Tag Archives: Living beings

What are the negative effects of drugs like Ecstasy and Molly?

Ecstasy/Molly are MDMA.

Basically, MDMA activates a part of your brain which releases serotonin and that part is like a bank or a “holding space” of serotonin. Serotonin is also released when we eat chocolate, have sex or do something fun we enjoy and get that “happy feeling”.

When someone takes MDMA they release almost all of the serotonin in their bank, so it feels good and you have a great time because serotonin. Thing is, serotonin takes time to fill back up in the bank.

MDMA also acts as a psychedelic drug (a drug that can induce hallucinations or the feeling of expanded consciousness).

When people take MDMA regularly; like twice in a week or more, they don’t have the serotonin to enhance their “psychedelic experience”. So what was at one time this amazing, euphoric experience of feeling one with others and empathetic can turn into a nightmare where people feel they can’t escape it, until the effects ware off.

Some studies suggest long term regular use can cause long term permanent problems with serotonin regeneration.

Using pure/good MDMA occassionally (once/twice a year, spaced out from months apart) shouldn’t cause problems. Using it regularly can result in depression and possible brain damage due to serotonergeic damage.

What makes a melody sound happy or sad?

A musician could list you certain chords, rhythms or other structures that make music sound happy or tense or whatever. This is enough for the musician to know how to generate a certain emotional response, but it doesn’t explain why the emotional response happens.

The brain interprets everything through an extremely complex web of filters and processes. Some of that is linked to the amygdala, a part of the brain that is responsible for most of the emotional responses (e.g. fear). The amygdala responds fairly consistently (and thus predictably) to certain stimuli, which is why the same music will have very similar responses in most humans. To whatever extent that the response may be different, it’s due to the way in which memories and past experiences (which differ from person to person) are part of the processing.

This applies not just to music. It applies the same way to paintings, sculptures, stories and movies. Most people have a very similar basal reaction to the same scene or the same work of art, but whenever two people’s reactions are different, it’s because the work might trigger different memories or relate to different past experiences in each of them.

Why does rain make us feel cozy?

Let’s be a bit more specific and talk about gentle rains with maybe a bit of thunder in the distance while you are indoors or under shelter. There are a large number of things that contribute.

First, the soft white noise. A gentle rain creates tons of mildly distracting pleasant white noise. This helps reduce stress.

It amplifies positive feelings of comfort, shelter and safety. You don’t get these positive feelings when you are outdoors working in the rain, you get them when the rain is not drenching you. So there is a difference between indoors (where you are comfortable) and outdoors (where you wouldn’t be). And this contrast can be bigger if there is thunder off in the distance somewhere. And such rains come when it is usually comfortably humid and cool, rather than sticky and too hot.

Gentle rains are tied to an emotional state of calmness too because they are associated with a history of calm activities and “me time”, relaxing and not working. The last time there was a day like this you pampered yourself a little with a good book on a comfortable couch… so you look forward to the next time.

Rain symbolizes renewal and cleanliness. It’s a positive source of growth for plants and it often produces a nice clean smell as it washes dust away. So there is a mental association with a few positives there.

And for those of us who live in temperate zones, this type of pleasant rain means it’s not snowing and there are leaves on the trees, and so it’s what most of us consider to be the better time of the year.

How do small insects not get hurt by raindrops?

It’s easy to intuitively think of raindrops hitting small organisms as being equivalent to cinder blocks falling from the sky and hitting us, but that’s not how it plays out.

Raindrops are not moving very fast, nor are they heavy. For a raindrop to be considered a raindrop it has to be between roughly .5mm – 6mm (about the size of a fly at the largest).  A big raindrop has a terminal velocity of about 10 m/s (20 mph), with smaller drops down closer to 0.9 m/s (2 mph).  That’s basically to say that there isn’t much energy in any given raindrop to do a lot of damage with.

Another part is that smaller creatures are quite strong and tough as a result of the Square-cube Law. This is why an ant or a spider is proportionally so strong and an element of this is why a mouse generally won’t fall fast enough to get seriously injured whereas a horse or an elephant will splash from a long fall. Also why a raindrop falling on a shrew or a butterfly isn’t the equivalent of a cinder-block falling on a human.

Raindrops can certainly hinder small organisms, but that tends to be more an issue of surface tension, heat loss, splashing and water flow, and things like that rather than the actual impact of the water droplet.

For many flying organisms fog (and, to a certain degree, drizzle) is actually  much more difficult thing to deal with as the tiny water droplets are suspended in the air and they accumulate on the surface of the flying organism, adding a lot of weight. This is why you usually don’t get mosquitoes buzzing about when it’s foggy.

