surrounding the genetics of academic success. According to a large twin study by researchers from King’s College in London, it may be possible that the genes for math and language skills are inherited from your parents. However, the scientists were unable to determine the exact genes that may be responsible for these skills.

But then what about musical abilities, like becoming a prodigy in playing the violin or piano? As expected, the situation remains murky. While no direct connections between genes and musical ability have been established, some scientists believe that musical accomplishment may actually stem from the desire to practice, which does have genetic ties.

According to research led by psychologist David Hambrick from Michigan State University, a person’s genetics may influence their musical aptitude, musical enjoyment and motivation.

Similarly, a study of over 10,000 identical Swedish twins led by neuroscientist Miriam Mosing of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute found that a person’s propensity to practice music may be inherited by their child by up to 70 percent. However, neither study can really be deemed conclusive, and connections to any specific gene variant have yet to be found.

Based on all this research, it seems that we still have a long way to go before we can rely on gene sequencing technology to predict people’s futures. Even our knowledge on the link between genetics and talent appears shaky at best. Yet despite this, direct-to-consumer gene sequencing has become all the rage recently, and not only among uber-competitive parents in China. In the United States, countless genetic testing companies have found success by offering to read the customer’s DNA and revealing that person’s natural “disposition.” But instead of analyzing DNA to unveil a person’s natural talent, these companies promise to uncover the customer’s ideal diet and exercise regime, giving “reliable” genetic information on their genetic fitness.

Even crazier is that these “lifestyle genetic tests” are offering to uncover more and more ridiculous information “buried” within our DNA. One company even wants to use gene sequencing to determine what comic superhero a customer would be, based on their genes. As the originator of the idea, Stephane Budel, explains: “It gives you your breakdown, like you’re 30 percent Superman, 20 percent Ironman and 50 percent the Hulk.”

Clearly, the human genome is being treated less like a blueprint and more like a personality test on Facebook. Nonetheless, I think it would be advisable for everyone to slow down, take a deep breath and follow what your brain tells you instead of relying on a genome report.

Originally published on March 1, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsTalents may be dependent on individual genetic makeup

Why Being Single is Better (Scientifically Speaking)

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Picture Credit: Sylvain Sonnet | The Huffington Post

For some reason, society seems to believe that having a significant other to exclusively call your own should be the goal of every young person’s social life.

The widespread popularity of Valentine’s Day, and the subsequent media bombardments we are forced to incur, are a testament to this phenomenon. Sure, friends are nice and fun, but fulfilling, breathless love is what everyone desires the most, right? Society is obsessed with the idea of passionate love and everyone is pushed to believe that being alone, much less wanting to be alone, is abnormal.

But let’s see what science has to say (Hint: Societal expectations are wrong, as always).

First, a lot of young people believe in the popular myth that everyone is in a relationship and being single puts you into the lonely minority. While it may seem that way, especially around Valentine’s Day, a myth is just myth.

In 2011, the United States Census Bureau found that a total of 102 million Americans 18 years and older were unmarried, making up 44.1 percent of all U.S. residents 18 years and older. Not only that, 53 percent of them were women and 47 percent of them were men–a pretty even split.

But you may ask: How do you account for couples who are not married but dating, as well as people who want to be in a committed relationship but can’t find a partner?

Even though determining this specific demographic of people is difficult, we can make estimates based on what is available.

According to the same U.S. Census report mentioned earlier, 55 million households were maintained by unmarried men and women in 2011, comprising 46 percent of households nationwide. In contrast, only 6.8 million households consisted of unmarried romantic partners.

Regarding those who desire romantic relationships but keep finding themselves without luck, we can use research on online dating. Given that we’re in the age of technology and social media, it should be a good indicator of how many people are actively seeking love, or at least some manifestation of it.

According to a 2015 study on online dating, about 40 million Americans use online dating websites, with young adults making up only 27 percent of the group. While that may seem like a lot of people, don’t forget that 102 million people were reported to be single.

