All posts by Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?

Suspicious Minds book giveaway winners

In the spirit of Rob Brotherton’s five-star book Suspicious Minds, reviewed this issue, we asked you to get your subversive thinking cap on and invent your very own conspiracy theory. Three copies of the book were up for grabs for the best new conspiracy theories – all you had to do was come up with a theory that had the potential to convince a gullible person. Extra bonus points were awarded for being witty and making us laugh.

Judging by the entries that came in to our mailbag, it is obvious that there are some truly suspicious minds out there. Proposed conspiracy theories ranged from the sinister (such as flu jabs that kill the elderly to save healthcare costs) to the absurd (Father’s Day being a clandestine plot to emasculate men by eating chocolate.). The Bermuda Triangle, astrology and loyalty cards also all made their customary appearances. But alas, there have to be winners.

Runners up prizes go to Isobel Steer and Sean Mills, who each get a copy of the book. Isobel told us of a secret plot by an agricultural conglomerate (whose name rhymes with Nonsanto) to gain a monopoly on human fertility by flooding the market with genetically modified ‘locust seeds’. Sean made the stunning revelation that spectacles do not actually improve vision but are cunningly crafted filters devised to control our impulses – making us eat far too many potato chips.

The standout conspiracy theory came from Phil Boothroyd, who explained that pot plants are not as innocuous as they first seem. Congratulations on having the most creatively scheming mind in the world of Guru readers. We will never look at a Yucca in the same way again:

Enjoy gardening? Like to have a few flowers in your house to brighten the place up? If the answer to either of those is yes, you are probably under the control of the ‘Bloominati’ – a group of highly intelligent psychic plants bent on nothing less than global domination.

On the face of it this may seem implausible, but think it through. While there is immense benefit to growing some fruit and veg and getting some tasty food for your efforts, what is the benefit to growing flowers? Absolutely nothing beyond a bit of colour. And even then only for short periods of the year. A longer lasting splash of colour could be created much more easily with a few pots of paint and an over enthusiastic toddler.

Which leaves only on explanation: we grow plants because they are controlling us, making us their slaves. We plant them, feed them and give them homes to live in. Think you bought that lovely house for yourself? No. You bought because of the psychic nudging of the flowers around you. That innocent looking Anthurium sat on your dining room table – it’s making you go to work to pay for its upkeep. It’s making you decorate the room so it has somewhere nice to sit. It makes you want to look after it. And at the weekend, when you should be resting, it compels you out into the garden to care for its Bloominati associates outdoors.

If you don’t believe me try throwing that potted plant on your desk away. Just try it. You will feel an aversion to it, a sense that what I’m asking you to do is ‘just plain stupid’. You will even get a desire to ignore my ‘ridiculous suggestion’. Those are not natural thoughts and feelings. They are the persuasive powers of the Bloominati.

Congratulations to our three winners – the book is making its way to you via a Guru drone right now.

You can read Isobel and Sean’s conspiracy theories online here.

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Article by Kate Timms

April 7, 2016

Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?


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Book Review: Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories

Imagine a library. Within the library (it’s a very big library) is a ‘conspiracy theory’ section. Glancing around this section, you notice that the books are split into two shelves: those ‘exposing’ devilish conspirators and secret societies, and those that debunk such theories. Depending on the type of person you are, you will probably be drawn to picking up a tome from one of these categories. Each of us has a tendency to believe (or disbelieve) conspiracy theories. We fall somewhere along a spectrum. It is on this continuum of scepticism that Robert Brotherton delves into in his brilliant book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. Even the most hardened cynic, he says, has some inner inkling that the JFK assassination was an inside job.

Brotherton is an academic psychologist who describes himself as a ‘conspiracy theory theorist’. In this, his first book, he argues that belief in conspiracies is not just the preserve of raving paranoids and those on the fringes of society – it exists in all of us to some degree. We all have our own intrinsic tendency to believe or disbelieve, he argues. For example, people who sign up to popular conspiracy theories, such as the JFK assassination and the 9/11 cover-up, are more likely to believe other theories, even when they don’t know the facts. In experiments, such conspiracy theory fans will even believe ones that are totally made up! The reverse is also true for sceptics, who have an automatic disposition to deny conspiracy theories, regardless of whether they know any of the details. Even those who consider themselves rational aren’t perhaps as reasonable as they think they are…

Suspicious Minds opens with a chronological introduction to history’s most iconic conspiracy theories and infamous secret societies, which stretch all the way back to 64AD. It is a fascinating journey through time, uncovering the beginnings of the Illuminati, the suspected plagiarism of The Protocols and crazy theories about the origins of the bubonic plague. Clearly conspiracy theories were not born in the age of modern media, but are deep-rooted in the human psyche.
Brotherton looks at how psychologists test belief in conspiracy theories, bringing us to the main question: Why do we believe? The book’s simple structure, coupled with the flowing logic of Brotherton’s writing style, make Suspicious Minds an easy-to-read page-turner. More than once I caught myself becoming completely absorbed in the book, reading long into the small hours – and without the need for matchsticks to prop my eyelids open. A writer who can coax his readers into losing themselves in their book has achieved something very special indeed.

Suspicious Minds is written through the eyes of a practical psychologist, and makes excellent use of research and experiments to illustrate key ideas. One particularly revealing experiment saw researchers quizzing individuals on their belief in conspiracy theories while sitting at two types of desk – untidy and clean. The results showed that sitting at a messy workstation increased the likelihood of believing a conspiracy theory. Brotherton explains that this is apparently due to a subconscious need for order; and when we don’t have order (as with an untidy desk) we are more likely to look for it elsewhere – even in ‘unconnected’ ways.

Brotherton is able to cram this book with similar insights that reveal our fallible psyche, making us question the beliefs we hold so dear. Yet, remarkably, at no point does the book feel like a list of academic ideas and psychological tests. Brotherton has constructed a beautifully flowing book that leaves the reader with a sense of greater understanding and a powerful desire to learn more.

Suspicious Minds comes highly recommended and offers an expertly delivered insight into our suspicious minds. For ardent conspiracy theorists, he will make you question your convictions. And for you diehard sceptics, don’t be too worried if you start to wonder: “Why is the American flag blowing in the breeze, when there’s no wind on the moon?”… it’s in our nature.

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Article by Kate Timms

Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?


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Sport’s Concussive Secret: How concussion is killing our sporting heroes (Part 1)

As an avid sports fan, my worst fear is seeing a member of my team go down during a game. I relax when they don’t clutch one of their knees (the dreaded ACL tear) or have a bend in a limb where there shouldn’t be one. These physical injuries are the ones that players and fans fear – the ones that mean lengthy recovery and many missed games. But sometimes when a downed player doesn’t move, the commentators start speculating about concussion – even though few of us, commentators included, really understand what it is. Is it something to do with blacking out or seeing stars, like in the old Disney cartoons? We’re lucky if anyone notices concussion at all, given that only 1 in 10 concussions result in loss of consciousness. Maybe we sports fans shouldn’t be so relieved when a player jumps back up after a nasty knock to the head. They might just have sustained an invisible life-changing injury.

The latest Will Smith movie, ‘Concussion’, has brought the problem of concussion to a larger audience, but sports media has been abuzz with the issue well before it hit the box office. Head injuries in American football have been under a magnifying glass in recent years, pressuring the NFL to increase medical vigilance during games and enforce a crackdown on helmet-to-helmet tackles. But despite these changes, the 2015 NFL season saw a 58% year-on-year increase in concussions and just two days before the season began, former New York Giants star Tyler Sash died following an accidental overdose of pain medication – possibly due to concussion-related injuries. He was just 27 years old and since his football career ended in 2013, Sash’s family said that his character had changed. He had become irritable and suffered from memory loss and minor bouts of temper. It was only after his death that doctors diagnosed him with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a concussion-related disease characterised by the very symptoms that Sash had been displaying.

