Friday, December 29, 2006

Universal human behaviors

There is a trend amongst scholars in sociology and gender sciences to argue that more or less everything is social constructions. Relationships and roles in the society are constructed by humans in our conversations. Hence, they argue, there are almost no universal behaviors. Anthropologists writing about strange habits in different societies are often cited to show that there is great variability between people living in different places, and indeed there is. However, it is often overlooked that there are many similarities between different cultures as well. I argue that even though there are many differences between people in different societies that stand out, there are also many, more fundamental, behaviors which do not vary between different cultures. These behaviors seem so natural to us that we barely notice them...

Take beauty for instance. Is it true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Research suggests not! People from cultures all around the globe agree on what faces are beautiful and which are not beautiful. For example, symmetrical faces are seen as more attractive than non-symmetrical faces. Similarly, around the globe a 0.7 and 0.9 waist to hip ratio for women and men respectively, is considered the most attractive body shape. Preferences for the amount of fat on the body varies between cultures. In starving countries in Africa "wider" ladies are generally preferred whereas in western cultures almost anorectic women are seen as very attractive, but consistently it is found that people prefer 0.7 and 0.9 waist to hip ratios. We can do even better than this. For example, have you seen someone who becomes happy when faced with misfortune and sad when life is good? Have you heard of a society where there is neither love nor hate?

Comparing humans to other species can show us how similar we really are as a species. The dung fly know no better place for mating than a new, fresh, rich in nutrients pile of dung. What do you imagine dung smells like for a dung fly? Probably it is equivalent to when we smell our partners perfume or a bed of roses. I don´t think there is any woman who would prefer to pop out her baby into a pile of dung, but why not? I hope it is clear by now that humans, even though we differ in many respects, are fundamentally very similar to each other. Any two humans will differ only marginally in their DNA sequence, and this similarity has a correspondence in the phenotype of the host. Put more simply, all humans share most of their DNA and therefore we are very similar in the most fundamental respects.

As I have argued before I think it is better to recognise that we have some instincts and then figure out the best way to deal with these, than to say that we have no instincts or innate behavioral patterns because we want it to be true. "Go save the world, but do it using what you know about human nature"...

If you have not been convinced that our seemingly natural behaviors are in fact not so natural, then take a look at this wonderful citation from William James, one of the founders of psychology.

"On making the natural seem strange...
It takes...a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange, so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upsidedown? The common man can only say, Of course we smile, of course our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved! And so, probably, does each animal feel about the particular things it tends to do in the presence of particular objects. ... To the lion it is the lioness which is made to be loved; to the bear, the shebear. To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her. " (William James, 1890)"

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Why I don´t believe in homeopathy

Homeopathy is an alternative kind of medicine based on the principle "like cures like". This means that a substance which in a large dose will cause some form of illness, will in a small dose cure the same illness. Already at this point my sceptic instinct kicks in. Does this mean that if I am poisoned with arsenic, then taking a little bit more will cure me? Eating fat food (in small quantities) will make me thinner? Sugar will help against diabetes? Furthermore, it is suggested that substances get better the more diluted they are. One explanation of this pattern could be that the active ingredient is harmful, and therefore, the more diluted substance will have less of a negative effect on the patient. Often homeopathic medicines doesn´t contain a single molecule of active substance, it is pure water. It is claimed that the water molecules have a memory of the active substance and therefore they work (see picture). I would like to know how a memory is stored in two hydrogen and an oxygen... Despite these issues which are at odds with both chemical and physical principles homeopathic medicine is gaining in popularity. In Belgium, for instance, 52% of the people use homeopathic substances. On the positive side, these substances are unlikely to do any harm to the patients.

Since I grew up in Järna, the Scandinavian centre of the Antroposofic movement, I have been exposed to many weird theories that flourish in this little town. I should mention here, in case friends and family read this, that I think there are many good things about antroposofi. They have a developed art and many good artists have received their training in Järna. I also think their school system is superior to others in many respects (though not all). Nevertheless, some theories are, in my opinion, swallowed with too little sceptic though. For instance, in Järna people widely believe in astrology, and they use celestial powers to make biodynamical foods that will give the consumer more spiritual strength...

In Järna it is also widely believed that homeopathic medicine works. My mother is one of its advocates and she often gave me these substances when I was sick. When got well she would say, I told you so, it works. I don´t think she thought a lot about it when I followed the normal pattern. Individual exemplars are of course no valid evidence, even if I did get well earlier than normally it might have been because of other factors, such as the healthy food that she insisted on giving to me (which I am of course grateful for). So what does the evidence say?

There are, to my surprise, one meta-analysis which suggests that homeopathic substances do have an effect. This study, published in the British medical journal showed that in 81 out of 107 trials, homeopathic substances had been effective. However, in another meta-analysis published by the lancet, the effect was at par with the placebo effect. Studies with better experimental control more rarely show significant effects. Because homeopathic theory is at odds with chemical and physical laws I believe that the effects that are attributed to these substances are actually placebo effects.

