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Thursday
Aug232012

What is Your DNA Worth?

Imagine that on a day just like any other, you grab your mail and start thumbing through the ads and solicitations per usual, and you come across a “pre-approval” letter from a bank offering you a credit card.  You open it expecting to see the typical application and prepaid envelope—but this time you find something else as well.

You pull out the unexpected object, which turns out to be a long cheek swab sealed in plastic, the sort used in forensics labs for DNA sampling.  Reading the application, you find that this is no typical credit offer. The bank has sent you an offer of trade: a sample of your DNA for a beefy credit limit at low interest.

While I don’t expect to receive an offer like this anytime in the immediate future, all signs point to it coming eventually. So the question is: what’s your DNA worth?  Will you accept more credit, or perhaps additional come-ons like reward points toward that vacation you’ve been wanting, for a quick swab along the inside of your cheek?

The news (originally broken by The Wall Street Journal) that VISA submitted a patent application mentioning gathering of DNA data for marketing purposes has many concerned, and legitimately so. It was one thing when your subscription to Men’s Health was cross referenced in a marketing database with your preference for Hollister t-shirts, but delving into DNA is entirely another.

To make sense of what VISA’s plan is all about, and where this may be going, I spoke to Seth Redmore, VP of Product Development at Lexalytics, Inc, a firm that analyzes oceans of collected data from multiple sources for major companies around the globe.

David: Should we be concerned about VISA, or any other banks or corporations, wanting to access our DNA for marketing purposes?

Seth: Before considering the legal/ethical side of this, let's consider whether DNA information could be useful for ad targeting. Taking an obvious example, we're seeing a lot of pharmaceutical advertising on television. Seems like knowing someone's disease proclivities could be useful for targeting pharmaceutical ads.  Perhaps you're genetically prone to gaining weight, or the DNA tells you more about ethnic background (which could play a role in which medications are beneficial or harmful). So, yes, it's probably useful for ad targeting.

Next, we have to ask what exactly is a "DNA database" (the term used in the VISA patent application)?   I would take that to mean a fully sequenced set of DNA records that is tied to individuals. Current DNA "databases" are not fully sequenced, but that will change as cost for sequencing drops.   As the two primary uses of DNA right now are research and law enforcement, those DNA sets are handled differently.  Researchers will sequence the areas that they are interested in, looking for patterns or anomalies.  Law enforcement has a different approach, where they store a certain set of "profiles" that they can use to match to individuals, but this information is useless in indicating anything other than a match to a particular person's DNA.

So, for a "DNA database" to be useful for ad targeting, you need substantially different databases than what's available today (setting aside the fact that we don't even really know what most of our DNA does -- but we'll figure that out eventually).

But merely seeking to access DNA, even if the right databases haven’t been developed yet, is unnerving, no? What about HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) protection?

This is where the discussion gets more interesting.  HIPAA regulates "protected health information" in the US.  It turns out that DNA is not specifically mentioned in HIPAA except for a specific section around law enforcement.   (Note that medical providers are explicitly disallowed from sharing DNA information with law enforcement.)   However, since for DNA to be useful for ad targeting it has to be connected to an identity -- that certainly comes under the heading of "protected health information.”

Insurance companies are not allowed to refuse group coverage to an individual with genetic proclivities to a specific disease, but they are allowed to collect samples and charge more for insurance if they so desire.  They are also covered under HIPAA regulations, so they can't share medical information with companies like VISA for use in ad targeting or credit checking, or any other use.

Thus, in order for DNA information to be useful for marketing purposes, the marketing company has to collect it themselves (which gets us back to the example of receiving a better credit card offer if you send back a cheek swab).

While I'm a huge believer in individual freedom and responsibility, I think that taking advantage of people's ignorance in order to get them to give up such a personal piece of information would be wrong, and this issue needs to really be discussed at a regulatory level.   Should companies be allowed to collect DNA for their own, non-medical purposes?  I think that's a very, very important question.