Sash isn’t a one-off. When researchers examined the brains of ex-NFL players after death in 2015, more than 90% of them had CTE. Australian rugby player Barry “Tizza” Taylor and England striker Jeff Astle are other well-known stars found to have had CTE after death. But because the condition can only be diagnosed by post-mortem, many others are unknowingly living with the disease right now.
The science of head-knocks and degenerative disease

One reason why CTE has gone unnoticed for so long is that few of us appreciate just how delicate our brains truly are. Floating in a thin film of crystal clear cerebrospinal fluid, our brains are cushioned from everyday bangs and knocks. Without this liquid shield, the brain would bounce around the skull like a squash ball. But if the head is hit with sufficient force, even this liquid protection is insufficient, flinging the brain against the skull, sending out shockwaves that tear brain cells and cause inflammation. Dr Ann McKee, a leading expert in repetitive brain injury in sports, says: “This initial [damage] is most likely reversible, but with continued repetitive trauma, the accumulated damage overwhelms the body’s ability to heal itself and reverse these changes.”

And despite what you might think, it isn’t just violent injuries that cause brain damage. Glasgow-based neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart says that there is no magic threshold for brain injury: “There is growing evidence that even impacts that don’t appear to produce immediate symptoms or signs that would indicate ‘injury’ may be associated with signs of damage – if you look hard enough.”

Over the course of a career, repeated injuries can lead to dangerous changes in the brain. One of the most characteristic of these is the build-up of ‘tau’ protein – a notorious substance normally only seen in the brains of people Alzheimer’s disease. Areas of the brain that control personality, emotion, movement, memory and language recognition can start to shrink. The ‘white matter’ of the brain, which relays messages between different brain areas also wastes away. All of these changes – and perhaps others yet to be discovered – mean that someone with CTE can suffer depression, irritability, memory loss, lack of concentration, difficulty speaking, tremors and physical weakness. In every sense of the word, CTE is a devastating degenerative disease.

And it doesn’t appear to matter whether it is football, boxing or military service that causes the CTE. Based on the brains that have been examined so far Dr McKee says: “Ultimately, the neurodegenerative process appears to be the same in each person.”
Are the NFL throwing the problem downfield?

With such a serious disease affecting so many of its players, you might think that the NFL would be stopping at nothing to deal with the problem. In an effort to make the game safer, the banned ‘helmet-to-helmet’ hits. Other tackles involving head impacts are considered to be legal as long as they are ‘incidental’, leaving the intent behind each tackle open to interpretation. Some reporters think that this rule change is just lip-service: the official 2015 NFL Rulebook states that tackles involving head impacts remain legal, providing they are ‘incidental’.

Some commenters think that NFL are shirking their responsibility altogether and are putting their bottom line above players’ safety. Earlier this year ESPN’s show ‘Outside the Lines’ claimed that the NFL had cherry-picked ‘friendly’ research groups to look into the concussion issue that were already affiliated with the NFL in some way. They also pulled their funding from a Boston University research project whose stance on concussions the league apparently didn’t like. Yet whilst their head doctor still refused to acknowledge a link between CTE and the NFL, Jeff Miller – who is their vice president of health and safety, and has been the NFL’s voice in the media – told a senate committee that in the light of Dr McKee’s work, the link between CTE and NFL was undeniable.

But while the floodlights are very much on concussion in the world of American Football, brain injury is rising sharply in other sports, such as rugby and soccer. In part two of this article, we look at how some rugby players are faking their way through concussion testing and why female soccer players should think twice before jumping up for a header.

Football Pileup --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Article by Kate Timms

April 6, 2016

Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?


