Week 11-Addictions

Addictions involve automatic behaviours that attempt to return the body to a state of mental stimulation, easing withdrawal symptoms at the same time. So is sugar an addictive substance?

I’ve loved sugar from childhood up until around 2~3 years ago, when I felt dizzy and got a dry mouth and had frequent urination after eating way too many lollies. I consulted Dr. google, who came up with an answer that matched my symptoms perfectly- diabetes! During the time period between this epiphany and getting tested and confirming that no, I don’t have diabetes, I was able to lower my sugar intake, although it was a gradual decrease (over 12-18 months?). It was an interesting journey- I went from taking as many extra fruit bursts as I could, to being the person who rejected any offers for any kinds of simple sugar (I still ate lots of starch in the form of rice/noodles).

There weren’t many withdrawal symptoms (that I could recall), but some effective methods for managing the addiction were:

  • Being held accountable. I would tell people around me what I was doing (no sugar, because I might have diabetes), and this meant that it was difficult to consume sugar in the presence of others, because they would call me out on it. This stops the initial urges when there is sugar present.
  • Modifying the environment. Sure, I wouldn’t consume the sugar when in the presence of others, but when I was home, wouldn’t the urge have been even bigger? Sugar was everywhere in the house, in the form of lollies, chocolate bars, tea bags, nut bars, cereals, gum, drinks, fruits…. This had to change. So, less chocolate bars and lollies were bought, and new foods replaced them. Gradually, the pantry became less sugar-y and more savoury. Even if there was an urge, I couldn’t have acted on it.
  • Linking sugar to harm. I have always thought of sugar as a quick fix for my craving for it, but the fear of having diabetes helped me stay away from it. Whenever I did have sugar, I would feel bad, and there were also some ‘symptoms’, although these might have been present because I thought I had diabetes. After a while, the sight of sugar was associated with harm, and it was easier to stay away from it.

The above techniques will probably also be helpful for other addictions too- just swap out sugar for something else, although some things are much more highly addictive.

I am not proud to say I am on sugar again, but this time the consumption rates are less than a half of what it used to be.

So, is sugar an addictive substance? Yes, but it is probably only addictive for people who easily fall into addiction patterns. Let’s look at the marshmellow test. (If you’ve heard of it, then skip the video)

Although the end result for the children who wait is more marshmellows, which might be worse for them, I still think it is a valid test because it tests the ability to resist instant gratification, which is all that addicts want. It has been documented that those who waited longer to eat the marshmellow end up being more successful later in life, because in today’s society long term goals are more important than short term energy boosts.

It is sad that many aspects of life is designed around pleasing the instant gratification regions of the brain, instead of helping us achieve our long-term goals. Advertisers make their products extremely appealing and/or appear to be on sale, so we get rewarded when we buy their products; Games are amazing although they don’t seem to benefit us in ways other from entertainment; drugs/alcohol/porn can all trigger addictions; we procrastinate only to panic when an assignment is due in 2 days… As people grow older and more mature, they are better at delaying gratification and choosing less risky behaviours. I just wish the environment around us supported these aspects more.

One thing I love about science scholars, is that everyone is addicted to learning. Curiousity is the brain’s way of saying it needs more knowledge, because it feels empty without it. This is why we signed up to science scholars, right? To satiate our never-ending thirst for knowledge? Researchers don’t say “my job is x”. They say “my interests are x, y and z”. There are things we explore in science, and other fields, that don’t have practical uses- and people might ask “why do you do it?”.

Well, we’re addicts. And proud of it.

Relevant video below:


Week 10- GM plants, agriculture, and beliefs

This week we had a professor from chemistry, and a UC Davis Plant geneticist. What was interesting was the Plant geneticist had previously done a TED talk. Like a good speaker, her points were accessible even for those without much background knowledge. I had previously done an assignment related to plants and genetic modification, so I was familiar with the material. Her main point- instead of targeting the genetic engineering itself, it is better to focus on the agricultural aspect, and that of helping kids to grow up healthily (with genetic engineering as a tool to reach this goal).

We were told to choose and defend one of five stances regarding genetically modified organisms in NZ:

(i)    Research on genetically modified organisms should be prioritised and approved plants should be grown in NZ.

(ii)   Research on genetically modified organisms should be allowed but there should be no release of use of these plants.

(iii)  100% Pure NZ should have allow no genetically modified organisms at all.

(iv) The use of genetically modified organisms and organic farming are compatible.

(v) NZ’s future depends on replacing conventional farming methods with organic farming.

Most people went with the first choice (as expected of science scholars), but all the other statements had some backers too.

I chose to back the second statement for a few reasons:

  • As a country with large amounts of arable land and with agriculture as an important industry, research should definitely be done in NZ, so we can understand more about our crops and the land we plant our crops on.
  • GM plants shouldn’t be released, because of the possibility of horizontal gene transfer. If cross-pollination occurs, then herbicide-resistance or pesticide-resistance genes can enter the genome of species related to the original plant. An example is grass, which can form superweeds that are notoriously hard to control.
  • NZ, as a country, has an identity that is far from one that has GMOs. Additionally, there might be economic losses and complaints if we did start using GMOs. (Greenpeace has been opposed to golden rice for many years).

This was my stance before the talk, and this was my stance after the talk and after discussing with others in my group. At the end, a question was raised by Duncan, which was something along the lines of ‘Regardless of whether you changed your stance or not, are you willing to change your stance, if there was good evidence for you to do so?’

I didn’t put my hand up because I thought that I had pretty good evidence for my stance. However, so did the others- then why should I insist on my position over others? The fact that it came from me doesn’t make it better. I guess I am somewhat closed-minded.

As I read about the speaker today, I noticed that she had previously retracted two papers, because mistakes were made during the experiment, and these mistakes were only noticed later, when her group had tried to replicate the experiments.

Aren’t mistakes embarrassing and hard to recover from? If you bought some stocks from a new company, thinking it would rise in value, but it declines sharply, would you sell the stock then? Or wait till the season when the prices are ‘sure to rise’? Judging by my response today, I might stay stubborn and not sell the stocks. Humans are so loss-averse; while the money is truly lost when the lower-priced stocks are sold, there is potential for even more future loss by holding onto the stocks.

I think the article retractions by the speaker were respectable decisions, because while there is considerable short term loss (retracting a paper isn’t easy), there is long term gain (as a renowned research scientist, if the incorrect work remained published, the progression of science in plant genetics would be slowed). A good scientist doesn’t just strive for a good reputation; they do what’s best for science, and that is what gives them the good reputation, at least within the scientific community.

I still have a lot to learn, but being aware of my own weaknesses (eg stubbornness) is a good way to start improving as a person.

Thank you for reading!

(for more on her scientific retractions, read the Q&A with Pamela Ronald here).