Monday, December 2, 2013

Obesity Prevention Hangs in the Balance

When you think of obesity, what comes to mind?
Is it disease? Poor diet? Laziness?

What about adaptation?

Consider a 125lb woman and a 250lb man. Who do you think expends more energy walking from point A to point B?

What if obesity’s just the body’s response to life in an increasingly sedentary environment?

According to a new review published in US Endocrinology, this view of obesity has some merit. Obesity isn’t so much the problem, but your body’s stab at a solution.

Drs. James Hill, Holly Wyatt & John Peters believe the problem actually revolves around energy balance—the straightforward idea that calories coming in should match calories going out. Lose that balance and you’ll likely gain some weight.

Of course, weight loss also requires an energy imbalance: moving more than you eat. What makes weight loss so difficult is your body responds very strongly to this kind of imbalance. Not only are you struck with hunger pangs, but your body actually reduces your resting energy expenditure to compensate for the decrease in energy coming in.

Why does it do this?
Because for most of human history, this kind of imbalance—moving all the time to find limited food—was a major problem.

Unfortunately for us modern humans, when you eat more than you move, your body’s response isn’t nearly as strong. This, again, is the slow and steady weight gain. Your body requiring you to expend more energy with each visit to the fridge.

Worldwide, there are 1.1 billion overweight adults. Given the changes to our diet and activity levels over the last decades, the obesity epidemic should be even worse. So the human body is adapting. But we’re demanding a sprint when evolution tends to crawl.

So how can we solve this problem, without leaving our bodies to their evolutionary devices?

More physical activity.

Ever notice how that friend of yours who exercises every day can seemingly eat whenever and whatever without significant changes in weight?

Here’s the scientific explanation:
There’s a line in the sand when it comes to physical activity. Cross it and you enter a zone where—without expanding your waistline—your body can easily regulate increased intake à la your Thanksgiving feast.

If you fail to reach that line and you don’t want to upsize your wardrobe, you’ll have to rely on unsustainable diets (key word: unsustainable).

Here’s an unsavory statistic: over the long-term, one-third to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they initially lost.

As the publication reports, it’s all because human physiology is biased toward finding energy balance at high intake and high expenditure.

In short, halting obesity requires more than just watching how much we eat. It requires watching how much we move. Because, while dieting can help you drop the pounds, physical activity is what will keep you from picking them back up.

Reproduced with permission from ShareWIK. For more obesity and general health and wellness content, follow them on Twitter @ShareWIK.


Hill, J.O., Wyatt, H.R., Peter, J.C. 2013. The Importance of Energy Balance. US Endocrinology Vol. 9:1, p.27-31.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Giraffe Hangs Oversized Head in Shame, Just Barely Reaches the Ground

Think giraffes should hold their heads up high? Well, they shouldn't... because relative to the sauropod dinosaurs--the longest necked animals to ever exist--they just can't. 

Check out the story at Scicurious to learn more about the recent PeerJ publication: Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks

Monday, September 9, 2013

Animal Cognition Science Ruffling More Than Feathers

What do science writer Virginia Morell and animal scientists Frans de Waal and Brian Hare all have in common?

They each took time out of their busy schedules to speak in my home town at the Decatur Book Festival.

Each of them also had a bit to say about changing perspectives in the field of animal cognition. These changes involve more than just which species are of particular interest and what specific questions scientists wish to investigate. The very language we use to describe scientific discovery is undergoing transformation.

Anthropomorphism — attributing human characteristics to non-humans — has typically met great resistance. Some philosophers and older scientists may still balk at a scientist using the words teach and learn to describe specific interactions between — for example — ants.

Instead, they might favor a vaguer description of the action, semantically separating the human act of teaching from the ant’s transference of information — whether intentional or not — through exhibition in the coincidental proximity of at least one individual who previously had yet to demonstrate possession of (but may very well have already possessed) said information.

Studying the capacities of animals seems to have been a means of reinforcing the misconception that we humans are evolution’s masterpiece. It was the science of isolating exactly which features of humanity make us so special. It was the data we needed to justify a generous pat on the back.

But the pinnacle of progress we are not.

Ms. Morell’s book Animal Wise attempts to summarize the great wealth of cognition research that covers a huge variety of species across the animal kingdom. In her talk, she touched upon laughing rats, border collies with expansive vocabularies, and the aforementioned ant pedagogy.

Our “uniquely human” capabilities (if I may use quotation marks ironically) surface again and again — in related species and in species so distant our common ancestors would’ve likely resembled some sort of worm.

Intelligence does not exist on a continuum, a point Dr. Hare emphasized in his talk. We humans don’t preside at the top of the animal kingdom because there is no “top.” How would you even quantify something as broad as intelligence? Sure, you can devise a test of memory, or a test of empathy, or a test of communicative ability. But how do these intelligent traits stack up against each other?

Hare instead proposes that each species — even individuals within a species — have their own cognitive profile. Depending on its environment, a species may favor and rely upon certain flavors of intelligence while others are diminished.

At the book festival promoting, The Genius of Dogs, which he co-wrote with his wife, science writer Vanessa Woods, Hare spoke predominantly about his canine research. Historically scientists regarded dogs as artificial, the circumstances in which they evolved unnatural. But, again, the perspective of the field has changed. Scientists are no longer studying animals so we can put the fragile human ego on a shelf overlooking the kingdom, now they are studying animals so they can see how we fit in among them.

Now, studying animals can truly help us understand the evolutionary path of our own species. For Hare this means dogs are fair game. What better animal to provide a window into human evolution than that which has co-evolved with us? If we can understand how they became like us, said Hare, we can understand how we became like us.

