Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Thunderstorm Asthma

In November 2016, emergency departments of Melbourne, Australia, were overwhelmed by a sudden surge of patients with asthma exacerbations. There was a 672% excess of breathing-related emergency presentations, with 992% more asthma-related admissions than normal. Many of these patients had never had asthma attacks before (72%), but most had a history of hay fever (95%).

The dramatic flood of patients put significant strain on hospital systems, highlighted by some hospitals running out of stocks of inhaled medicines for asthma exacerbations or rooms to treat patients in.

The cause of this bizarre epidemic – dubbed thunderstorm asthma – is still not clear, but it has been theorised to be related to pollens. It has been known for over 30 years that thunderstorms can pick up large volumes of pollen from one area, then dumped on an urban area far away. Because the pollen were exposed to high levels of moisture, they can burst into very small fragments that make it easier to be inhaled into the lungs, bypassing the natural filter systems in the nose.

There is also a possibility that these thunderstorms introduce pollen from species such as rye that are more allergenic than typical pollen found in residential areas, causing worse reactions.

The drastic increase in pollen density and increased penetration to the lungs can trigger a severe asthma attack, particularly in people whose immune systems are sensitive to pollen (hay fever). In the case of the 2016 Melbourne event, ten people ended up dying, while more than 500 excess people were admitted to hospital compared to the normal asthma admission rate.

Instances of thunderstorm asthma have been recorded throughout the world, but scientists have not been able to prove the exact cause. It is a staunch reminder that nature and the environment have direct impacts on our health, in ways we may not even be able to imagine.

Posted in Science & Nature

Death Pose

When a dinosaur fossil is excavated, it is not uncommon to find the dinosaur in what is known as the death pose. The long neck is bent dramatically backwards and the mouth is gaping open, as if the dinosaur is letting out one final bellow.

For a long time, palaeontologists believed that dinosaurs found in this pose had remarkable neck flexibility. For example, the Elasmosaurus was originally thought to have a snake-like neck that could bend and curl around, even being able to lift its head above the water, as seen with the image of the Loch Ness Monster. However, in reality, the neck would have been too stiff and heavy to move around like that, meaning that Elasmosaurus would have swam around with a straight neck, barely lifting its head above water.

It is still unclear exactly why dinosaurs are often found in the death pose.
Traditionally, it was believed that the strong ligaments holding the neck bones (vertebrae) contracted as they dried out, bending the neck backwards where there are more ligaments.
Others refute this theory, instead suggesting that the dinosaur remains would be rearranged by water currents, or that the carcass would naturally bend backwards when floating in water.
Finally, another group of scientists believe that the pose happens in the final moments of the dinosaur’s death throes, suggesting that they experience opisthotonus (arching of the back muscles, as seen in tetanus) either due to lack of oxygen in the brain, or poisoning.

It is fascinating to think that although these dinosaurs have been dead for 66 million years, we still have so much to learn from them.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Cobra Effect

While colonising India, the British government became concerned about venomous cobra snakes causing a public safety issue in Delhi. To remedy this situation, they decided to use the people as cheap labour by offering a bounty if anyone brought in a dead cobra. They thought this would be a cost effective method of reducing the cobra population.

The strategy was initially a success, with a huge number of cobra snakes being killed for the reward. But then, something unexpected happened. People soon caught on that it did not matter where the cobra snakes came from, as long as it was dead. Therefore, they abused this loophole by breeding cobra snakes and then killing them for even more reward. The British government found out about this enterprise eventually and decided to scrap the program.

With no reason to have so many cobra snakes, the breeders decided to release the cobras. Ultimately, Delhi’s cobra population was now larger than when the program was initiated.

This is the cobra effect. Sometimes, an idea may seem novel and efficient, but human psychology can easily turn it on its head and make a problem worse than before.

