Happy Chinese New Year!

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What makes us happy?

'Mind training' is nurtures the inner conditions for happiness

‘Mind training’ nurtures our inner conditions for happiness

The search for happiness can be a life-long quest, but why? We’ve all experienced happiness so why do so many of us struggle to find it? Perhaps we’re looking in the wrong places.

If happiness is something we are going to seek our entire lives then we better know exactly what it is. However, many people don’t and subsequently turn their backs on it time and time again. There are hundreds of definitions, but quite simply happiness is the sensation of feeling good; it can range from contentment to deep fulfilment. Now we know what happiness is, how can we find out what makes us happy?

The answer is uncovered by modern brain psychology, which enables researchers to objectively measure happiness. By attaching electrodes to the scalp, it is possible to measure electrical activity in different parts of the brain. This activity is monitored whilst someone is shown images designed to provoke emotions of happiness.

What has been found time and again is an association between the person reporting feelings of happiness and an increase in the electrical activity in the left front of the brain. The opposite is true of unhappiness; when feelings of unhappiness are reported the right front side of the brain saw more electrical activity. This shows the presence of a direct neuronal connection with our emotions, meaning that happiness can be objectively monitored and observed.

Now that we have a scientific method by which we can measure happiness, we have only to tackle  the matter of what makes us happy. The complex truth is that a lot of things do. The ancient and philosophical belief is that true happiness comes from within and that attachments to the material world are ultimately meaningless in the quest for happiness. The other belief is that happiness is created and affected by our external circumstances. The probability is that both of these rather opposing positions are true and both contribute to happiness.

External happiness

Although the happiness we gain from our external circumstances is perhaps superficial and often short lived, it is never the less, still happiness. One of the main things we believe will bring us happiness is money; the ability to pay off debts, live lavishly and provide for our family surely ensures happiness. But it’s not that simple. When it comes to money, our happiness is affected by two things; social comparisons (i.e. how much money the people around have compared to you) and habituation (i.e. the lifestyle you are used to getting). If your colleague gets a pay rise and still earn less than you then your happiness is not likely to be affected but if they get a pay rise and begin to earn more than you, then your happiness might decrease. This demonstrates why external circumstances cannot gaurentee long-term pleasure. So we look now, to within.

Internal happiness

A Ted talk given by Matthieu Ricard, former biochemist turned Buddhist monk explains perfectly how our internal state can determine our happiness, or wellbeing. Ricard explains that most of us search for happiness ‘outside’; we believe that we can collect the perfect conditions to make happiness. This might illustrate why we have a constant desire to buy new things, things that we believe can create happiness, and they do, for a while. As Ricard shows we could be in a physical paradise, surrounded by all the external things we desire and still not be happy. This is ultimately because our control over the external world is temporary and extremely limited. So we need to focus on what we can control; our minds.

By using what Ricard calls ‘mind training’ we can nurture the inner conditions that will enable our happiness. We do this when we are experiencing a bad or negative emotion, like anger; by consciously focusing on the feeling we can learn to dissolve it. Over time the emotion will occur less and less, until eventually it will become only a fleeting feeling. This ability to fully embrace our positive state leads to true happiness.

References:

Haidt, J (2006) The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Basic Books.

Richard, L (2011) Happiness: Lessons from a new science. Penguin.

Ted talk: http://www.ted.com/playlists/4/what_makes_us_happy.html

30-minute stem cell breakthrough

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Stem cell breakthrough could pave the way on the yellow brick road to personalised medicine

A new and novel method of creating stem cells could revolutionise the future of ‘personalised medicine’. A team of Japanese scientists created stem cells by submerging blood cells in a weak acidic solution. This new method is a cheaper, faster and more effective way of creating the highly sought after cells.

Stem cells are integral to bodily repair as they alone have the capability to differentiate into specialised cells; a phenomenon known as pluripotency. For this reason they’ve formed the bases of regenerative medicine, but the methods of creating these cells have proved problematic.

Until now, there were only two ways of obtaining stem cells. The first was to harvest them from embryos, but this was fraught with ethical implications. The second method was to genetically manipulate adult cells however, serious issues were raised regarding the safety of these genetically modified cells.

The new phenomenon known as, stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) faces none of these problems and is inherently simple. Once submerged in the acidic solution it took just 30 minutes before the blood cells returned to their original embryonic state. The discovery was make by Haruko Obokata, a young stem-cell biologist who had been working on the technique at the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in Kobe for five years.

