The Myth of Multitasking

Nobody wants to admit how honestly lame they are at multitasking because they would have to admit to fudging on their job application (or lying during the interview process). Corporations require multitasking in their job postings to merit qualifications, and supervisors demand it in the workplace to substantiate productivity. The Catch-22 is that if multitasking is not perceived, the employee is criticized; and if multitasking is being attempted, the quality of the work is criticized.

There is a reason for this: multitasking is a myth.

Managing two mental tasks at once reduces the brainpower available for either task

David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, says, “There is scientific evidence that multitasking is extremely hard for somebody to do, and sometimes impossible.” Chronic high-stress multitasking is also linked to short-term memory loss. Most of the research has been applied to the debate over driving with cell phones or with people in demanding jobs such as air-traffic control, but it also affects quality of life for everyday tasks.

Managing two mental tasks at once reduces the brainpower available for either task, according to a study published in the journal NeuroImage. “It doesn’t mean you can’t do several things at the same time,” says Dr. Just, co-director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging. “But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without cost.” If two tasks require the same parts of the brain, it is extremely difficult to succeed efficiently. As an example, listening for a child playing in the next room while talking to your boss on the phone creates conflicting auditory-processing demands.

Multitasking also inhibits how we learn. Only pure uninterrupted concentration allows long-term memory absorption. “When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing,” says Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology, “you don’t learn as well as if you had paid full attention.”

The human brain is biologically incapable of simultaneously processing attention-rich input. Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task and makes up to 50 percent more errors. People who drive while talking on cell phones miss more than 50 percent of the visual cues spotted by attentive drivers, and are involved in more traffic accidents than anyone except very drunk drivers.

Schools and businesses praise multitasking, but it’s an irrational expectation. Multitasking reduces productivity and increases mistakes. Turn off your e-mail and social media sites and see what the results are. Hang up your phone and drive. And leave multitasking to computers.

The Human Brain is Wired for Music

Flutes carved from bones unearthed by archaeologists at Neanderthal burial sites tell a story:  humans have been music-making since the beginning of humankind, spanning every culture throughout the world. We can theorize that music developed from spiritual rituals and communal customs, but while ancient history and the human brain don’t easily reveal their mysteries, we can be quite certain these days that our brains are wired for music. What we don’t know for certain is whether music was an evolutionary accident as a side-effect of language, or whether music was “selected” by evolution as it may have signified intellect and sexual fitness to a prospective mate. Whatever the reason, studies indicate that music is biologically part of human life.

Music is a biological part of human life

Music activates the pleasure-inducing parts of the brain, the same areas that respond to chocolate and sexual arousal. Serotonin and dopamine are the primary neurotransmitters involved, chemicals that affect mood. Most people in Western societies use music to regulate moods, whether to soothe or invigorate as the desire may be. Other parts of the brain contribute as well; for example, parts of the right hemisphere are involved in processing rhythm. EEG recordings have shown a relationship between brain electrical activity and rhythm perception. In addition, the cerebellum, which is known for calibrating detailed movement, is recently acknowledged as affecting language, attention, and mental imagery. This includes tracking the beat and distinguishing familiar from unfamiliar music. Recent studies suggest that the cerebellum plays a role in the formation and expression of musical taste.

An interesting factor is that a person with musical talent has no apparent difference in brain structure than an unmusical person. There is no “Stevie Wonder music gene,” as neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains. However, becoming an expert in anything does change the brain and creates circuitry that is more efficient, and there might be a genetic predisposition toward patience and eye-hand coordination.

There is no evidence that animals show appreciation for music.  Primates, the species closest to humans, exhibit no interest or affinity toward music, but do respond to simulations involving “monkey sounds” that are familiar to them, and they even react emotionally. But rhythm and harmony, at least in human terms, is unknown in the animal world.

And what about those earworms? Otherwise known as a portion of a song or music segment that repeats compulsively within one’s mind, nearly everybody has experienced this irritating phenomenon. (Interestingly, people with OCD tendencies are especially susceptible to earworms). The only way to cure yourself, by at least one account, is to listen to the theme song for “The Flintstones.”

That should take care of it.

Coastal Birds Sitting Ducks as Oil Spill Approaches Shore

The effects of last month’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion, killing 11 people, is on track to surpass the devastation of 1989’s Exxon Valdez oil spill as the country’s worst man-made environmental disaster. The shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile wetlands tend to result in stagnant tidal action, potentially creating a perfect storm of coastal destruction as the massive slick comes ashore, coating everything in its path. A host of bird species native to the region are under direct threat.

