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May 21, 2013

Every time you recall a memory it can be overwritten and changed

This is a fascinating study wherein scientists had some subjects watch the pilot episode of 24, describe what they saw in a scene, and then the scientists talked the subjects into altering their memories of the tv they had just seen, so that they remembered falsely. Disturbing stuff. When Memories are Remembered, They Can Be Rewritten – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science
Chan’s study is the latest to show how easy it is to disrupt our memories, and supplant what we think we know with misinformation. In this case, he and colleague Jessica LaPaglia from Iowa State University showed volunteers the pilot episode of 24 and then selectively rewrote some of their memories of the show’s events. For example, some of the volunteers came to believe that an assassin (Mandy!) knocked out a flight attendant with a stun gun, when she actually used a hypodermic syringe. It wasn’t just a simple matter of saying Mandy used a stun gun. That wouldn’t have worked. Instead, Chan and LaPaglia fed their volunteers with false information immediately after they had actively remembered what they had seen. Then, and only then, did the new memories overwrite their old ones. The trick relies on a quirk of memory that has come to light in recent years. I’ve written about it before: Every time we bring back an old memory, we run the risk of changing it. It’s more like opening a document on a computer – the old information enters a surprisingly vulnerable state when it can be edited, overwritten, or even deleted. It takes a while for the memory to become strengthened anew, through a process called reconsolidation. Memories aren’t just written once, but every time we remember them. This means, somewhat ironically, that the remembering something creates a critical window in which memories can be erased or manipulated. Many scientists have done this in rodents and humans using drugs or conflicting information. But these experiments usually manipulate single simple memories, such as a drug craving or a fearful association between a colour and an electric shock.

May 20, 2013

Crack babies were a myth, but fetal alcohol syndrome is pretty awful

Revisiting the ‘Crack Babies’ Epidemic That Was Not - NYTimes.com
This week’s Retro Report video on “crack babies” (infants born to addicted mothers) lays out how limited scientific studies in the 1980s led to predictions that a generation of children would be damaged for life. Those predictions turned out to be wrong. This supposed epidemic — one television reporter talks of a 500 percent increase in damaged babies — was kicked off by a study of just 23 infants that the lead researcher now says was blown out of proportion. And the shocking symptoms — like tremors and low birth weight — are not particular to cocaine-exposed babies, pediatric researchers say; they can be seen in many premature newborns. The worrisome extrapolations made by researchers — including the one who first published disturbing findings about prenatal cocaine use — were only part of the problem. Major newspapers and magazines, including Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The Washington Post and The New York Times, ran articles and columns that went beyond the research. Network TV stars of that era, including Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, also bear responsibility for broadcasting uncritical reports. A much more serious problem, it turns out, is infants who are born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Retro Report tells the story of the epidemic that wasn’t through firsthand accounts by some of those at the center of things: the researcher who put out the alarm, a pediatric expert who originally cast doubt on his findings and one of the original cocaine-exposed research subjects, a young woman whose life helped disprove the myth of what these infants would become. . . .

The High Plains aquifer is nearly gone

Why? The terrible drought. Climate collapse. And over-farming. High Plains Aquifer Dwindles, Hurting Farmers - NYTimes.com
The land, known as Section 35, sits atop the High Plains Aquifer, a waterlogged jumble of sand, clay and gravel that begins beneath Wyoming and South Dakota and stretches clear to the Texas Panhandle. The aquifer’s northern reaches still hold enough water in many places to last hundreds of years. But as one heads south, it is increasingly tapped out, drained by ever more intensive farming and, lately, by drought. Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers. And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains. This is in many ways a slow-motion crisis — decades in the making, imminent for some, years or decades away for others, hitting one farm but leaving an adjacent one untouched. But across the rolling plains and tarmac-flat farmland near the Kansas-Colorado border, the effects of depletion are evident everywhere. Highway bridges span arid stream beds. Most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores and even hundreds of feet.