Category Archives: Human Biology

Is it ethical to purchase human organs?

Editor’s note: This article is part of our collaboration with Point Taken, a new program from WGBH that next airs on Tuesday, June 28 on PBS and online at The show features fact-based debate on major issues of the day, without the shouting.

Organ transplantation saves lives. People with end-stage kidney disease who receive a transplant tend to live much longer than those who undergo dialysis. A kidney from a living donor will last from 12 to 20 years, on average, compared to eight to 12 years for a kidney from a deceased donor.

But there is a shortage of organs. In the United States, the wait list for kidneys alone is around 100,000. Those waiting for kidneys make up most of the 120,000 people awaiting organ donation. The need for kidneys has led some to ask: Would purchasing organs be a solution?

‘Should organs be sold?’ is the question Point Taken debates June 28 at 11 p.m. E/10 p.m. C on PBS.

Since 1988, approximately three of every four kidneys for transplantation have come from deceased donors, the rest from living donors who give one of their kidneys to a relative, loved one or even a stranger. In the United States, live donation seems quite safe. A recent study found that kidney donors have only a slightly higher absolute risk of developing end-stage kidney disease than healthy non-donors.

What might we do to alleviate the shortage of kidneys in the U.S.? One positive step would be to adopt an opt-out system of deceased organ donation like one now in place in Spain, where the rate of organ donation is highest of any country. The default in this system is donation at death when organs are viable, but everyone has well-publicized opportunities to opt out of donation. As it stands, U.S. citizens must now opt in to deceased donation, for example, during driver’s license renewal. The rate of donation in the U.S. is about midway among nations that are tracked.

Unfortunately, changes in deceased donation practices are unlikely to eliminate shortages. Some physicians, lawyers and bioethicists have proposed regulated markets in live “donor” kidneys. Surely a lot more people will be willing to sell a kidney, assuming the price is right, than to donate one, their argument goes.

Yet purchasing kidneys is not only prohibited by international norms, it violates U.S. law. The only country where a legally approved market in kidneys exists is Iran. But market proponents insist that legal prohibition of commerce in kidneys is a grave mistake.

Are the proponents right? The answer depends in part on moral argument. In conducting this argument, it is important to steer clear of two implausible absolute positions.

A matter of human dignity

Selling a body part does not necessarily mean a person is for sale.

One position, put forth by market opponents, is that a person’s selling an internal body part is always wrong. Perhaps the best known philosophical proponent of this view is the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant. We are obligated always to act in a way that expresses respect for the dignity of humanity, Kant held. He believed that all of us, no matter where on the spectrum of talent, wealth, happiness, or others’ regard we may be, have a worth beyond price.

Kant maintained that a person’s selling one of his internal parts – the example he gives is selling a tooth to be transplanted into another’s mouth – is always wrong, apparently because this action fails to express proper respect for the seller’s own dignity. The action always sends a false message, Kant seems to have believed: that the seller himself has a mere price.

But, as I have tried to show, it is implausible to maintain that every time a person sells one of his internal parts, he is sending such a message. A kidney is not a person. In some contexts, someone could surely sell a kidney (or a tooth) and not thereby convey that he himself has a mere price. For example, suppose a senator sells one of her kidneys in order to raise money for a charity. In our cultural context, she surely wouldn’t thereby be signaling that she herself has mere price!

Another questionable absolute position, put forth by market proponents, is that buying internal body parts from informed, voluntary and autonomous sellers is always right – that is, morally permissible.

Consider this: One way to buy someone’s kidney would be to buy her. Would it be morally permissible for you to buy as a slave a mother who has put herself up for sale in order to get money to educate her kids? The position in question implies that your buying her would be right, assuming roughly that she is mentally competent, informed of her action’s consequences and under no threat from others to undertake it. But many of us believe that your buying her would be wrong. In Kantian terms, it would express disrespect for the mother’s dignity by treating her as having mere price.

Black markets already have led to misery

The implausibility of these absolute positions regarding selling and buying of internal organs suggests that the moral permissibility of markets for organs is a complex and context-dependent issue.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 10,000 black market operations involving purchased human kidneys now take place per year. Vendors in such markets, who are typically very poor, undergo serious psychological and physical harms. According to recent research, Bangledeshi kidney sellers “suffered from grave sadness, hopelessness, and crying spells, and experienced social stigma, shame, and isolation for selling their body parts …” A study in Chennai, India found that over 85 percent of sellers reported a decline in health after kidney removal and that 80 percent would not recommend that others in similar circumstances sell a kidney.