Sadly, de-oiling affected coastal birds is no guarantee for their survivability

It is peak migration season for millions of birds heading through impacted areas, and breeding season for the year-round signature coastal birds – pelicans, egrets, ducks, and terns, among numerous others. They have everything to lose if the oil slick reaches them. When oil starts mixing in water, it can change composition and transform into “mousse,” a sticky substance that clings to anything it makes contact with. The gooey matter mats and separates the feathers, subjecting the birds to hypothermia, and it prevents their feathers from repelling water. Oil also weighs down the bird, hindering its ability to fly. They swallow the oil – often ingesting significant quantities – while preening their feathers, and this leads to lung and liver damage and eventually, death.

Some effects of crude oil on coastal birds include:

  • Hypothermia and drowning
  • Poison from ingesting oil
  • Damage to the airways
  • Damage to immune systems
  • Interruption of breeding and contamination of breeding grounds
  • Thinner egg shells, causing deformities

If the oil spill reaches shore, the only hope for saving these coastal birds is quick human intervention, but that hope is slim. A study conducted of post-release survival and dispersal of cleaned and rehabilitated California brown pelicans following two Southern California oil spills in the 1990s concluded that regardless of the efforts, the brown pelicans suffered long-term injury, and that treating the birds do not guarantee further breeding or survivability.

The health of the environment reflects the health of the birds that thrive – or not – in their natural habitats. Their health or decline will eventually mirror our own.

Study Proves Mice Can Make Morphine from Scratch

Morphine is a very potent opiate

Apparently, mammals manufacture their own morphine. Scientists have known for years that people excrete morphine in their urine; however, most individuals assumed that the pain-killer compound was the remnants of their diet or recent drug use. But, according to a recent study, mice were found to make morphine from scratch – therefor it is assumed that other mammals (including humans) could also perform the pharmaceutical feat.

"I can make morphine, can you?"

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Heinz Floss, an emeritus biochemist at the University of Washington in Seattle, admitted that the report proved that the entire mechanism for morphine manufacture is function within the inner workings of a tiny mouse. It also showed how quickly the body breaks down morphine’s structural compounds, which could be why it has been so hard to determine whether humans can make it or not.

Nobody is quite sure exactly why the body makes morphine, but some speculate that it is employed as a painkiller, or to facilitate communication between cells. But, still – no one has evidence to prove it either way, nor can anyone point to the location in the body that is responsible for its manufacture.

Meinhart Zenk, a biochemist at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, led the research, and plans on pinpointing where morphine is made in the body, and whether it has anything to due with pain regulation.

Scientists Implant Microscopic Land Mines On Anti-Microbial Bandage

Send them on a course of self destruction.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, scientists have developed an active anti-microbial bandages.

Previous to this new approach, many wound dressings contained silver as an agent to fight against microbial activity; however, the downside to the metal was that it inhibited human cells from regrowing, and merely weeded out the weaker bacteria, leaving just the strongest strains to flourish as an even deadlier threat.

Toby Jenkins – University of Bath in England – and colleagues seek to replace the troublesome silver with pure innovation. Rather than using any metal at all, the group will pepper the sticky side of their bandages with microscopic capsule-shaped vesicles that mimic regular cells. In doing so, the bacteria in the wound attack them as if to infect the dummy cells; however, when the burst they release an antibacterial agent that kills anything nearby.

It's time to revolutionize the bandage.

They tested the anti-bacteria infused fabric by placing them in three petri dishes with Staphylococcus, a member of the Pseudomonas group, and a harmless strain of E. coli. The results showed that neither of the two harmful bacteria grew, while the harmless E. coli flourished. This indicated that the dangerous bacteria released toxic enzymes, which triggered the microscopic land mines, whereas the innate E. coli failed to step on a single one.

With their success, the team plans on further developing the product so that the process endures for hours, instead of mere minutes.

Pansy the Chimp Dies, and Fellow Chimps Grieve?

Pansy at play with friend and daughter

After friends and family expressed their sadness with a moment of silence, people started to wonder if the chimps were actually affected by the death of their dear friend, Pansy. It’s stories like this – and others – that have attracted the attention of scientists, who now speculate on whether or not chimpanzees are capable of knowing that death means that they are never coming back. According to two newly published studies found in Current Biology, that seems to be the case.