A clever little twitch has made it all but impossible to falsify homeopathy, which is not a virtue in a scientific sense. Homeopaths claim that even though two persons have the same disease, they may need different remedies, so when someone is given a homeopathic substance and there is no effect, the doctor can simply refer to this principle. This is similar to telling your psychoanalyst that you were not abused as a child. He (it is normally a he) will respond that you are in denial. If you say that you were indeed abused he will say "aha, then I was right"...

There is an award of one million dollars to you if you can show in a well conducted experiment that homeopathic medicine works...

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Birthday paradox/problem

Did you know that if you are at a party with 23 people attending, then the probability that two people will share birthday is more than 50%!

I sometimes use this example as a way to show people that our intuitive reasoning with numbers can be quite wrong, and it really works, people shake their head in disbelief when I tell them this statistic. How can this be? To illustrate imagine that there are two people attending a party. There are 364 ways in which the second person will not have the same birthday as the first person. For the third person there are 363 days which are still not occupied. The formula that we get is that the probability that at least two people share the same birthday when there are three people attending is 1-(365*364*363)/(365*365*365) = about 0.01. If you do the same calculation but with 23 people p will be just above 0.5. The general formula is: 1 - (365)(364)(363)...(365 - N + 1)/(365)^N.

Doing this calculation with 40 persons will give you a probability of around 0.9 (see graph above)! Next time you are attending a party with 40 persons or more, why not make the safest bet ever... For more information on this problem as well as a birthday generator which lets you test these claims empirically, go to ""

Friday, December 15, 2006

South Africa finally starting to realize what AIDS is…

Each time I have read about AIDS policies in South Africa I have been amazed. South Africa is, as far as I know, a relatively developed country if you compare it to other nations in the same area, yet somehow they have managed to avoid reading about AIDS research for at least a decennium. Only a few years ago president Mbeki (picture) questioned whether HIV and AIDS were related(!). Since then his unbelievable ignorance has generated headlines on a regular basis. On one of his particularly bright moment Mbeki said that he did not know anyone who had died in AIDS. Not long before he uttered these words his own press secretary had succumbed to the disease, not to mention the 600 people who die from AIDS in South Africa every single day!

The climax happened in august this year when South African representatives visited the international AIDS conference, proudly exhibiting their best cures against the disease, such as beets and garlic. They were severely ridiculed because of this, and a speech by AIDS activist Stephen Lewis (who is by the way not welcome in South Africa) received wild cheers when he described South Africa’s AIDS policy as insanity (I would have clapped to). Since then South Africa, thank god, have started to give their population conventional medicine which can help increase life span as well as life quality. Out of the 5.5 million HIV carriers in South Africa today, 213000 are receiving medicines, a figure which is currently increasing with 11000 per month. Too slow indeed, but better than it has been before.

What I really find hard to understand about all this is why? What do politicians have to gain by letting their people suffer more than is necessary? Does anyone know? Or is it really true that they believe Garlic and beets (or having sex with infants) really helps? Do religious beliefs play a role? In all fairness you can find weird cures for most things in most countries, but rarely does the government itself hold such outrageous beliefs about such a serious belief…

Most of this I read in yesterdays (14th of December 2006) issue of In yesterdays Svenska dagbladet.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Buy a christmas gift from Oxfam

If you know a lot of people who cannot think of anything they would want for Christmas here is a tip. Go to oxfam unwrapped and buy a gift that will actually make a difference to someone. They sell alpacas, goats, water, trees, condoms, HIV awareness events, textbooks etc etc. The gifts range from just a few punds to 1700 pounds, an animal costs about 20 pounds. I just purchased three alpacas since I know there will be a lot of people in my family who will never be able to answer the question "what do you want for Christmas"...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

About me

I was born 1983 in a small village outside Århus in Denmark. At seven years of age I moved with my mother and my sister to Järna, Swedens center for antroposofi, located south of Södertälje. There I went through elementary school and high school. Before moving on to Lund I also worked one year with neuropsychiatrically challenged children (mostly Autism and ADHD).

In Lund I have studied mainly psychology, but I have also taken courses in statistics, criminology and astrophysics. After two years in Lund I went abroad to University of California, Santa Barbara where I studied neuroscience and biology for three semesters. Subsequently I went back to Lund to finish my degree in psychology, resulting in this article. After having finished my degree there I received a six month scholarship to work on the cerebellum and classical conditioning. During the fall (2007), I worked together with my former advisor on a new project which involved finding good material to study retrival induced forgetting (RIF). Simultaneously I was studying at the medical program here in Lund. As you might have already guessed my big passion (in academics) is the brain, the most complex thing in the entire universe. However, I think that my blog will reflect the fact that I am interested in subjects far beyond the brain. I love physics and astronomy, and evolution is another subjects which gets me going...

I am a strong believer in the liberty of individuals to make up their own minds on almost all matters. Neither churches nor any other intrest group should be allowed to indoctrinate children. In symphoni with these values I have joined the Swedish Humanist association "Humanisterna", who are actively advocating these values in the Swedish society. When it comes to Science and philosophy I am largely pragmatic, though I do believe there is an objective truth out there (in contrast to post-modernist scholars). I believe that natural laws govern everything that is happening in the universe, including our own behaviors. Therefore I do not believe that we have free will. However, I recognize the importance of the concept of free will, it would be too complicated to speak in terms of interacting molecules in ordinary life.

