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News Bytes of the Week--Can Money Make You Happy?

A camera with a thousand lenses, fMRIs can't finger fibbers and more...



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Money may not buy love, but it can buy happiness…
The catch is: you have to spend it on someone else. Researchers at the University of British Columbia (U.B.C.) and Harvard Business School report in Science that people who lavish gifts on others and give to charity are happier than their peers. As part of the study, U.B.C. psychologists gave volunteers a wad of cash to spend; half of them were told to splurge on themselves and the other half to spend it on others. The givers rated themselves as being happier, on average, than the self-spenders. The findings mesh with those of a Harvard B-school survey of 16 people who were asked to measure their happiness before and after receiving cash bonuses. Those who spent more of their loot on others rated themselves as happier than their co-workers who had failed to spread the wealth. "These findings suggest that very minor alterations in spending allocations, as little as $5," says study author and U.B.C. psychologist Elizabeth Dunn, "may be enough to produce real gains in happiness on a given day." (Boston Globe, The New York Times' Tierney Lab)

Truth be told: U.S. intelligence warned fMRIs not reliable as lie detectors

Can brain imaging really tell you whether a person is lying? The U.S. intelligence community is banking on it, but a Pennsylvania State University researcher isn't so sure. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), routinely used by neurosurgeons to scan for brain tumors and other disorders, has gained popularity in the intelligence community as a tool for identifying potential terrorists and detecting whether they're lying during interrogation. The growing use of fMRI is not surprising given the limited reliability of traditional polygraph tests, Jonathan Marks, associate professor of bioethics, humanities and law at Penn State in University Park, Pa., says in the American Journal of Law and Medicine. Unlike a polygraph, an fMRI uses powerful magnetic fields to detect tiny changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain that are believed to be signatures of cognitive processes. But he questions whether fMRI scans are reliable markers of veracity. He reports that fMRIs are open to broad interpretation and, as such, could provide images that suggest but do not really confirm fibbing, which could prompt more aggressive interrogation tactics of innocent victims.

Picture perfect: A digital camera with thousands of lenses

If you think the pix you snap on your plain old single-lens digital camera are sharp, imagine what they'd look like if shot using a camera bristling with thousands of lenses. A team of Stanford University scientists is developing a prototype digital camera with a multi-aperture image sensor that could, in effect, place up to 12,616 digital cameras (each with its own lens) on a computer chip. Each of these minicameras would be capable of focusing on different areas of a subject, producing a photo in which almost everything, near or far, is in focus, the researchers report in IEEE ISSCC Digest of Technical Papers. In fact, each point would be captured by at least four of the chip's minicams, producing overlapping views, each from a slightly different perspective, just as the left eye sees things differently than the right one does. In addition to being able to create supersharp three-dimensional images, these multi-lens cameras would also be able to track the exact distances of each subject in the photo from the camera. This information could lead to improvements in a number of related technologies, including facial recognition systems used for security purposes, biological imaging and, in 3-D: printing, the creation of objects to inhabit virtual worlds and building modeling. Such an advance would also pave the way for affordable gigapixel cameras with 140 times as many pixels as today's high-end, seven-megapixel cameras.

There's nothing glacial about the global glacier meltdown

The U.S.'s Glacier National Park may find itself in need of a new name if present melting rates continue to accelerate. The World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich in Switzerland has found that the pace of glacial melting has more than doubled since 2004. With much of the world—particularly developing countries—dependent on the water from glaciers, such shrinkage may serve as a "canary a the coal mine," according to Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme, which has funded the work since 1980. The glaciers of Europe have been particularly hard hit, with Norway's Breidalblikkbrea glacier leading the retreat. (AFP, The Guardian)

One of China's biggest exports to U.S.: Pollution
NASA's Terra satellite has tracked the haze from forest fires, car exhaust and industrial pollution in China and other countries of eastern Asia as it makes its way to the U.S. west coast. The scientists estimate that a full 15 percent of smog blanketing Pacific coast cities such as Los Angeles and Vancouver is made in China. In fact, nearly 10 billion pounds (4.5 million metric tons) of pollution wafted over the west coast of North America from 2002 to 2005. The air stream over the Pacific carries its heaviest load during spring before dying down in summer. (NASA)

Sweet: Controlling insulin response may be key to increased life span
Could insulin be the key to longer life? Harvard Medical School researchers report this week in the journal Cell that earthworms (which have genomes similar to humans) they engineered to respond less readily to insulin lived 50 percent longer than normal worms. The researchers determined that insulin (a hormone secreted by the human pancreas that triggers the breakdown of blood sugar) inhibits the function of one of the worm's master genes, SKN-1, which controls a pathway that helps to fight off free radicals (highly reactive chemicals that can damage tissue). When the worm's response to insulin was blunted, SKN-1 kicked into gear, staving off damage and extending its life span. Insulin has also been found to inhibit the forkhead gene family FOXO, which in humans controls the body's response to various types of stress—a factor that has also been linked to accelerated aging (and heightened risk for diseases including cancer). The researchers next plan to study the relationship between insulin and the mammalian version of SKN-1. If confirmed, a drug targeting this gene could some day supplant caloric restriction as an anti-aging regimen. And wouldn't that make us all happier (and fuller)? (The Daily Telegraph)

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