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]

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

NASA Reveals How Living in Space for a Year Affected Scott Kelly’s Poop

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

When you agree to be part of a yearlong space study, you forfeit some right to privacy. In astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, the changes his body endured while spending a year at the International Space Station (ISS) were carefully analyzed by NASA, then published in a scientific journal for all to see. Kelly submitted blood samples, saliva samples, and cheek swabs. Even his poop was subjected to scrutiny.

As PBS reports, Scott Kelly’s fecal samples revealed that his gut microbiome underwent significant but reversible changes during his time in orbit. In what was surely good news for both Kelly and NASA, his gut bacteria didn’t contain anything “alarming or scary,” according to geneticist Martha Hotz Vitaterna, and it returned to normal within six months of landing on Earth.

Even after being subjected to the challenging conditions of space, “Scott’s microbiome still looked like Scott’s microbiome, just with a space twist on it,” said Vitaterna, who was one of the study’s authors.

The fecal probe was one small part of a sweeping NASA study that was just published in the journal Science, more than three years after Kelly’s return. Dubbed the Twins Study, it hinged on the results of Kelly’s tests being compared with those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as the control subject.

NASA’s goal was to gain insight into the hazards that astronauts could face on proposed long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. The agency has gone to great lengths to get this information, including offering to pay people $18,500 to stay in bed for two months in order to replicate the conditions of anti-gravity.

It also explains why NASA was willing to launch unmanned rockets into space to collect samples of Kelly’s poop. On four different occasions at the ISS, Kelly used cotton swabs to pick up poo particles. When the rockets arrived to drop off lab supplies, they returned to Earth with little tubes containing the swabs, which had to be frozen until all of the samples were collected. The process was tedious, and on one occasion, one of the SpaceX rockets exploded shortly after it launched in 2015.

The study also found that his telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes, had lengthened in space, likely due to regular exercise and a proper diet, according to NASA. But when Kelly returned to Earth, they began to shorten and return to their pre-spaceflight length. Shorter telomeres have a correlation with aging and age-related diseases. “Although average telomere length, global gene expression, and microbiome changes returned to near preflight levels within six months after return to Earth, increased numbers of short telomeres were observed and expression of some genes was still disrupted,” researchers wrote.

Researchers say more studies will be needed before they send the first human to Mars. Check out NASA's video below to learn more about what they discovered.

[h/t PBS]

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