anothertragichero asked: If a person dies quickly, would he/she feel the pain before death, or would they just die without feeling anything since it was so quick?
This is an interesting question. A good example of rapid death would be decapitation. For obvious reasons, one can’t do experiments on humans to figure out if they remain conscious for any period of time after having their head chopped off. Ranging back to the time of the French revolution, the heyday of the guillotine, there are anecdotes about people who apparently remained conscious and responsive to stimuli for a few seconds after the head was severed. There are also anecdotes about people who promised to give a sign after death to indicate awareness, and failed to do so. These anecdotes are impossible to verify. Decapitation or any other human death by extreme and rapid trauma has never happened during any form of scientifically controlled conditions. All we can say based on these anecdotes is that it’s possible that some people may remain conscious and feel pain for a short while after such a violent death. It’s also possible they aren’t, and it seems likely to be so for the majority of cases.
Rats are frequently used as model animals in research, so scientists have taken some interest in the question, do rats feel pain during decapitation? Is decapitation a humane way to sacrifice animals in research? Monitoring brain activity in rats as they were killed, researchers found no brain activity normally associated with pain in rats who were awake while their head was cut off. That suggests the rats were not in pain. Other scientists have calculated that it would take no more than 2.7 seconds for the rat brain to go unconscious from lack of oxygen. Given the nature of the trauma, more intense brain activity would be expected, which would use even more oxygen, and so unconsciousness would result even quicker. Taken together, these data suggest that rats, at least, do not feel pain after decapitation, and if they did, the duration of the pain would be no more than a couple seconds.
We can’t directly extrapolate to humans, but we can speculate. It seems likely that humans, too, go unconscious more or less instantly, at least in the majority of cases. Given the anecdotes, it seems possible that some may retain some kind of awareness for an instant after trauma, but the evidence is weak, so we’ll have to call it an open question. It’s certain, however, that the brain cannot function without oxygen, and that oxygen would run out in a matter of seconds after the supply was permanently cut off, so at the most, one could hypothetically feel a few seconds of pain. But then again the rats’ brain activity didn’t suggest pain. So the best answer I can give is that most people will probably not have time to feel pain before they’re dead, and it remains an open question whether some rare exceptions may retain a few seconds of consciousness, but if so they wouldn’t necessarily be in pain for that time.
guldguldguld asked: I believe that we survive death. I have read that the soul is made of matter with a higher frequensy.
I have read that Yahweh created the world in six days, and on the seventh he rested. I have read that according to exact calculations of genealogies, this occurred less than six thousand years ago.
One should not believe everything one reads. This is not a question, but if it were one, it would not be well formed. Science, as far as it has been concerned with the matter of consciousness, has not found any evidence that consciousness continues past death. That is all we can say: nothing points to it. If by “the soul” you mean something that sustains our personality or consciousness, then the answer to your non-question is: no, that is not true. I can guarantee you the phrase “the soul is made of matter with a higher frequency” does not occur in any peer-reviewed scientific paper. Anywhere. Its likelihood of being true ranks up there with “the tooth fairy is made of matter with a higher frequency.”
It’s frustrating both for readers and writers of blogs that the reverse chronological nature of a blog buries so much good content. Few are willing to wade through vast archives that contain hundreds or thousands of posts. This blog has been growing at a huge rate, and lots of new readers may have missed a lot that they’d love if it were posted today. To make it easier to navigate the past, I’ve made two primary tags.
If you want to read more in-depth, long-form articles about various science-related topics, such as fractal dimensions, breaking the seal (re: peeing), which personality tests are bullshit, the strongest magnets in the universe, the unforgettable amnesiac or the pistol-dueling prodigy who died of gunshot wound at 20 and posthumously revolutionized mathematics, head over to the longer stories tag.
If you prefer to navigate the full archives, which include absolutely everything, at the time of writing 352 posts going back to June 2008, go here or simply navigate back and forth at the bottom of each page—but you probably know how to do that if you’re already on Tumblr.
Frozen animals in Nordland county, Norway
The first image shows a moose that drowned, then the ice froze around it, in Fauske, Norway.
The second shows a school of pollock that was chased towards the shore of the island Lovund by cormorants. Then the water froze so rapidly that the fish couldn’t escape, and became trapped in the ice. This picture was snapped by a man out walking his dog, and was quickly picked up by local mainstream and social media.
The story of the year has to be the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson. The new particle’s discovery was announced in July, 2012, but it wasn’t until March of this year that a full analysis confirmed its status as a Higgs boson. Either way, I didn’t pick a story of the year for 2012, so it can serve for both years, in lieu of any obvious competitors. (If you think there’s a more important science story for 2013, I’d love to hear it!)
You’ll notice that the headline above says the new particle is a Higgs boson, not the Higgs boson. This is because some models posit several Higgs bosons. The Large Hadron Collider shut down operations in February after a three-year run, but will restart in 2015 at higher energies, hopefully bringing us more useful data about the Higgs mechanism. In case you’ve lived under a rock the past five years, the reason the Higgs boson is important is because it is the particle tied to the mechanism that gives everything mass in the Standard Model of physics. Its existence has been theorized for decades, but it is only in the past two years that we have had experimental confirmation of its existence.