Proponents of kidney sales insist that regulated markets would not have these dismal effects on vendors. Proposals for such markets incorporate provisions aimed at ensuring the safety of sellers and recipients, for example, through thorough donor screening processes and proper postoperative care.

As I have argued elsewhere, even full compliance with the rules of a regulated market would fail to ensure its ethical acceptability. The existence of such a market might harm poor people. For example, aggressive debt collectors might force the poor to sell the fungible assets they always carry with them: their kidneys.

It is naïve to assume that regulated markets would be well-regulated markets. If the United States legalizes markets in kidneys, would not other countries follow, among them some who have had an active illicit trade? These countries, including Brazil, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, seem to have high levels of corruption and thus ineffective regulatory infrastructures. It is reasonable to worry that the kinds of harm that accrue to kidney vendors in unregulated markets would also befall them in some regulated markets.

Whether we should adopt a regulated market in kidneys turns not only on moral argument, but also on whether doing so would actually increase supply. A recent systematic review of studies found support for the hypothesis that offering financial incentives for blood does not increase its supply. Of course, effects of payment might differ for blood and for kidneys. Nevertheless, for all we know market exchange of kidneys might “crowd out” giving associated with altruism. People who would otherwise have donated an organ might refrain from doing so if providing one has connotations not of moral virtue but of financial interest.

It remains unclear how much regulated markets would actually increase supply. In any case, such markets should prompt ethical concern, especially regarding their impact on the very poor. Most of us reject the idea that the end justifies the means: we believe that some means would be wrong to take even to a good end like increasing the supply of kidneys for transplant. Under present societal conditions, markets would, I suspect, be among such ethically unacceptable means. They do not warrant our support.

The Conversation

Samuel Kerstein, Professor of Philosophy, University of Maryland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Your Body Can Now Be Run With Computer Programming

Scientists have found a new way through which the cells of our body can be controlled through a proprietary programming language, which could help you from falling prey to diseases. This latest innovation comes from a group of biological engineers at MIT, who have developed a programming language capable of designing complex DNA functions that can further be put in a human being’s cell.

How does it work?

Commenting on the functionality of the latest innovation, Christopher Voigt, a biological engineering professor at MIT revealed that it was more of text-based language used to program a computer. Similarly, the program is then compiled into a DNA sequence, which is then inputted into the cell, and its circuit runs within the cell.

How did they do it?

Verilog, a hardware description language has been used by researchers to make this a reality. Sensors that can be programmed into DNA sequences have been used with specially designed computing elements.

The interesting part lies in the way the program works. The DNA sequences are first programmed into a cell to create a circuit. The customizable sensors then detect the amount of glucose, oxygen, and temperature. What wonders science and technology today can put together is completely inspiring.

Beards don’t actually have feces in them

Clickbait headlines claiming there is poop in people’s beards whipped around social media this week. It’s junk science based on common misconceptions about bacteria.

These headlines are shite: “Some beards contain more poo than a toilet shocking study reveals” – the Mirror “Shock new research reveals some beards contain more poo than a toilet” – “Some beards are so full of poo they are as dirty as toilets” –

Of course, I wanted to read the evidence for myself, like I do with all outrageous, suspicious claims. I couldn’t even find a study cited in any of the articles. All I found was some pretty crappy journalism~!

If there was no legitimate study by respected microbiologists and no instances of unintentional poop in people’s beards, where did this story even come from? As far as I could tell, the story originated from a local tv news segment out of  New Mexico, wherein a reporter swabbed some random men’s beards and sent it to a microbiologist to culture for microbes.

To some readers that might sound like legit science. Here’s why it isn’t:

That’s a very small sample size. The reporter pretty much stayed vague about how many beards he swabbed but it was a “handful”. All it would take is a couple unwashed faces to make a petri-dish grow some gross stuff. So, yeah… bad science.

Just because a microbe lives in the guts doesn’t mean it isn’t on your face. Microbiologist, John Golobic called some of the bacteria found “enterics”, meaning bacteria that normally live in the intestines, “the types of things you’d find in faeces,” he said, without telling the reporter or audiences how unbelievably common it is to find these microbes on various surfaces in everyday life, including shaved and unshaven faces. That’s all it took to get the rumor started and people rewrote, retweeted and reshared the story.

Most of the headlines and editorials about this left out that it was merely a bacteria that can also be found inside the intestine, and reported that actual poop was on people’s face, which has nothing to do with the original story and beyond bad science – it’s bad reporting.

Scientists in the microbiology field and pretty much anyone who has followed current thought on the subject know that the human body is home to vast diversity of microbes. Bacteria like E. coli is commonly found all over the body, inside and out.

