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Finally: Medical Proof That Math Makes Your Head Hurt?

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Splitting the bill after dinner can be a big headache for some people. Now researchers have an idea why.

The question: For the math-averse among us — number-crunchers like Nate Silver notwithstanding — a simple equation can cause a major headache. Why do some people find the task of balancing a checkbook or trying to split a bill after dinner to be incredibly daunting?

How it was tested: Researchers from the University of Chicago worked with 14 adults proven to have "math anxiety" based on their responses to an initial series of queries. These questions weren't actual math problems: Instead, researchers presented participants with theoretical scenarios like receiving a math textbook or taking a difficult math class in order to graduate. The volunteers weren't anxious people in general, say researchers, but rather possessed a "heightened sense of anxiety" when presented with math-related situations. For the actual experiment, their brains were hooked up to an fMRI machine, and they were given equations to verify. For example: (12 x 4) - 19 = 29.

The outcome: To the surprise of researchers, it was the anticipation of doing math, not necessarily the math itself, that elicited responses from participants that were similar to, well, being in pain. In particular, just being presented with math problems activated parts of the posterior insula, which is "a fold of tissue located deep inside the brain just above the ear that is associated with registering direct threats to the body as well as the experience of pain." More interestingly: The process of actually doing math didn't cause these same brain areas to register on fMRI.

What the experts say: "For someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain — say, burning one's hand on a hot stove," said study co-author Professor Sian Beilock in a statement. Previous studies have demonstrated that the higher someone's math anxiety, which can start as early as first grade, the stronger the response via brain scan.

The lesson: Anxiety isn't just a proxy for poor math skills, but it can be an indicator for a "real, negative psychological reaction." Educators and officials should therefore consider treating math anxiety like they would other phobias.

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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The Prehistoric Bacteria That Helped Create Our Cells Billions of Years Ago
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We owe the existence of our cells—the very building blocks of life—to a chance relationship between bacteria that occurred more than 2 billion years ago. Flash back to Bio 101, and you might remember that humans, plants, and animals have complex eukaryotic cells, with nucleus-bound DNA, instead of single-celled prokaryotic cells. These contain specialized organelles such as the mitochondria—the cell’s powerhouse—and the chloroplast, which converts sunlight into sugar in plants.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts both look and behave a lot like bacteria, and they also share similar genes. This isn’t a coincidence: Scientists believe these specialized cell subunits are descendants of free-living prehistoric bacteria that somehow merged together to form one. Over time, they became part of our basic biological units—and you can learn how by watching PBS Eons’s latest video below.

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