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Epigenetics: turn off the fat genes and put on your skinny jeans

We all know someone who can eat like a horse yet somehow always stay in shape. They are the envy of us mere mortals who have to go to the gym to sweat off the one-too-many-slices-of-cake. The usual explanation for this scientific conundrum goes something like: “some people have a fast metabolism… yadda yadda… they are genetically blessed… yadda yadda…”. The elite few are apparently genetically pre-disposed to burn off the extra calories, while the rest of us are stuck with our ‘fat genes’. It’s a wholly unsatisfying prospect that leaves us with a ‘give up and go home’ attitude. Because everyone knows that whatever genes we inherited from our parents, we are stuck with, right?

Well, yes and no. Our skinny friends’ ‘luck’ is probably not due to their genes themselves, but whether or not their ‘fat genes’ are switched on. Every cell in our body contains a bundle of DNA, which contains around 24,000 genes – each one a genetic instruction. It is like a huge manual for life. But in any one cell less than half of those ‘instructions’ are needed, meaning that most of our genes are ‘switched off’. The genes which produce hair are unlikely to be switched on in an eye cell, for example, because hairy eyes just aren’t cool.
Express yourself

This switching ‘on’ and ‘off’ is termed ‘expression’ and works like a light dimmer switch that can be turned up, down, or off entirely. Gene expression is taking place continuously throughout our cells as the body adjusts to the stresses we put on it – from running a marathon to drinking a cup of coffee to stubbing a toe. Recently, scientists have made some surprising discoveries about one key way that genes are turned ‘on’ and ‘off’- known as epigenetics. Every time the body detects a change in its environment small chemical tweaks are made to our DNA, while the DNA sequence itself remains unchanged.

Epigenetics first came to light in the 1980s but it is only recently that its potential has been realised. Research now shows that It may be possible turn our ‘fat genes’ down, while cranking up the ‘fat-burning genes’ through lifestyle changes. The question on everyone’s lips is, “how?”

In 2002, a ground-breaking study on mice found that adding nutritional supplements to a female mouse’s diet would cause her offspring to grow to a healthy weight, while not including it put her brood at risk of becoming morbidly obese. This dietary supplemented resulted in the epigenetic modification of just one gene, turning off the instructions to deposit fat. Incredibly, this single epigenetic change was passed on the next generation.

More recently, Dr Tina Rönn and her colleagues at Lund University, Sweden, subjected 31 ‘sedentary’ men to six-months of regular exercise which involved just 2 hours of aerobics and spin classes per week. When Rönn analysed the men’s DNA, she found that nearly 200 genes had been turned up or down. Among these genes were 18 that have been linked to obesity: like in mice, the genes that tell the body to store fat had been turned down. Further research has also shown that exercise can also boost your metabolism and increase muscle activity through epigenetics, which means that your genes are telling your body to burn more energy even when you’re sitting on the couch.
The death of calorie counting?
Everyone knows that exercise helps with weight loss, so how does these discoveries change anything? If your body were a garden, then exercising would be like keeping your mower nicely oiled and your shed organised. Not doing so would be letting your strimmer seize up over the winter in a messy outhouse.

You may not be a gardener, but it is obvious here how a small effort to look after your tools – or your genes – will mean that you can keep your hedge looking ship-shape when it starts to get overgrown. Our genes are like the tool shed and by making ourselves just a little more active, we can re-pack our DNA to switch on the ‘fit’ genes and turn off the ‘fat’ genes. And it needn’t be a run or a swim. With an active lifestyle, our genes remain ‘fixed’ in the ‘fit’ position, even when you’re back to eating the cake again. Your ‘hedge-trimmer’ gene will be ready to burn it off without as much effort.

Of course, life is a little more complicated than just ‘thin’ genes and ‘fat’ genes but if you want to change your body then think about changing your DNA. Even small changes towards a more active life will have positive effects on your genetic code. How your genes express themselves is not fixed in stone, and it is within your power to control them.

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Article by Kate Timms

April 5, 2016

Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?


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