Why Some of Us Love a Scary Movie (and Some of Us Watch from Between our Fingers)

It’s spooky season! When you watch a horror movie, do you watch it from the gaps between your fingers spread over your eyes?  Or are you the type to keep your eyes open and cheer for every gruesome and gory splatter?  Why do we like scary movies and stories at all?  Or for that matter, why do we put ourselves through things like haunted houses, eating super-hot chilis, and skydiving?  The science of psychology, aided by recent advances in brain imaging, has some biological explanations for why we seek thrills and chills. 

On the surface, we have what is termed a “hedonic paradox” here.  If humans generally tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain, why do we sometimes welcome, or even enjoy, emotional pain and fear?  Researchers at the Department of Biology and Clinical Psychology at the University of Jena in Germany showed test subjects horror movies while the subjects were scanned in an fMRI machine.  They discovered that people who had already scored high on a quiz to identify the personality trait of “sensation seeking” showed brain activity in brain regions associated with arousal and visual processing when looking at horror scenes, but also less brain reaction to neutral scenes.  One conclusion drawn from this study is the idea that “sensation seeking” people are just not as stimulated by or interested in normal every day reality, so they seek out thrilling or scary departures from normality. 

Another study indicates that people who seek the strange, the unusual, and the frightening may be getting an extra dopamine hit from it.  When we are scared, our brains release both dopamine and adrenaline to prepare us for the fight or flight response.  People who enjoy being scared may lack a chemical “brake” on the release and re-uptake of dopamine, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter in the brain.  That means they experience more pleasure from scary or risky experiences because their brain is receiving more dopamine. 

As for people who watch horror movies under a blanket, through their fingers, or not at all because they know they’ll have nightmares, research indicates that this behavior is more common in individuals who score higher for empathy and empathic traits.  Another study from Germany found that empathic people are more likely to automatically put themselves in the victim’s shoes and so identify with the people being threatened and hurt.  They are more likely to try to distract themselves while watching by covering eyes or hunkering down to a smaller shape.  Their skin temperature even drops, a sign of negative or unpleasant arousal. People who have less empathic traits find it easier to believe “it’s just a movie,” and open up to enjoy the thrills as they watch.  Which one are you?  Whether you are empathic, high sensation seeking, or somewhere in between, we at High Touch High tech wish you the release of many feel-good chemicals this spooky season.  Happy Halloween!

Sources and Further Reading:

MRI study on Sensation Seeking Individuals and Horror: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19585588/

The Psychology of Fright: https://theconversation.com/trick-or-treat-the-psychology-of-fright-and-halloween-horrors-49800

Fear and the Brain: https://theconversation.com/scared-out-of-your-mind-halloween-fear-and-the-brain-33261

For Sensation Seekers who are Thinking a Scary Movie Sounds Great Right About Now: https://www.imdb.com/list/ls062655785/

The Rise…and Rise…and RISE of Dr. Percy Julian, one of the Greatest Scientists in the World

Sierra Exif JPEG

How many geniuses are truly out there in the world?  Whose brain has the most elegant solution to climate change?  Whose brain holds the secret to ending aging entirely?  Where in the world is the person who has the formula for interstellar travel? And of all of these geniuses, how many of them are lucky enough to be born into a life with few obstacles to education, in circumstances that allow them to reach their fullest potential? 

The story of Dr. Percy Julian, one of the greatest scientists of all time, illustrates this issue.  Dr. Julian was a Black American, born in Alabama as the grandson of formerly enslaved people.   All of humanity today is lucky that Dr. Julian was able to overcome the roadblocks he faced to reach his true potential.   Born in 1899, Dr. Julian came into a world where Black people like himself were usually only expected to go to school until 8th grade.  A Black person going to college or even high school was almost unheard of in the United States at that time, much less a Black person getting a PhD or working in a lab as a career scientist. 

Children study corn and cotton at the Annie Davis school near Tuskegee, Alabama, 1902.

Dr. Julian loved plants from a young age, and recounted that one of his earliest memories was walking in the woods at home, savoring the beautiful plants around him – when suddenly he came upon the body of a Black man that had been lynched.  This horrifying occurrence was a feature of life for non-white people in Alabama at the time, but fortunately, Dr. Julian was also blessed to have great influences in his life that guided him and counteracted the constant weight of poverty and racial terrorism.  His parents were both teachers and deeply invested in education.  They spent their small salaries to buy him a wonderful collection of books that allowed him to escape Alabama and find freedom in the world of ideas.  Without this guidance and encouragement at a young age, Dr. Julian may never have been able to rise from his circumstances and become one of the world’s greatest scientists.

