Amusing Monday: Studies that tickle the funny bone

Did you know that if you eat dinner with an overweight person, you are likely to eat more food. But if you eat with a slim person, you are likely to eat less?

Did you know that if you swear out loud after stubbing your toe or striking your finger with a hammer, that your swearing can actually reduce your perception of the pain?

Did you know that if you watch a funny movie with a group of friends, the movie will seem funnier than if you watch the movie alone? That may seem obvious, since people tend to react to each other. But did you know that the same movie can seem funnier even if your friends are watching the movie somewhere else, such as a place where you cannot see or hear them?

These are apparently the findings of real scientific studies, as reported by “Seriously, Science?” a blog on Discover magazine’s website. Finding such oddly revealing — and sometimes seemingly silly — research studies was the idea of Meredith Carpenter and Lillian Fritz-Laylin, two biologists who studied at the University of California, Berkeley. The blog was originally titled “NCBI ROFL,” for National Clearinghouse for Biotechnology Information – Rolling on the Floor Laughing.

The blog originally had more of a satiric edge, poking fun at some of the research topics. (Sex and bodily functions are frequent themes.) We are left to wonder who is coming up with these ideas — and who is paying to carry out this research.

Like most satires, “Seriously, Science?” looks for the humorous side of the work, generally ignoring any real value the studies may have.

“Some studies that sound funny do have a valid purpose in a specific field that may not be obvious to an outsider looking in,” Carpenter told Kim Carollo, a reporter for ABC News.

Fritz-Laylin recalled a research project designed to find out what happens to the human foot if it gets run over by a car.

“They took a bunch of feet from cadavers, put them in shoes and rolled over them,” Fritz-Laylin told Carollo. “It’s useful to find out about that, but it’s mind-boggling to imagine them setting it up.”

The video on this page shows Carpenter and Fritz-Laylin in a five-minute talk for Ignite, which has the motto, “Enlighten us, but make it quick.” We see them here in 2011 putting on a slide show describing 20 of their favorite research findings.

If you’d like to read more about the three studies mentioned at the top: 1) Dining with heavyweights, 2) swearing at pain and 3) watching comedies

On a related note, the Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded a couple weeks ago (Sept. 18) at Harvard University. The 10 prizes in various fields are deemed to be the best research that “makes people laugh and then think,” as outlined by the website “Improbable Research.” The website contains ongoing reports of humorous and oddball studies, including some rather elaborate discussions as only real scientists can do. The Ig Nobel prize is a play on the word ignoble, which means either humble or dishonorable.

You can read about this year’s winners of the Ig Nobel Prizes on the Winners Page. The second video on this blog entry, though long, is rather amusing, as many of the Ig Nobel Prize winners explain the importance of their research. The presenters of the awards are none other than genuine Nobel Laureates who have come to enjoy the fun. Here is a quick description of the various projects:

PHYSICS: Researchers measured the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor.

PSYCHOLOGY: Researchers amassed evidence showing that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than early-risers.

PUBLIC HEALTH: Researchers investigated whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.

BIOLOGY: Researchers carefully documented that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines.

ART: Researchers measured the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, compared to a pretty painting, while being shot in the hand by a powerful laser beam.

ECONOMICS: The prize went to the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics, which proudly stepped up to fulfill a European Union mandate requiring each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

MEDICINE: Researchers promoted a method of treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds with nasal packing, using strips of cured pork.

ARCTIC SCIENCE: Researchers tested the reactions of reindeer when confronted by humans disguised as polar bears.

NUTRITION: The title of the research paper speaks for itself: “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.”

If you find these amusing, you can read about previous Ig Nobel Prize winners on the Winners Page, following this year’s winners.

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