A similar, but much more macabre, phenomenon happened in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1828. At the time, anatomy was a hot new field of research, so human cadavers were in great demand by the universities, doctors and scholars. Due to a Scottish law stating that cadavers could only come from deceased prisoners, orphans and suicide victims, there was very limited supply. Following the economic laws of supply and demand, the price of a human cadaver rose more and more. “Body snatching” became a popular crime, where people exhumed corpses from graveyards and sold them for a profit.

Two men by the names of William Burke and William Hare took things one step further. The two ran a lodging house, where a tenant passed away suddenly, while owing rent. To cover the owed amount, they stole the body before the burial and went to Edinburgh University, where they sold the body to an anatomist named Robert Knox. On hearing that bodies were in great demand and that they would be paid handsomely for any more cadavers, they hatched a sinister plan.

They realised that since their “clients” did not care about where the body came from, they could easily source them through murder. Over the course of a year, they murdered at least 16 people at their lodge and sold their corpses to Robert Knox for dissection. Their choice method of murder was to wrestle down and sit on the victim’s chest to asphyxiate them (now called “burking”), as strangling, choking or using a sharp instrument would reduce the corpse’s value due to the damage.

The pair were eventually caught and sentenced to death. Hare was eventually released, but Burke was hanged and ironically, his skeleton was preserved and exhibited at the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.

Posted in Science & Nature

Brace Position

A word you never want to hear during a flight is “brace, brace”. It is used as an instruction from the flight crew to the passengers that there is an impending crash landing and everyone should assume the brace position. It is covered in the safety instructions at the start of every flight.

The brace position varies for each country and airline, but the general principle is to bend forward, putting your head either on your lap or against the headrest of the seat in front of you, having your feet flat on the ground and covering your head with both of your hands.

The purpose of the brace position is to maximise your chance of survival in the event of a crash landing. A typical passenger jet travels at around 900km/h. When a plane crashes, extreme amounts of force are exerted on the plane chassis and its contents. The following is a non-exhaustive list of potential sources of injury for a passenger:

  • Inertia and two-point seat belt (only across the waist) results in “jack-knifing”, where the body folds over at high speeds. This can cause catastrophic injury to abdominal organs and the spine.
  • Head and neck injury against the seat in front, resulting in anywhere between a concussion to bleeding in or around the brain. Even if the head injury is survivable, being knocked out or confused after a concussion reduces your chances of escaping the crashed plane before collapse, fires or explosions.
  • Whiplash injury of the neck.
  • Limb injury from flailing.
  • Injury from falling debris.

The brace position has been optimised over the last 20-30 years to reduce the risk of all of the above types of injuries, with multiple studies confirming that it is effective in reducing crash mortality.

Another positive news is that the risk of dying from a plane crash is extremely low. Your risk of dying on a flight is 1 in 60 million – far, far lower than the risk of dying from a car accident, being hit by a bus, a brain aneurysm or even being hit by lightning. Thanks to rigorous research, improved design and numerous safety features such as brace position, you have a 95% survival chance in an airplane crash, and even in serious crashes, the survival chance is 76%. 

Of course, the minute percentage of plane crashes that result in fatalities tend to be non-survivable in the first place, but we cannot postpone death forever.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Voodoo Death

We inherently fear death. Much of what we do biologically is struggling against death. We eat and drink to sustain ourselves. We feel pain to avoid things that may eventually kill us. Even moments before our death, our brain will flash our life before our eyes to grasp at any past experiences that may help us survive.

Because of this, we are also inherently neurotic. Some fear flying in a plane because they can imagine the plane crashing and burning, even knowing that flying is safer than a car ride. Childhood traumas where we thought we might die cause long-lasting damage to how we behave and think as an adult.

The most interesting example of how the fear of death can affect us is the phenomenon of voodoo death.

American physiologist Walter Cannon published a paper in 1942 studying cases of “voodoo death” – where healthy people (usually from tribal societies) suddenly passed away after being cursed. Voodoo death starts when a person is cursed or condemned to die by a medical person, such as a witch doctor or shaman. The victim and those around them must believe that the curse will actuall kill them (due to the culture or tradition). The victim’s family may even prepare a funeral. The victim loses all hope that they can survive the curse. They then die, even though their body shows no signs of physical ailment.

