The New York Times - The Quest to Make a True Blue M&M 16min

Blue is a rarity among plants and animals. When it does occur in nature, it often isn’t truly blue, but rather a trick of diffraction, or the scattering of light, which is the case for bird feathers, sky, ice, water and iridescent butterfly wings. ... In response to growing pressure from consumers across the globe, Mars announced in February that over the next five years it would remove artificial colors from all the processed foods it makes for human consumption, and that pigments found in natural substances would take their place. ... In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration approved Mars’s petition to use the microscopic algae spirulina to make the first natural blue dye approved for use in the United States. As a result, any food manufacturer in the country can legally use spirulina as a colorant. Mars spent years researching spirulina’s safety; in order to overhaul 1,700 or so recipes and update its global manufacturing capabilities, the company desperately needs a substitute for synthetic Blue No. 1, as does the rest of the industry. But right now, there isn’t nearly enough spirulina dye to go around — and in any case, sometimes it doesn’t yield just the right blue, or the color degrades and comes out blotchy, or it tastes odd. ... Humans are color-seeking animals, and food companies learned to manipulate that trait early. ... One Mars executive told me that to convert only its blue M&Ms to spirulina blue, the company would, in his estimation, need twice the current global supply. ... last year the global market in natural colors was worth an estimated $970 million, up 60 percent since 2011. Natural colors now represent more than half the food-colors market in dollar terms.

Rolling Stone - Why We're Living in the Age of Fear 19min

If this election cycle is a mirror, then it is reflecting a society choked with fear. It's not just threats of terrorism, economic collapse, cyberwarfare and government corruption – each of which some 70 percent of our citizenry is afraid of, according to the Chapman University Survey on American Fears. It's the stakes of the election itself, with Hillary Clinton at last month's debate conjuring images of an angry Donald Trump with his finger on the nuclear codes, while Trump warned "we're not going to have a country" if things don't change. ... Meanwhile, the electorate is commensurately terrified of its potential leaders. According to a September Associated Press poll, 56 percent of Americans said they'd be afraid if Trump won the election, while 43 percent said they'd be afraid if Clinton won – with 18 percent of respondents saying they're afraid of either candidate winning. ... Around the globe, household wealth, longevity and education are on the rise, while violent crime and extreme poverty are down. In the U.S., life expectancy is higher than ever, our air is the cleanest it's been in a decade, and despite a slight uptick last year, violent crime has been trending down since 1991. ... For mass media, insurance companies, Big Pharma, advocacy groups, lawyers, politicians and so many more, your fear is worth billions. And fortunately for them, your fear is also very easy to manipulate. We're wired to respond to it above everything else. If we miss an opportunity for abundance, life goes on; if we miss an important fear cue, it doesn't. ... in order to resist being manipulated by those who spread fear for personal, political and corporate gain, it's necessary to understand it.

1843 Magazine - The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive 15min

In 1997, during his final year as a doctoral student, Fogg spoke at a conference in Atlanta on the topic of how computers might be used to influence the behaviour of their users. He noted that “interactive technologies” were no longer just tools for work, but had become part of people’s everyday lives: used to manage finances, study and stay healthy. Yet technologists were still focused on the machines they were making rather than on the humans using those machines. ... Fogg called for a new field, sitting at the intersection of computer science and psychology, and proposed a name for it: “captology” (Computers as Persuasive Technologies). Captology later became behaviour design, which is now embedded into the invisible operating system of our everyday lives. The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable. ... The human brain releases pleasurable, habit-forming chemicals in response to social interactions, even to mere simulacra of them, and the hottest triggers are other people: you and your friends or followers are constantly prompting each other to use the service for longer. ... the internet’s potential to inform and enlighten was at loggerheads with the commercial imperative to seize and hold the attention of users by any means possible.

Aeon - The addiction habit 14min

When I returned to addiction, it was as a scientist studying the addicted brain. The data were indisputable: brains change with addiction. I wanted to understand how – and why. I wanted to understand addiction with fastidious objectivity, but I didn’t want to lose touch with its subjectivity – how it feels, how hard it is – in the process. ... One explanation is that addiction is a brain disease. The United States National Institute on Drug Abuse, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and the American Medical Association ubiquitously define addiction as a ‘chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry’ ... If only the disease model worked. Yet, more and more, we find that it doesn’t. First of all, brain change alone isn’t evidence for brain disease. Brains are designed to change. ... we now know that drugs don’t cause addiction. ... One idea is that addicts voluntarily choose to remain addicted: if they don’t quit, it’s because they don’t want to. ... The view that addiction arises through learning, in the context of environmental forces, appears to be gathering momentum.

