Could how heavy you are correlate to how strongly your brain reacts to the scent of bread wafting from a nearby bakery or backyard BBQ? Studies show that your senses (like smell and taste) react to inputs from the world around you, and not everyone’s neurobiological reactions are the same.

Despite decades of research, the truth is that scientists don’t exactly know why some people are overweight or obese, and some people aren’t. What we do know is that it’s not just about caloric intake, or activity level (though both do have some impact), and it’s not just about your genes. It’s mostly not about the type of food you eat, as carb-rich diets vs. protein-rich diets have generally been found to be equally unsuccessful for long-term weight loss (although processed foods — which tend to be carbs — definitely contribute to weight gain). And it’s not just about your psychology, or about how you were parented, though certainly family eating style is relevant.

It definitely *is* about how all of these things come together; calories in, activity level, metabolism as determined by genes, family eating, and brain chemistry.

All of which makes finding a ‘cure’ for obesity problematic. Rising levels of overweight kids and adults in the United States (and around the world; Northern and Western European countries both have rates of obesity around the same as ours) prove that nothing tried so far is working. And with chubby kids much more likely to grow up to become adults who are heavy, this is an issue that’s not going away.

But some studies point to the idea that different people deal with sensory inputs in various ways and may give us insight into some of the triggers of overeating, which is still at the heart of the issue for most overweight people.

An experiment at Maastricht University in The Netherlands shows us that there are some fundamental differences between overweight and normal-weight children’s caloric intake after exposure to the smell and taste of food. In the 2003 experiment, children were exposed to tasty smelling food for ten minutes, and then given food to eat; the normal weight kids tended to eat less than they would have if they hadn’t smelled the food first, which means they were at least partially satisfied just by enjoying the aroma of the food. On the other hand, the overweight kids actually ate more food after the exposure to delicious smells. The same went for if the kids were given a small snack beforehand.

What does this data mean?

You can read the rest of the text of this article over at Hypervocal.


Among my girlfriends, who are as a rule strong-minded and opinionated, and range from long-time wives and moms to freedom-loving creative types to serial monogamists, when the conversation turns to sex, we can all agree on one thing: We love the way our men smell, whether he is a two-time dalliance or a going-on-two-decades partner.

So much so that when our boyfriend/husband/long-term hookup is away from us, we like to keep a bit of something they wore around (or wear it ourselves); T-shirts are an almost-universal favorite. And this is not just silly pining — though surely the guys are missed — it has to do with the fact that smell conjures up more than just pleasant memories of the beloved.

For years, it wasn’t clear whether or not human beings produced (and responded to) pheromones, as we knew unequivocally that animals did. Pheromones are how most animals communicate their readiness to mate, as well as other information, and aren’t just ‘smells’ but specific chemical signals that are picked up by specialized receptors. Numerous studies over the last 15 years have proved that humans also exude and pick up on these signals (but we don’t ‘smell’ them in our nose, we process them in one of the oldest parts of our brain, the hypothalamus).

Not only do pheromones exist, but they are actually incredibly complex. Turns out that we can smell all kinds of details about someone, especially someone of the opposite sex (but only if we’re heterosexual; homosexuals generally respond to sex signals and information from members of their own sex).

According to ABC News: “Women’s hypothalami are activated when they smell the chemical similar to testosterone but not to the estrogen-like substance, whereas men’s hypothalami have the opposite response: They are turned on only by the estrogen-like chemical and not the testosterone-like one. There is also sexual disparity between the specific sub-regions of hypothalamus that are activated.”

One of the things we can smell on our partners — or even randoms that we get close enough to — is whether they have had sex recently. (Irresistibly attracted to that hottie next to you in yoga class? He may have just had a roll in the hay and neglected to shower). A Journal of Neuroscience study backs up what cuckolded spouses have long known: Humans emit specific pheromones when they have sex, and they can be detected. Take note, cheating partners:

Here, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that the right orbitofrontal cortex, right fusiform cortex, and right hypothalamus respond to airborne natural human sexual sweat, indicating that this particular chemosensory compound is encoded holistically in the brain. Our findings provide neural evidence that socioemotional meanings, including the sexual ones, are conveyed in the human sweat.

To read the end of this article, click here!


According to Scientific American:

“A lot of communication in the animal world occurs via volatile, information-carrying “scent” chemicals, many of which remain to be chemically identified.