For example, the Australian Aborigines are known to have practised “boning”, where a witch doctor would point a vexed bone at an enemy, causing the victim to immediately convulse and die. A Nairobi woman passed away within 24 hours of finding out that the fruit she ate was sacred and she committed a great sin. A Maori man, who was told he should never eat wild game meat, died a day after finding out that he had accidentally eaten wild game meat – even though he had eaten in 2 years ago.

Voodoo death is not only limited to pre-modern societies. In the 1990’s, there was a documented case where a patient was diagnosed with terminal metastatic oesophageal cancer. After saying his goodbyes to his family as were his last wishes, he swiftly passed away. On autopsy, they discovered that the cancer had not actually spread that much and was not the cause of death.

There are many theories as to what may cause voodoo death. The traditional thought was that intense fear and stress stimulates the release of catecholamines such as adrenaline, inducing a massive fight-or-flight response, as seen in broken heart syndrome. The surge of adrenaline causes the heart to beat too fast and too strongly, until it gives out and causes cardiac arrest.

However, more recent studies showed that animals that die from stress exhibit signs of the opposite happening – that is, the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the common type of fainting spells called vasovagal syncope) is overactive. Because the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect to the sympathetic (fight-or-flight), it can cause the heart to slow to the point of stopping.

This parasympathetic overactivity may be triggered by a sense of absolute hopelessness, essentially causing the body to “give up” on life. On a related note, the hopeless victim will likely not be eating or drinking much while under extreme emotional duress, so dehydration and catatonia may play a role as well.

Voodoo death is an excellent example of how much power the mind has over the body. Ironically, the fear of death itself can cause death.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Heartbeat Hypothesis

When you compare the lifespans of mammals, it is common to see that larger animals live longer than smaller animals. Another observation is that smaller mammals almost always have a much higher basal heart rate. For example, a mouse has a basal heart rate of about 600 beats per minute (bpm), but only lives 3 years on average. An elephant has a basal heart rate of 30bpm, but lives up to 60 years. If you do the maths, it turns out that the total heartbeats per lifespan is surprisingly similar between the two species (0.94 billion beats). It has been noted that amongst mammals, there is a clear inverse correlation between heart rate and lifespan.

This observation led to the popularisation of a factoid that the heart can only beat a limited number of time before it eventually fails.

Unfortunately, there has been very limited evidence to support this theory. It is medically true that a heart under more strain for a long period of time, such as with high blood pressure, has a tendency to develop more diseases such as cardiomyopathy and heart failure. However, there are too many other variables to consider. For example, exercise temporarily raises your heart rate but improves your overall cardiovascular health and lowers your basal heart rate.

It is much more likely that death from aging is related to the basal metabolic rate. Metabolism produces free radicals, which are elements with free electrons that can damage cells. Therefore, the higher the metabolic rate (such as in mice), the faster the damage accumulates and results in death.

That being said, consider the other implication of the so-called heartbeat hypothesis. Our hearts beat faster in response to many stimuli: exercise, excitement, fear, anxiety, fun and love. If the hypothesis is true, that would mean that intense emotions could make our hearts tire out faster and hasten our inevitable demise.

Could falling in love be detrimental to our physical health? Thankfully, this has never been shown to be true, with many studies showing that happily married couples tend to outlive single people.

Even if it were true, would you give up on the idea of love to live a few more years? What kind of life would be worth living without any highs or lows? Perhaps when we fall in love, experience heartache or become overwhelmed with happiness, we are making the voluntary choice of quality, not quantity, of life.

