Linkage 12/10: Imagination Dieting, Arsenic Update, Cold Hands

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Imagine There’s No Hunger

This post is going up around lunchtime, and you might be just now picturing what you’re going to eat. There are those healthy whole-wheat pasta leftovers in the fridge, but just down the street is a deli where you can purchase a giant Italian sub with hot peppers and cheese and a bag of chips on the side. Just the thought of that delicious sandwich is making your mouth salivate and your stomach grumble in anticipation. Wait, were we talking about you, or me?

The ability of people to make themselves hungry just by imagining food has always baffled psychologists, who would predict just the opposite response. Using imagination for habituation, the gradual diminishing of a stimuli’s power to provoke a response with repetition, is a classic tool of psychological treatment. For example, people with phobias are often instructed to repeatedly imagine the cause of their fear (spiders, heights, airplanes) until their emotional response subsides. By that theory, repeatedly imagining a delicious pizza should eventually make you less hungry for a slice, rather than increase craving.

But maybe people are just imagining the wrong thing, thought researchers from the business school at Carnegie-Mellon in this week’s Science. Instead of imagining the food before it is eaten, perhaps people could imagine actually eating that food to habituate themselves against its wily charms. Using a particularly seductive denizen of the office vending machine, M&M’s, the authors instructed their subjects to imagine eating 30 pieces of the candy in succession, like picturing the process of inserting 30 quarters into a vending machine. This tedious fantasy actually worked when the subjects were subsequently given a nice big bowl of M&Ms – subjects who imagined eating 30 pieces of candy ate less than subjects who only imagined a 3-piece snack, or no snack at all. The trick was found to be stimulus-specific, in that a session of imaginary M&M eating had no effect on subsequent eating of another snack; in this case, cheese cubes.

Aside from it’s dietary implications, the study is a pretty amazing demonstration of the power of imagination – “The difference between actual experience and mental representations of experience may be smaller than previously assumed,” the authors write. But it’s unlikely that anyone will incorporate this imagination trick into a get-thin quick diet plan, as you can’t sell a customer the ability to imagine eating unhealthy food, and therefore can’t hire Kirstie Alley to endorse it. But it is something we can all try for free, at home or at our office desk. So while I write the rest of this post, I’ll devote part of my mind to imagining the laborious consumption of that delicious Italian sub sandwich, rather than the sandwich in all it’s pre-eaten glory.

[H/T to the Wall Street Journal Health Blog for the article.]

Science Blogging Community Continues to Fight Bacterial Infection

Our discussion with University of Chicago microbiologist Jack Gilbert about the reported discovery of arsenic-based bacteria merged into heavy blog traffic discussing last week’s study and the ripples it caused. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the first author on the original paper, posted a response to critics on her website, the most high-profile critic sent an official letter to Science, the journal that published the paper, and the battle appears to be moving back to the more sober and deliberate forum of peer review. Importantly, both Wolfe-Simon and senior author Ronald Oremland (in a very strange NASA lecture I watched on a live stream, but haven’t been able to find archived anywhere) have promised to make the controversial bacteria available to other laboratories for replication of their experiments and further analysis. Eventually, answers will come, but when they do, will major news outlets still care?

Relief for Cold Hands

When it was nice and warm this past summer, ScienceLife spoke to Ginard Henry, assistant professor of surgery, about his work with the Cold Hand Clinic at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Now that winter’s chill has descended upon Chicago, the clinic has crossed over to the big time, with a nice report from ABC News airing last night. The segment, which you can view below, does a nice job of explaining the difference between a normal cold hands response when you forget your gloves and the persistent chill and discoloration in fingers and toes that signals a more serious issue with circulation. If diseases such as scleroderma or Raynaud’s syndrome are found to be the source of cold hands and feet, doctors can treat patients with a number of seemingly unlikely drugs primarily designed for other purposes, such as Botox, Prozac, and Cialis. In extreme cases, surgery might be an option as well. Henry, Nadera Sweiss, and Larry Zachary explain more in the video below.

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About Rob Mitchum (526 Articles)

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

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