Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Rat Park

In the mid-20th century, rat models were used by psychologists to study the science of drug addiction. Rats would be placed into cages, connected to a pump that would deliver a dose of morphine when a switch was pressed. These rats would press the switch to get more “hits”, with some rats pressing the button in preference to food and water, eventually dying from dehydration.

In the 1970’s, Professor Bruce Alexander questioned whether this was an accurate description of the nature of drug addiction in humans. He posited that given that rats are social animals, placing them in isolation would put them in an environment where the drugs were the only “escape”. To study this, his team designed a large enclosure that they nicknamed “Rat Park”.


Rat Park was designed to be a utopia for rats. It was 200 times the size of a standard cage, filled with comfortable cedar shaving floors, plenty of nesting areas, toys and abundant food. Most importantly, the enclosure had all 16 rats living in the same enclosure, so that they could interact with each other. The control group were placed individually in 16 separate isolated cages.

The researchers gave the rats a choice of two fluids to drink from – water and water laced with morphine. Although the rats initially stayed away from the morphine due to the bitterness, they eventually started drinking from it when they realised the euphoric sensation they got from drinking it. Interestingly, rats in cages would follow the traditionally predicted path of drinking more and more morphine, becoming addicted. However, rats living in Rat Park would barely touch the morphine water. Even when the morphine was sweetened with sugar, the rats would still not drink much of it.


Through rigorous experiments, the researchers deduced that the Rat Park residents preferred social interaction over the drug-induced haze from drinking morphine. Rats under the effects of morphine were less able to socialise and in an environment with adequate social stimulus, this was a good enough reason to avoid drugs.

In a different experiment, Professor Alexander’s team put rats already dependent on morphine into Rat Park. They found that despite withdrawal symptoms, rats would prefer staying away from morphine and would attempt to socialise.

Although it remains controversial, Alexander’s research into Rat Park offered new insights into the study of drug addiction. It raised the question of whether drug addiction was purely an issue of biochemistry and how much effect our social environment has on our life choices.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Three Types Of Responses

In his book Praise of Escaping (“Éloge de la fuite”), physician Henri Laborit suggests the following. When a person faces an ordeal, they face three options. The first is to fight against the ordeal, the second is to do nothing and third is to flee from it.

Firstly, fighting against a challenge is a very natural behaviour. These people are not hurt by the ordeal because they turn the attack into a retaliation. But this attitude has a problem. Continuous attacks and retaliations result in a vicious cycle. An aggressive person ultimately will be stopped by someone who is stronger than them.

The second option involves not doing anything in the sense that you act as if you hadn’t been attacked by pushing down the resentment. This is the most widely accepted attitude in modern society. Scholars call this behavioural inhibition. People with this attitude have the want to punch their opponent in the face, but swallow their anger as they recognise the risk of being retaliated against and entering a vicious cycle. And so, the punch that did not land on the opponent hits themselves instead. This may even show as medical conditions such as stomach ulcers, aches, or other psychosomatic symptoms.

The third way of escaping can be done through different ways.
Chemical escape: Alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, stimulants, relaxants, sleeping pills. All of these can soften or erase the pain from external attacks. By using these substances to forget everything and knocking oneself out, the ordeal will pass. However, because this kind of escape weakens your sense of reality, people who use this method lose their ability to live in the real world.
Geographical escape: Moving from one place to another endlessly. Some people shift their problems by changing jobs, friends, lovers and the places they live in. It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but they feel a little better and gain energy from changing the environment they are in.
Creative escape: Transforming your anger and pain into film, music, writing, painting, sculpting etc. Some people take the things they cannot dare say in the real world and have characters in an imaginary world say it instead. By doing this, they feel a sense of catharsis. People who like to watch characters in movies and books take revenge against those who have wronged them also fit into this category.


(from The Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge by Bernard Werber)

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Placebo Effect

A strange phenomenon found in medicine is the placebo effect, where a patient’s symptoms improve after being given a completely inert substance (like a sugar pill) under the guise of a medication. The placebo effect is not only limited to pills, but any procedure that is intended for a therapeutic purpose (but does not have any actual therapeutic value). It is believed that the placebo effect is a strong component in many forms of alternative medicine such as homeopathy and faith healing. The placebo effect has been proven to be effective in improving or even curing the symptoms of some diseases such as allergies, asthma, headaches, abdominal pains and even severe illnesses such as heart attacks and cancer. Placebos are particularly effective for psychological symptoms.