Posted in Philosophy

Trolley Problem

Imagine the following situation. There are five people working on a railroad. Unfortunately, a train is travelling down the track at the same time. Neither the conductor nor the workers are aware that a crash is coming. You are the only person that knows. Next to you is a switch that will change the tracks so that the train diverts and misses the five people, but the second track also has one worker working on it. Here is the dilemma: do you pull the switch to save the five workers at the cost of the one worker?

This is the famous trolley problem, a thoroughly discussed ethical dilemma that explores the ethics of utilitarianism. Is it morally right to sacrifice the life of one person to save the lives of five people? Mathematically this makes sense, as you are essentially saving four people through your action.

But now consider a similar yet different situation. Instead of a switch, this time you are standing next to a very large man on a bridge overhanging the tracks. The only way to save the five people on the track is to push the large man on to the tracks, slowing the train down and giving the five workers enough time to escape harm.

Mathematically, the end result is the same: one person is sacrificed so that five people live. But when presented the two scenarios, the majority of people will say they would not push the large man, even though they were willing to pull the switch in the first situation.

This is a complex ethical problem as the rational, logical choice may not necessarily be the “morally right” choice. It directly conflicts with our natural and cultural belief that we should not kill members of our own species. The slippery slope argument also applies here, as if you can argue that killing one man to save five people is correct, then what’s to stop us from sacrificing one person to harvest their organs to save the lives of many people awaiting organ transplants?

Although the original problem was developed to explore the morality of utilitarianism, we are now living in a time where the trolley problem has become an actual logistical issue. The issue lies with self-driving cars. Self-driving cars should theoretically dramatically reduce road traffic accidents as it removes human error such as drink driving and inattention as the cause of crashes. However, if a situation was to arise where the car senses that it is about to collide into a pedestrian (or five), what does it do? Does it swerve to avoid the pedestrian and put the passengers’ lives at risk? How does a computer decide what the morally right choice is?

A computer is designed to make calculated, rational decisions. Mathematically, it may deem that swerving and crashing into a tree – endangering the life of its sole passenger – is the logical choice to prevent hitting five people on the road. But then who would buy a car that willingly sacrifices its passengers’ lives for the greater good?

Technology is advancing at a staggering rate and we are facing ethical dilemmas that we have never had to consider before. It is our job to discuss and explore these issues ahead of time so that we can prevent irresponsible use of technology in the future.

Posted in Philosophy

Memento Mori

No matter how special you may be, there is one universal truth: we will all die someday. It may be in fifty years’ time, or it could be tomorrow. But nonetheless, we all have to eventually face our mortality. Memento mori, which is Latin for “remember you must die”, is the philosophy of being mindful of this fact.

It may sound morbid to ponder one’s own mortality day by day. However, the true meaning of memento mori is not to live anxiously fearing that death may be around every corner. Instead, it teaches us to not take life for granted, as it is finite and will end someday.

Many of us stress about the future so much that we cannot enjoy the present. We are ambitious: always aiming higher, to reach a higher position, to gain more wealth and to attain pleasure. But we forget that on our deathbed, none of these material things matter. What matters is whether you will be able to look back on your life and say that you truly lived with little regrets.

That said, it is okay to fear death. It is human nature to fear the unknown. Instead, we can harness our fear of death to live a fuller life. Fear is a poison that prevents us from seizing the day. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of judgement… But when we compare it to the weight of our inevitable demise, it is nothing. Although we are all afraid of dying, the vast majority of us are able to live without the fear of death interfering with our day-to-day lives. Therefore, unless death is an immediate consequence of your actions, nothing should make you afraid of trying.

Lastly, memento mori is a reminder of the temporary, impermanent nature of the human condition. Any moment could be our last, no matter how banal it may be. A brief phone call with your loved ones arguing about something petty may be the last conversation you have with them. It is a well-known fact that the human brain remembers the first and last things or events the most (primacy and recency). When you remember that death awaits all of us, every moment becomes a little bit more precious. We start paying more detail to how wonderful life is and how fortunate we are to have loved ones in our lives.

