Why your pup looks at you (it’s not just to beg for a treat)

French bulldogLast Christmas, as I was patting my sister’s little female French bulldog, I found myself thinking how relaxing it felt – well, apart from the slightly itchy eyes. At some point, the dog tilted her head towards me, and we embarked on some sort of staring contest. As the mutual gaze prolonged, I started wondering: What could be going through her mind? Was she thinking about something? Why was she keeping her big but oh-so-cute bulgy eyes fixed on mine?

The interactions between humans and dogs are rather particular, with a level of social bonding and emotional engagement unusual for members of two different species. When compared with wolves, dogs’ closest relatives, and great apes, humans’ closest relatives, dogs appear much more skilled at recognizing and using social cues such as gesture or gaze direction to cooperatively interact with humans, even already as puppies.

But it’s not just that. Why is it that we feel genuinely attached to dogs? What are the biological mechanisms underlying the friendship and love we come to develop towards them? Continue reading

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Time is money

I usually write my posts in both English and French, and the French version of this blog is part of C@fé des sciences, a community of bloggers dedicated to communicating science in French. This week, C@fé des sciences chose to focus on one particular theme: time. Although I did not have time to contribute a full blog post, I couldn’t help but try to think of what I would have written otherwise. The first topic that came into my mind was something I had recently read about: the fact that, nowadays, many people feel pressed by time, and that, according to a poll done in the US in 2011, the wealthier a person is, the more time-poor they feel. Continue reading

In brief (October 2014): immunology, sea levels, gender stereotype, and nanomedicine

A selection from what I’ve read over the past couple of months:
immune response and genetic variation, or how interindividual genetic variation affects immune cell behavior, contributing to differences in how people respond to pathogens and how susceptible they are to develop autoimmune diseases,
ice melting and sea rising, or how global seal levels and ice volumes have changed over the past 35,000 years,
gender and speaking up, or how stereotypes related to gender affect an individual’s decision to contribute his/her ideas to a group,
anticancer nanomedicine, or how nano should nanoparticles be to optimally penetrate tumor tissue and exert their anticancer effect. Continue reading

Epigenetics, media, and worrying pregnant women

fetusDon’t do this. Don’t do that. Eat this. Eat that.
No, I’m not ordering a kid about. Just telling a pregnant woman how she should behave.

No one is denying that a healthy lifestyle is important during pregnancy, but it sometimes feel as if too much emphasis is placed on a woman’s individual influence on her future baby’s health. In a comment published in Nature this week, Sarah Richardson, associate professor at Harvard University, and colleagues express their concern about how “careless discussions of epigenetic research on how early life affects health across generations could harm women”. Continue reading

Why we make the decisions we make

Two TED talks to watch during your next coffee breaks:

The riddle of experience vs. memory, by Daniel Kahneman.
This talk is not about system 1 and system 2 (thinking fast and slow), but about our experiencing self vs. our remembering self. Or how we choose to spend our vacations.

Are we in control of our own decisions? by Dan Ariely.
Or how you might think twice next time you buy something. Or next time a friend invites you to go clubbing with them.

Baby vs smartphone

It’s not unusual for me to sit on a bench in a park for a half hour and see a dozen mothers pass by pushing their babies and toddlers in strollers (I live in a very family-friendly neighborhood). What has struck me recently is that most of these mothers push the stroller idly, meanwhile talking on the phone, silently texting or simply web-browsing. To be fair, some of them also push the stroller while running – and as a rather poor jogger, I’m impressed. But regarding the “smartphone-wired” mothers, I could not help but wonder: aside from the immediate danger of hitting a tree or missing a step, is such a parental behavior possibly affecting the child? Continue reading

Number sense, age and school maths

If someone offers you a bag of candies and there are two to pick from, the two not containing the same number of sweets, you will most likely try to estimate which bag contains the most candies and pick that one. To do that, you use something called the approximate number system (ANS), which is the cognitive system that gives rise to basic numerical intuitions.

The ANS generates nonverbal representations of numerosity not only in humans (adults, children and infants) but also in nonhuman animals. At the cellular level, Continue reading