University science research

Smaller brains have fewer friends

Research being led by an Oxford psychology professor has suggested that there is a link between the size of of our brains and the number of friends that we retain.

The research, led by Professor Robin Dunbar, also claims that popularity is achieved through a form of ‘mind-reading’ to establish what other people are thinking.

This capacity to understand what other people want is described as crucial to our ability to handle our complex social world, including the ability to hold conversations with one another.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, demonstrates that sociable people have a larger orbital prefrontal cortex, the region of our brain located just above the eyes.

Professor Dunbar, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, explained: “’Mentalising’ is where one individual is able to follow a natural hierarchy involving other individuals’ mind states.

“For example, in the play Othello, Shakespeare manages to keep track of five separate mental states: he intended that his audience believes that Iago wants Othello to suppose that Desdemona loves Cassio. Being able to maintain five separate individuals’ mental states is the natural upper limit for most adults.”

He continued: “We found that individuals who had more friends did better on ‘mentalising’ tasks and had more neural volume in the orbital frontal cortex, the part of the forebrain immediately above the eyes.”

The researchers took MRI scans of the brains of 40 volunteers at the Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre at the University of Liverpool to measure the size of the prefrontal cortex. Participants were asked to make a list of everyone they had had social, as opposed to professional, contact with over the previous seven days.

A student from Brasenose who wished to remain anonymous to “prevent an overload of Facebook friend requests” commented: “I’ve always considered my brain to be humongous; I guess this study shows I’ve been right all along. I’ve been perfecting the art of mind-reading for years, and now my mortar board doesn’t fit anymore.”

Dr Penny Lewis, from the School of Psychological Sciences at The University of Manchester, who was also part of the research team, said: “Both the number of friends people had and their ability to think about other people’s feelings predicted the size of this same small brain area.

“This not only suggests that we’ve found a region which is critical for sociality, it also shows that the link between brain anatomy and social success is much more direct than previously believed.”

She also confirmed the hypothesis of students across the country: “It looks as though size really does matter when it comes to social success.”

Self-styled “serial socialite” from Keble, James Kleinfeld, commented: “From now on I know that every essay I write brings me one step closer to popularity.”

Britain to look at implementing “fat-tax”

An Oxford researcher is examining the implementation of a “fat tax” for the New Zealand government amid possibilities of a similar measure in the UK.

Mike Rayner, director of the health promotion research group at Oxford University, is currently helping New Zealand with how it might be able to implement a tax on junk food.

Earlier this month, David Cameron said that the UK should “look at” similar plans to tackle what some experts describe as an epidemic of obesity.

Denmark has recently become the first western European country to introduce a fat tax, with a levy on saturated fat in food products, of £1.86 per 2.2lb of fat. It will add about 26p to a small packet of butter and 10p to a burger.

But Rayner sees problems with the Danish system. He said: “If you do what the Danes did, you end up killing people. If you focus on a single nutrient, you could have unexpected consequences.

“You should be very careful when you design a tax. I am in favour of junk food taxes, but I think you should tax a food depending on how healthy it is, not just a single nutrient. You should assess the nutritional value of it. The exception to that, I believe, is fizzy drinks, because people would end up drinking water or juice. There is no unhealthy alternative, but this is not the case with saturated fat. If you tax butter, they might just switch to margarine, which is not necessarily better for them.” His briefing note warned that some might switch to salty foods instead, which would cause cardiovascular problems.

He did not see the fact that it may disproportionally affect the poorest as an obstacle: “It is also the same with alcohol tax and tobacco tax – all indirect taxes hit those on poorest incomes most. To compensate, you could change the tax system – that is what Australia is proposing with a carbon tax.

“The poorest are also most likely to have the most health benefits as they tend to eat the worst food.”

Hungary already has a tax on food that is high in calories but with little nutritional value, and France and some American states have a tax on soft drinks.

As well as New Zealand, the Netherlands, Finland and Australia are also considering similar measures.

David Haslam, Chair of the National Obesity Forum (NOF) was sceptical and said: “A fat tax is fraught with complications. Who pays, the consumer or the manufacturer? Who benefits, the public or the Government?

“The prospect of a fat tax is ill considered and flawed, although some public health measures do have to be introduced as a matter of urgency, such as moving sweets and crisps from the checkout in Marks and Spencer. But my fundamental objection is that a fat tax is misdirected; no-one has ever suggested a carbohydrate tax, which actually would make a difference!”

Tam Fry, Honorary Chairman of the Child Growth Foundation and spokesman for the NOF said: “We would support a fat tax, but not only on fat, but sugar and salt – this is in line with advice given to the World Health Organisation and UN for the defeat of obesity globally.