Generally speaking, pheromones are a type of infochemical used within a species to influence social behaviors and attract mates whereas kairomones send signals between different species and are often used to detect predators and prey.”

It makes sense that animals would emit and sense different scents interspecies vs. intraspecies, doesn’t it?

In a Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology survey of environmental sound, a questionnaire was passed to a small survey of 77 people, who were asked to categorize noise, and then to judge it (which means to say whether the sound had positive or negative connotations).

According to Catherine Guastavino, the author of the paper, “Human and natural sounds gave rise to positive judgments (except when reflecting anger), whereas mechanical sounds gave rise to negative judgments. This distinction was even observed within certain categories such as music, which gave rise to two opposing qualitative evaluations depending on whether it reflected human activity directly (“musician”) or indirectly (“loudspeakers” “car radio”).”

Live, human-created music was almost universally received positively (think buskers playing music that’s not your style), whereas recorded music choices were seen as negative, unless the person was choosing to listen to their own recorded music or favorite radio station.

Conclusion: Your music is noise, my music fills the world with what I love to hear.


I’ve been greatly enjoying a read through “The Best American Science Writing: 2009” and there’s a bit of research in Atul Gawande’s piece “The Itch” from The New Yorker (featured in the compendium) that got me thinking about the debate about virtual worlds vs. real ones. I’ve come to the conclusion that not much separates the two, though of course we like to make a big deal about how some folks are disappearing into a computer-created world, and how this is such a terrible thing.

It certainly SEEMS awful that some people would prefer a world other than the one that’s outside. In the wake of the reports of the people who are ‘depressed’ that Avatar’s Pandora (the planet on which all the gorgeous CG action occurs in the film) doesn’t exist, my environmentalist friends have shaken their collective head, pointing out that there’s a pretty beautiful world right outside if you’d just step away from the computer screen or exit the movie theatre. But Pandora is just the latest in a long line of created worlds.

Pandora has existed in James Cameron’s head since he was a kid, and he’s been working on the Avatar project for 15 years, obsessed enough (and powerful enough) to create a version of it that millions of people will see. Cameron’s longtime producer, Jon Landeau, told Wired that the project is “..not just a movie. It’s a world,” and purposefully so. Now I might be biased, having invented an imaginary world as a child (with a similar – but, ahem- much more creative name- mine was called Poentica) but the fact is that Pandora existed wholly formed and in great detail in Cameron’s head, just as my imaginary world existed in mine, and other virtual worlds have filled minds from Star Wars to Buffy and even before TV existed (Greek myths anyone?).

So made-up worlds have always been with us, but the reason I’m going to argue for the virtual is not because we have a history of otherworlds. It’s because the so-called real world isn’t as real as we think. Which means that maybe our virtual worlds, from Pandora to Second Life, and whatever comes next are just as important as this one, or could be.
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My chatroom friend, Jerry James Stone (@JerryJamesStone) who I knew online for months before I met up with him in SanFran.

All day, most days, I work alone. I’m not breaking any stereotypes when I reveal I’m a blogger who spends half my day in pajamas, hair up, sipping green tea as I clickety-clack away on my trusty Macbook with a cat in my lap. I think it’s the best work I can think of, yet often my friends who work in more conventional settings marvel when I tell them I work from home, without any human contact (Terrell, my chatty yoga-loving postman, is sometimes my only real-world conversation partner for several days at a stretch). Yet I don’t feel alone.

Inside my mind, I feel as if I work with a coterie of some the most intelligent, forward-thinking, passionate and creative people I have ever (not) met. Because all day, most days, I’m exchanging information, opinion, frustrations (mostly professional, but sometimes personal), gossip, and ideas with people who do what I do. They are based in Florida, London, New York City, Maine, Colorado, San Francisco, South Africa, India, Los Angeles, and places in between. They have families, they are single; they live in tipis, off-grid, in City centers, suburbs, exurbs and even a yurt atop a lava field (OK, that’s me as I take writing sojourn in Hawaii).

And while it’s always interesting hearing about the weather, or local politics where they live, mostly it doesn’t matter. When I indulge in my favorite addiction (after coffee), travel, I’m always rooted by this dynamic group of colleagues online. We don’t work at the same company, and most of them I haven’t met. Yet I know this crew in enough depth that I cannot categorize them as anything less than friends.

