Friday, April 24, 2015

How to Stop a Bullet

Americans sure love their guns. Nothing says the “US of A” like the stars and stripes, Mom’s apple pie, and an AR-15. The latest tally boasts around three hundred thousand guns in the United States – and that’s just handguns. If you throw in their cousins, the rifles and shotguns, the numbers soar to the millions (110 and 86, respectively). Yes, Americans sure love their guns.

I must admit, I’m a gun owner. I keep a .357 at my bedside (to scare off unwanted midnight callers), and a .22 hidden in the kitchen (to ward off a baking ambush). When I moved away from home, the first thing my father handed me was a gun. He came from a long line of responsible gun owners and, to tell you the truth, as a female living alone, I don’t feel safe unless there’s a gun within easy reach. I admit, it’s a sickness…

But gun ownership has taken on frightening dimensions in the US. The latest craze (Freudian slip) is personal body armor. Gun enthusiasts are no longer satisfied with owning assault rifles, now they want to sport Kevlar vests, to boot. Seriously??... I know life can be dangerous, and everyone has the right to protect himself, but if you feel the need to wear a vest, perhaps you should consider a new hobby, move to a better neighborhood, or seek counseling.

Today’s body armor is a manufacturing marvel. These high-tech vests sport state of the art materials and light-weight construction, and can be easily concealed beneath clothing. But this wasn’t always the case. Body armor, like the weapons it protects against, has evolved through the ages. Let’s take a quick tour.

The earliest forms of protection were animal hides. Over two thousand years ago, the Chinese prepared for battle by strapping on the skins of rhinos, which not only protected against clubs and arrows, but would have also doubled as top-notch rain gear. Pacific islanders wove coconut palm fibers into protective garbs, since rhinos were in short supply and coconuts plentiful. The clever Greeks carried bronze shields into battle, while warriors in Central America wore quilted armor, which protected them from weapons, but unfortunately was no match for smallpox.

As metallurgy evolved, so did our means of protection. Chain mail, linked rings or wires made from a variety of metals, was developed around 400 BC in the present-day region of Ukraine. The trend quickly spread and before long, these metallic garments were seen throughout Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa. Scale armor was also in vogue. These overlapping plates were made from metal, leather, horn, or bone and were as effective as the rhino gear, minus the ticks and stench. But the pinnacle of armor emerged around the 14th century when the invention of the crossbow necessitated a bit more protection. Thus, full body armor was born, and these well-protected combatants, decked out in their fancy tin cans, clanked their way to victory.

But everything changed with the introduction of gunpowder. It began in 9th century China, where clever alchemists mixed saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur into an effective concoction to treat skin infections. The fact that it also exploded was a serendipitous sidenote (although not so much for the patient). Its healing properties aside, this magical mixture was quickly adopted by armies, who packaged it in bombs and mines and merrily blasted their way around the globe. 

The first “hand cannons,” as guns were then called, were used in 1364. A wick was set ablaze, which touched off the gunpowder, which finally launched the projectile – in those days, a small but lethal metal ball. These were cumbersome weapons, requiring reloading each time they were fired; a difficult task amidst the frenzy of combat. Regardless, they spread quickly throughout Europe.

But as civilizations fought their way to power, weapons evolved to keep pace. Within a few hundred years, through the invention of flintlock ignitions, rifles, and, later, Samuel Colt’s revolutionary revolver, guns were everywhere, especially in the New World. There they quickly subdued native populations (albeit assisted by some pretty lethal pathogens) and ushered in that most gun-worshiping period in American history, the Wild West.

That Wild West mentality remains engrained in the American psyche, for guns have become a symbol of freedom, independence, and, (according to many Republicans), the epitome of American culture. And with the proliferation of guns comes the need for better protection, especially for law enforcement officers tasked with patrolling our gun-laden streets. Today’s lightweight vests, which combine high-tech polymers, typically Kevlar, woven together into materials five times stronger than steel, provide a vital layer of protection against a criminal’s bullet. And since cops should be entitled to a technological edge when it comes to fighting crime, bulletproof vests should be restricted to crime fighters.

We often speak of the “evolutionary arms race” - that process that fuels natural selection, ushering in novel adaptations as species struggle to survive. That race is run not only by our genes, but by the cultures that define us. And as weapons evolve, so too do our defenses. Let’s just hope common sense can keep pace.

Catch you next week!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Beat It!

If you’ve ever had to hunt for a parking space on a college campus, you know what a hellish nightmare it can be. The other day, I scored a primo spot, tucked beneath the shade of a giant oak, just outside the College of Music. I cranked down my windows and was reviewing my lecture, when suddenly I noticed a gangly little dude with a snare drum setting up shop in front of the building. The drumming quickly commenced and within minutes, his incessant Rat-a-Tat-Tat attracted a second band member – of all things, a cymbals player. Together, they banged and clanged their way across my last nerve.