Plus, if VISA or other companies were to start collecting DNA, they then are responsible for managing protected medical information, correct?

Right, and I have to believe that this would be administratively problematic for them.

But, there is already a company where you can do a cheek swab and get a very nice print of basically an electrophoresis of your DNA.   It's art.  That's not really a medical purpose, but you are sending your DNA to them.  Should that be allowed?

My opinion is that, first and foremost, no organization outside of healthcare or law enforcement should be allowed access to DNA information without the originator explicitly and with "informed consent” providing the DNA to that organization.   (Note I didn't use the word "owner" -- there's been some cases where researchers have taken and patented DNA snips out of people, and the case law seems to support those patents, shutting out the individual from which that DNA came).

So draw a bead on exactly why DNA data collection is different than any other personal data collection. People say an awful lot on Facebook and Twitter that is scooped up by data gatherers.

To bring it back to my world of text analytics, there would be a very, very large difference between watching what someone says on twitter and pulling DNA off of the coffee cup they just threw in the trash.   In one case, you are talking in public, in a public forum with no reasonable expectation of privacy.  In the other, we do not expect our innermost medical secrets to be made freely available to anyone who looks for a stray hair in our trash; and we certainly don't expect them to be used to advertise to us.

But, just like people sign up for Facebook applications in order to entertain themselves-- trading all of their contacts and history in order to be entertained--I don't know if you could really prevent people from trading their DNA information for a lower interest rate.   Unless, that is, it was made explicitly illegal to do so. And once it's made illegal, doesn't that become a first amendment issue?

I believe that there is a difference between listening to what someone says and having access to DNA information.   People can change their mind, say different things.  I do so many times a day.   But there is something ultimately fundamental about DNA deserving special protections.

Looking forward, what do you think VISA has in mind for this patent?

My suspicion is that the DNA language was added to the patent not because someone has explicit plans to actually do it, but because they wanted to give examples of possibilities -- making the patent as broad as possible to make it more defensible.  And I think that they didn't really work through the PR repercussions of doing so.


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Friday
Aug172012

Why Your Brain Hates Long Meetings

1.  Crammed agendas inspire adults to act like kids waiting for recess.

Conventional agendas usually look like someone is trying to cram as many topics as possible in a one or two day period, because that's exactly what someone is trying to do. This approach hamstrings productivity from the get-go, because everyone looking at the agenda realizes it contains far too much for a group to reasonably accomplish in the given timeframe, and that inspires people to focus on how much time they'll have to endure before making it to the next break. Not a great way to kick off a meeting.

2.  The understood subtext of most meetings: “We probably won’t do most of this stuff.”

Everyone who has been to a few long meetings already knows that most of what's discussed will never materialize. And, truth be told, most of it probably shouldn't.  Nevertheless, your brain wants an achievement target -- a sense that this labor will not be in vain.  If the subtext going in is that the meeting probably won't yield any significant achievements, that's a tough way to get motivated.

3.  They’re too long for the wrong reasons.

Full day or two day meetings are simply too long. Our brains will not remain engaged for even half that time, if that.  The reason usually given for why the meeting is so long is that "we have a lot to get done."  Fair enough, but that rationale will not change the way the human brain works no matter how often it's repeated. Instead, meeting organizers will just feel like they are getting a lot done, but that ain't the genuine article.

4.  Perceived dedication to efficiency neuters a team’s productivity.

When brains come together, they can accomplish great things -- but trying to silo a group's efforts into agenda chunks isn't the best way to realize that greatness.  People need time to coalesce around an idea, work it like clay, test different ways to animate it. Does that sound like a typical business meeting to you?

5.  Little words on slides make Jack a dull boy.

Whenever I see a PowerPoint slide  crammed full of as much little text and graphs and whatever, I immediately feel the need for a bathroom break. Bottom line: no one is able to process that much information in the few moments the slide passes by, and no one is even going to try. The brain wants ideas served clearly and with a rewarding reason to pay attention. Anyone who creates incomprehensible slides is wasting everyone's time.