Readers might remember a similar viral story about unidentified DNA found on swabbed subway cars, implying there are millions of unknown microbes people are being exposed to. In reality everything in the world is covered in millions of microbes, and there isn’t any real danger from being exposed to them everyday.

If you are looking for media that debunks the dangers of microbial paranoia, check out NPR’s articles about probiotics and Mythbuster’s entertaining critique of the “five second rule”.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Understanding Cognitive Bias Helps Decision Making

noun: intuition
  1. the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.

People tend to trust their own intuition. Has there been much formal study about the veracity of intuition?

Brain science itself is a young field, and the terminology has yet to mature into a solid academic lexicon. To further increase your chances of being confused, modern life is rife with distractions, misinformation, and addictive escapisms, leaving the vast majority of society having no real idea what the hell is happening.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to do something kind of recursive. I am going to document my mind being changed about a deeply held belief as I explore my own cognitive bias. I am not here to tell you what’s REALLY going on or change your mind about your deeply held beliefs. This is just about methods of problem solving and how cognitive bias can become a positive aspect of critical thought.

Image: "Soft Bike" sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus

Image: “Soft Bike” sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus

I’m advocating what I think is the best set of decision making skills, Critical Thought. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. (I’m torn between the terms Critical Thinking and Critical Thought, although my complaint is purely aesthetic.)

Ever since taking an introduction to Logic course at Fitchburg State college I have been convinced that Logic is a much more reliable, proven way to make decisions. Putting logic to practice when decision-making is difficult, though. Just like a math problem can be done incorrectly, Some logic can even counter-intuitive. My favorite example of intuition failing over logic is always chess. Even as I write this I can’t convince myself otherwise: I have regretted every intuitive chess move. It’s statistically impossible that all my intuitive moves have been bad moves yet logic works in the game so much better that my mind has overcompensated in favor of logic. In the microcosm of chess rules, logic really is the better decision-making tool. Often the kernel of a good move jumps out at me as intuition but then must still be thoroughly vetted with logic before I can confidently say it’s a good move.

In high school, I was an underachiever. I could pass computer science and physics classes without cracking a book. My same attempt to coast through math classes left me struggling because I could not intuitively grasp the increasingly abstract concepts. The part of my mind that controls logic was very healthy and functioning but my distrust for my own intuition was a handicap. I would be taking make up mathematics courses in the summer but getting debate team trophies during the school year.


Photograph of Marcel Duchamp and Eve Babitz posing for the photographer Julian Wasser during the Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of Art, 1963 © 2000 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.

I’m not just reminiscing; everyone’s decision making process is an constantly-updating algorithm of intuitive and logical reasoning. No one’s process is exactly the same but we all want to make the best decisions possible. For me it’s easy to rely on logic and ignore even a nagging sense of intuition. Some people trust intuition strongly yet struggle to find the most logical decision; everyone is most comfortable using a specially-tailored degree of intuition and logic. People argue on behalf of their particular decisions and the methodology behind them because a different method is useful in for each paradigm.

In chess, intuition is necessary but should be used sparingly and tempered with logic. It’s my favorite example because the game can be played without any intuition. Non-AI computers are able to beat the average human at chess. Some AI can beat chess masters. So, I’m biased towards logic. Chess is just a game, though. People are always telling me I should have more faith in intuitive thinking.

“But,” you should be asking, “Isn’t there an example of reliance on intuition as the best way to decide how to proceed?”

At least that’s what I have to ask myself. The best example I found of valuable intuition is the ability to ride a bike. It is almost impossible to learn to ride a bike in one session; it takes several tries over a week or longer to create the neural pathways needed to operate this bio-mechanical device. Samurais trained to feel that their weapon was part of themselves, or an extension of their very arm.  The mechanical motion of  the human body as it drives a bicycle becomes ingrained, literally, in the physical brain. The casual, ubiquitous expression, “It’s like riding a bike”, is used to idiomatically describe anything that can be easily mastered at an intermediate level, forgotten for years, but recalled at near perfect fidelity when encountered once again.

The Backwards Brain Bicycle – Smarter Every Day episode 133

Destin at Smarter Everyday put together a video that shows the duality of intuitive thinking. It is completely possible to train the human mind with complicated algorithms of decision making that can be embrace diversification and even contradictory modes of thinking.

Cont. below…

After watching this video, I embraced a moment of doubt and realized that there are very positive and useful aspects to intuition that I often don’t acknowledge. In this case of reversed bicycle steering, a skill that seems to only work after it has been made intuitive can be “lost” and only regained with a somewhat cumbersome level of concentration.

