Pucker Up: Tasting Something Sour Is Linked to Taking Risks

iStock
iStock

Getting out of your comfort zone may be as easy as eating something sour, according to Discover. A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports links tasting sour substances with being more prone to risk-taking.

The study examined the relationship between taste and behavior in 168 participants in two countries using a computerized measurement tool called the Balloon Analogue Risk-Task (BART). Participants have to click a mouse button to inflate a balloon on the screen. They accumulate cash rewards as the balloon expands, but if it explodes, they lose everything—meaning that with each click, they could earn more, but they run the risk of losing their money.

Before they began the task, the participants drank a cup of water that potentially contained one of five different basic taste solutions—bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami—or plain water with no taste added. They also completed questionnaires designed to measure personality traits like impulsiveness and risk-taking. They played the gambling game twice.

The researchers found that the sour taste was associated with risk-taking, while sweet and umami tastes made participants more likely to play it safe. Salty and bitter tastes seemed not to have an effect at all on behavior. Participants who drank the sour solution pumped the balloons around 40 percent fuller than those who drank the sweet solution or the umami solution, on average. The sweet group hesitated the most before choosing whether to pump up the balloon or cash out.

To make sure that the results weren’t too skewed by cultural perceptions of taste, the same two trials took place both in the UK and in Vietnam. The latter has some of the highest MSG consumption in the world, potentially counteracting the fact that people in the UK might not be accustomed to the taste of umami. In the Vietnamese study, the sour taste was linked to the highest risk taking, but sweet and umami tastes also seemed to promote risky behavior.

In a third test that took place in the UK, participants were briefed on the average point that the randomized balloon explosions took place. Rather than being totally uncertain when the balloon would explode, they were told it typically exploded around 64 pumps. Again, the sour group took more risks. This held true whether the participants were found to be more analytic decision-makers or more intuitive decision-makers. 

While it might not be a great idea to start binging on Warheads if you’re a gambling addict, the researchers write that “at least in the context for the BART task involving potentially winning small amounts of money, sour does not provoke people to indulge in reckless risky habits.” Instead, they write, it “has unique attributes to modulate risk-taking and may encourage risk-averse people to take new opportunities and potentially lead to a happier life.” They suggest that people with high anxiety or who are otherwise painfully averse to taking risks might want to consider adding more sour substances to their diet.

[h/t Discover]

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

iStock/kozorog
iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER