Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Breath deep so those memories you can keep!

Would you be interested in a free technique to boost your brain power ?

Well today’s blog post is concerned with explaining how you can do exactly that !

For 1000s of years cultures have been practicing deep breathing practicing and utilizing the benefits they provide .

However , in the past there was no certainty whether these practices provide any true benefit.

Well modern science is providing the research that suggests deep breathing can improve many aspects of central cognition and brain function!

There is no longer an excuse to avoid cashing in on these free brain boosting benefits of meditation.


A wise individual practicing the benefits of meditation . Photo by Peter Miller via Flickr

Types of meditation

Contrary to popular belief meditation does not involve just sitting down and breathing in and out.

Although it is a big aspect, the critical component is the position you practise and the ratio of your inhalations to exhalations and whether those occur nasally or orally.

Some of the different variations include:

  • Loving kindness meditation
  • Body scan
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Breath awareness meditation
  • Kindalini yoga
  • Zen meditation
  • Transcendental meditation

The list is vast, so if you’re interested in finding out the best type for you read more here.

The benefits

Just are there are many types of meditation , there are also many types of therapeutic benefits for its practice .

Meditation has shown to scientifically :

  • Decrease Stress
  • Control Anxiety
  • Promote emotional health
  • Enhance self awareness
  • Lengthening of attention span
  • Improved memory
  • Decreased memory loss

All these benefits for just deep breathing are too good to just pass up. But right now you’re probably wondering ” ok so science shows it improves all these aspects of emotion , but how ?”

Well that’s a very good question ! So let me try to explain .

The basic science of meditations benefits

In the most basic sense meditation has shown to improve brain function by its ability to indirectly activate the limbic system.

The limbic system is a region of the brain involved with emotional processing and memory . By increasing its function you can increase emotional control and memory .

Meditation is like a massage for the limbic system . You sit down and super charge it for 20 minutes a day and then over time can reap the benefits .

It is sort of like gym for your brain , where meditation is like the repetitions and the cognitive benefits are the “gainz” .

Hijacking the meditation circuitry

I just thought id finish this blog post by highlighting a new technology that is providing a way to hijack the way meditation

Example of brain recording technology . Photo by Michael Fainshtein via Flickr



improves brain function for people who don’t want to meditate.

This technology is called Vagal nerve stimulation.

It can be purchased as a hand held devise that stimulates the same nerves in the neck that send the breathing information to the brain responsible for meditations benefits .

Although not clinically available for this purpose yet, there is both animal and clinical studies highlighting the technologies efficacy.

More can be read about VNS here.

Anyway that wraps up today’s post about meditation ,

Feel free to leave any comments if you have further question .

The truth about stevia

Have you ever purchased something claiming to be completely sugar-free? I recently got sucked into buying sugar-free drinking chocolate, and like with most things I buy, I turned it over to have a look at the ingredients. The main ingredient that stood out to me was stevia, something I had seen a few times before as a sweetener. This got me thinking; are these alternative sweeteners any better than the sugar they’re replacing?

The main benefit of sweeteners is that they do not add any calories and can, therefore, operate as an effective method by which to reduce weight. Unlike most sweeteners which are artificial, stevia is created from a plant.

Sourced from:

The stevia plant originates from South America where it has been used as a sweetener for hundreds of years before it was commercialised. Steviol glycosides are the extract from the stevia plant that is used to sweeten foods and is approved for consumption in over 60 countries.  Other extracts and the leaf itself, however, do not have the same approval.

The sugar substitute market is expected to boom by 2020, estimated to be worth $16.5 billion, so it’s important to know if these substitutes have any side effects.

The literature appears to be on the fence regarding the health benefits of stevia. To make it even more confusing most modern iterations of stevia are powdered and heavily processed. The natural form of stevia has been used medicinally for hundreds of years for things such as burns and stomach pain.

Modern studies have seen other health benefits with one finding regular consumption helped to reduce blood pressure. There has also been research to suggest it can help reduce the growth of cancer. There are also potential side effects stemming from the body expecting a blood sugar change but not receiving one.

Most of the health benefits and side effects are either speculative or not rigorously tested enough. It does seem stevia is relatively safe to consume, however, and most importantly it helps to dramatically reduce sugar intake!


Why we should ditch 10

Yep, there are indeed numerous number nerds that believe we should get rid of the number 10. Now you are probably thinking…

What would make someone prejudiced against something as inoffensive and ordinary as a number? It seem like a pretty uncontroversial topic. Well, there is a passionate group of people known as dozenalists who believe we should replace 10 with 12. Sounds weird right?

Let me explain…

Currently, the number system has 10 base units: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.
When we surpass nine, we recombine 1 and 0 to give 10.
And go on organising thing by this base number: 20, 30, 40 … 100, 1000 etc.