Despite their annoying performance, it got me thinking about drumming. What is it about the banging of drums that gets our blood pumping? Imagine music without drums (OK, classical music aside). Tough to do, because drums play a critical role in the way music stimulates our bodies and, more importantly, our brains. And what blissful stimulation it is.

Drums are one of our most ancient musical instruments. Think about it… It doesn’t take much to produce a drum (or drummer, for that matter. I’ve seen chimps pound out a decent rhythm with nothing but twigs and a coconut). Just about any surface can be transformed into an instrument. Wood, metal, skins, or gourds all produce their own distinct sounds. And whether they are played with sticks or hands, drums form the backbone to music, setting the tempo, tone, and ambiance of a song.

But it’s that rhythmic beat that our brains find irresistible.

Neurologists have discovered that rhythmic beats actually cause our brain waves to match tempo. A fast, pulsing beat drives our brain waves to keep time. A slow, methodical rhythm lulls the brain, which is why drums are used to induce meditative and trancelike states.

It turns out this wave-altering mechanism may be just the trick for treating conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD). In fact, scientists used rhythmic sound and light stimulation on a group of young ADDers and found it to be just as effective as medication in improving concentration and elevating intelligence scores (although ADD and a drum set could make for a lethal combination, at least for the parents).

And speaking of drums and brains… It turns out kids who play drums may have a leg up when it comes to intellect. Little drummers were shown to have improved IQ scores following a series of lessons. And the same holds true for adult percussionists. Studies have found correlations between intelligence and rhythmic ability. Those with the best rhythm tend to score better on intelligence tests, for it turns out the parts of the brain used for rhythm are also employed for problem solving.

Rhythmic therapy may also improve cognitive function in the elderly and folks with brain injuries. The stimulating effects of rhythm actually increased blood flow to the brain, which improved cognitive scores among a group of senior subjects and therefore may have application for victims of stroke and head trauma.

But the positive effects of drums go far beyond the individual. They are an essential part of the human experience, a fundamental aspect of culture. Drums served as efficient forms of communication among many African cultures, and were effective means of transmitting messages over long distances. And drum circles are an ancient tradition spanning the globe, drawing people together for ceremony, celebration, and socialization. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a culture that doesn’t include some form of drumming. And what a boring and monotone culture that would be... 

Drums are part of our human heritage. They allow us to communicate in a universal language; one that lifts our spirits, moves our bodies, and even manipulates our brains. So perhaps that annoying snare drum player was simply indulging in a force greater than himself. If so, then rock on, little dude! 

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Antiquity of Aggression

At some point in our lives, each of us will have the urge to strike another human being. Ironically, for me, that moment occurred when I was attending a symposium on the evolution of ethics. The symposium was hosted by the weird and whacky folks in the philosophy department and featured an array of papers on the evolutionary basis of moral behavior. It was fascinating. That is, until a particularly long-winded academic began spewing jargon-laden oration like a linguistic volcano, some of which he admittedly concocted for the purpose of his argument. As he unsuccessfully defended his theory, I sat amidst his bewildered colleagues and all I could think about was punching him in the face.

Later, when I had cooled down (aided by a hefty dose of gin), I got to thinking about my irrational reaction, which got me thinking about aggression in general. Why are we aggressive? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all peace-loving, tree-hugging, tofu-munching hippies? Maybe. But then again, perhaps aggression played a critical role in humans becoming human. Let’s explore.

Aggression is part and parcel of the range of emotions displayed by humans. Anger, happiness, sadness, and empathy aid us in navigating our social spheres and are critical components of human interaction. But aggression was fundamental to humans’ eventual domination of the planet, for without a bit of aggression, we may never have achieved complex civilization.

All of nature competes to some degree. The phrase, “survival of the fittest,” coined by Herbert Spencer but often mistakenly attributed to Darwin, was a simplistic way of saying that those who compete more successfully (thereby leaving behind more offspring) will most likely nudge out their less successful counterparts. And humans are no different. We, like other animals, have struggled to survive throughout our evolutionary history. Fortunately, through a series of lucky anatomical and physiological twists, we evolved a bigger brain, which gave us an unprecedented edge over our competition.

When we first stumbled upon the nutritional benefits of meat, it was most likely as timid scavengers, fighting for the best scraps. As our technology progressed, those simple clubs used to fend off fellow carnivores developed into efficient weapons that not only protected us from said carnivores, but allowed us to add them to the menu. And the more aggressive we were as hunters, the more meat there was to go around.

Our aggression would have naturally been directed toward each other. Competition for resources, be they hunting territories, water holes, or mates would have compelled humans to compete. Let’s face it, you’re not going to get the girl by simply squatting outside your cave, hoping she wanders by. Aggressive males would have had more opportunities to mate (as they do today), thereby out-breeding their docile comrades. But aggression wasn’t restricted to males. Aggressive females would have been more successful at protecting their young, attaining provisions, and going after those aggressive males - nothing is sexier than the alpha male.