How complex are animal “languages”?

There’s a tremendous variety in the levels of intelligence and, alternately, cleverness, in various animals. This often translates directly to the complexity of their language. Same goes for pack behaviours: some are learned (e.g. lions hunting), some are purely instinctual (e.g. division of labour in termite nests).

And it’s important to realize that language is not limited to vocal elements. Body languages, smells/pheromones (particularly during mating seasons) and dances often contribute to communication between animals.

From available evidence it would appear that no form of animal communication comes anywhere near the complexity of human language.

Most insects don’t really communicate beyond the instinctual level. There’s no actual thought behind it, it’s just automatic. One of the more sophisticated communications is bees “dancing” the direction and distance of fields of flowers when they arrive at their hive.

Reptiles and amphibians have vocalizations that mostly announce their presence, although frogs can get into some pretty loud “hey this is my territory” duels during summer nights at the pond.

Fish are mostly instinct-type communicators. Some use visual signals and water pressure changes in schools, helping them to coordinate movement. A few vocalize. Squid and octopi can send visual signals to each other through changing the colour of their skin; some are thought to be as smart as dogs.

Birds are near the top of the list, with highly intelligent gray parrots being taught huge vocabularies of human words to the point where some can make their own sentences. As superb mimics, they have the advantage of being able to actually shape their communications to exactly match our own. Many other species have more limited vocabularies that they use among themselves, with word count ranging from a few basic calls for nighthawks to a high number of different coordinating communications for crows.

Then there’s mammals, and most use just basic words like wolf howls or happy barks to communicate. Some are even dedicated to crossing species; cats meow at humans but not so much when we’re not around. Cetaceans like dolphins and orcas and whales have very complex songs though, and a lot of fairly complex communication goes on between them. There’s a lot of non-verbal communication that happens in chimp tribes.

Wolves certainly do use communication to coordinate their actions. It’s not just vocal, but body language as well. They even appear to vote: if their leader wants to, say, go hunting, they might gather and then cast their votes by sneezing.

That’s a very sophisticated form of animal communication, but human language still knocks it clean out of the water. We can talk about abstract things, we can talk about things happening in different places or at different times, we can even talk about things that haven’t happened yet or may never happen at all. By contrast, animals appear only to be able to communicate things that are happening here and now.

Another feature of human language is that it is “open-ended” and “productive”. This means that although we only have a finite number of symbols (sounds and gestures that make up the language), we can talk about an infinite number of things, including things nobody has ever talked about before. Animals by contrast can only talk about a finite number of things: they can say, “I am hungry,” but they can’t say, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

There are claims – and they are very controversial claims – that primates can be taught to communicate with humans in ways that mimic human language. The most famous is Koko the gorilla, who has been taught American Sign Language. The researchers working with her claim that she can not only talk about things that happened in the past, she can even make up her own phrases (for example, signing “dirty bad toilet” as an insult). But some linguists are skeptical of these claims, saying that the signs Koko produces are so vague and poorly executed that you can’t tell what, if anything, they mean.

Why does gargling with salt water help with sore throat, but eating chips doesn’t?

There’s a phenomenon called ‘osmosis’ which plays its role here.

When two different liquids with different concentrations are separated by a semipermeable membrane (the one that allows one-way flow only), the liquids would flow in such a way that they attain a state of equilibrium, i.e. now the concentration of both the liquids is same.

The bacteria which cause the sore throat also have their skin similar to a semipermeable membrane. When you gargle with salty water, the inner ‘fluid’ of bacteria (which makes them live, in a literal sense) oozes out (in order to equalize the concentrations of these fluids-salt water and bacterial body fluid). This kills the bacteria and their ‘active fluid’ is washed away when you gulf-out the liquid. Thus they loose their dominance on the sore throat and you feel relaxed.

Salty food doesn’t help the way salt water does for several reasons.

For one, there isn’t enough of the right kind of salt in most salty foods to make your throat less bacteria-friendly.

Secondly, there are enough carbs and sugars in most salty foods to feed the bacteria making your throat sore. This is obviously counter-productive.

Thirdly, salty foods usually have a very rough texture which will scrape and irritate your throat, which is bad by itself but the super tiny scrapes also make great hiding places for the bacteria to grow.

So gargling salt water is a great idea and will help kill the bacteria making your throat sore. Eating salty food is a terrible idea because it basically builds a cozy place for all the bacteria to live and then gives them a bunch of free food.