There has been much research to determine how the placebo effect works. The leading theories so far are that placebos act to relieve anxiety and condition the patient into a more positive mindset, reducing stress and boosting the body’s natural healing process. This would also explain why placebos are effective in pain relief as perceived pain is amplified by negative emotions. Cognitive dissonance may also play a role, where the patient’s mind believes that since it is receiving treatment, it must be getting “better”, producing a beneficial psychosomatic reaction. Essentially, fooling the mind to believe and expect that it will get better makes the patient actually feel better.

Research into the placebo effect has also revealed some bizarre characteristics of the effect. For example, it has been found that the placebo effect is stronger if there are more pills, the pill is larger, branded or generally looks fancier. Even colour plays a role, with blue pills acting better as depressants (“downers”) and red pills acting better as stimulants (“uppers”). Telling a patient that a placebo will have a certain effect boosts that effect. Human factors such as the doctor’s credibility and confidence or the patient’s expectations and culture are known to drastically change the efficacy of a placebo. What is weirder is that studies have shown that telling a patient that they are being prescribed a placebo will not affect its efficacy, as long as they are told that “it could help them”.

The placebo effect is a great example of how much influence our mind, beliefs and expectations have on our health and our lives. The more positive thoughts and beliefs we have, the healthier we become. The more negative we are, the less effective treatments become. In fact, the same pill that gives people the placebo effect can be used to increase pain and symptoms if it is described in a certain way. This is known as the nocebo effect – the opposite of the placebo effect.


Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Pleasure Centre

During the 1950’s when the field of neuroscience was making many research breakthroughs, a fascinating fact was discovered. Scientists had located the specific part of the brain responsible for feeling pleasure. In 1954, two Canadian neuroscientists named James Olds and Peter Milner were undertaking research to find the association between electrical stimulation of the brain and sensation in rodents. During their research, they found that if they stimulated a certain part of the brain, the rats would interpret the signal as pleasure. Based on this, they inserted electrodes into the rats’ limbic system (the part responsible for emotions) and connected it to a lever in the cage. Thus, they had devised a device that allowed the rat to feel pleasure by stimulating its own brain with the press of a lever. The results were astounding. The rat furiously pumped at the lever, forgetting to eat or sleep, until it ultimately died of exhaustion (over 26 hours, the rat pressed the lever 50,000 times).

Pleasure is not the same as happiness. Happiness awards us with satisfaction and contentment, but pleasure only brings greed, obsession and addiction. Pleasure was originally a mechanism devised to reward behaviour that aided survival (such as mating and eating), but addictive things like alcohol, smoking and drugs ruin your life and any chance at happiness instead of helping you survive.

The foolish run around to seek temporary pleasure while the wise seek permanent happiness.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Clairvius Narcisse died in Haiti on May 2, 1962. In 1980, he returned to his hometown. Alive.
How did a man who was dead and buried come back to life?

According to Clairvius, he was cursed by a bokor (sorcerer) to become a zombie but returned home after the curse was undone. The sorcerer had enslaved him in a sugar plantation for 16 years and many others were working as “zombie slaves” until they revolted, killed the sorcerer then ran away.
Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis studied and investigated this case extensively. According to his research, most “zombies” were placed in suspended animation to fake death and were then (often after being buried) put under psychosis by the sorcerer. Many Haitians believe in the ancient African religion of voodoo, where one legend says that when a sorcerer curses a person, they are revived after death to become the sorcerer’s slave. Thus, Haitians strongly believe in the legend of zombies. In reality, the sorcerer was using drugs to zombify people and Davis used his expert knowledge in botany to deduce what the chemicals were.

The so-called zombie powder was a combination of tetrodotoxin (TTX, blowfish poison) and datura (from the poisonous plant Datura stramonium). The TTX simulates death due to its paralytic effect and datura is a powerful hallucinogenic that causes the person to confuse reality and fantasy (dissociation). Also, it may cause memory loss which allows the sorcerer to easily manipulate the victim. Long-term maintenance of the datura dose could allow the sorcerer to enslave someone for a long period of time. However, the zombification is not the same as perfect mind control and more like a strong hallucination or hypnosis (as seen as the above mentioned revolution).