The video demonstrates the undeniable usefulness of what essentially amounts to anecdotal proof that neural pathways can be hacked, that contradictory new skills can be learned. It also shows that a paradigm of behavior can gain a tenacious hold on the mind via intuitive skill. It casts doubt on intuition in one respect but without at least some reliance on this intuitive paradigm of behavior it seems we wouldn’t be able to ride a bike at all.

This video forced me to both acknowledge the usefulness of ingrained, intuitive behaviors while also reminding me of how strong a hold intuition can have over the mind. Paradigms can be temporarily or perhaps permanently lost.  In the video, Destin has trouble switching back and forth between the 2 seemingly over-engaging thought systems but the transition itself can be a part of a more complicated thought algorithm, allowing the mind to master and embrace contradictory paradigms by trusting the integrity of the overall algorithm.

Including Confirmation Bias in a greater algorithm.

These paradigms can be turned on and off and just as a worker might be able to get used to driving an automatic transmission car to work and operating a stick shift truck at the job site and drive home in the automatic again after the shift.

This ability to turn on and off intuitive paradigms as a controlled feature of a greater logical algorithm requires the mind to acknowledge confirmation bias. I get a feeling of smug satisfaction that logic comprises the greater framework of a possible decision making process anytime I see evidence supporting that belief. There are just as many people out there who would view intuition as the the framework of a complex decision making process, with the ability to use or not use logical thought as merely a contributing part of a superior thought process. If my personal bias of logic over intuition is erroneous in some situations, can I trust the mode of thinking I am in? Using myself as an example, my relief at realizing data confirms what I have already accepted as true is powerful.

That feeling of relief must always be noted and kept in check before it can overshadow the ability to acknowledge data that opposes the belief. Understanding confirmation bias is the key to adding that next level to the algorithm, in the video example from Smarter Everyday, steering a normal bike is so ingrained in the neural pathway that the backwards steering’s inability to confirm actually fill in the blank and the mind sends an incorrect set of instruction of the mechanical behavior to the body. Understanding the dynamics of confirmation bias would enable the mind to embrace the greater thought system that would enable the mind to go back and forth between those conflicting behavioral paradigms. I’m positing that it should be possible to master a regular bike and the “backwards bike” and be able to switch back and forth between both bikes in quick succession. The neural pathways between both behavior paradigms can be trained and made stronger than the video shows.

I believe that with practice, someotrciksne could alternate steering mechanism quickly and without as much awkwardness as we are seeing in the video just as my initial confirmation bias, now identified, doesn’t have to dictate my decision and I might be more open minded to an intuitive interpretation leading to the best decision in certain situations.

An inability to acknowledge that one’s own mind might be susceptible to confirmation bias paradoxically makes one more susceptible.  Critical thinking is a method of building immunity to this common trap of confidence. Identifying the experience of one’s own confirmation bias is a great way to try and understand and control this intuitive tendency.  No matter what your thoughts are regarding logic and intuition, examining one’s confirmation biases and better embracing them should lead to better decision making skills.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Evidence Trade in New World Happened Before Columbus

Bronze artifacts discovered in a 1,000-year-old house in Alaska suggest trade was occurring between East Asia and the New World centuries before the voyages of Columbus.

Trade between East Asia and the New World may have occurred centuries before Columbus ever, according to a rash of new discoveries. While many have credited Leif Erikson with the first voyages to North America in the ninth century, AD, a land his crew was able to spot off the coast of Greenland, the evidence suggests that even before Erikson people had been exchanging items and ideas off the West Coast.

Vikings like Erikson’s brother, Thorvald, were actually somewhat intimidated to wander too far from the coast when setting up camp, fearing encounters with the indigenous people who lived there that they referred to as ‘Skraelings,’ tribes that were likely related to the Algonquins.

However, the latest artifacts, which archaeologists discovered at the “Rising Whale” site of Cape Espenberg at Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, suggest that natives living there may have interacted with Eastern civilization as well.

“When you’re looking at the site from a little ways away, it looks like a bowhead coming to the surface,” said Owen Mason, a research associate at the University of Colorado, who is part of a team excavating the site.

“We’re seeing the interactions, indirect as they are, with these so-called ‘high civilizations’ of China, Korea or Yakutia,” a region in Russia, Mason said.

The major Rising Whale discoveries include two artifacts crafted from bronze, one of them may originally have served as a type of buckle or fastener. The bronze includes a piece of leather that the archaeologists were able to test through radiocarbon dating, which can be used on organic materials. While they plan to conduct further tests in the future, the piece dates approximately to the seventh century AD, which is approximately four hundred years before Scandinavians first arrived in North America. The second bronze artifact that the archaeologists discovered could have been used as a whistle.