In physics: François Englert and Peter W. Higgs for the theoretical discovery of the Higgs mechanism.
In chemistry: Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems. In practice, this means computer models that draw on quantum mechanics in the most important parts and simplify to classical physics, which is less accurate but also less computationally expensive, in the less important parts of a reaction. Illustration of Newton and his apple fighting, then reconciling with Schrödinger’s cat from the Nobel Institute. Note that this research was done in the 1970s; although the Physics prize was highly topical, most Nobel prizes are awarded decades after a discovery; indeed, the Higgs boson was initially theorized in 1964.
In medicine: James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof for elucidating the mechanisms that drive vesicles, “storage pouches” inside the cell that transport various materials within the cell or fuse with the cell membrane to deliver them to the outside of the cell.
In economics: Eugene F. Fama, Lars Peter Hansen, Robert J. Shiller for their empirical analysis of asset prices.
Smog over China on October 22, 2013, as captured by a NASA weather satellite.
The Very Large Telescope in Chile fires off a laser strike at the galactic center. Fluctuations in the Earth’s atmosphere distort the telescope image. The telescope can compensate using adaptive optics, but it needs some way to measure the fluctuations. The twinkling of a bright star would do nicely, but often there is no bright star in the vicinity the astronomers want to study. The solution? Use a powerful laser to create an artificial star in the night sky.
Here’s a frequently repeated, counterintuitive factoid: people who win large sums in the lottery are no happier, over time, than people who become paralyzed in traumatic accidents. This “fact” comes from Brickman et al’s 1978 paper called Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative? The researchers interviewed 22 major lottery winners, 22 randomly selected controls from the same area, and 29 paraplegics and quadriplegics who had suffered the injury in the recent past. The lottery winners had won sums ranging from $300,00 (more than a million in 2013 dollars) to $1,000,000. Here are some of the results:
The respondents rated their happiness and their enjoyment of everyday pleasures such as hearing a good joke or receiving a compliment on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 was the happiest. As you can see, lottery winners were not significantly happier than controls. They also derived significantly less pleasure from everyday events. The victims were significantly less happy than the controls or the winners; however, one may have suspected them to be even unhappier. After all, these were people who had suffered a life-changing, paralyzing injury less than 12 months ago, and were still engaged in extensive rehabilitation. The victims also reported slightly more enjoyment of everyday pleasures than the lottery winners. All reports, past, future and present were made at one moment, and so we can see that the victims idealize the past, which they report as significantly happier than the controls or lottery winners report the present. All groups reported similar expected future happiness levels.
The second study showed that the results were not due to preexistent differences between people who buy lottery tickets and those who don’t.
The results are surprising, but they aren’t particularly strong. The sample size is small, and the results have not been replicated since. It’s a long way from results such as these to Oprah self-help slogans like “major events, happy or not, lose their impact on happiness levels in less than three months.”
Does money increase happiness? Some real-world studies have attempted to look at this. One study interviewed average Joes and Forbes 500 multi-millionaires. The wealthy were happier than the average Joes, but only modestly so. A larger study of poorer people was undertaken as part of the Seattle and Denver Income Maintenance Experiments. Part of a large-scale experiment involving 4,800 families and negative income tax—a way of ensuring a minimum income regardless of work status—it provided fertile ground for investigating the question: does having a stable income increase happiness?
A three-to-five year study tackled the question. Household heads who received extra monetary support and controls who didn’t were queried for symptoms of psychological distress. The results were surprising: for most groups, a stable income did not have any impact on psychological distress. In some groups, psychological distress was increased.
In 2006, Jonathan Gardner and Andrew J. Oswald decided to take another look at the lottery winner findings. They had the benefit of longitudinal data. Instead of asking subjects to rate their past, present and future happiness, they used data from the British Household Panel Survey. This survey already asks participants to rate their happiness every year. Gardner and Oswald looked at participants who had won medium-sized lottery prizes, from £1000 to £120,000. The 137 winners—a small sample, but much larger than the 1978 sample of 22 winners—went on to improve a small, but significant amount on a scale of general happiness.
Does increasing everyone’s income increase happiness? Gross Domestic Product per capita has been steadily increasing the last three decades. But are we happier? No, we’re exactly as happy or unhappy as we’ve always been. Below are some data:
What does this mean for happiness? Clearly, money isn’t everything. Equally clearly, money is something. It’s easy to come up with a folk psychology explanation to Brickman et al’s findings. Let’s give it a go: In the moment, a major accident is a huge negative factor in your life. Winning a million dollars is a huge positive factor in the moment. But as time passes, the happiness fades. Lottery winners grow accustomed to their new wealth, and no longer derive significant happiness from it; on the contrary, compared to the euphoric winning moment, everyday pleasures become duller. On the other hand, quadriplegics grow accustomed to their injury, and in contrast to the injury, the joy of everyday pleasures becomes greater. In time (say, 3 months, that sounds good in a soundbite), major life events don’t really affect your happiness level.
But as the data above shows, that’s an oversimplification. When it comes to our understanding of happiness, we may not have come much further than Socrates or Seneca. We lack historical data from antiquity, but it’s easy to imagine Socrates being a happier man than the man who won a million dollars in 1978.