Outside Magazine - Is Your GPS Scrambling Your Brain? 13min

But after stopping on a desolate gravel road next to a sign for a gas station, Santillan got the feeling that the voice might be steering him wrong. He’d already been driving for nearly an hour, yet the ETA on the GPS put his arrival time at around 5:20 P.M., eight hours later. He reentered his destination and got the same result. Though he sensed that something was off, he made a conscious choice to trust the machine. He had come here for an adventure, after all, and maybe it knew where he was really supposed to go. ... It’s comforting to know where you are, to see yourself distilled into a steady blue icon gliding smoothly along a screen. With a finger tap or a short request to Siri or Google Now—which, like other smartphone tools, rely heavily on data from cell towers and Wi-Fi hot spots as well as satellites—a wonderful little trail appears on your device, beckoning you to follow. ... The convenience comes at a price, however. There’s the creepy Orwellian fact of Them always knowing where We are (or We always knowing where They are). More concerning are the navigation-fail horror stories that have become legend. ... Enough people have been led astray by their GPS in Death Valley that the area’s former wilderness coordinator called the phenomenon “death by GPS.” ... By turning on a GPS every time we head somewhere new, we’re also cutting something fundamental out of the experience of traveling: the adventures and surprises that come with finding—and losing—our way. ... Individuals who frequently navigate complex environments the old-fashioned way, by identifying landmarks, literally grow their brains.

National Geographic - Unlocking the Healing Power of You 17min

Whether it takes the form of a touch of the Holy Spirit at a Florida revival meeting or a dip in the water of the Ganges, the healing power of belief is all around us. Studies suggest that regular religious services may improve the immune system, decrease blood pressure, add years to our lives. ... Religious faith is hardly the only kind of belief that has the ability to make us feel inexplicably better. ... just as a good performance in a theater can draw us in until we feel we’re watching something real, the theater of healing is designed to draw us in by creating powerful expectations in our brains. These expectations drive the so-called placebo effect, which can affect what happens in our bodies as well. Scientists have known about the placebo effect for decades and have used it as a control in drug trials. Now they are seeing placebos as a window into the neurochemical mechanisms that connect the mind with the body, belief with experience. ... How does a belief become so potent it can heal? ... Most astonishingly, placebos can work even when the person taking them knows they are placebos.

Mosaic - How much does it hurt? 18min

Aching, throbbing, searing, excruciating – pain is difficult to describe and impossible to see. So how can doctors measure it? ... During that period of convalescence, as I watched her grimace and clench her teeth and let slip little cries of anguish until a long regimen of combined ibuprofen and codeine finally conquered the pain, several questions came into my head. Chief among them was: Can anyone in the medical profession talk about pain with any authority? From the family doctor to the surgeon, their remarks and suggestions seemed tentative, generalised, unknowing – and potentially dangerous: Was it right for the doctor to tell my wife that her level of pain didn’t sound like appendicitis when the doctor didn’t know whether she had a high or low pain threshold? Should he have advised her to stay in bed and risk her appendix exploding into peritonitis? How could surgeons predict that patients would feel only ‘discomfort’ after such an operation when she felt agony – an agony that was aggravated by fear that the operation had been a failure? ... There seemed to be a chasm of understanding in human discussions of pain. I wanted to find out how the medical profession apprehends pain – the language it uses for something that’s invisible to the naked eye, that can’t be measured except by asking for the sufferer’s subjective description, and that can be treated only by the use of opium derivatives that go back to the Middle Ages.

Aeon - Maps in the head 11min

Maps are for humans, but how do animals, which began navigating millions of years before parchment was invented, manage to find their way around? Do animal (and human) brains contain a map, and if so does it have islands and capes, North Poles and Equators, reference lines and so on? And if they do, where is it, and how does it work? How could a jelly-like blob of protoplasm contain anything as structured as a map? ... These questions have intrigued biologists for many decades, particularly because animals can perform astonishing feats such as navigating their way from the North Pole to the South and back again, like the Arctic tern; or returning home after being transported hundreds of miles away, like the homing pigeon. How animals (both human and non-human) work out their location is just beginning to be understood by brain scientists. There are maps in the brain, as it happens. The properties of these maps, which neuroscientists call ‘cognitive maps’, have turned out to be highly intriguing, and are helping us to understand not just how animals navigate, but also more general principles about how the brain forms, stores and retrieves knowledge.

The New York Times - Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? (2011) 18min

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move ... experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation. ... Any decision, whether it’s what pants to buy or whether to start a war, can be broken down into what psychologists call the Rubicon model of action phases, in honor of the river that separated Italy from the Roman province of Gaul.

