Friday, 30 October 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Scientifically Haunted House Suggests You’re a Sucker

Posted: 30 Oct 2009 07:18 AM PDT


Fake blood, canned screams and plastic skeletons are fun, but if you want a real haunted house, turn to scientists.

To test whether it's possible to artificially induce paranormal experiences — or, from a different perspective, to technologically summon a spirit — researchers at London's Goldsmith College and architect Usman Haque designed a scientifically haunted room.

They were inspired by earlier studies in which test subjects reported contact with the phantasmic when exposed to electromagnetic fields and waves of infrasound.

This hasn't just taken place in the laboratory: Odd EMF fields have been recorded at reputedly haunted castles, and geomagnetic flux caused by shifting tectonic plates reportedly produces surges in poltergeist sightings. Meanwhile, infrasound waves below the level of human hearing have been linked to visitation.

Of course, ghosts — which 40 percent of the American public claim to believe in — are only one possible explanation. Perhaps people feel something, and what they call haunting is a uniquely sensitive power of perception. Maybe they're just suggestible.

So Christopher French, head of Goldsmith's Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit and editor of the Skeptic magazine, built the haunted room: a white, wood-frame canvas tent 9 feet in diameter, located in the front room of a London row house. It was entirely featureless, but hidden speakers cast infrasound waves like those measured in supposedly-haunted Coventry Cathedral. Other speakers projected sound waves that produced an electromagnetic frequency used in laboratory stimulation of paranormal feeling.

Each field's range was focused in a different part of the room, and some areas were field-free. If haunting indeed had a wavelength, then people would ostensibly report unusual experiences in the target areas.

haunt-plan1Seventy-nine students, friends of Haque and other volunteers entered the room, which operated during the Fall of 2006. Their responses were published this May in Cortex — and respond they certainly did. After spending less than an hour in the room, nearly three-quarters reported having more than three unusual feelings. Just six percent felt nothing. Among the common sensations were dizziness, tingling, disembodiment, dream-remembrance and "a presence." Several felt sexually aroused.

But there was a catch: The sensations had nothing to do with where they were standing in the room.

When French's team crunched the numbers, the only statistically significant association appeared in subjects who scored highly on a test of one's psychological predisposition to the sort of transcendental feelings generally experienced by epileptics with unstable temporal lobes.

There are a few different ways of looking at these results, said French. "It might be that certain people are wired up in a particular way, and in the right environment, they actually are seeing something that's objectively there, but others don't have the ability to see," he said.

But while that can't be ruled out, he thinks there's a simpler explanation: People tend to think about what they're told to. Asked to track strange feelings, they started noticing them. And the participants' response rates indeed followed what's predicted by models of suggestible behavior.

"We did manage to build an artificially haunted room, but it wasn't related to the environmental factors, but to suggestibility," said French, who'd hoped for a firmer result. An EMF effect would have been exciting, and opened up new lines of investigation, he said.

Of course, French still acknowledged that out-of-lab paranormal experiences could be real, or that his experimental waveforms may have failed to replicate those found naturally. He hopes to repleat the study using "a very different, very anomalous pattern of EMF activity" he recently recorded in Muncaster Castle, said to be one of the most haunted castles in the United Kingdom.

As for whether he'd felt anything inside the haunted room, French admitted that he hadn't spent much time there.

"I went in and out when we were setting it up, but I didn't even make myself a pilot participant," he said. "Maybe I should have."

Images: Christopher French

See Also:

Citation: "The "Haunt" project: An attempt to build a "haunted" room by manipulating complex electromagnetic fields and infrasound." By Christopher C. French, Usman Haque, Rosie Bunton-Stasyshyn and Rob Davis. Cortex, Vol. 45, Issue 5, May 2009.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecosystem and planetary tipping points.

Don’t Tell Geico: You May Be a Natural Born Bad Driver

Posted: 29 Oct 2009 04:18 PM PDT


Next time you get cut off by a another driver, consider giving the offender a break: One-third of Americans might be genetically predisposed to crappy driving.

No, really, it's not just your imagination.

In a new study of college undergraduates, those with a common genetic variation scored 20 percent worse in a driving simulator than their counterparts.

"The people who had this genetic variation performed more poorly from the get-go and learned more slowly as they went along," said Steven Cramer, a University of California, Irvine neurologist, who works on helping stroke victims recover. "Then, when we brought them back four days later, they had more forgetting."

The single nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP, is just one of millions of single-letter variations between humans' genetic codes. This one occurs in a gene that produces a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which helps regulate the formation of new synapses, and the maintenance of old ones. BDNF plays a very important role in what's called neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to rewire itself on the fly.

As described in a paper published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, study participants were asked to drive 16 laps in a driving simulator that was essentially a screen with a steering wheel. As they drove around the course, they attempted to keep their cars on a black strip in the center of the road. The software grades their ability to complete that task quantitatively. And, of a small sample of 29 students, people with that single genetic difference, called Val66Met, performed more poorly than their demographically similar counterparts.

Cramer considers the simulation a good proxy not just for driving, but for other complex motor skills tasks. Because it's not controlling a motor vehicle, per se, that he's interested in, but how the brain learns, or relearns complex tasks.

When people have a stroke, and a portion of their brain dies, they have to relearn tasks using different parts of their brains. Individual genes are only part of the symphony of influences that determine individual behavior, but the Val66Met variation appears to have an unusually strong influence on the brain's activity.

"There is mounting evidence that the one in three people who have this variation have less plasticity than the two thirds of people who lack that genetic variation," Cramer said.

Results from a separate study reported earlier this year in Scientific American also found that genetic variation in BDNF helped determined people's skill at a simple computer game.

The effect is so pronounced, in fact, that Cramer said he could imagine future stroke patient routing within hospitals based on the SNP.

"I wonder if there aren't going to be treatments, when they have traumatic brain injury and you're in the rehab ward, where they test the gene and say, 'Send them to the BDNF ward,'" he said.

So, if the presence of the gene makes you a worse driver, a slower stroke-victim recoverer, and possibly has other negative effects, why is the variant still present?

"Variations can stick around just for the fact that they are not that bad for you," said Bruce Teter, a geneticist who studies the brain at UCLA. "They don't kill you before you reproduce, in which case, there is no selective advantage or disadvantage."

But it also turns out that people with the Val66Met variant could be less susceptible to degenerative neurological disorders like Parkinson's and Huntington's.

"Originally people thought plasticity had to be good, as it's related to the ability of the brain to adapt and learn and things like that," Teter said. "But neuroplasticity can also be bad for you in situations where the kinds of changes that are seen are deleterious."

But if you want to stay out of car accidents, it's better to have the dominant BDNF variant, Cramer's study suggests. And if further work continues to support that idea, the question is, can or should we do anything with that information?

"Let's pretend that the one in three people are more prone to car accidents," Cramer said. "It's up to society to say, how do we deal with that fact?"

Image: Justin Fantl.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Share Your Stars: New Wired Science DIY Astronomy Flickr Group

Posted: 29 Oct 2009 01:45 PM PDT


We have been amazed by the astrophotos our readers and followers have been sharing with us. So to facilitate our ongoing amazement, and in keeping with our belief that there can never be too many space photos, we have created a new Flickr group for you to upload your favorite shots. We'll run the best of the bunch on Wired Science periodically so that your work can be properly gawked at by your fellow readers.

So join our DIY Astronomy Flickr group, and start wowing us with your nebulas, clusters and galaxies! Our first submission, the Orion Nebula by Elias Jordan, is pictured above. We'll also be tweeting @wiredscience about your astrophotography, so follow us there.

Image: The Orion Nebula. / Elias Jordan

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