Dr. Julian was a man of great talent, and people in his community recognized it. He was at last able to find acceptance to one of the only universities that allowed  people of color at the time, DePauw University.  Arriving at school, he found he was not able to stay on campus and the lodgings he could secure would not serve him food.  His first days at college were spent walking around a hostile town, trying to find a place that would serve him something to eat.  This was just the beginning of the cruel series injustices that Dr. Julian had to fight at every turn during his academic career.  Eventually he found work as a kind of butler at a campus fraternity house.  As he worked for the fraternity, he took the remedial high school classes he missed in Alabama AND took university classes.  Again in difficult circumstances, Dr. Julian received guidance and encouragement from his mentor, Dr. William Blanchard.  Dr. Blanchard took young Dr. Julian under his wing, and nurtured his growing love for chemistry.  This encouragement and support from one concerned mentor made all the difference in the world.  Dr. Julian went on to graduate as Valedictorian of his class.

However, after graduating in 1920 as Valedictorian, Dr. Julian’s road was not easy by any means.  He eventually went on to obtain a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Vienna, because no American schools would allow him to complete his Ph.D.  PhD in hand, many American schools were still reluctant to hire a person of color.  But Dr. Julian was determined to stand out, and took on huge challenges that eventually made him very successful and famous.  He became an expert in the field of “natural source chemistry,” which concentrated on unlocking the potent chemicals within plants.  Over his long career he discovered how to synthesize and produce steroid drugs on a mass scale.

His talent for elegant chemical solutions was unparalleled, and in his lifetime he synthesized medicines for glaucoma, several classes of steroids including cortisone, a miracle anti-inflammatory, and hormones like progesterone, used in treatment of miscarriage and also as a key ingredient of the birth control pill.  His scientific achievements are literally too many to contain in a single article, please see the links below for more about his incredible discoveries.  At the end of his life he was a millionaire who ran his own business synthesizing key compounds used in medicine for the masses, and yet hateful villains STILL tried to firebomb his stately mansion home.  At that time, the entire community in which he lived turned out in protest, surrounding his house with a human wall and insisting that he be able to stay in the Chicago suburb where he lived.  He stayed.

Dr. Percy Julian’s story is one of towering scientific achievement against all odds.  As anyone who has taken a steroidal medicine and felt it ease their pain knows, great scientists such as Dr. Julian are priceless gifts to society.  All though his life, however, Dr. Julian wondered what more he could have done if he hadn’t had to spend so much of his energy just trying to survive in a world so clearly bent on blocking him at every turn.  Dr. Julian was able to make it into the closed-off world of research science, and thrive there, in part because of the support he received from mentors, family, and his community.  In 2021, our world faces unprecedented challenges, and we need great scientists more than ever.  High Touch High Tech and our partner, Color of Science, believe that there is scientific genius all around us.  Together we share the goals of encouraging life-long scientific curiosity, encouraging the diversification of STEM, and providing equal opportunities for all students access to hands-on scientific experiences.  Here in 2021, we celebrate Dr. Julian’s legacy by working to assist the geniuses of the future to overcome systemic obstacles and unlock their true potential for the good of all the world. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Visit our Partners, Color of Science: https://colorfulscience.com/

An excellent documentary on Dr. Julian, highly recommended: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSq__sdYNNk

In-depth exploration of Dr. Julian’s work in Chemistry: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/julian.html

An overall biography: https://greatblackheroes.com/science/percy-julian/

Happy Indigenous People’s Day! Time for a Paradigm Shift.

October 12th is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, once known as Columbus Day.  Why celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead?  There’s just so much more to celebrate! For starters, 529 years in the Americas is a mere blip on the radar.  If you want impressive numbers, how about FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS of surviving and thriving in the wildly diverse, super-challenging environments of the Americas? Sailing up somewhere with guns and armies and “conquering” it is easy mode. Walking (or paddling, as new science suggests) into the Americas with just stone tools and small bands of resourceful people, then managing to populate the entire continent, now that’s an accomplishment. 

