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Personality & Genetics

Date Thursday - August 2, 2012
Host George Noory
Guests Elaine FoxSam Kean

In the first half, experimental psychologist and neuroscientist, Elaine Fox, spoke about her work finding the roots of optimism and pessimism, and how we can retrain our brains to be more optimistic. In spite of the economic downturn, she reported that internationally, the vast majority of people are optimistic about the future, and tend to underestimate the chances of bad things happening to them. She characterized optimism in broader terms than just positive thinking, and suggested it has several components including taking positive actions, persistence, and having a sense of control. Surrounding yourself with negative or positive influences or people can make your brain pathways become more entrenched in those outlooks, she noted.

Studies involving the so-called "optimism gene" found that those with this genetic marker were less inclined to fall into a depression when a number of negative events befell them, as compared to those without the genetic variant, who had an equal number of bad events occur. Though ultimately we need a balance of what she calls the "rainy" and "sunny" brain, to become more optimistic, she suggested challenging one's irrational negative beliefs, and practicing mindfulness-based meditation. She also pointed out that those who are called "lucky," often are people who seek out opportunities and are able to act on them. For more, view a brief video she sent us.

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In the latter half, science writer Sam Kean discussed his research into DNA and how its effects have played out in human history, language, and medical anomalies. In his latest book (free excerpt), he writes about the 19th-century violinist Niccolo Paganini, who had a genetic abnormality that gave him exceptionally flexible thumbs. While this made him a virtuoso on the violin, the condition likely brought him to an early death, he detailed. He described curiosities related to genetic mutations such as when people are born with no fingerprints (known as "immigration delay disease" because they get guff from border crossing agents), and people who are born with tails. It's a throwback to our genetic past, he explained, adding that all humans actually have tails up till about the 16th week in the womb.

Amazingly, a single DNA cell contains 6 feet of information scrunched up into 1/1000 of an inch, and if all the DNA in one human body was stretched out "it would reach roughly from the sun to Pluto and back," Kean cited. He also talked about how humans have less genetic diversity than might be expected, which suggests that at one time there were only about 2,000 people alive on Earth, and we were very close to extinction.

News segment guests: Robert Zubrin, Dr. Peter Breggin

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