There are also stories the Inuits passed down of their encounters with Norwegians in the eleventh century, who they referred to as “foreigners” or “Kavdlunait”:

“Soon the kayaker sent out his spear in good earnest, and killed him on the spot…When winter came, it was a general belief that the Kavdlunait would come and avenge the death of their countrymen.”

So aside from carbon dating, there’s another big clue here. Bronze-working had yet to be developed by the seventh century in Alaska, so the archaeologists suspect that these artifacts have likely been manufactured either in China, Korea or in fairly nearby Yakutia, and then they made their way into Alaska by means of local trade routes.

The house in which these fossils were found is over 1,000 years old, and inside researchers found some other pretty exciting stuff – the remains of artifacts crafted from obsidian, a type of dark volcanic glass which is so notoriously sharp that it’s sometimes been used in recent times for crafting surgical blades. Tracing the chemical signature in these broken artifacts, they discovered that the obsidian actually came from the Anadyr River valley of Russia.

Although it has been known that people have traveled continuously back and forth from North America along the Bering Strait bridge when sea levels were low and revealed a land area approximately the size of modern Texas, these recent discoveries at the Rising Whale are the latest contributions to over a century of research suggesting that not only was the area rich in raw materials like trees and game animals, but that a number of trade routes took advantage of these regular migrations, and may have been an epicenter where a number of civilizations throughout East Asia came together, even including the Alaskan side. While we are prone to thinking of the Arctic as a barren and desolate region, it seems like the opposite may have been true at one point.

In 1913, the anthropologist Berthold Laufer published his analysis of ancient Chinese texts and artifacts in the journal T’oung Pao. He observed that in China there was a great deal of interest in obtaining the ivory tusks of both narwhals and walruses, and these items were typically acquired from people who lived northeast of China. Perhaps some of the walrus ivory may have actually been obtained from the Bering Strait, where these animals have been found in abundance.

In addition, a number of historians and archaeologists have also long taken note of the resemblance in design between pieces of plate armor that were worn by people in Alaska and the ones that were used in China, Korea, Japan and eastern Mongolia during the same period.

He wasn’t the only one to notice some far Eastern economic staples growing plentiful in Alaska. Several decades later, in the 1930s, the Smithsonian Institution’s archaeologist Henry Collins undertook several excavations on St. Lawrence Island, located just off the west coast of Alaska. In his 1937 book “The Archaeology of St. Lawrence Island,” Collins described the plate armor found by his team, which apparently began to appear on the island about 1,000 years ago. When I say plate armor, it’s not exactly what you’d picture a night in shining armor wearing. Instead, it was made up from a series of overlapping plates sculpted out of ivory, bones and sometimes even iron.

Collins already recognized plate armor of a similar nature that had been developed in several areas across East Asia, including Manchuria (a region of northern China), eastern Mongolia and Japan. The use of plate armor, he theorized, had spread northward from these areas, and after a time it was imported to Alaska from across the Bering Strait.

There is also a great deal of recently conducted genetic research that also reveals the nature of interactions among people from East Asia and the New World.

At present, the majority of scientists support the notion that humans first began their migration to the New World about 15,000 years ago when they crossed a land bridge that had formed across the Bering Strait when the climate was colder and sea levels were lower. The land bridge was then covered in a flood about 10,000 years ago.

However, more recent genetic analysis has suggested that there was more than one movement, that these migrations of people from East Asia to the New World occurred regularly at a later date. The population who lived at the Rising Whale encampment may have been part of an elusive group of forgotten people, what scientists have called the “Birnirk” culture, a group of people who had occupied both ends of the Bering Strait and made use of sophisticated skin boats and even harpoons for hunting whales.

The genetic study currently indicates that these people of the Birnirk culture are in fact the ancestors of a people known as the “Thule,” a tribe that spread out across the North American arctic as far as Greenland and encountered Thorvald Erikson and his men. The Thule, in turn, are actually the ancestors of the modern-day Inuit.

While the Bering Strait may have been a rather important trading post on the West Coast and the Vikings established a short term settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in Canada, the Americas may have had other early occupants as well, this time reaching south.

There is further research to indicate that, around the same time as the Viking settlements, the Polynesians had reached South America, discovering sweet potatoes which they brought back with them to Polynesia. In return, they may have brought chickens with them to South America, which are the ancestors of a tropical bird.

