~ Archive for News in Science ~

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet


OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Taken from the first line of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Ballad of the East and West’

An fMRI study on visuo-spatial tasks involving human subjects, published in this January’s issue of ‘Psychological Sciences’ from a group based at MIT, Stanford and SUNY Stony Brook further confirmed this adage of the differences between Easterners and Westerners. The paper was entitled ‘Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control’. See the news report from MIT’s news office, and a copy of the research paper (if you have personal or institutional subscription to Blackwell Synergy)

In geekspeak:

ABSTRACT—Behavioral research has shown that people from Western cultural contexts perform better on tasks emphasizing independent (absolute) dimensions than on tasks emphasizing interdependent (relative) dimensions, whereas the reverse is true for people from East Asian contexts. We assessed functional magnetic resonance imaging responses during performance of simple visuospatial tasks in which participants made absolute judgments (ignoring visual context) or relative judgments (taking visual context into account). In each group, activation in frontal and parietal brain regions known to be associated with attentional control was greater during culturally nonpreferred judgments than during culturally preferred judgments. Also, within each group, activation differences in these regions correlated strongly with scores on questionnaires measuring individual differences in culture-typical identity. Thus, the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.

(from the abstract of Hedden et al. 2008)

Or in lay-person talk:

Psychological research has established that American culture, which values the individual, emphasizes the independence of objects from their contexts, while East Asian societies emphasize the collective and the contextual interdependence of objects.

(from the MIT news office)

So, yes, our brains are wired differently, according to the prevailing culture in the environment we grew up in during the developmental plasticity phase of our brains.


Phenotypic differences between male physicians, surgeons and film stars: comparative study


This morning, I nearly coughed and spluttered on my cup of coffee when I saw an article in The Star (a Malaysian daily), reporting a study conducted by some doctors in Barcelona, Spain, comparing the looks of physicians, surgeons and film stars who portray these medical practitioners in medical dramas on TV. The best part of this study is that it was actually published in the British Medical Journal!! (Impact factor 9.052 as of 2006!)

Amused, I decided to check out the original article from BMJ. Indeed, reading Trilla et al. (2006) on this issue of BMJ is certainly more entertaining than any of those research articles from Nature, Science, PNAS, JCI, JAMA or even NEJM! (NB: apologies to readers who don’t know these abbreviations. They are names of respectable and higly-cited scientific and medical journals. I’m just too lazy to type their names in full)

For those of you who are interested, you can download a pdf version of Trilla et al. (2006) directly from this link

Intersting points to note from this ‘seminal’ paper:

 1) Surgeons are the only doctors who practice what has been called “Confidence-based medicine”, which is based on boldness.

2) Surgeons are significantly taller and better looking than their physician counterparts. However, film stars who play doctors get the highest ratings, when compared with real-life surgeons and physicians. The latter ‘finding’ does not really come as a surprise – after all, they are film stars; good looks are part of their bread and butter, besides acting skills (or the lack thereof, in some cases).

The authors of the paper attributed the increased height of surgeons as an evolutionary advantage. Increased height persumably makes surgeons more likely to be ‘masters and commanders’, being able to have a better view of and therefore exert tighter control of their natural turf – the operating theater. Physicians, on the other hand, are not usually surrounded by so many people in their ‘habitat’ – the patient’s bedside. They tend to be shorter possibly due to the fact that they tend to hang stetoscopes round their necks, thus weighing them down, causing them to bow their head slightly forward and have a decreased perceived height.

My take: this paper is obviously done in a light-hearted spirit. Maybe it’s Christmas season. Maybe New Year’s just round the corner. Perhaps the authors were bored and had too much free time? (I doubt it. They’re doctors)

Or maybe they wanted to give people, especially those in the medical profession, something funny to read and laugh about. Looks like they succeeded. Now, if only more research articles were that amusing. Well, we’ll probably have to check out the Annals of Improbable Reasearch for more of those.

Nobel Prize for Medicine 2006


This just came in: two American scientists have won this year’s Nobel for Medicine or Physiology. Andrew Fire & Craig Mello, of Stanford and University of Massachusetts respectively. Check out the announcement from the Nobel committee at the Karolinska.



 Fire and Mello were instrumental in the development of RNA interference using double stranded RNA. Using this method, one could design a small interfering RNA (siRNA) towards a specific gene, thereby inhibiting the expression of that particular gene. This tool has been of great use in the field of molecular biology, since it gives scientists a way to downregulate the expression of specific genes, and as such, enables them to investigate the roles of specific proteins in a biological system or a physiological or pathological process.

It is interesting to note that the Nobel Prize foundation and the Associated Press websites initially made an error by listing Fire and Mello as faculty members of MIT and Harvard respectively. In actual fact, Fire got his PhD from MIT while Mello did his at Harvard. That was as much affiliation as they had with those two institutions.

Not realizing the error in the reports, the Harvard Office of News and Public Affairs posted the links to the Nobel and AP websites, which in turn generated some confusion amongst the Harvard community. Later today, they reissued a new statement to correct the reporting error. Subsequently, a check with those two website also revealed that the reporting error was rectified promptly.  

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