What these dozenals suggest is that we change to 12 base units. So it takes 12 units to reach the base number. So the number system becomes like this: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, 10.
Essentially adding two more numbers, A and B. Then continuing on we get : 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 1A, 1B, 20 etc. So what we know as 24 becomes 20 for instance. Creating a new number system known as duodecimal or dozenal.

You see 10 units is a completely arbitrary amount. There is nothing divine or intrinsic about 10 that means we should organise the world like this, it just what we have chosen as our base number. We could organise numbers in base 7, base 2 like they do in binary or even base 600 if you wanted to.

It’s awkward to get your head around I know. You have to conceptualise 10 as somehow now being 12 and 12 now being ten. This YouTube video by Numberphile explains it in more detail…

Alternatively, this odd exert from the 70s show Schoolhouse Rock by Bob Dorough. Explains the duodecimal system in a weird story about an alien with 12 toes. Side note: it’s a little creepy.

Why is 12 better?

Well, a lot of the universe is organised in 12s.

  • 12 months in a year
  • 12 hours on a clock
  • 12 zodiac signs
  • Western music has 12 notes in an octave

There is something really special about it. Think about the words we use for numbers themselves.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…then suddenly we switch to thirteen.
We have unique names for the first twelve numbers and then we start recombining one to nine with -teen and then twenty etc.

For me personally, I have always felt an oddly strong affinity for the number 12. When any multiple of twelve comes up in maths question, it makes me a little happy. It is number on my basketball jersey I pick every year and at the end of every one of my passwords that require two numbers and a capital.

I like twelve because it’s easily divided by lots of numbers. It has eight factors (1,2,3,4,6,8,12) compared to 10, which has only four (1,2,5,10). So when dividing 12 or multiples of 12 you more likely end up with rational numbers. Not awkward long fractions or ugly recurring decimal.

That’s the rationale behind duodecimal. Working in a base-12 number system would be easier for calculating fractions, understanding time and for children to conceptualise maths.

For instance, 10 not being neatly divisible by 3 can be annoying in everyday math. For instance, say you go out for dinner with 2 friends and the bill racks up to $80. You go to split it three ways and it ends up at 26.66667.

If you were in the base-12 system,
$80 would be $68 and divided by 3 would come to $22.80 – a far nicer number.

Photo by Michael Skok on Unsplash

The French’s fault?

Historically we did actually use more of a base-12 number system. Before the French Revolution introduced metric, we used imperial measurements. Which include more 12 based units e.g. 12 inches in a foot and 12 English pence in a shilling. That’s why we still have unique words for 11 and 12 in English.

Today, there are regions that have independently developed duodecimal counting systems. The Chepang language in Nepal, a Maldivian dialect spoken on Minicoy Island in India and multiple dialects in Nigeria; all use base-12.

Though there are all sorts of weird and wonderful counting systems throughout the world. There are regions in New Guinea that use base-27, counting their body parts. In Danish, they use a mix of base-10 and base-20 but then when they get to 50 they start using fractions so the word for 50, halvtreds, means 2̷½ x 20.

In Defence of 10

Though the argument for base-10 and why it so universally used is that we have 10 fingers. Making it easy for children to count. Dozenalists do propose we could count the 12 segments on our fingers and use our thumb to point to them.

The duodecimal alternative for finger counting. (The upside down 2 is alternate way of writing A and the reversed 3 is an alternate version of B). Image by mireille from openclipart and edited by Sally Jenkins.

The reality is though, the cost of changing all text-books, currency, rulers, computers, calculators etc. to the deodecimal system probably outweighs its benefits. Though determined dozinalists from The Dozenal Society of America and The Dozinal Society of Great Britain continue to advocate for change.

Hidden Dimensions of Nature

Symmetry in the world around us provides us with the most aesthetically pleasing phenomenon; from its application in the human body and other animals, simple and complex, to plants and a massive number of other phenomena, the symmetry is what appeals to most of us. However, it is not just the aesthetics provided by symmetry that makes it universal, it is the efficiency achieved through it that makes it universally applicable.

Normally, when we speak of symmetry we talk about symmetry under three transformations of reflection, rotation and translation. However, there is a fourth aspect of ‘self-similarity’ that is left out of the conversation. The applications of ‘self-similarity’ are just as widespread as that of the traditional aspects of symmetry. ‘Self-similar’ figures appear to be the same, exactly or approximately, under several levels of magnification i.e. they are made up of smaller copies of themselves and this property is known as ‘scaling symmetry’ and such figures as ‘fractals’. Thus, a fractal is a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is a reduced copy of the whole. However, it is important to note that not all self-similarity is fractal in nature; certain objects, like spirals, are self-similar about a single point and thus, are not fractals.

