Human Nature

Smashing Big Brother

The vigilante war on speed-limit cameras.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on alcohol, cybersex, and contraception, click here.)

Britons are vandalizing the country’s growing army of speed surveillance cameras. The government has set up thousands of cameras to catch speeders; one vigilante group alone claims to have damaged more than 1,000. Favored techniques: “digging them up; shooting, hammering and firebombing them.” Government’s spin: 1) The cameras have reduced average speeds, injuries, and deaths. 2) Polls show most Brits support them. 3) Did we mention the $200 million in handy revenue from fines? Opponents’ spin: 1) “It’s just a road tax.” 2) The cameras distract drivers and cause sudden braking, both of which are dangerous. 3) GPS and other technologies will help us outwit Big Brother. Government’s rejoinder: We have our own new technologies, such as fireproof camera housing and better resolution to identify drivers. (For Human Nature’s previous update on new U.S. border surveillance cameras, click here. For private use of cell phone cameras to catch flashers, click here.)

New Zealand researchers proposed to ban smoking in cars when children are inside. Rationale: Even with the windows down, you get as much secondhand smoke in a car as in a smoky bar—and the country already bans smoking in bars. Six months ago, Arkansas banned smoking in cars when a child is strapped into a car seat. Next: The legislator who spearheaded the Arkansas ban wants to ban smoking by pregnant women, since the womb is another place where a child can’t escape a parent’s smoke. (For a previous update on the Arkansas ban, click here. For Human Nature’s take on the global movement to ban smoking and regulate unhealthy food, click here.)

British surgeons will attempt four face transplants. French and Chinese surgeons have done partial transplants, but the Brits plan to transplant whole faces. Thirty-four people have already applied; doctors say the most likely candidates are burn victims who have exhausted their reconstruction options and still can’t get their lips or eyelids to meet. Royal College of Surgeons’ view: Don’t try this till we have evidence it’ll work. British plastic surgeons’ view: The best way to get the evidence is to try it. (For Human Nature’s latest updates on the French and Chinese face transplants, click here and here. For penis transplants, click here.)

“Sexsomnia” may not be as much fun as it sounds. Sufferers, who initiate sex while asleep, are apparently less numerous than sleepwalkers but more common than documented in case reports. Many hide their condition due to embarrassment. Suspected factors: stress and sleep deficits. Web site: Locker-room reaction: She jumps you in her sleep? Awesome! Sexsomniacs’ reaction: It scares the hell out of us because we have no idea what we’re doing or with whom. Sexsomniacs’ partners’ reaction: The nympho zombie thing gets old and creepy. (For Human Nature’s previous updates on sleep-eating and sleep-driving, click here, here, here, and here.)

Therapy for babies is spreading. The number of organizations belonging to the World Association for Infant Mental Health has doubled in a decade; graduate programs and journals for infant therapists are sprouting; disorders are being added to a diagnostic manual for babies. Examples: separation anxiety, social anxiety, food aversions, and anorexia. Therapists’ spin: Brain research is teaching us that disorders begin early, and we’re intervening to head them off. Cynical spin: Overeducated, hypochondriac parents are freaking out, and for $150 an hour, therapists are happy to treat their kids’ toilet training problems as an illness. (For Human Nature’s previous updates on compulsive shopping as a disease, click here and here. For bigotry as an illness, click here. For pills and alcohol as an excuse for sexual exploitation, click here and here.) (WSJ link requires subscription.)

Dozens of surgeons are learning to do eyelash transplants. The doctor takes follicles from your scalp (as with hair transplants for baldness) and sews them into your eyelids. Cost: $6,000. The procedure was developed to treat burn victims, but now four out of five patients get it for cosmetic reasons. Doctors’ spin: “Eyelash transplantation does for the eyes what breast augmentation does for the figure.” Counterspin: Except your breasts don’t keep growing the way your scalp hair does when it’s put in your eyelids. Cynical spin: Coming next, the eyelid shaver. (For previous updates on cosmetic surgery, click here, here, and here. For Human Nature’s take on penis transplants, click here.)

Pain sensitivity varies genetically among people. A gene called GCH1 regulates an enzyme that correlates with pain sensitivity in rats. In humans, having one copy of a particular version of the gene makes you less pain-sensitive than other people; having two copies makes you highly insensitive to pain. Researchers’ conclusions: 1) Maybe we can control chronic pain by blocking the gene. 2) People who seem more heroic than you may just be luckier and more comfortable. (For Human Nature’s take on fetal pain, click here. For an update on pain in infants, click here.)

A study indicates statins can significantly reduce lung damage from smoking. Among current and former smokers, breathing capacity declined five to eight times more sharply in people who didn’t take statins than in those who did. Researchers’ conclusions: 1) We can make smoking less harmful! 2) But, um, you should still quit, because statins won’t lower your risk of lung cancer. (For Human Nature’s previous update on people who keep smoking after heart attacks, click here. For smoking and extra baby fingers, click here. For smoking, IQ damage, and male sterility, click here.)

Scientists claim to have built an “invisibility cloak.” It uses metamaterials (metal patterns on a surface) to bend waves around an object so that the waves strike you as though they’ve passed through empty space. Researchers’ hype: We can hide anything from anyone! We hid a copper cylinder, and now we’re gonna hide a toaster! Sci-fi hype: Today, Harry Potter’s cloak; tomorrow, Romulan space ships! Critiques: 1) The cloak didn’t hide anything. It bent microwaves, not light. 2) It worked in two dimensions, not three. 3) Even with microwaves, it left a telltale reflection and shadow. 4) To bend light, which is much harder, you’d have to find new metamaterials. Naive answer: Just you wait, we’ll figure out how to hide things, and you’ll hear all about it. Cynical answer: The military, which is funding this work, will figure out how to use it to hide things, and you’ll never hear about it. (For Human Nature’s previous update on invisibility cloaks, click here.)

Women do worse on math tests when they’re told that men are genetically better at math. A study divided 220 female students into four groups, each with an assigned reading. One reading talked about images of women in art; a second said men have an innate advantage at math; a third said there’s no innate difference; a fourth said preferential treatment accounts for male success. Women in the latter two groups averaged 15 to 20 correct answers out of 25 on a subsequent math test. Women in the first two groups averaged only 5 to 10 correct answers, and their test scores were lower after the reading than before. Researchers’ conclusion: Faced with deterministic stereotypes of female vulnerability, women “are likely to choke under the pressure.” Rebuttal: Thanks for another deterministic stereotype of female vulnerability. (For Human Nature’s takes on gender, science, and Larry Summers, click here and here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Pills, booze, Rush Limbaugh, and Mark Foley’s abuser. 2) The perils of policing cybersex. 3) Foley’s alcohol rehab. 4) Pro-lifers against contraception. 5) The first penis transplant. 6) Is eugenics better than sex? 7)  Buried alive in your own skull. 8) The global explosion of fat9) Stop killing meat and start growing it. 10) The war on tanning.