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The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist

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Neuroscience

The Unexpected Taste Of Pure, Pure Water…

In order to survive, almost all life forms require water to live. There are some exceptions, like bacterial spores, some worms, and the most fascinating creature of all…

(The Tardigrade!)

For humans, drinking water may seem to be a rather inert process. We drink, we become hydrated, and we’re good to go. But have you ever taken the time to notice the taste of water?

It may seem odd at first but when you think about it, every water source has a different effect on our tongues. In some circles, the taste of water can determine its quality. There are even, believe it or not…

(Water Sommeliers…)

The key to a good water lies in the content within. Salts, minerals, and other components all add to the flavour of that clear solution. Depending on the concentrations, your tongue will be greeted with a different sensation, which provides your brain with either pleasure or unhappiness.

But what about pure water? Would you think it has a taste?

I’ve tried it myself and I have to admit, I was shocked when I noticed my tongue reacting to the liquid combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Back then, I had no idea what was happening. But now it seems the mechanism behind that taste has been identified.

The answer comes to us in the form of an article entitled, The cellular mechanism for water detection in the mammalian taste system. If you click on the title, you should be directed to a free PDF. If not, I apologize.

The researchers set out to figure out how our tongues perceive the taste of water. As you might expect, they believed the answer lied in the taste buds. If you’ve never seen one at the molecular level, here’s what it looks like…

(Pretty, don’t you think?)

The key to taste is found on the surface of those cells wrapped up in the ball. They are called taste receptor cells, or TRCs. They can sense all five tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – and relay that information to the brain.

The team decided to take a look at these cells and the molecules that determine the various tastes, aptly called taste receptors, in the hopes of finding any that would react to pure water. Eventually, they did. The TRCs responded the same way we respond to…

(Acids…)

You’re probably wondering how something that is completely pure and devoid of any acids – or bases for that matter – might trigger an acid response. The researchers did too. The answer came in the form of another normal process we all perform but think very little about…

(Exhaling…)

When we breathe out, we are sending out carbon dioxide into the air. But not all of it goes into the atmosphere. Some of the TRCs will actually grab on to the molecule and mix it with the water in our mouths. The end result is another product we all know quite well but don’t consider to be part of our bodies…

(Bicarbonate…)

This natural base keeps the TRCs prepped for anything acidic that might be considered toxic or noxious. Many possible substances apply in this case although one I had hoped would fit into this category does not…

(But I digress…)

When pure water enters the taste bud area, a dilution effect occurs. The bicarbonate is removed from the area and the TRCs recognize this as the arrival of an acid.

Here’s where it gets interesting…

When the TRCs are triggered, we tend to want to drink more. It’s as if our brains want us to continue the dilution process. That makes sense as water does offer the chance to clear out mouths and reset the balance.

But this has no effect on our sensation of dehydration or the feeling of being full due to water. This is controlled by another system in the body related to stress. In other words, while these TRCs may help us drink a little more, they are not responsible for…

(You get the idea…)

With this in hand, here’s a little experiment for you to try.

When you next decide to take a sip of water, take a moment to decide if first you can taste it. Do you have a slightly acidic feeling on your tongue? If so, what does it bring to your mind?

Next, see if you can just have just that one sip alone. Do you need more right after? You may fine yourself having to go back to the glass or bottle for some more dilution to feel happy.

Finally, when you are finished drinking the total volume, try to discern a taste. Is it different from when you took your first sip? Can you sense the dilution effect?

If you decide to perform the experiment, let me know and share the results in the comments.

Is Social Media Making You Depressed?

Based on all the hype over social media, most people may think logging on is the equivalent of saying…

(A world of opportunities…)

But last month, a study came out that suggests hopping on to the information highway may have a very different result. Instead of finding joy, the researchers suggest we may be making ourselves…

(You get the emoticon idea…)

The paper is entitled, The happiness paradox: your friends are happier than you and it appears in the journal, European Physical Journal Data Science. While the article is a great read, the overall outcome of this report reveals social media – or at least Twitter – is not a reflection of a democratic society. Rather, it is more like another environment all of us have encountered at one time or another…

(High School…)

Anyone who has walked these halls knows amid the goals of education, life learning, and of course, doing well on exams, there is another mission for many a student. We can call it striving interpersonal relationship success, seeking widespread esteem, or developing a cult of personality. But most people tend to call it…

(A Popularity Contest…)

Much like high school, if you are not popular on social media, then you may be ‘missing out’ on the events and activities others may be experiencing. You may also find a lack of interaction leads to a reduction in self-esteem and self-worth. If things get really bad, you may sink into a quasi-depressive state.

But this isn’t the worst of the situation. In high school, the interaction within the population lasts only about six hours a day and is interrupted by classes. On social media, this effect can be continuous. By seeing the experiences of other individuals and comparing them to yours, you may be amplifying the effect and worsening the potential for…

(Mental Health Concerns…)

From a social perspective, this paper probably makes quite a bit of sense. But mechanistically speaking, there is little information to help us understand why this effect happens.

Thankfully, the answer was found some seven years ago in a paper entitled, A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind, which was published in the journal, Science.

The study was simple in that the researchers contacted 2250 adults at random times and asked them a series of questions beginning with their state of happiness. With that in place, they asked about what the individual was doing at that moment, whether the mind was wandering, and if so, on what imagery.

When the results came back, the team discovered a wandering mind was in a way similar to what is commonly associated with idle hands…

 (They do the devil’s work…)

Almost half the people contacted were suffering from a wandering mind. When they were asked about the nature of the wandering, most were thinking of pleasant topics while only about a quarter were thinking of unpleasant situations. As one might expect, the latter group were not feeling altogether happy. But even those who were thinking of pleasing situations were also not any happier.

I admit, after I read this, I was probably thinking the same thing as you…

(It makes no sense…)

But when you think about it, those who were wandering to pleasant thoughts were trying to get away from an unpleasant reality. They were not happy to begin with and no amount of daydreaming would help.

As for those thinking unpleasant thoughts, it seemed to be a consequence of a lack of focused action. They were either bored or doing something that required little focus, such as watching television, doing errands, commuting, or trying to keep themselves busy by…

(I’m sure you guessed this already…)

This develops a vicious cycle in which a combination of a lack of focus and low popularity on social media lead a person down a rather unfortunate path of even more unpleasant thoughts.

The best way to avoid all this trouble is to give yourself the opportunity to get away from the contests and the lack of focus. This could come in the form of a good book, a compelling movie or television series, a hobby, skill, or exercise.

There’s also one other activity some may considering. It was found by the researchers in the second study to cause the least amount of mind wandering…

 (If you don’t get this, Google, “The Newlywed Game”)

 

 

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