In addition to blood cells, the researchers have already successfully created stem cells from brain, muscle, fat, lung, liver and bone-marrow tissue in mice. The technique requires no highly specialised equipment and therefore has the potential to be carried out in a wider number of labs.

The discovery of a method that could safely and ethically create stem cells has long been awaited. It paves the way for ‘personalised medicine’, where doctors would be able to create stem cells using a patients blood or tissue sample. These ‘personalised cells’ would then be reintroduced back into the patient to allow tissue repair, without the fear of rejection.

 

Reference:

Obokata, H et al (2014) Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency. Nature 505, 641–647.

How do we know that our climate is changing?

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In order to be sure that our climate has changed we need to know what it was like in the past

In recent years there’s been a greater emphasis placed on observing the climate, due to the detrimental effect that its change is having on our environment. But that’s only in recent years, and prior to this there will have been little, if any, observation being conducted on the climate. So how can we be sure that it is in fact changing?

Well it’s lucky for us that some forward-backward thinkers found a way to do it; actually they found quite a few ways.

Due to the interest in conserving our planet and the new technologies available, scientists observing the climate now have an inventory of equipment with which to accurately measure and observe our present climate. There are acronyms like SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interface Device) and SST (sea-surface temperature) being banded around.  Specialised facilities, organisations and even satellites are all closely monitoring parameters on land, at sea and in the atmosphere. But when it comes to collecting climate data from the past (300 years previously) things aren’t quite so simple; a little initiative is necessary, shall we say.

The growth of tree rings are largely affected by temperature and rainfall. We can therefore use growth rate to broadly estimate changes to rainfall or temperature depending on the preferences of the tree. The only problem with this method is that growth is affected by a range of climatic factors so it can be difficult to distinguish between each. This method can also be used with coral as they too have seasonal growth rings that are affected by temperature (faster growth in warmer waters).

The examination of ice cores can be used to reveal air temperatures. By taking samples of ice scientists can examine air bubbles that have become trapped within the layers of snow. It is these air bubbles that show not only temperature but also precipitation, dust transportation and volcanic fall out.

Ocean sediments are made of fossil shells, which accumulate on the seabed as organisms die. A sample of these sediments can be collected using a steel tube, which allow fossils to remain in their chronological order of formation. Analysis reveals what species inhabited the different layers and from that it’s possible to estimate if the water was warm/ cold by the preference and abundance of the species.

Pollen records date back to the Devonian era and provide a unique and unusual insight into our past climate. Pollen is the powder that contains the microgametophytes or the ‘sperm’ of seed plants. Its can remain perfectly preserved during fossilisation as it is protection by its outer sheath, known as the sporopollenin. Even in a fossilised state the tiny pollen grains are identifiable thanks to their distinctive morphology. The abundance and distribution of pollen can be used to estimate temperatures, depending on the plants preferences.

Although there are data gaps and inaccuracies associated with these ‘indirect’ methods of climate measurement, they’re important in giving us something to compare current data with. In some cases this data can be combined with information collected from modern equipment, like Stevenson shelters, weather bouys and satellites.

In order to better estimate how our climate might change in the future, it’s important that we understand changes that have occurred in the past.

Google ventures further into AI

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The artificial intelligence (AI) firm, DeepMind Technologies has been bought by the search engine giant, Google for $400m. The London-based company was set up just two years ago by neuroscientist and former young chess prodigy, Dennis Hassabis. It focuses on the development and application of general AI.

The acquisition of yet another company based within the field of AI comes as no surprise; in December of last year Google added eight new companies to its empire, all specialising in some form of AI.

Google has given no official reason for the purchase. But the fact that DeepMind Technologies recently filed two US patents, which could be used in developing Google’s image search system just might have something to do with it!

How do you make things invisible?

The technology could see the rise of fully invisible military aircrafts

The technology could see the rise of fully invisible military aircrafts

There is a plethora of ongoing research aimed at uncovering a method that would enable the full, and infallible invisibility of an object. It seems most hopes for future success are pinned on the use of metamaterials.

Metamaterials are artificial materials made-up of different elements, which have been arranged into specific patterns. What’s interesting is that metamaterials don’t exhibit the properties of the elements which make them up. Instead parameters like shape, size and arrangement determine their properties; meaning that they interact with light in a peculiar way.

Due to their unique properties, light ‘bends’ around metamaterials rather than being reflected off them, as is the case with normal objects. If no light waves bounce off an object then no light waves enter our eyes telling us there is something there. Hey presto, invisibility.

It’s not just the metamaterial itself which would remain unseen; any object placed inside the metamaterial would also become undetectable.