In this undated photo, an Indigenous American family smiles for the camera

Indigenous people in the Americas or wherever they are found on earth are, and have always been, absolute masters of ingenuity, craft, courage, and resourcefulness.  For these reasons, among so many others, we celebrate them today.

Dignity,” a monumental sculpture in South Dakota, by Claude Lamphere. Photo: KlemdyCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just as we are re-writing the old narrative of Columbus Day, recent discoveries in archaeology and genetics are re-writing an old narrative of when the first Indigenous people arrived in the Americas, and how they arrived.  Narrow views are expanding dramatically, and what they are revealing is a world that is older, richer, and much more complex than was once believed. 

A powwow dancer, Milwaukee, 2008. Photo:
CC BY-SA 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons

The “Clovis First” theory was first formulated in the early 20th century, and rigorously defended as orthodoxy until only recently.  Clovis First states that during the last Ice Age about 13,000 years ago, a  few small groups of Siberian peoples walked across a dry land bridge that connected Asia and the Americas as they were following their favorite prey, the Mammoth.  Over the next few thousand years, they gradually migrated down the entire American landmass, leaving distinctive spear points, called “Clovis Points,” as they went.  For decades, Clovis First was THE Paradigm of Indigenous migration to the Americas, and archaeologists with possible conflicting evidence were often ridiculed as crackpots.

A fanciful recreation of an ancient American mammoth hunt from a children’s book of American history, 1885.

Then came the 1997 discovery of Monte Verde, an ancient Indigenous site in Chile.  Tools and artifacts found there were showing dates one thousand years before Clovis!  Monte Verde indicated the old picture was not complete, and that people were living in South America long before the Clovis arrival.  It also raised an interesting possibility that the population of the Americas was something that may have happened by people paddling down the coasts in canoes or other watercraft.  So much for the on-foot, on-land, single-origin paradigm of Clovis First?  Defenders of Clovis First hung on and subjected Vanderbilt University archaeologist Tom Dillehay to years of rigorous examination before the discovery was accepted as fact.

Tlingit women in their canoes, c. 1900, Alaska

Then came the incredible discovery at the Tapper site in Savannah, Georgia.  In 2004, after many years of very careful and methodical excavation, a team lead by Dr. Al Goodyear dug below where Clovis Points had been found and discovered artifacts conclusively dated to 50,000 years ago.  Now, thanks to the work of archaeologists like Goodyear, Dillehay, and Michael Waters of the Center for the study of the First Americans at Texas A&M, an old scientific paradigm has truly changed, and Clovis First has been laid to rest.  

Aztec Dancers in Mexico City, 2018. Photo:
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As this article is being written, another set of evidence has arrived in the public eye – fossilized footprints in White Sands, New Mexico that reveal people were walking on American soil 23,000 years ago.  When the evidence is indisputable, even old, long-held ideas have to change.  According to Michael Waters, the consensus now is that the population of the Americas “was a process with people probably arriving at different times and taking different routes and potentially coming from different places.”  The door is open for new questions, new avenues of research, and new understandings that truly do justice to the complexity of the Indigenous experience.  Happy Indigenous People’s Day.  

An Inuit Mother and Child Rubbing Noses, Alaska, 1950.

Sources and Further Reading:

The Orthodoxy of Clovis First: https://bradshawfoundation.com/america/clovis_first/

The Tapper Site: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041118104010.htm

The Paradigm Shift from Clovis First: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/native-people-americans-clovis-news?loggedin=true

The Monte Verde Site: https://anthropology.net/2008/05/08/earliest-known-archaeological-evidence-of-americans-found-in-monte-verde-chile/

The Story of an Early Challenge to CF and How it was Received: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/jacques-cinq-mars-bluefish-caves-scientific-progress-180962410/

The White Sands Footprints: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/23/science/ancient-footprints-ice-age.html

Invisible Forces: the Unknown Mothers of Space Exploration

It’s WORLD SPACE WEEK!  This year, the theme is Women in Space.  The history of women and space exploration is a huge topic – far from being “tokens,” as some might imagine, women have been absolutely integral to space exploration.

From astronomer Caroline Herschel in 1786, who discovered several comets…

….to the pioneering software engineer Margaret Hamilton. Ms. Hamilton wrote the navigation code that launched the Apollo 11 moon shot mission, guided it back safely, and “set the foundation for modern software” as she did so. Women have lead the way in space exploration AND its close cousin field, computer programming.