There have been countless other hypotheses put forward to suggest that people had reached the New World long before Columbus did – one even going so far as to suggest that Native Americans arrived in ancient Europe during the time of the Pax Romana. Another popular suggestion is the possibility that Chinese mariners once sailed directly into the New World. Both ideas largely lack scholarly support and evidence, aside from the fact that the ideas were within the range of possibility.

Mason and his team are going to present their new research of the Rising Whale site later this week at the Canadian Archaeological Association annual meeting, which will take place at St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada, between the dates of April 28 and May 2.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

Image of Brain under the influence of LSD

Lysergic acid diethylamide, AKA, LSD is probably the most famous hallucinogen. Despite the anecdotes of scary and beautiful trips, and the new age rumors of psychotropic medicinal potential, little is known about the actual, physical effects of LSD on the brain.  The drug has been under-researched, regardless of your stance on it, and in this day and age of legalization and the waning era of a completely ineffectual drug war it is hard to trust public opinion on any recreational mind altering substance. Timothy Leary’s 1960s-era writings and studies of the drug are the last true exploration – until now.

Last Summer, Carhart-Harris presented his findings after being the first UK Scientist to legally administer LSD to  human volunteers. The Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 outlawed it for public use of any kind, including science. His presentation included a slide showing still unpublished cross-sectional brain images of a volunteer chilling in an fMRI scanner, tripping on acid. This kind of pro-LSD presentation is one of a handful from the worldwide science community that spurred the recent work of British medical researchers, lead by Imperial College London Neuropsychopharmacology Professors David Nutt and Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, who are  recording data as the drug interacts with regular healthy brains with MEG and fMRI brain scans.  It’s England’s first large-scale study of LSD in fifty years, and the first-ever study of this kind with a scientifically respectable sample size.

The study is being performed by The Beckley Foundation Psychedelic Research Programme, after crowdfunding on the website Walacea was extremely successful. The Walacea page says the money help to complete the research study which will present published results later in 2015. The crowdfunding is an important part of the story because university science budgets and government money have been slow to cover the costs of something so stigmatized by negative anecdotes.

‘Despite the incredible potential of this drug to further our understanding of the brain, political stigma has silenced research. We must not play politics with promising science that has so much potential for good’., said Prof. Nutt (Yes, that is his real name.)

LSD is in a restricted class of drugs in England where it is considered a Schedule-1 narcotic. There were a lot of legal requirements to meet before the team could get a license to use LSD on test subjects. They also needed approval from a science ethics committee to administer LSD to human subjects. After jumping through all the hoops, the researchers realized why LSD has gone so understudied. It was expensive, and they found they often had to convince people they were actually doing real science before they could get the paperwork to be taken seriously. The entire process has been slow and well-monitored, as a result.

The relatively sophisticated brain images the study hopes to produce of their subjects tripping on LSD could lead to new treatments for psychological disorders, most likely including obsessive compulsion and depression.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Why is it so difficult to think in Higher Dimensions?

Humans can only perceive three dimensional space but theoretical math works out just fine when manipulating objects in four or more spacial dimensions. Mathematicians, scientists and philosophers still debate whether higher spacial dimensions actually exist.

It’s hard to imagine higher dimensions. Even one additional spatial dimension is hard to see with your inner mind’s eye. If you want to imagine six, seven or eight spacial dimensions it isn’t just hard – no one’s even truly conceptualized hyperspace. It’s what makes the subject compelling but also what makes it frustrating to talk about. The examples theorists are able to use to help people “visualize” what can’t be seen must work within human limitations, and are thus second and third dimensional examples of a higher dimensional concept or object.

“Wait a second,” some of you are wondering, “Isn’t TIME the fourth dimension?”
This article is about spacial dimensions only. Personally, I agree with Amrit Sorli and Davide Fiscaletti’s work which I feel adequately proves that time is NOT a spacial dimension. If you want to debate this issue further, you can read my reasoning in my follow up piece, Time: fourth dimension or nah?, also available on

One of the most basic exercises in multidimensional theory is to imagine moving in a fourth. The distance between you and everything around you stays the same but in some fourth dimension you are moving. Most people can’t truly do this imagination game because there in nothing in our three spacial dimensions to compare the experience to.


In the famous book about spacial dimensions, Flatland, living, two-dimensional beings existed in a universe that was merely two dimensions.  A being with three dimensions, such as a sphere, would appear as a circle able to change circumference as it moved through a third dimension no one in flatland has ever conceptualized.

Humans evolved to notice changes in our three-dimensional environment, inheriting our ancestors ability to conceptualize space in three dimensions as a hardwired trait that actually stops us from conceptualizing other aspects of reality that might nonetheless  exist. Other people see hyperspace as a theoretical construct of mathematics that doesn’t describe anything in reality, pointing to the lack of evidence of other dimensions.

