What A Marshmallow Can Say About Your Brain

By Deirdre Sackett

In the 1970s, researchers at Stanford University performed a simple experiment. They offered children the chance to eat a single marshmallow right now, or wait 15 minutes to receive two marshmallows. Out of 600 children in the study, only about ⅓ were able to wait long enough for two treats. Most attempted to wait, but couldn’t make it through the whole 15 minutes. A minority of kids ate the marshmallow immediately.

 

Feeding marshmallows to children in the name of science may seem like a waste of federal funds. But it turns out that the ability to wait for a treat can actually predict a lot about someone’s personality and life trajectory.

 

Since the 70s, many scientific groups have repeated the “marshmallow test” (some of which have been hilariously documented). In some iterations, researchers recorded whether each child chose an immediate versus delayed treat, and then tracked the children’s characteristics as they grew up. Amazingly, the children’s choices predicted some important attributes later on in life. Generally, the more patient children who waited for the bigger reward would go on to score higher on the SAT, have a lower body mass index (BMI), and were more socially and cognitively competent compared to the kids who couldn’t wait and immediately ate one treat.

 

The “marshmallow test” measures a cognitive ability called delay discounting. The concept is that a big reward becomes less attractive (or “discounted”) the longer you need to wait for it. As such, delay discounting is a measure of impulsivity – how long are you willing to wait for something really good, before choosing a quicker, but less ideal, option?

 

While it’s okay to occasionally have spur-of-the-moment choices, poor delay discounting (increased impulsivity) is often a symptom of problematic gambling, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues. In particular, drug addiction is also accompanied by increased impulsive choices. For instance, drug users will choose immediate rewards (such as drugs of abuse) over delayed, long-term rewards (i.e., family life, socializing, or jobs). Drug users are poor at delay discounting and choose immediate options faster than non-drug users. This isn’t just a human flaw; exposing rats to cocaine also increases their impulsivity during delay discounting tasks.

 

Interestingly, aspects of the “marshmallow test” hint at this impulsivity-drug addiction link. In 2011, researchers did a follow-up study with the (now adult) children from the original 1970’s Stanford experiment. The scientists imaged the subjects’ brains while making them do a delayed gratification task in which they had to wait for a reward. They found that patient versus impulsive individuals had very different activity in two specific brain regions involved in drug addiction.

 

Firstly, the study found that impulsive individuals had greater activity in the ventral striatum, a brain region heavily linked to drug addiction and impulsivity. The greater activity in this region may imply that impulsive individuals process information about rewards differently than patient individuals. That is, the way their brain is wired may cause them to want their rewards right now.

 

Secondly, the impulsive individuals had less activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for “putting on the brakes” for impulsive actions. This finding suggests that impulsive individuals may not have that neural “supervisor” that can stop themselves from acting on their impulses. Drug addicts show similarly reduced prefrontal activity. So in addition to doing worse on standardized tests, having higher BMIs, or being less socially competent, the marshmallow test predicts that impulsive individuals may have brain activity similar to those of drug users.

 

While it seems like a silly experiment, the marshmallow test is a great starting point to help increase our understanding of impulsivity. Using this information, researchers can start to develop treatments for impulsive behavior that negatively affects people’s lives. Specifically, treating impulsivity in drug addicts could help as part of the rehabilitation process. So think about that the next time you reach for that sweet treat!

 

Scizzle’s Christmas Gift Guide 2016

By Sally Burn, Gesa Junge, and Deidre Sackett

 

Ho ho ho, science lovers! It’s that time of year again: panic buying gifts for your nearest and dearest! If your intended recipient happens to be a scientist or a fan of all things science, we have a veritable selection of gift ideas. Or perhaps you yourself are angling to receive a science-themed present and want to point the buyer in the right direction. Then look no further: behold, Scizzle’s 2016 Christmas gift guide!

 

Culinary Science

Turn any kitchen into a lab with our handpicked selection of geeky culinary gifts. Spice up your cooking with the Chemist’s Spice Rack from ThinkGeek or whip up some cosmic cookies with these 3D spaceship cookie cutters. Then put a smile on the mathematician in your life’s face by serving them festive dessert on the i eight sum pi plates. Finally, prevent your Christmas lunch leftovers from being stolen from the communal fridge by taking them to work in this human organ for transplant insulated lunch bag.

 

Technical Tipples

Bring out the crazy scientist mixologist in you this festive season with a Chemist’s Cocktail Kit, then serve up your creations in drinking glasses that are out of this world. The Planetary Glass Set contains ten gorgeous tumblers – representing all eight planets in our solar system, plus the sun and Pluto. Pair the glasses with an anatomically informative coaster set to avoid marking your table – we heart these cardiac anatomy coasters, although the more cerebral minded may prefer a set of Brain Specimen Coasters.