Sierpinski Gasket. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Aerial Image of river Neil following the pattern. Source: Twisted Sifter.

The mathematics behind fractals began taking shape in the 17th century when Gottfried Leibniz, a mathematician and philosopher, considered recursive self-similarity, however, it was in the late 19th century that the first mathematical function, that would be considered a fractal by today’s standard, appeared. Gradually, a number of developments took place that gave us more functions such as the Koch Curve.

Koch curve visualization. Source: Agnes Scott

Beyond the aesthetics

Fractal figures are mesmerizing to the layman as a fractal can be said to be a figure that shows self-symmetry and thus, in case of a perfect fractal created using supercomputers, it is possible to find infinite levels of symmetry, or in simple terms, one can zoom infinitely into the figure. Thus, some say fractals are finite figures that store the infinite in them and this aspect of fractals is what has led to intensive research in mathematics and has been a major argument for the philosophers- ‘Can infinite, indeed, be stored in the finite?’

Fractal Art

Looking around

While watching movies that employ heavy use of animations, have you ever pondered over how the animators create such astonishingly real-looking landscapes in movies like Star Trek or Independence Day? The basics of animation come down to geometrical figures, such as triangles, being repeatedly used in a manner that facilitates the production of such magnificent patterns and figures on the screen. Fractals also help in understanding morphology of the amorphous such as the shape of complex landscapes and coastlines, the formation of clouds, ferns, snowflakes, crystals, mountain ranges, lightning, river networks, bacterial colonies, the structure of cauliflowers and broccoli, the generations of patterns of camouflage and so on.

Thus, fractals are those figures that help define the creation and/ or substantiate the shape and structures of the seemingly random and complex phenomenon around us.

The Key to Pain Relief: a placebo effect

Did you know your brain is both its own locksmith and its own pharmacist?

I’m going to start this blog post with a short story about my mum but I’ll make my point about science soon, so bear with me!

The Prada placebo

My mum and I really love textiles and clothing. On my last trip with my mum I asked to borrow a coat due to the cold temperatures and her much more varied closet than mine. She brings out a coat the colour of green peas with a bizarre mix of different buttons down the front and says, “It’s Prada”. Prada is a fancy clothing brand and my mum was testing me to see if I would like the coat just because she had told me it was a fancy brand. I told her I didn’t pa

rticularly like the coat even if it was Prada. It wasn’t.

Let me circle this back to science. My mum expected me to have a more favourable reaction to the coat (which wasn’t my style) just because the brand has reputation as well made. She was testing the placebo effect. A placebo is more commonly used in relation to medical treatments. It refers to a ‘medicine’ that has no medicinal ingredient but may produce a positive effect in patients because they are told it should have an effect.

Sugar pills. Image via Unsplash

Dr Tic Tac

This might seem similar to going to the doctor as a child and answering yes to every question the doctor asks because you want a day off of school. In fact the placebo effect isn’t trying to weed out the hypochondriac patients. The placebo is a real phenomenon that has been debunked as a myth by science.

When a doctor hands you a prescription for a medicine that is supposed to get rid of the extreme back pain you feel, of course you will feel hope and relief in anticipation of being pain free. Little do you know that your doctor has written down a fancy name for Tic Tacs. Yes this hypothetical doctor is terrible, but did you know you might actually experience pain relief?

Image via Matthew Schwartz on Unsplash

You are your own pharmacist

When you expect to be relieved of pain, your brain releases chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are similar in their chemical structure to opioid drugs like heroin and morphine. They are essentially all ‘keys’, or neurotransmitters, that have been cut in such a similar way that they unlock the same ‘doors’, or receptors, within the brain. When that door is unlocked your experience of pain is dulled. Each key, or chemical, dulls the pain to a different extent. This is why the placebo effect really does reduce pain.

Your anticipation of an effect from the Tic Tacs your doctor prescribed causes your brain to make its own diluted form of painkiller. Congratulations you are your own pharmacist! Your brain also releases another kind of chemical or key in anticipation, this one called dopamine. Dopamine unlocks the door within the reward part of the brain. This reduces your sensitivity to pain. You are now a pharmacist who can make two kinds of pain relievers, take that Nurofen.

Image via rawpixel on Unsplash

Are you cut out to be a good locksmith?

The spooky stuff doesn’t end there! Your genetics actually influence how much of a placebo you can get. Think of it like this: your genes either make your brain a good locksmith or a bad one. The locks within those doors mentioned above might either be cut really well and fit those keys perfectly or not so well. If the lock doesn’t fit then the pain relief isn’t as good.

Let’s hope our brains worked hard in their locksmith apprenticeships and made damned good locks in our pain relief doors!



For some more in depth info on the science behind the placebo check out these links:

Number of posts found: 2838