6.  Exhaustion spreads like herpes.

Everything mentioned so far feeds into group exhaustion -- a potent psychosocial contagion. All it takes is a couple people to start squirming and getting up for coffee and looking like they'd rather be doing anything but this, and the contagion spreads.  Conventional business meetings are essentially petri dishes for the exhaustion virus.  (Here, by the way, are some good suggestions for beating brain exhaustion.)

7.  Why are we here?  Oh yeah, to get ready for the next meeting.

Another big anti-motivator. Our brains are reward-driven organs, and knowing that the follow-on reward for spending all this time in a meeting is to have another meeting is not motivating.

8.  The “Parking Lot” (aka, The cemetery of new ideas).

Most conventional meetings have a white board in the corner with the heading "Parking Lot" written across the top. This is the place for ideas, suggestions, questions or anything else that doesn't "fit" the meeting agenda to go for future consideration. Much of what's placed in the parking lot is pointless fodder, but some of it is really good stuff. What happens to that good stuff? Usually, nothing -- yet another major anti-motivator for the achievement-driven brain.

9.  It’s the numbers, stupid (or, follow the money, moron).

When everyone knows that the only real reason for the meeting is to figure out how to "make the numbers," creativity is sapped before the first cup of coffee is poured. Structuring meetings around financial performance metrics is not a good way to motivate people. Ideas are motivating, and the development and nurturing of ideas will lead to making the numbers. Conventional meetings almost always have this backwards.

10.  Playing nice is boring.

To really get the most out of a brain gathering, you have to let the chips fall. Conventional meetings are strung up with so many artificial pleasantries, it's a little nauseating. People need an opportunity to work the ideas like clay, and if some of the clay gets thrown around the room a few times, that's not so bad. Sacrificing creativity for procedure never gets the job done, no matter how many bagels and scones are available.


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Sunday
Aug122012

Why Taking a 10-Minute Nap Every Day is a Good Idea

Few of us enjoy jobs that allow an afternoon siesta, but we’d probably all be better off if they did--including our employers.  According to new research, all we’d really need is a solid 10-minute power nap to boost our focus and productivity.

Researchers tested four nap time spans: 5, 10, 20 and 30 minutes (and a control group that didn’t nap).  They then tested participants across several benefits for three hours after the nap.  Here’s a summary of the results:

The 5-minute nap produced few benefits in comparison with the no-nap control. The 10-minute nap produced immediate improvements in all outcome measures (including sleep latency, subjective sleepiness, fatigue, vigor, and cognitive performance), with some of these benefits maintained for as long as 155 minutes. The 20-minute nap was associated with improvements emerging 35 minutes after napping and lasting up to 125 minutes after napping. The 30-minute nap produced a period of impaired alertness and performance immediately after napping, indicative of sleep inertia, followed by improvements lasting up to 155 minutes after the nap.

The problem is that naps are awfully hard to cut down to 10 minutes; once you get a little taste, it's tempting to just keep sleeping.  But as this and other studies indicate, longer naps are not the best naps.  Snooze for just 30 minutes and you fall into sleep inertia,  the feeling of grogginess and disorientation that comes with awakening from a deep sleep.

Another thing to remember about naps is that timing is everything.  If you nap too late in the day, you'll interfere with your body's circadian rhythm and will probably sleep poorly at night.  Best times to nap are mid to late morning or early afternoon.


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Saturday
Aug042012

What Does Caffeine Really Do To Your Brain?

I recently stopped drinking coffee. Yeah, I know, why would anybody do that? For me it was a combination of health-related reasons, and overall I can say I’m happy I did.  If you had asked me a few days after I kicked it, though, I would have told you it was one of the dumbest things I ever even thought of doing – that is, if my head stopped pounding long enough to answer you in a complete sentence.