 

Science Bling

Wear the whole solar system around your neck with this fabulous Solar Orbit Necklace or just keep Pluto’s heart close to your own with a Pluto pendant. Like DNA? Put a ring on it with this simple DNA helix ring available on Etsy.

 

Science Apparel

Help the female neurobiologist in your life stand out from the crowd in this Neurons Glow-in-the-Dark-Dress. Or go all out science with the Nerdy Science Dress, festooned with Erlenmeyers, microscopes, formulae, and DNA helices. And for sir, may we suggest the Too Molecule for School Men’s Socks.

 

For Kids (Both Little and Big)

You’re never too young or old to cuddle up with a plush brain, spleen, rectum, or any of the thirteen adorable soft organs available from Uncommon Goods. Or how about a crochet Erlenmeyer flask?

 

SciArt

Check out the Etsy store of the ultra-talented Ella Maruschchenko, whose illustrations have been featured on the cover of many leading journals, for science-themed prints and mugs. For an even greater range of SciArt gifts, head over to the Artologica Etsy store where you will find gorgeous paintings, silk scarves, and petri dish ornaments.

 

High End Geek Gadgetry

The Smartphone Instant Photo Lab is at the higher end of the gift budget ($169.99 and $24.99 for film) but worth it for the thrill of printing your candid Christmas party shots direct from your phone to Polaroid-style paper.

 

Under $10 – for Secret Santa and Stuffing Stockings

Finally, for $3 you can be the proud gifter of an infectious disease stress ball and for under $10 you can pick up a set of five solar power toy cars, a cute Space Capsule Tea Infuser, or even this super chic chemistry lab beaker vase.

 

Science Holidays to Celebrate in 2017

 

By Deirdre Sackett

The holiday season is upon us! Whether you’re celebrating with family, friends, or your experiments, there’s no denying the festive spirit in the air. But, after celebrating the winter holidays, we scientists can continue the celebrations and look ahead to all the wonderful and weird science holidays of 2017. Mark your calendars!

Mathematical Holidays

Math is one of the most vital and oldest aspects of science, so it makes sense that there are holidays to celebrate its importance!

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  • Probably the most famous science holiday, Pi Day falls on March 14, 2017, which represents the first three numbers of Pi (3.14). Pi is a value that represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. People celebrate Pi Day by baking — you guessed it — pies.
  • Pi Days’ status as the most famous science holiday also brings with it some drama. Two other days contend with Pi Day’s fame: Pi Approximation Day and Tau Day. Pi Approximation Day falls on July 22, 2017, and represents the fraction that would equal Pi (7/22). Tau Day falls on June 28, 2017, and celebrates tau, the symbol that represents 6.28 (double pi’s value).
  • Want to celebrate a sensible measurement system? National Metric Week falls on the week of October 10th (the tenth day of the tenth month).
  • Mole Day celebrates Avogadro’s Number (the mole, 10^23 atoms of a substance) on October 23.
  • Pythagorean Theorem Day celebrates the famous equation we were all taught in middle school algebra. Just as a refresher, this theorem states that the square of the hypoteneuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the square of its two sides. In 2017, it falls on August 15, because 8*8 + 15*15 = 17*17. [/unordered_list]

 

Space Holidays

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  • Yuri’s Night falls on April 12 and celebrates Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go to space. Yuri’s Night is celebrated across the globe as a recognition of our achievements in space travel and looking toward humanity’s future as a space-faring species.
  • Probably the most unusual on this list, National Create A Vacuum Day falls on February 4. It’s a day to celebrate and understand the science behind vacuums — spaces where the pressure is lower than atmospheric pressure. Celebrators are encouraged to use their household vacuums to “create a vacuum”…and also clean their houses. [/unordered_list]

Nature Holidays

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  • Hagfish Day is October 18, and celebrates one of the ugliest creatures on the planet: the hagfish. The holiday is designed to help everyone appreciate the evolution of the hagfish, and to look past its unpleasant exterior – a valuable life lesson.
  • Coral Reef Awareness week is the third week in July, and celebrates the preservation of the world’s precious coral reefs.
  • Earth Day and Arbor Day are the most famous nature holidays. Earth Day is on April 22, and Arbor Day follows a week later on the 29th. You can celebrate these holidays by doing something nice for the planet, like planting a tree or cleaning up trash.[/unordered_list]

Science Education Holidays

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  • DNA Day is April 20, and is celebrated by scientists and educators worldwide. It falls on the anniversary of the human genome’s completion in 2003, and the discovery of the double helix structure in 1953. The day is dedicated to the knowledge and appreciation of DNA and genomics. The month of April is “Human Genome Month.”
  • Darwin Day is February 12, and celebrates Charles Darwin’s birthday as well as his theory of evolution.[/unordered_list]

Geeky Holidays

While not entirely scientific, these holidays can be celebrated by people who love science and nerdy things.