“Whatever tax implemented must be applied sensibly in order not to disadvantage people from poorer backgrounds who depend on processed food to live. But particularly indulgence food – that is chocolate, sugar, cakes etc. – which are not essential for life, should be ripe for taxation.

“You could include refined carbohydrates and fizzy drinks, which are full of sugary deposits – all should be taxed as a direct message to industry and the population that excessive use of all this is bad for health.”

Alex Mullins, a third year at St Anne’s, said: “It’s a shame the state has to impose measures which we should all impose on an individual level, and it’s equally a shame that the ‘healthiest’ organic food is often more than twice the price of processed fast food goods. Discouraging fast food nationally can only be truly effective if we encourage slow-food locally.”

One first year student at Lady Margaret Hall said: “I would definitely support a ‘fat tax’. You could use the money raised to alleviate the burden on the general taxpayer for the NHS and make those most likely to need obesity treatment pay the biggest contribution.”

He added: “I don’t think the government should tell us how to live our lives, but if we expect the state to treat us because of our bad decisions, it is reasonable to have to pay a bit of tax towards it.”

But another first year disagreed, saying: “If I want to get a take-away occasionally, I don’t think that the government should punish me for it.”

Such measures have previously been opposed by food manufacturers and the farming community.

An estimated £4.2 billion is spent by the NHS on obesity treatment now and the Department of Health expects this to reach £6.4 billion this Parliament. Currently, the overall estimated cost of obesity to the UK economy is £16 billion.

News in brief – Week 7

Oxford tops table

Oxford topped The Guardian’s league table for the sixth year in a row this week, the newspaper revealed on Tuesday. Cambridge came in second in the ranking.

The criteria for the league table including selectivity, satisfaction of final-year students and the career prospects of graduates.

The University has also been first in the Times’ Good University Guide for nine years running.

In 2009 it was ranked fifth in the world by the Times Higher Education QS World University Rankings.

–Tendai Musakwa

Uni Museums awarded money

The University’s museums and botanic gardens have been awarded a £400,000 grant by the Heritage lottery fund.

The grant will be use to train graduates as education officers for museums, including the Ashmolean, the Pitt Rivers, and the Oxford Botanic Garden.
Trainees will spend 18 months working with collections and managing volunteers.

Louise Allen, Curator at the Oxford Botanic Garden, said: “This project will enable us to provide wonderful training opportunities for people who want to work in heritage education, but who need to gain experience.”

–Alice Lighton

Oxford looks for aliens

Scientists from Oxford University are joining forces with universities across Europe to build a telescope which will search for alien life.

The Lofar radio telescope array will scan the low FM frequencies to gather information on the sun’s activity, space weather, and extra-terrestials. It will involve 96 masts in Andover, as well as 5,000 more across Europe.

The data will be analysed by a supercomputer in the Netherlands. Scientists hope the masts, which are made from everyday components, will allow them to work out how the earliest stars in the Universe formed.

–Alice Lighton

News in brief – Week 4

Isis body named

Police have identified the man found dead in the Isis last week as Andrew Swadling, a 35-year-old local resident.

Swadling’s body was found near Folly Bridge on 12 May. Investigators have not yet determined a cause of death.

Local police would like to speak to anyone who was in the area the morning of 12 May. Anyone with information can contact Thames Valley Police via the 24-hour Enquiry Line on 08458 505 505 or call the Crimestoppers charity anonymously on 0800 555 111.

–Winston Featherly-Bean

Siphoning out error

It has taken 99 years for an error in the Oxford English Dictionary to finally come to someone’s attention.

Recently an Australian physicist noticed the mistake whilst researching a large national siphon.

He found that there is much contention over the definition of a siphon, with many dictionaries falling into the same trap of attributing the force behind them to atmospheric pressure rather than gravity.

The dictionary’s revision team, who heard from the scientist Dr Hughes just as they were revising the entries beginning with R, acknowledged that this error first appeared in the 1911 edition.

–Lindsay Oldham

Ivy isn’t evil

Ivy is good for old buildings, Oxford researchers have learned.

It plays a protective role and acts as thermal shield to buildings, combating the extremes of temperature which often cause walls to crack.

Professor Heather Viles said the result of the study vindicates the plant.

“Ivy has been accused of destroying everything in its path and threatening some of our best loved heritage sites. Yet these findings suggest that it not only provides colourful foliage and protection from the effects of pollution,” Viles said.

–Brogan Kear

Grad explosion

For the first time Oxford has received more applications for its graduate programs than for its undergraduate degrees, according to new University figures.

There are over seventeen thousand postgraduate applications this year – and just over fifteen thousand for undergraduate places.

Oxford director of graduate admissions, Jane Sherwood, told The Times that the recession “seems to be an obvious factor”.

–Winston Featherly-Bean