This radical life adjustment made me curious about caffeine and its effects on the brain, so I did some research. The most surprising thing I found was that caffeine doesn’t really jack up the volume in our brain the way most of us think it does -- the story about how our favorite drug works isn't nearly so straightforward.

First, what caffeine does not do.

Caffeine does not, by itself, make you a super productive, super fast, super talky jitter machine.  That venti Café Americano is not the sole reason you’re able to cram 6 hours of work into 45 minutes, or that you’re shockingly charming between the hours of 8 to 11 am.

What caffeine does do is one heck of an impersonation. In your brain, caffeine is the quintessential mimic of a neurochemical called adenosine. Adenosine is produced by neurons throughout the day as they fire, and as more of it is produced, the more your nervous system ratchets down.

Your nervous system monitors adenosine levels through receptors, particularly the A1 receptor that is found in your brain and throughout your body. As the chemical passes through the receptors, your adenosine tab increases until your nervous system pays it off by putting you to sleep.

The remarkable talent of caffeine is to mimic adenosine’s shape and size, and enter the receptors without activating them. The receptors are then effectively blocked by caffeine (in clinical terms, caffeine is an antagonist of the A1 adenosine receptor).

This is important not only because by blocking the receptors caffeine disrupts the nervous system’s monitoring of the adenosine tab, but also because of the players who make an appearance as this is happening.  The neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate, the brain’s own home-grown stimulants, are freer to do their stimulating work with the adenosine tab on hold, and that’s the effect you feel not long after downing your triple shot skinny mochachino.

In other words, it’s not the caffeine that’s doing the stimulating. Instead, it’s keeping the doors blocked while the real party animals of the brain do what they love to do.

As every good coffee drinker knows, this effect lessens over time.  It steadily takes more and more caffeine to achieve the same level of stimulation from your excitatory neurotransmitters. This is the irritating dynamic we all know as “tolerance.”

The reason it seems that coffee and tea became a morning ritual is that caffeine helps fight off the sleepy feelings we’re left with after a night of paying off a full adenosine tab. That’s something our favorite legal drug is quite proficient at doing.

What it’s not so good at doing, though we’d like it to be, is keeping us chugging away no matter how much sleep we miss.  For a little while it might seem like caffeine is warding off sleep deprivation, but the effect won’t last. Eventually the nervous system wins (it pays to remember: the house always wins).

Of course, these effects vary depending on many things, including body type, weight and age. For some one cup of coffee will help kick things up; for others it might take three cups. And as mentioned, tolerance of caffeine is a major variable no matter what source you prefer for your drug of choice.

So if you decide to kick the habit, how long will it take to work through withdrawal? That depends on how much caffeine you routinely consume, but for the average two or three-cup a day coffee drinker, expect up to 10 days of symptoms like headaches, fatigue and a general feeling of wanting to shout loudly into peoples' faces.


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Thursday
Jul262012

Why Do We Love to Hoard? 

BBC Future has an excellent piece on the perplexing psychology of hoarding. This is a hot topic in pop media right now, but BBC Future delves into hoarding at a level reality shows can't touch. From the piece:

Question: How do you make something instantly twice as expensive?

Answer: By giving it away.

This might sound like a nonsensical riddle, but if you’ve ever felt overly possessive about your regular parking space, your pen, or your Star Wars box sets, then you’re experiencing some elements behind the psychology of ownership. Our brains tell us that we value something merely because it is a thing we have.

This riddle actually describes a phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. The parking space, the pen and the DVDs are probably the same as many others, but they’re special to you. Special because in some way they are yours.

You can see how the endowment effect escalates – how else can you explain the boxes of cassette tapes, shoes or mobile phones that fill several shelves of your room… or even several rooms?

Read the entire piece at BBC Future (covered by Mind Hacks).

 


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