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  • May 4, 2017 is Star Wars Day. May the Fourth be with you!
  • Geek Pride Day falls on May 25, 2017. Get your geek on and celebrate all things nerdy![/unordered_list]

How to Be Unhappy in Grad School

By Deirdre Sackett

 

If you follow The Oatmeal, you may have seen his newest comic, “How to be perfectly unhappy.” (If you don’t know The Oatmeal, I suggest you check him out! Looking past the crude humor and poop jokes, cartoonist Matthew Inman produces some pretty inspiring, touching, and hilarious comics.) The comic is based off of an essay by Augusten Burroughs, titled “How to Live Unhappily Ever After.”

 

When I saw that title, and even before I read the comic, I immediately thought of the graduate school experience. Not just my own, per se, but the general concept of graduate school — the image of the over-worked, over-caffeinated student plugging away at their fifth 14-hour day that week, with an equally exhausting work-filled weekend to look forward to. Are we, as graduate students, happy with this life? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

 

From a young age, we are programmed to believe that happiness is the ultimate goal in life. Once you obtain it, then you’re golden, and you’ll never have to suffer ever again. You’ve reached Happiness™. But if you’re not happy, then you must be unhappy. And if you’re unhappy, well, then you’re doing something horribly wrong, and you must hate your life. Right? Here’s my bold claim. Despite their busy lives, regardless of the sardonic jokes and grumblings, most graduate students are not Unhappy™. They are not doing anything objectively wrong, nor do they utterly hate their lives. As a grad student, when someone asks, “Are you happy in your grad program?”, it limits an entire 5 to 6 year experience to one word. This innocent question creates a binary in what should be a spectrum of human emotion. It binds the grad student to one of two answers: yes and no.

 

Yes, my experiments all were successful. I have 5 first-author publications, all accepted on the first round with perfect reviews. I’m graduating in 4 years rather than 5 or 6, and I’m guaranteed a starting salary of $100K in my new job. I don’t even have to take a post doc!

 

No, everything is failing. I can’t get statistical significance on anything. My one measly paper got desk rejected by 3 journals. My experiments all yield null results. I can’t network to save my life, and I have no friends. Even my cat hates me.

 

Of course, those are both ridiculous examples. Graduate school is a mixture of good and bad experiences. In the 5 or 6 years it takes to get a Ph.D., you might get one first author publication, a couple of desk rejections, one experiment that works sort-of perfectly and another two that completely fail. You might have two really close friends and a smattering of acquaintances you interact with only at the department holiday party each winter. It’s a blend of good and bad, which makes sense. You don’t waltz into graduate school expecting everything to go perfectly.

 

Like the grad school experience, human emotion doesn’t work in terms of purely Happy or purely Unhappy. Nor should we expect to waltz into our experience and come out happy. The spectrum of emotion ebbs and flows like waves in the ocean, much like progress in graduate school.

 

I’m a graduate student in the sciences, and science is hard work. Experiments don’t go the way I plan, things take longer than I think, and my inexperience slows me down as I learn new techniques. My eyes sting as I stare at a computer screen for 8+ hours a day, analyzing data or writing a paper. I feel guilt and soul-crushing defeat when I can’t write as well or as fast as I expect myself to. Imposter syndrome rumbles in the depths of my brain like a voracious beast, ready to snap up any imperfections I throw its way.

 

And yet, to shamelessly quote The Oatmeal’s comic, what I do is meaningful to me. Everything I do in grad school pushes me to become a better scientist, communicator, and writer. I recognize my frustration at how slowly I analyze data or figure out a technique, and realize that it’s better to slowly do things correctly rather than rush and do it wrong. Each experimental failure encourages me to think creatively and problem-solve, to figure out what went wrong and how I can fix it in the future. Plus, when experiments do succeed, the past failures makes the victory way more significant. Getting negative reviews on a paper help make my science writing better —  they do not reflect on my imperfections as a scientist. Most importantly to me, I know fighting the imposter syndrome beast helps me find self-worth and value in my being, though it’s the hardest thing to do.

 

So it’s not a matter of finding “happiness” in a slew of “unhappy” experiences. It’s a matter of finding value in frustrating or sad experiences and emerging as a different person. Not a happier person, but a stronger person.  Other grad students might feel this exact same way, or at least some version of it. Grad students are in their programs because they find their work meaningful, not because every day is a walk in the park. Other people will question this version of “happy,” and even try to dissuade grad students from doing what they are passionate about because they perceive this existence as blatantly “unhappy.” How to be unhappy is not for others to decide, but for you, dear grad student. So go forth, find meaning in your failures, rejoice in your successes, and thrive in unhappiness.