These two points should blow that myth out the water.

But of course, the most significant signs are the changes in cultural trends over time. In 1970, there were only 38 million single people in the U.S., making up just 28 percent of the population. In 1950, married couples represented 78 percent of American households.

Not only that, the Pew Research Center recently found that only 30 percent of Millennials agreed that marriage is “one of the most important things” in life, which decreased from 47 percent of Generation X in 1997. Four in 10 Americans went even further and stated in 2010 that marriage was becoming “obsolete.”

The sheer number of single people who want to stay single has grown to insane proportions. Just the number of single women is so large that social scientists are starting to see them as their own voting bloc. This naturally leads us to the obvious question:

Why are so many people choosing to be single? What factors are contributing to these decisions?

There are numerous personal reasons, such as ambition and the desire for independence, but scientists have found that choosing to be alone has significant benefits on both your health and your mental well-being.

The person spearheading this field of research is Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In her presentation at the American Psychological Association’s 124th annual conference, DePaulo stated that single people have more fulfilling social lives and experience greater psychological growth than many married people, citing her investigation into 814 research studies as evidence.

Her research also shows that single people not only value meaningful work more than married people, but single people also have stronger connections with parents, siblings, friends, neighbors and coworkers.

“There are people who thrive on solitude and get important benefits from it like spirituality, creativity and rejuvenation. They’re not single because they have ‘baggage’ or ‘issues,’” DePaulo explained.

There are plenty of other benefits as well. According to a Canadian study of more than 11,000 people, researchers found that lifelong single people reported better overall health than married people.

In an Australian study of more than 10,000 women in their 70s, researchers found that “lifelong single women without children had the fewest diagnoses of major illnesses, the healthiest body mass index and were least likely to smoke, compared to married women, or women who had been married in the past.”

Being single also tends to improve your health.

A survey conducted in the United Kingdom found that, of the people who are not getting the proper amount of exercise, 73 percent of them were married. Finally, a 2009 research study found that self-sufficient single people are less likely to experience negative emotions. For married people, the opposite tends to be true.

Professor DePaulo cuts to the heart of the issue: “[Married people are bolstered by] the relentless celebration of marriage and coupling and weddings that I call matrimania. Single people, in contrast, are targets of singlism–the stereotyping, stigmatizing, marginalizing and discrimination against people who are single…It is time for a more accurate portrayal of single people and single life–one that recognizes the real strengths and resilience of people who are single, and what makes their lives so meaningful.”

So to all the single people out there, raise your glass and celebrate your life of independence and self-sufficiency this Valentine’s Day. Science is very much on your side.

Focus on your hobbies, your friends and your ambitions, and realize that one is not the loneliest number, but the most rewarding number.

Originally published on February 15, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsBeing single offers plenty of tangible health benefits

The Science of Attraction: Why Do We Fall in Love?

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Picture Credit: Ann Cutting | TIME Magazine

The really cynical people in the world like to say that love is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed and then think to themselves how logical and scientific they are. These people also tend to be in high school or just happen to be very lonely individuals. Either way, science is not that clean-cut about the topic of love. So, in acknowledgment that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, let’s see what science has uncovered so far about humanity’s oldest and most hackneyed phenomenon.

When the word love is usually brought up in a scientific setting, most people refer to the rules and reasoning behind romantic attraction: What physical properties make a person desirable. In regard to physical attractiveness, many researchers have concluded that symmetry plays the biggest role, a claim backed by numerous studies and years of investigations. Scientists have found that this measurement of beauty holds true across various cultures and even in different species of animals .

The general consensus appears to be that having a symmetrical-looking face serves as a good indicator of robust health and ideal genes, which prospective romantic partners subconsciously pick up on. Psychologist Dr. William Brown at the Brunel University in the U.K. remarks, “In animals with two sides that were designed by natural selection to be symmetrical, subtle departures from symmetry may reflect poor development or exposure to environmental or genetic stress. In many species, these departures are related to poor health, lower survival, and fewer offspring.”