As it involves the handling of poisons, only an experienced sorcerer could give the right mixture of doses while avoiding the lethal dose. Although science has advanced greatly, there are still many things we can learn from magic and sorcery. The reason being, magic and sorcery are simply undiscovered science.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Frequently on the media, the word “superbug” is used as if it were the new Black Death or the coming apocalypse. What is a superbug and why is it so feared?
Superbug is the colloquial nickname for drug-resistant bacteria. For example, one of the most famous superbugs is MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). This strain S. aureus, a common bacteria found on skin and inside the nose, is resistant to a powerful antibiotic called methicillin and thus very hard to treat. Unfortunately, MRSA is most commonly contracted in hospital settings as patients are vulnerable to infections (e.g. after surgery) and hospitals are perfect breeding grounds for superbugs.

The cause of a “normal” bacteria turning into a superbug is due to the incorrect use of antibiotics. When antibiotics are used, they wipe out a significant portion of the bacterial population but fail to kill all of them in the first attack. The surviving bacteria are the more adapted ones that are able to withstand the harsh environment for a little longer. If the patient stops taking the antibiotics and the bacteria remains, these “drug-resistant” bacteria multiply to create a second infection that is resistant to the drug that was used previously. In fact, this is a classic example of natural selection in motion, except that the environmental change is man-made.
This is the reason why doctors are reluctant to prescribe antibiotics for diseases such as the common cold or viral diseases, as the risk of developing superbugs is greater than the benefit (which is zero in viral diseases as they do nothing) of the treatment. It is also why a course of antibiotics must be finished even if the patient is feeling well, so that even the surviving bacteria are eventually killed.

To show the potential risk of superbugs, the case of VRSA can be taken into consideration. When MRSA was first discovered, doctors found it very difficult to treat but luckily they had a secret weapon – vancomycin, one of the most powerful antibiotics known to mankind. However, they soon found that S. aureus and natural selection easily overcame this through a new strain called VRSA – vancomycin-resistant S. aureus. Here was a bacteria that could overcome the greatest weapon man had against bacteria, all because people were taking more antibiotics than needed and not taking the full course prescribed.

Thus, one of the growing problems of modern medicine is the development of new drugs so that we can make a comeback in the arms race against bacteria.

Posted in Science & Nature

From Cell To Birth: Growth

After implantation, the embryo quickly grows from a ball of cells into what will be a fully-formed baby. However, it first needs a way to feed: the placenta.
It is an organ that actively takes nutrients and oxygen from the mother’s blood, exchanging it for the embryo’s waste products. It is extremely effective in keeping the fetus alive and protects it from infections or the mother’s immune system.
The blood is carried by the umbilical cord, which plugs into the belly button. This cord is the lifeline throughout term, and disrupting the blood supply will lead to permanent brain damage or even death.

In the first 10 weeks, the blastocyst develops into a very primitive disk-like object that shares no resemblance to a person. It keeps growing and differentiating at a rapid rate (almost doubling in size per week) until it forms an embryo that is more familiar, roughly about week 6. Interestingly, a human embryo looks almost identical to embryos of rabbits, chickens, turtles and fish, showing how all animals shared a common ancestor in the course of evolution. At this stage, the embryo has features such as gills, a tail and a fish-like appearance.

After 10 weeks, the embryo has grown to about 5~8cm (almost 10~20 times the size at week 6), and is now called a fetus. It begins to properly grow organs, and resembles a miniature baby with primitive features.
It continues to grow for the next 30 weeks, continuously relying on the mother for nutrition and life support.

Many different factors contribute to premature birth and IUGR (intrauterine growth restriction), which leads to the birth of a small baby. This may result in less developed organs (especially the lungs) and may affect the health of the newborn throughout its life. There are also many poisons known to harm the development of the embryo/fetus, such as alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, heroin and much more. These should be avoided from a few weeks before conception onwards (even after birth while breastfeeding).

By about 38 weeks, the lungs (the last organs to fully mature) are ready and the fetus is upside down. It is ready to leave the womb, and thus sends a signal to the mother, known as labour. This is when the arduous process of childbirth begins.

(Full series here:

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


A man comes in to a clinic and tells the doctor that he is in great pain.
It hurts if he prods his arm with a finger. The same applies to his leg and his torso.
He says that after looking on the internet, he is sure that he has fibromyalgia syndrome, and asks to be prescribed some painkillers. Also, he is worried that it could be necrotising fasciitis and demands a biopsy and antibiotics.

The doctor, without saying a word, gently grabs his hand, then squeezes his index finger. The man feels a shooting pain and screams in agony.

The diagnosis? A broken finger.