In the last decade animal cognition research has really branched out. Our primate relatives are no longer the center of attention, with dogs, birds, dolphins, elephants, and a host of invertebrates stealing some of the limelight.

Still, renowned primatologist Dr. de Waal — arguably one of the driving forces behind the changing field — has had no difficulty pushing primate work into new territories. His more recent work has focused on emotions, empathy, and morality.

If likening an insect to a teacher causes a stir, imagine the kind of opposition a claim for ape morality would meet.

De Waal — whose newest book is called The Bonobo and the Atheist — drew attention to the changing opinions on morality’s origin. Initially the belief was that God gave us morality, said de Waal. Then it was reason, then it was science. He rejects even this third view, claiming instead that morality isn’t given to us at all. It comes from within.

We humans have evolved to be moral.

And it’s unlikely that we’re alone. Among our animal friends there is evidence of emotional contagion, fairness, cooperation, self-awareness, even consolation and reconciliatory behavior — all basic tendencies underlying our ethical and moral systems.

What about religion, you ask? Well, at this point, scientists have yet to observe its existence in any species outside of our own. Unlike those basic moral tendencies, on the timescale of evolution, it’s a much more recent phenomenon. For these very reasons, it’s hard to imagine that religion is the father of morality. The more probable relationship casts religion as an engineer and morality as the material at its disposal.

Taken together, scientists studying animal cognition are making it harder than ever to disregard our common identity as animals. My opinion, this is a good thing. All too often, the upper limit of human self-identification stops short at a nationality. I’m more than an American. I’m a human. A human animal.

Friday, August 9, 2013

It's Funny 'Cause it's... Repetitive

Rarely is an explanation of why something is funny, funny in and of itself. Attempts at eliciting laughs by dissecting a joke often rely on the “it’s funny ‘cause it’s [blank]” formula, with “it’s funny ‘cause it’s true” seated at the head of the table.

Surely I’m wrong, but I credit the first mainstream usage of this line to Steve Pepoon who penned the words for Homer Simpson back in 1991, in the only episode of the series he ever wrote. Over the last 22 years, this line or a variant of it has popped up across the comedy landscape from the 2001 flop, Corky Romano, to a season two episode of The Big Bang Theory in ‘09. While the explaining-a-joke joke may be stumbling about on tired legs, there is certainly merit to the thoughtful dissection of jokes without laughter as the end goal.

If you don’t disagree, read the following. 
It’s not funny ‘cause it’s not supposed to be.

On a Radiolab podcast titled Loops, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich introduce a comedy bit of Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal’s which relies heavily on repetition in finding its laughs. Check out the clip below:

What makes repetition so funny, or at the very least amusing?

The NPR podcast points out that there is something comical about the “Kristen Schaal is a horse” bit right out of the gate. Combine the cadence of Braunohler’s voice as he spits out the bizarre lyric with Schaal’s unorthodox horse dance, and it’s odd-ball humor at its finest. Initially, it works in as much as it’s piqued the audience’s curiosity; they digest it as the set-up for an imminent punchline.

But there is no punchline, either imminent or off in the distance. In some ways, the audience has been cheated, the comic-audience contract breached. But, instead of making amends, the comedy duo force-feeds the crowd the same five lines. Then, they do it again. Repetition should kill jokes. Then, they do it again. With each occasion of hearing the same joke. And again. The joke becomes less and less striking. And again. Consider the “it’s funny because it’s [blank]” line. But instead of coming across as tired, the repetitive joke comes off as positively insistent.

What’s interesting is that, when played for laughs, repetition like this ultimately seems to get them. Just not in a conventional way. The absurdity of the act makes you wonder why, and then it makes you mutter why. It makes you question why so much that you may consider asking why not, and then, eventually, it makes you laugh.

Speculating about the mechanism behind this particular kind of humor, I couldn’t help liken the reaction to that of a baby responding to a game of peekaboo, with its drawn out and repetitive nature. As it turns out this association wasn’t unwarranted. Thomas Veatch outlines, in his theory published in the International Journal of Humor Research, that the reason babies are entertained by peekaboo is that they don’t yet understand object permanence (that objects—including people—continue to exist even when you can’t see them). So, for babies, every time your face pops out from behind your hands, you are violating their expectations, you are violating the principle that exists in their minds that when your face disappears behind your hands it literally disappears.

According to Veatch’s theory, all humor is derived from situations in which one can simultaneously feel that a principle is being violated and that the same principle is being upheld. Laughter is the result, as we recognize—albeit with suspicion—that everything is as it should be.

What a repetitive joke seems to do differently is that it makes the joke itself the violated principle. Depending on how attached you are to the principle that a joke will follow a standard set-up > punchline format, you may or may not find situations that violate this principle to be funny. If you are too attached to the principle, then you may find “Kristen Schaal is a horse” offensive. If you are too detached from the principle, you may find the bit entirely unremarkable.

Repetitive jokes may simultaneously be the most deserving of an explanation and the hardest to explain. It may very well be that it’s wondering why they make us laugh that actually makes us laugh. It’s from the very bewilderment as to why it’s funny that it is so funny. In other words, it’s beyond explanation. It’s so very absurd, that we find funny our own attempts to analyze it under a critical light.

By performing live, Braunohler and Schaal have a leg-up over the king of repetitive laughs, Seth MacFarlane, who, relegated to his animated worlds (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) is free to exploit repetition without physically exerting himself (see below). Braunohler and Schaal on the other hand, are exhausted and it shows. Lucky for them, it only elevates the humor as the hoarseness of Braunohler’s voice surpasses the horseness of Schaal’s dance.