Interestingly, there has been some pushback against this consensus in recent times. Artist and photographer challenged this notion of symmetry as attractive by creating portraits of models whose faces have been photoshopped to be mirror images of the left and right sides of their faces. In a study performed by Nicholas Pound, another psychologist from Brunel University, results showed that facial symmetry in adolescents did not correlate with rates of childhood illness, as many researchers presumed. However, the most interesting counter-argument insists that the perfect face doesn’t stem from symmetry but from the Golden Ratio, an ancient Greek mathematical ratio of 1.618:1 that has been observed in the proportions of flowers, spiral galaxies, famous Greek art and attractive faces.

But beyond just physical appearances, science has found other explanations behind why one person would fall in love with someone. For instance, how you smell could determine who you attract, that is to say, the pheromones you emit. Widely used in the Animal Kingdom, pheromones are scent-bearing chemicals that we secrete in sweat and other bodily fluids that influence the behavior of others. Humans also utilize pheromones and researchers believe that these chemical signals play an important role in sexual attraction. In one study, researchers found that women who smelled sweaty undershirts worn by men could accurately judge their attractiveness. In a different study, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin discovered that men could determine when a woman was at her most fertile period in her menstrual cycle based on her pheromones. When these men were asked to smell T-shirts worn by women, they judged the shirts worn by fertile women to be more “pleasant” and “sexy.” In both cases, it’s likely that these types of scent detection happen subconsciously.

However, it is important to note that the research into human pheromones is still incomplete. Researchers have yet to identify specific chemical compounds that spark physical attraction in people, at least not any with a reliable scientific foundation. The closest they got was with androstadienone, a steroid derived from testosterone that has been reported to “make women feel more relaxed.” But the lack of solid evidence hasn’t stopped the perfume industry. You can find all sorts of “pheromone-based” perfumes on the Internet that claim to attract the opposite sex. The more expensive, popular ones have countless positive reviews that praise its effectiveness, but I’m more inclined to believe that this is because of the placebo effect.

There are also theories floating around that romantic attraction is largely guided by genetics and the goal of finding a mate who will help produce healthier offspring. For instance, researchers from the University of Western Australia suspect that a person’s body odor could provide clues about that person’s immune system. According to their study, a woman’s sweat contains chemical information about her histocompatibility, or MHC, genes. This information also subconsciously notifies members of the opposite sex about the type of immune system she has. To the researchers’ surprise, not only did the female participants with the most varied MHC genes appear more attractive to the male participants, but they also had the greatest number of sexual partners. This is most likely because a person with varied MHC genes also has a diverse immune system, a trait associated with disease resistance.

So far, all these research studies seem to push the notion that romantic attraction is mainly outside of our control, which may dishearten several readers. However, all these studies have another common thread: They’re about infatuation, not love.

Everything from facial symmetry to pheromones to histocompatibility genes focuses on the love-at-first-sight aspect of romance, the instantaneous physical attraction that occurs when two people meet for the first time. These factors might answer why you have a premature crush on someone but say nothing about what helps a relationship survive conflict or last for a long time. Just because two people are biologically compatible doesn’t mean that their personalities will mesh well. How regrettable that science is not invulnerable to the “love at first sight” mentality that plague movies and literature.

Of course, I’m exaggerating: There are obviously some studies focused on maintaining a relationship, not just infatuation. However, the little that I could find was surrounded by an ocean of research on the immediate sensation of falling in love. That’s not surprising, since falling in love is easy and fun, while keeping a relationship together is stressful and aggravating. But even though your DNA or your immune system or your pheromones might determine who you choose as your significant other, those biological factors change over time. What will happen when you’re no longer biologically compatible with your partner? Ultimately, one must make an effort to truly understand the other person’s personality and values and build a foundation of trust and friendship beforehand. Science may explain what gives love its sparks but it can’t provide any real shortcuts.

Originally published on February 8, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsResearchers illuminate the science of falling in love