Tesseracts Predate Computer-assisted Modelling.

A Tesseract. Many people in the advanced math classrooms of my generation of high school students struggled to wrap their heads around tesseracts without moving diagrams. If a picture is worth a thousand words are we talking animated gifs and words used to describe three dimensional space or should we make up a new saying?

We are able to conceptualize three dimensions in the abstract when we watch TV, look at a painting, or play a video-game. Anytime we look at a screen we watch a two dimensional image from a point outside that dimension. Having an outside point of view for a three dimensional space could give us a way to artificially understand a higher spatial dimension. Until that time comes, we are sort of stuck explaining fourth dimensions by demonstrating how it would look on a two dimensional screen which we view from a third dimensional viewpoint.

It’s kind of like imagining “one million”; you can prove it mathematically to yourself, you can count to it and you know how valuable it is but you can’t truly picture one million of anything. Trying to explain this conceptualization problem with words is pretty tough because your brain is not equipped to handle it. Humans try to wrap their minds around it and dream up ways to explain hyperspace to each other anyways.

4D Rubix Puzzle

A rubix cube is particularly compelling as a multi-dimensional teaching tool, because it puts spacial dimensions in the abstract in the first place, and then gives the cube the ability to change the dimensional orientation of a third of it’s mass. It’s hard to wrap your head around a normal three dimensional rubix puzzle. By adding another dimension and using the same principle, one can ALMOST imagine that fourth spacial dimension. Most people can’t solve a three dimensional Rubix puzzle but if you think you are ready for the fourth dimension, you can download it and play it on your two dimensional screen, here: Magic Cube 4D

If you don’t think you’re ready to try and solve that puzzle but you want to know more you can watch this roughly 1/2 hour video about it:


While Miegakure is still under development, it’s set for release in 2015. Interactive games like this can spur collaborative thinking from a larger pool of collaborators – and make game developers tons of money.

If you want something a little less abstract than Rubix, check out this prototype for Miegakure, the surreal PlayStation 4 game that lets the user explore a four dimensionally capable world through three dimensional spaces that connect to each other through higher dimensions. It’s a great idea that makes everyone have the initial thought of wondering how the heck they coded it. Then the idea sinks in and you realize they wrote the code first and played with the visual manifestation as they went. It’s a great metaphor for the idea in the first place; begins as a concept rather than an observation. The essence of the argument against hyperspace actually existing is the lack of physical evidence. Unlike a ghost story or a spiritual, religious attempt to explain the supernatural, there is actually mathematical evidence that seems to make higher dimensions possible. It has logical evidence as opposed to empirical data. There are ways to observe without using human senses but it’s difficult to prove an observation of something the majority of humans have trouble even seeing with their mind’s eye, so to speak.

One day we might be able to use technology to increase our understanding of this abstract concept, and manipulate an entirely new kind of media. For now we are stuck with two and three dimensional visual aids and an mental block put in place by aeons of evolution.

 Read More about Hyperspace on!
Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Physics Concepts Intuitively Understood Through Skateboarding

People constantly manipulate technology without formal training but are not always able to explain what they know.

You probably aren’t surprised skateboarders haven’t been using proper physics terms to teach each other sick tricks. Try to wrap your head around Taylor Bray wrapping the board around his front foot while also turning his body around 360 degrees in this short youtube video:

Sometimes it’s almost like only the skater knows what’s going on with the board. As if to prove my point, the title of this video was written by someone who can’t even seem to label the trick. When I was a kid, wrapping the board around your foot like that was called an “impossible”. I originally encountered the clip on facebook with the trick labeled “front foot impossible craze”, making a total of three attempts to describe how Taylor Bray is spinning his body and the skateboard.

Here are some physics concepts Bray obviously understands without having to verbally prove himself:

Leverage. Most flip tricks start with an ollie, leveraging the board up into the air by tapping the end hard against the ground.

Friction. The top of the skateboard has grip tape to increase friction and make it stick to the soft rubber sneakers. The bottom of the skateboard has wheels to make it roll back and forth but not slide as much side to side. This trick doesn’t play to much with sliding friction but tons of tricks play with the various levels of slipperiness and stickiness a skateboard offers.

Potential energy. Bray is popping the board up with an Ollie but there’s also. A newer skateboard deck has “pop” which is basically when the wood is at its most springy. By kicking the board hard against the “ground”(in this case, the ramp), he can make the board bounce up into the air with him when he jumps. The more a skateboard is used it loses its pop.