And it so happens that because I get around the world, I have had a chance, over the years, to meet up with some of these amazing folks, and it’s been a consistently similar experience every time. A bit of a shock at first (nobody is ever the way you picture them, even if you’ve scrolled through 100 snapshots of them on Facebook), and then the comfort and sublimity that comes with being in the presence of a person who you really, genuinely like. Because you’re already friends. After marvelling at an unexpected accent, or surprising height (why are all my blogger friends so tall?) the conversation becomes one between intimates, friends. I’ve even felt comfortable enough to eat from their plates, (admittedly, a terrible habit but indicative of my ease).

So it’s always a bit frustrating to me to read about how the virtual world is pulling us apart, separating us from each other, or otherwise destroying the fabric of humanity bit by byte.

I don’t buy it. Because people have been making and keeping, or ignoring, and destroying friendships, family relationships and romances in various and sundry spectacular and terribly ordinary ways since the beginning of time. Just because we have new tools to do it with to doesn’t mean it’s happening more often, just that we now have options (breaking up via text, email, voicemail, letter or in person- any way you go it sucks, no?).

The upshot is that this means there are new ways to make friends too, and keep them, fresh venues in which to telegraph your love to your beloved, or your lust to your lover. Virtual palazzos to air your frustrations, your opinions, and to share your voice, even if your face is an avatar, and not your skin and bones mug.

The future involves us all working, playing (cavorting? there’s a fun thought), creating, communicating through devices and in virtual spaces. So what if they’re not ‘real’? As we know, reality is just a construct (more on this in an upcoming post), and so is the online world. What makes one more or less ‘real’ than the other? There are people, communities, and cultures in each space, art, sublime and ridiculous, conflict, collaboration, love and hate. And a lot of words. Sound familiar?

Additional communication spaces simply provide additional ways to be human, but does not mean the eradication of our humanness. If anything, it’s an expansion, because now we have more places in which to be who we are, to expand beyond our physical constraints and be a more fully expressive version of ourselves. And we get to meet people we otherwise never would have met. And what is aliveness about if not reaching our hand across a pathway, or a chatroom, and saying “Nice to meet you?” (Well, perhaps the latter is more like a smiley emoticon and a “Hey, what’s up?”)

Oh, and I just realized in writing this, that I must amend the title of this post. While some of my best friendships are virtual, the friends are real.


For anyone interested in the questions and thinking behind how technology is impacting who we are as human beings, the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of Adbusters is a must-read.

Played as a dichotomy, The Natural World is one half of the mag, and flip it over and start at the other end and The Virtual World is the other half. It contains Adbusters’ usual thought-provoking and sometimes frustratingly challenging mix of art, commentary, articles, short meditations, low- and high-brow commentary. I particularly loved this quote from a 1994 (!) Harper’s Magazine article by Kevin Kelly, who is now the senior maverick at Wired Magazine, which is reprinted at the front of the Virtual half of the magazine:

“The Net conveys the logic of both the computer and nature. In nature, the Net finds form in, for example, the beehive. The hive is irredeemably social, unabashedly of many minds, but it decides as a whole when to swarm and where to move. A hive possesss an intelligence than none of its parts does. A single honeybee brain operates with a memory of six days; the hive as a whole operates with a memory of three months, twice as long as the average bee lives.

Although many philosophers in the past have suspected that one could abstract the laws of life and apply them to machines, it wasn’t until computers and man-made systems became as complex as living systems- as intricately composed as a beehive- that is was possible to prove this. Just as a beehive functions as if it were a single sentient organism, so does an electronic hive, made up of millions of buzzing, dim-witted personal computers, behave like a single organism.

Out of networked parts- whether of insects, neurons or chips- come learning, evolution and life. Out of a planet-wide swarm of silicon calculators comes an emergent self-governing intelligence: the Net. ”

This concept, of seeing technology (here the hardware and software that make up the web) as inherently natural (going along with the very arguable idea that humans are natural > humans create technology > technology is natural), goes against the grain of seeing tech as ‘apart’ from us.

Kelly goes back to this idea at the end of the reprinted piece when he writes:

“Instead of sucking the soul from human bodies, turning computer-users into an army of dull clones, networked computers-by reflecting the networked nature of our own brains and bodies- encourage the humanism of their users. Because they have taken on the flexibility, adaptability and self-connecting governance of organic systems, we become more human, not less so, when we use them.”