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software she and her team produced for the Apollo Project, 1969

It may come as a surprise that a woman was in charge of the software engineering that lead humankind to the moon in 1969. In fact, the very word “computer” was coined to refer to the women who were doing complex calculations in the field of astronomy as far back as the late 19th century. Women first served as “human computers” at Harvard College Observatory, calculating, measuring, and cataloguing thousands of images of stars taken on glass plates. The women were considered ideal for this work because they were thought to have a “large capacity for tedium,” were proven to be meticulous and accurate, and could be paid much less than a man. However overlooked and undervalued they were then, in 2021 we celebrate the fact that the work of these computers was the bedrock of modern space exploration and modern computing as we know it.

“Pickering’s Harem,” so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941), Williamina Fleming (1857–1911), and Antonia Maury (1866–1952).

By World War II, “computers” had become fully established at the vanguard of technology. They were a large, but secretive group of female mathematicians who painstakingly made the essential ballistics calculations that eventually allowed the Allies to win World War II. As the war ended, computers transitioned into the “space race” and with it, into modern computing. Women were deeply involved not just in space exploration but the development of the first computer hardware and software, including ENIAC, the first programmable, digital computer. The face of so much of the technology we use today is female!

The incredible contribution of women in space exploration is brought fully alive by the caption attached to this historical photo. It reads: “The women of the Computer Department at NACA High-Speed Flight Research Station are shown busy with test flight calculations. The “computers” under the direction of Roxanah Yancey were responsible for accurate calculations on the research test flights made at the Station. There were no mechanical computers at the station in 1949, but data was reduced by human computers. Shown in this photograph starting at the left are: Geraldine Mayer and Mary (Tut) Hedgepeth with Friden calculators on the their desks; Emily Stephens conferring with engineer John Mayer; Gertrude (Trudy) Valentine is working on an oscillograph recording reducing the data from a flight. Across the desk is Dorothy Clift Hughes using a slide rule to complete data calculations. Roxanah Yancey completes the picture as she fills out engineering requests for further data.”

U.S. Army Photo”, number 163-12-62. Left: Patsy Simmers (mathematician/programmer), holding ENIAC board. Next: Mrs. Gail Taylor, holding EDVAC board. Next: Mrs. Milly Beck, holding ORDVAC board. Right: Mrs. Norma Stec (mathematician/programmer), holding BRLESC-I board.

Although computer programming and space exploration are both seen as predominantly male endeavors today, rest assured both fields were established through the labor of women.  In fact, the first known computer programmer was a woman named Ada Lovelace!

Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace, writer and mathematician, 1840. Through her work on Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine,” she published the first algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine.

After the war was won these “computers” continued the hard, tedious labor of calculating the trajectory of space flight, a story recently made famous by the movie Hidden Figures.  Katherine Johnson and a team of women of color did the essential calculations for Alan Shepherd’s 1961 spaceflight, which was such a success it set the American space program on its fast path to the moon. Astronaut John Glenn was such a firm believer in the work of these women that he did not fully trust the digital calculations that were being produced my the new electric computing technology. Before his spaceflight in 1962, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the numbers are good…I’m ready to go.”

Katherine Johnson, mathematician and physicist, at NASA in 1966

Everywhere you look in the story of space exploration, there is a tough, brave, intelligent woman.  However, because most people think of “astronauts” when they think of space exploration, and not the army of engineers, astronomers, and mathematicians behind them, space exploration can seem like more of a boys club than it actually is. 

Some of the Perseverance Mars Rover Team at work

If you want to understand just how integral women really are to space exploration, look at the incredible team that recently launched the Mars Perseverance Rover! The Mars Perseverance Rover was one of the most thrilling and complex achievements in the entire history of space exploration. We owe a debt to the many, many unrecognized mothers of space exploration who allowed us to reach such an incredible height.

Sources and Further Reading:

Caroline Herschel: https://www.famousscientists.org/caroline-herschel/

Margaret Hamilton: https://www.space.com/34851-margaret-hamilton-biography.html

The Computers of WWII: http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/innovation/02/08/women.rosies.math/index.html

The Computers of Harvard and NASA: https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a24429/hidden-figures-real-story-nasa-women-computers/

Ada Lovelace: https://www.famousscientists.org/ada-lovelace/

The Perseverance Team: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/team/