Gravity. That brief instant where he kicks the end of the board into the ground allows him to jump and escape gravity. An Ollie let’s him bring the board up with him. Gravity always pulls things down at the same rate, making it easy to estimate how much time Bray has to perform the trick. The subsequent slow motion shots of the same trick allow the viewer to analyze the trick but the first version in the clip shows how fast gravity pulls Bray back toward the Earth, giving him about one second to pull off the impossible.

More rolling friction. When he gets the board in the air, he rolls it around his front foot. This trick was called an “impossible” when I was a kid in the 90’s but it’s basically wrapping the board around his front foot using rolling friction.

Inertia. Bray is using inertia in several ways. He is using the speed he has to travel up the ramp against gravity. He’s using the direction the ramp sent him in to help him continue up into the air after the Ollie. Inertia comes into play in a few small ways while he is in the air manipulating the board with his feet. When he finally lands, he continues in the direction he was already going, and it is important that he points the wheels in the approximate direction of that momentum so his inertia doesn’t throw him off balance.

Rotation. Bray is analyzing two different axises in quick succession. First he is rolling the skateboard around that foot in a move where the axis is outside the board itself, then he is catching it with his feet and rotating himself and the board on a vertical axis 360 degrees, landing in the same direction he was facing before the trick began.

In the box above, I stuck to physics concepts. There are additional science concepts at work in this example, such as muscle memory, spatial cognition, coordination, time perception and sense of balance.

A really common technical flip trick is the 360 flip. A 360 flip spins the board on 2 axises at once. In order to perform the move, a skateboarder has to conceptualize the simultaneous rotations before actually kicking them into place, and the rotations are often too complex for a layman to follow.

The next age of enlightenment could require humans to quickly communicate complicated concepts despite only possessing an intuitive understanding.

Consciousness and the human brain is a relatively young field of study. We are starting to understand what is happening in the brain when we perform complex physical tasks like a frontside 360 front foot impossible. Soon we might be able to identify the intuitive understanding of the related physics concepts and allow someone like Bray to access the verbal explanations of these physical principles as freely as he applies them to reality.

I’ll leave readers with this thought about language in skateboarding:

In the 90's, a newer, more symmetrical skateboard design allowed for a new school of technical flip tricks. As designs do when they've reached near perfection, the new school skateboard changes within a very narrow parameter based on current trends in skateboarding - the design has plateaued. Skate tricks are a folk art that are learned from advice from peers and pros. The communication about how to pull off a given trick comes in the form of an esoteric language that changes over time. The names for new and developing styles of tech tricks are different in different social circles, evolve and change over time, and seldom utilize proper physics vocabulary. Skateboarding remains a great way to demonstrate intuitively understood, applied physics.


Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Scientists Uncover Mysterious Things About Eyelashes

Have you ever wondered what eyelashes do? If so, you are not alone as some scientists recently set out to find out just what eyelashes are supposed to do. In the course of answering this question, they also come across some interesting information in regards to the length of eyelashes. It seems that even though some of us have longer eyelashes than others, there is still an optimal length. And, to reach this conclusion scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology study the eyelashes of 22 different mammal species.

In trying to answer the infamous question about what eyelashes are for, scientists discovered that the optimal length of eyelashes is related to the width of the eye in mammals. While some mammals had varied results, it was found that the optimal length was a third of the width of the mammal’s eye. To achieve these results David Hu, a mechanical engineer, who participated with other researchers in the study, didn’t use live animals. Instead, they went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and took measurements from animal pelts. The smallest eye they measured belonged to the Amur hedgehog, whose eyes were only a fraction of a centimeter wide, while the largest eye they measured belonged to giraffes and came in at 4 cm wide. In making these measurements, the researchers realized as the eyes grew in diameter the lashes actually got longer. However, that still didn’t help determine what eyelashes are for. While Hu and his team of researchers have their theories they still had no proof. Hu strongly believes that eyelash lengths have a lot to do with channeling airflow and to prove this theory he devised and carried out an experiment.

The experiment conducted by these researchers involved creating fake eyes out of small Petri dishes and then fitting each of the Petri dishes with different lengths of fake eyelashes. Each Petri dish was then filled with a small amount of water, which was used as the thin tear layer across mammals’ eyes. After the dishes were filled, the Petri dishes were placed in a low-speed wind tunnel to determine how long it would take for the thin layer of water to dry up. At the end of the experiment, Hu and his fellow researchers found that the Petri dish with the optimal length eyelashes lasted the longest. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that eyelashes are used to prevent our eyes from drying out.