They may be more thoughtful than we think

James Anderson of the University of Stirling in Scotland admits that chimps may have a greater awareness of death than was previously believed. Pansy’s demise provided the first chance to observe a chip’s response to a friend’s natural death. Scientists – via two video cameras within the chimp enclosure – witnessed how three adults started grooming her days before her final moments. Her breathing became labored, and within the last ten minutes of her life, the grooming increased, until a single male jumped onto the platform where the dead chimp lay, and pounded on the body before charging off in an aggressive manor.

The following day, the three same individuals (including Pansy’s daughter) watched in silence as the zoo keepers removed the corpse. Nobody slept on Pansy’s deathbed for five days; survivors ate less and were abnormally inactive throughout the following weeks.

Harvard Psychologists Suggest that Thoughts May Improve Vision

Ellen Langer, Harvard Psychologist

When a group of participants were persuaded to think that they had superior vision, scientists were astounded at what they discovered. April’s issue of Psychological Science reported that Ellen Langer (Harvard University psychologist) and her colleagues had discovered further evidence to suggest that vision doesn’t only depend on information transferring between the eyes to the brain, but that the brain contains experienced-based assumptions, which dictate how it well it will visually perform in a given situation.

Get great night vision: persuade your brain that you have cat eyes.

Such expectations could mean that people devote little attention to customary scenes, which may cause them to ignore the outstanding, or unusual objects and events. If someone anticipates that they cannot see in the dark, then they are more likely going to feel blind when the lights go out; to test this theory, Langer flipped the familiar eye-chart upside down (so that the large E was on the bottom, and the smallest letters on top). She was surprised to find that most people reflected a standard impression of a normal eye chart, and therefore considered the top row to be the easiest to read.

Daniel Simons, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, criticizes the findings on the grounds that reversing an eye chart may entice volunteers to guess when they weren’t sure. Such guesses have a high chance of being correct, and therefore taint the results of the study.

Carina Nebula Is Selected as Hubble’s 20th Anniversary Portrait

The Carina Nebula: portrait of hubble

With the thousands of photographs taken of the far reaches of heavenly space, it was a difficult task trying to select one single portrait to use in celebration of the Hubble Space Telescope‘s 20th anniversary. After a grueling discussion, Hubble astronomers settled on a new angle: a close-up shot of a portion of the Carina Nebula, a dramatic star-forming region in deep space that the Hubble first laid lens on back in 2007.

Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said that the goal was to match -if not exceed – the spectacular image of the iconic ‘pillars of creation,’ which is a reference to a 1995 Hubble image of the Eagle Nebula. Livio puts the improvement into focus by calling the newer image the “Eagle Nebula on steroids.”

The Hubble Telescope

This new image accentuates the sophisticated improvements of the recently installed Wide Field Camera 3. Not only does it impress the public, but it will provide a historical-visual record for future astronomers that are interested in studying a star-forming region of the universe. Once the images were taken, Zolt Levay – the institute’s resident image resource expert – and his assistant, Lisa Frattare, constructed the finalized image – which they made by coloring in the black and white images that Hubble radios back to Earth.

Not only is this cool science, but a wicked example of scientific art.

Iceland’s Volcano Could Entice the Larger Katla To Also Erupt

Eventually, this volcanic ash blocked out the sun

When the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced AY-ya-fyat-la-yo-kult), erupted on April13th, most researchers were not only calculating the destruction of the single vent, but they were also speculating the probability that another – more immense volcano – was going to blow its lid. Katla, another volcano located only a few miles to the east, has a history of acting up soon after Eyjafjallajökull; scientists are keeping a close monitor on any seismic activity in the area, anticipating historical patterns to reflect on this most recent eruption.

A visual depiction of icelandic volcanos in close proximity

Records show that both Eyjafjallajökull and Katla erupted in 1612, 1821, and 1823; while some believe that Eyjafjallajökull also erupted in 920, experts agree that the Largest eruption’s in Iceland’s history arrived only a decade later, between 934 and 940. This eruption began on March 20th, a fissure cracked open on the side of the volcano, sending lava spray into the air that lasted for several weeks. On March 31, a second fissure gaped open, until finally, on April 13th, a slew of minor eartquakes crumbled the south rim of the volcano, collapsing the central chamber, which was directly beneath a glacier. Forty-eight hours later, and the consequential ash plume was large enough to force all air traffic in the United Kingdom to cease.  Considering the fact that iceland itself is merely an island-manifestation of a highly active Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where volcanic magma bubbles up between the seam that scars the ocean floor. According to Alan Linde, a seismologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., Iceland offers a great above sea-level view of a diverging sea floor.