How does the immune system work?

A few of the mechanisms that the immune system has to kill things are:

Antibodies. Antibodies are molecules that can “tag” things for destruction. the shape on one end of the antibody is shaped just right to catch onto a specific thing. Hopefully that thing is a bacteria or something trying to make you sick. But the antibody isn’t smart, so if it happens to be a shape that it attaches to your own nerve cells, it still “tags” them for destruction. Antibodies can also play a role in killing things through a process called agglutination. If the type of thing the antibody attaches to is free moving in the blood stream or fluid around cells, then it might bump into lots of antibodies and have lots of “tags” on it. Antibodies are shaped so that the end sticking up after “tagging” something tends to get stuck to the end of other antibodies. So, they mash together in a big mass and the things they are attached to get dragged down and die since they can’t move around and eat and breath.

Sometimes antibodies happen to be shaped in a way that they block some vital function of whatever they attach to and kill it directly, but this is less common.

Things that don’t or can’t be agglutinated though remain  “tagged” and then other parts of the immune system kick in.

Once tagged specific white blood cells come along and see the tag, which tells them to “eat” (phagocytosis) it. They do eat it and then literally they have little organells in them that digest them. These guys can only eat so much though, so they die off. That’s what the white stuff we call puss is. Dead white blood cells that ate as much of the infection as they could until they died.

For a great book on this from a genius immunologist that is extremely accessible in his writing (even funny) see In Defense of Self: How The Immune System Really Works.

Why do healing wounds feel warmer to the touch?

When you’re injured, your body inflames the area around it – basically by increasing bloodflow to that area. This allows the body to move lots of platelets to the area (to scab it over), lots of white blood cells (to fight infections), and to help repair the area and remove damaged bits.

So all the increased bloodflow to that area makes it warmer. If the warmth continues for too long, it’s a sign that the area could be infected, in which case the body is still pumping white blood cells to that area and keeping up the heat to fight off the infection.

Why some animals seem to enjoy human affection?

Some animals are social animals. In the wild they would live in packs, herds, or groups. We domesticated some of these animals and we become their pack members or herd members. They want attention and since humans give it to them (and give them food also) they bond to us.

Not all animals that live in packs can be domesticated and behave too wild as they mature so we don’t keep them as pets or livestock.

Noting that when these animals which seem to enjoy our attention are not raised by humans (but live wild/feral) they don’t crave human attention at all and instead find companionship with other wild animals of their own kind. Wild horses will run from people, feral dog packs will even attack people. Feral cats will run away from people.

Why does the body feel physically ill after experiencing emotional trauma?

The limbic system is responsible for this feeling. The limbic system is the emotion and memory part of your brain, and is hugely important for how you experience and perceive things. The limbic system has a direct impact on the autonomic nervous system. If you perceive that you’re in a calm situation, your limbic system will impact the rest of your brain, and thus the rest of your body, to make your body act as if it is in a calm situation. The hypothalamus is also part of the limbic system and plays a role in your body maintaining chemical balances. It is also a reason why you feel physically ill.

To give a little bit more detail on a few things: The sympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system is the the part of your body that makes your heart beat faster, makes you breathe faster, makes your pupils dilate, makes you sweat, and makes you stop digesting food (your blood is diverted to your muscles so you can run if needed). It is the fight of flight response in your body and has a cascade effect on the rest of your body. If your limbic system is going crazy with emotional trauma, it’ll make your sympathetic nervous system ramp up as well. If you just ate and your body all of the sudden stops digesting food, you may throw up.

The limbic system (emotion and memory area of the brain) also directly impacts almost every other part of your brain. The limbic system is smack dab in the center of your brain, thus connects to everything. This is why being in a really intense situation can change how you feel physically and how you even perceive (time slowing down) a situation. One of the important parts of the limbic system is the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus plays a huge role in maintaining your body’s “natural state”. If you need food, your hypothalamus is the part that makes you feel hungry. The hypothalamus is part of the limbic system, so it is under these same controls of emotion. Under a really stressful situation, your hypothalamus will react with the release of cortisol, which will affect your blood sugar and can make you feel sick.

Now, all of this kind of paints the limbic system as the bad guy, but that’s not really true. The limbic system is also what integrates emotion into what we experience when something is positive. It’s why your mom’s cooking tastes better if you have fond memories of her. It’s what makes your heart flutter when you’re in love. It’s what makes you remember things. It is even the reason why a truck horn can go off in the dead of night and you won’t wake up, but when someone whispers your name you will.