Remember you must die; you might as well make the most of life before then. Or as Ferris Bueller put it:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Posted in Philosophy

Quantum Immortality

The famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment illustrates the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. Quantum physics is an extremely complicated field of study, but the gist of the Copenhagen interpretation is that a probability remains in a superposition – that is a state where many possibilities exist at the same time – until it is observed, when it collapses into a certain state.

For example, imagine a cat that is locked in a box sealed with a vial of poison, that is set to break open only 50% of the time. Until the box is opened, we do not know if the cat has been killed by poison or not. Therefore, the cat can be said to be both alive and dead at the same time (Erwin Schrödinger initially devised the experiment to mock the Copenhagen interpretation).

There is a fascinating theory that takes this strange thought experiment one step further. Another interpretation of quantum physics is the Everett many-worlds interpretation. This explains that instead of the wavefunction collapsing (i.e. producing a single result such as alive or dead) on observation, two parallel universes are created instead: one universe where the cat died and another universe where the cat is still alive. Essentially, it states there are infinite universes containing every permutation of possibilities that can exist and that whenever a probability is observed, we enter a specific universe.

This is a very confusing concept to grasp, so let us return to the cat in the box. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, the cat has a 50% chance of surviving the experiment the first time. From then on, the chance of the cat being dead grows exponentially with every experiment. However, according to the many-worlds interpretation, no matter how many experiments we perform, there always will be a universe where the cat miraculously survived each one. From the cat’s perspective, it would not know of the universe if it had died. Therefore, the only universe where the cat is able to tell this story to its friends at the end of the day is one where it survives every single experiment

Now let us apply that to our own lives. Imagine that you are crossing the road and a bus is about to hit you. If there is even a 1% chance you might survive this event, your quantum self will move to a universe where it is possible (otherwise you would be dead and your consciousness ceases to exist). By extrapolation, you can never really die as a version of you will forever live on, beating improbable odds until a point where there are literally no possible universes you could be alive.

Quantum immortality is a thought experiment that relies on the many-worlds interpretation. However, it is also extremely difficult to prove wrong. The only way you could confirm this is if you attempted to kill yourself over and over (quantum suicide) and failed each time. But if you were wrong, you would die and not be able to tell anyone. Ergo, you cannot rule out the possibility that you will live forever.

The scariest part of the theory is not that you are potentially immortal. It is that quantum immortality does not account for your well-being – just your consciousness. If an accident were to leave you horribly disfigured but alert, it would still satisfy quantum immortality. You could be trapped in a motionless body for the rest of eternity, unable to communicate to anyone. Yet quantum immortality will keep you alive, forever and ever.

(Infinity Mirror Room by Yayoi Kusama)

Posted in History & Literature

Sword Of Damocles

Damocles was a courtier to Dionysius II, king of Syracuse, Sicily. One day, he exclaimed how envious he was of the sheer power and authority the king wielded. To Damocles’ surprise, King Dionysius II responded by offering to switch places with him for a day to experience what it is like to be a king. Damocles jumped at this chance and agreed to it immediately.

So Damocles was changed into royal attire and was allowed to sit on an ornate throne. But as he sat on the throne, indulging in the magnificence he was surrounded by, he noticed that Dionysius had arranged for an addition to the throne room. He had arranged for a large sword to be hung above the throne, suspended on a single hair of a horse’s tail. The sword loomed over Damocles’ head, threatening to drop and kill him in an instant at any given moment.

The constant threat of death was too much for Damocles and he quickly begged the king for mercy to leave the throne. He finally understood that with great power, comes great danger around every corner. It was impossible for Damocles to enjoy the luxurious life of a king with a sword above his head.

The allegorical sword may not just be the threat of death. Many of us voluntarily hang a sword above our heads: anxiety for the future, paranoia that something will go wrong and of course, existential dread. How can we possibly be happy with a sword dangling above us? Happiness cannot blossom from a soul drenched in fear.

Look above you: what kind of sword hangs above your head? What is preventing you from being happy?