As populations expanded and communities gained complexity, aggression enabled some to rise to power, others (the docile) to occupy the lower strata. As societies grew, so did their need for resources, and the best way to acquire resources is by conquering your neighbors. Once again, aggression wins. This pattern not only held for the ancients, it still holds today. Human history is littered with the corpses of the conquered and the powerful have never achieved power as shrinking violets. They do it through sheer force.

Aggression may even be hardwired, for we know it originates in the amygdala, that small clump of neurons located deep in the brain that also plays a role in fear and pleasure. Experiments have shown that our good friend, dopamine – that lovely biochemical that rewards us during sex – is also triggered during aggression. Like they say, it’s a thin line between love and hate…

Scientists are still trying to tease out the complex relationship between the brain, its neurotransmitters, and the genes responsible for human aggression. But one thing is certain: without aggression, you probably wouldn’t be sitting here, reading this blog. The culture in which you live, the society in which you thrive was built upon the shoulders of aggressors.

The meek shall inherit the earth?? 
I don’t think so…

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Friday, April 3, 2015

Our Symbolic Skulls

If you had to name your favorite bone, which would it be? (Perverts, keep your response to yourself.) I’m betting most of you would name the skull. Let’s face it, when we think of bones, the skull naturally comes to mind (despite the fact that it's actually twenty-plus bones). There’s not much regard for the limb bones, although I’m personally enamored of the femur. The patella gets little attention, probably because of its close resemblance to horse dung. And you hardly even notice your little coccyx, unless you happen to fall on your butt (who knew such pain could arise from such a tiny clump of bones?).

The skull is iconic. Not only for signifying the skeleton in general, but as a symbol that has infiltrated our culture. So I thought it would be fun to explore how our skulls crop up in everyday life and the quirky history of this popular emblem.

Long before the mass production of art, our ancient brethren used actual skulls on which to exhibit their artistic tendencies. Skulls were decorated with precious stones, etched with geometric designs, or replicated in intricate carvings. And we can’t leave out the famous crystal skulls that have been attributed to the Maya, the Aztec, and even artistic aliens before finally being debunked as modern hoaxes. Apparently our fascination with blinged-out skulls is a universal phenomenon.

Most of you will naturally associate the skull with its close cousin, the Jolly Roger. This emblematic flag sports a skull hovering above two generic bones (what the hell are they, anyway?) and is meant to instill fear in the hearts of those who cross paths with a pirate. And what fate awaits their victims? A little thievery, a bit of rape, and a likely stroll down the plank.
But hey, everyone loves a pirate.

In reality, many a pirate ship sported a plain black flag, but the Jolly Roger has become the mainstay in pirate ship symbolism, which is understandable - it’s a whole lot more interesting than your basic black and there’s something extra creepy about the blank stare of a skull. Plus, it pays to have a catchy calling card when establishing your reputation as a first-class pillager.

The skull and crossbones has also served as warning for many a poison. Just seeing that symbol on a bottle evokes fear in the hearts of consumers. Be it rat poison, arsenic, or some backwoods, toxic moonshine, slapping a skull on the label is a surefire means of warning the thirsty.

The skull has also come to symbolize the badass. After chasing down pirates for a few hundred years, the military adopted the symbol, sporting it on flags, ships, and tattoos to signify their fighting prowess. The trend quickly caught on among the public, especially within the biking community, and today it’s hard to find a biker who doesn’t sport a skull somewhere on his person. From tattoos to tee shirts to leather jackets, bikers simply love the skull, which is ironic when you consider how many of them refuse to wear helmets. Perhaps it’s time they design their own bony emblem – a skull with a hideous crack down the middle.

Skulls were also used to mark the entrance to ancient cemeteries. In the days of Yore, when literacy was in short supply, the skull was a handy means of saying, “Enter at your own risk,” for many a goblin was known to hang out in cemeteries. The skull served as a ghoulish reminder of the inherent dangers of the dead.

But the cultural fascination with our skeletons is not limited to our skulls. Bones have worked their way into our language, cropping up in sayings, slang, and nursery rhymes. Bone idioms (from the Latin, idioma, meaning a special phrase or expression) are widespread in English. And as someone who specializes in the human skeleton, these sayings give me great joy. So I thought I’d share a few with you.

Got an argument to make? Then you have a "bone to pick." Still disagree? It becomes a "bone of
contention." You can be "cut to the bone," "chilled to the bone," "feel it in your bones," or "work your fingers to the bone." You can possess a "funny bone," a "jealous bone," a "crazy bone," or be a "bag of bones." Someone can "break your bones," "throw you a bone," or (if you’re lucky!) "jump your bones." And speaking of sex, we can’t leave out that most common of usages, the ultimate: "boner."

Let’s face it, our bones are some of the coolest parts of our bodies, so it’s no wonder we have woven them into our culture. Whether they’re warning us of danger or painting a verbal picture, make "no bones about it," skeletons rock!

Catch you next week.

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