Besides all this nerdy stuff I like to play and watch football (for Americans this means soccer), and I (kind of) regularly run. I live in Lund toghether with my wife and her three children, and our dog. Then of course I like to blog...

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Some interesting discoveries about pheromones

In order to prepare for my soon to start PhD studies, I have been reading a lot of neuroscience lately. I am currently reading a book called Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain by Bear et. al. (2006), a textbook that I warmly recommend to everyone interested in the field.

In this book there is a section about human pheromones which I found so fascinating that I thought I would share it with those few people who occasionally read this blog. Pheromones are basically small molecules that fall off us and are sometimes picked up by the nose of other people or (more likely) animals. Our pheromones tells our genotype and can work as a fingerprint even more accurate than the fingertip fingerprint. A bloodhound which has perhaps the most developed sense of smell of all animals has great difficulty in distinguishing between two identical twins. Fraternal twins on the other hand is piece of cake. An ewe will establish a life long memory of her lamb when it is born. Pregnant female mice will automatically trigger an abortion if they feel the smell of a male other than the one that impregnated her.

What about humans then. One rather well known, yet astonishing, effect of pheromones is the synchronization of women's menstrual period. When females are allowed to smell pads which have been under the arm of another female, their menstrual period will converge with the other females period. This happens even though the women do not feel any smell at all! Pheromones are also very much involved in our sex life, believe it or not. Evidence indicates, that by picking up pheromones we can sense whether the potential mate is a good match or not (in terms of genes). Napoleon (see picture) was probably one of the first people to realise what smells can do to your lust. He once wrote and asked Josephine not to bathe for two weeks(!), so that he could enjoy her aromas...

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Richard Dawkins interview

If you, like myself, are interested in questions about science, religion, and evolution you have probably heard of Richard Dawkins (see picture). Following, his recent book, The God Delusion, he has answered a few questions from the readers. Find all the questions and answers here. Below is his response to people who claim that he is a fanatic... This post is more or less a plagiarism of Felicia Giljam's most recent post on her blog.

What is there to distinguish your intolerance from that of a religious fanatic?

Dawkins answer: It would be intolerant if I advocated the banning of religion, but of course I never have. I merely give robust expression to views about the cosmos and morality with which you happen to disagree. You interpret that as 'intolerance' because of the weirdly privileged status of religion, which expects to get a free ride and not have to defend itself. If I wrote a book called The Socialist Delusion or The Monetarist Delusion, you would never use a word like intolerance. But The God Delusion sounds automatically intolerant. Why? What's the difference?

I have a (you might say fanatical) desire for people to use their own minds and make their own choices, based upon publicly available evidence. Religious fanatics want people to switch off their own minds, ignore the evidence, and blindly follow a holy book based upon private 'revelation'. There is a huge difference.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Neuropharmacology of alcohol: One reason why you don't want to become an alcoholic

The active ingredient of alcohol is as most people already know, ethanol. We all know too well what the behavioral effects of this drug is, people who were previously shy starts to dance on tables, we say things we later regret, people hook up or break up, or worse, get into fights. In sum we lose our inhibitions and become reptiles for an evening. How do these effects arise?

Before I had taken a course in pharmacology I thought it would be almost as dull as economics (I have not studied economics, so this is just a prejudice of mine). I do not know if it was because of our terrific teacher, Karen Szumlinski (UCSB), nevertheless, I now consider pharmacology, and particularly neuropharmacology as one of the most interesting subjects there is. Anyways, back to the subject. Alcohol affects many different transmitter systems in our brain, amongst them the GABA system and the Glutamate system. The GABA system mainly inhibits our brain, so when alcohol comes and stimulates the GABA system it means that certain brain regions will become more inhibited. Most notably, our frontal cortex is inhibited. (I am sorry if this gets too technical.) The frontal lobe inhibits impulses, so when alcohol comes and stimulates the GABA system, this inhibits the frontal lobe, which in turn prevents us from inhibiting impulses, thus you get dancing on the tables. At a larger dose the GABAa system will become so active that you lose your conscience (see picture).

Another, potentially more dangerous, effect of alcohol is its effect on the glutamate system and the NMDA receptor. Activating these receptors will activate the neuron and make it fire, if you overactive the NMDA receptor, the cell will become hyperactive and die. Alcohol is actually an NMDA antagonist meaning that it prevents activity at this receptor, however, when you are on your third bottle of wine and the brain realizes that there is no activity at any of the NMDA receptors anymore it gets worried. It has a solution to this however: Make more NMDA receptors! If you are an alcoholic and drink a lot, often, then your brain will produce tons of receptors. When you finally put down the bottle for a while, there will be excess NMDA activity and many cells will die. In sum then, drinking alcohol will cause an up regulation of NMDA receptors which in turn will cause excess activity at these receptors when there is no antagonist (such as alcohol) present.

Also, one last advice, don't drink coffee the day after, it can cause seizures...