MIT Technology Review - 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2017 5-15min

Reversing Paralysis: Scientists are making remarkable progress at using brain implants to restore the freedom of movement that spinal cord injuries take away.
Self-Driving Trucks: Tractor-trailers without a human at the wheel will soon barrel onto highways near you. What will this mean for the nation’s 1.7 million truck drivers?
Paying with Your Face: Face-detecting systems in China now authorize payments, provide access to facilities, and track down criminals. Will other countries follow?
Practical Quantum Computers: Advances at Google, Intel, and several research groups indicate that computers with previously unimaginable power are finally within reach.
The 360-Degree Selfie: Inexpensive cameras that make spherical images are opening a new era in photography and changing the way people share stories.
Hot Solar Cells: By converting heat to focused beams of light, a new solar device could create cheap and continuous power.
Gene Therapy 2.0: Scientists have solved fundamental problems that were holding back cures for rare hereditary disorders. Next we’ll see if the same approach can take on cancer, heart disease, and other common illnesses.
The Cell Atlas: Biology’s next mega-project will find out what we’re really made of.
Botnets of Things: The relentless push to add connectivity to home gadgets is creating dangerous side effects that figure to get even worse.
Reinforcement Learning: By experimenting, computers are figuring out how to do things that no programmer could teach them.

The New Yorker - Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds 9min

Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way? ... new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. ... point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context. ... Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups. ... Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.

BBC - The astonishing vision and focus of Namibia’s nomads 7min

The capital of the Kunene region, Opuwo lies in the heartland of the Himba people, a semi-nomadic people who spend their days herding cattle. Long after many of the world’s other indigenous populations had begun to migrate to cities, the Himba had mostly avoided contact with modern culture, quietly continuing their traditional life. But that is slowly changing, with younger generations feeling the draw of Opuwo, where they will encounter cars, brick buildings, and writing for the first time. ... How does the human mind cope with all those novelties and new sensations? By studying people like the Himba, at the start of their journey into modernity, scientists are now hoping to understand the ways that modern life may have altered all of our minds. ... Like an irregular lens, our modern, urban brains distort the images hitting our retina, magnifying some parts of the scene and shrinking others.

National Geographic - What Makes a Genius? 16min

Consider Einstein’s impact on physics. With no tools at his disposal other than the force of his own thoughts, he predicted in his general theory of relativity that massive accelerating objects—like black holes orbiting each other—would create ripples in the fabric of space-time. It took one hundred years, enormous computational power, and massively sophisticated technology to definitively prove him right, with the physical detection of such gravitational waves less than two years ago. ... Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the very laws of the universe. But our understanding of how a mind like his works remains stubbornly earthbound. What set his brainpower, his thought processes, apart from those of his merely brilliant peers? What makes a genius? ... Genius is too elusive, too subjective, too wedded to the verdict of history to be easily identified. And it requires the ultimate expression of too many traits to be simplified into the highest point on one human scale. Instead we can try to understand it by unraveling the complex and tangled qualities—intelligence, creativity, perseverance, and simple good fortune, to name a few—that entwine to create a person capable of changing the world.

National Geographic - Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways 16min

Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at. We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends, and loved ones. Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human. ... The ubiquity of lying was first documented systematically by Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Two decades ago DePaulo and her colleagues asked 147 adults to jot down for a week every instance they tried to mislead someone. The researchers found that the subjects lied on average one or two times a day. Most of these untruths were innocuous, intended to hide one’s inadequacies or to protect the feelings of others. Some lies were excuses—one subject blamed the failure to take out the garbage on not knowing where it needed to go. Yet other lies—such as a claim of being a diplomat’s son—were aimed at presenting a false image. ... That human beings should universally possess a talent for deceiving one another shouldn’t surprise us. Researchers speculate that lying as a behavior arose not long after the emergence of language. The ability to manipulate others without using physical force likely conferred an advantage in the competition for resources and mates, akin to the evolution of deceptive strategies in the animal kingdom, such as camouflage.

National Geographic - How Humans Are Shaping Our Own Evolution 18min

The most intriguing part of the antenna, though, is that it gives him an ability the rest of us don’t have. He looked at the lamps on the roof deck and sensed that the infrared lights that activate them were off. He glanced at the planters and could “see” the ultraviolet markings that show where nectar is located at the centers of the flowers. He has not just matched ordinary human skills; he has exceeded them. ... He is, then, a first step toward the goal that visionary futurists have always had, an early example of what Ray Kurzweil in his well-known book The Singularity Is Near calls “the vast expansion of human potential.” ... But are we on the way to redefining how we evolve? Does evolution now mean not just the slow grind of natural selection spreading desirable genes, but also everything that we can do to amplify our powers and the powers of the things we make—a union of genes, culture, and technology? And if so, where is it taking us? ... Conventional evolution is alive and well in our species. Not long ago we knew the makeup of only a handful of the roughly 20,000 protein-encoding genes in our cells; today we know the function of about 12,000. But genes are only a tiny percentage of the DNA in our genome. More discoveries are certain to come—and quickly. From this trove of genetic information, researchers have already identified dozens of examples of relatively recent evolution. ... In our world now, the primary mover for reproductive success—and thus evolutionary change—is culture, and its weaponized cousin, technology. ... One human trait with a strong genetic component continues to increase in value, even more so as technology grows more dominant. The universal ambition of humanity remains greater intelligence.