The rise of breast implants.
(For the latest columns on naked body scanners, pain weapons, and mind-reading machines, click here.)
Scientists targeted and erased a specific memory in rats. Recipe: 1) Train rats to fear two musical tones by electrically shocking them while playing the tones. 2) Give the rats an amnesia-producing drug and play the first tone. 3) Wait a day and play both tones again. Result: Rats that got the drug no longer feared the first tone, but they still feared the second. Rats that didn't get the drug still feared both. Happy spins: 1) We can use such drugs as "adjuncts to therapy" for post-traumatic stress disorder. 2) We can do it without disrupting the patient's other memories. Cynical spin: Your first erased memory will be what happened to you at Guantanamo Bay. (For a previous experiment that disabled memories in mice, click here. For dieting by implanting false memories in humans, click here.)
Breast augmentation has become the most common cosmetic plastic surgery in the U.S. Runners-up: nose jobs, liposuction, and eyelid surgery. Breast augmentations increased 13 percent last year; silicone implants increased 18 percent. Theories: 1) The FDA approved silicone implants, and women rushed to get them. 2) The rush has yet to begin, so expect silicone implants to increase a lot more this year. Other trends: 1) Cosmetic plastic surgery procedures increased 7 percent, approaching 11 million per year. 2) That's double the number of reconstructive plastic surgeries. 3) Non-surgical cosmetic procedures such as Botox and laser hair removal increased 8 percent, surpassing 9 million. (For updates on cosmetic vagina surgery, click here and here.)
The South Carolina House passed legislation requiring women to view ultrasound images of their fetuses before getting abortions. It would be the nation's first mandatory ultrasound law. Legislators refused to exempt cases of alleged rape, even if a judge found probable cause that the allegations were true. Arguments made against the bill: 1) The state already requires informed consent. 2) Clinics already offer ultrasound. 3) You're just trying to bully women. 4) Making a rape victim view the ultrasound is like making her relive the crime. 5) How will you force her to look at it? Arguments made against the rape exception: 1) Women will concoct rape stories. 2) If you allow abortions for rape victims, "Are you saying God creates mistakes with the lives he creates?" (For more, see Human Nature's columns on abortion regulation, fetal pain legislation, spousal notification laws, partial-birth abortion bans, and abortion reduction through birth control.)
Brain damage can change moral thinking. In a small study, when presented with moral dilemmas (e.g., would you smother a baby to prevent bad guys from finding and killing people in hiding), people with damage to a specific part of the brain were two to three times more willing to kill than were normal people. Theory: One part of your brain gives you calculations (do what's necessary to save the most people), and another part gives you emotions (don't kill babies), and you balance the two inputs, unless brain damage wipes out the emotional input. Rosy conclusion: Your aversion to killing babies for the greater good is valid and safe because it's based in your brain. Scary conclusion: Your aversion to killing babies for the greater good is based in the old, irrational part of your brain, so let's get rid of it. (For Human Nature's take on inflicting pain to save lives, click here. For male-female differences in willingness to inflict pain, click here. For the use of military drones to make pain infliction easier, click here. For the logic of growing embryos to harvest their organs, click here.)
A private rocket reached orbital height for the first time. Altitude: 190 miles. The rocket failed before reaching its intended orbit, but the company is spinning the result as a "half-orbit," which nobody has achieved before. The company vows to "cut the cost of space transport by a factor of 10" and is designing a launch system to carry a crew capsule. Excited view: Get ready for mass space travel! Cynical view: Expect casualties. (For previous updates on the militarization of space, click here, here, here, and here.)
An eyetracking study caught men, but not women, staring at a batter's crotch. In eyetracking, "special cameras called 'eye trackers' can watch a person's eye and capture fixations and eye movements … without requiring any special headgear." Participants viewed a Web page that included an image of George Brett batting, along with biographical information about him. "Although both men and women look at the image ... when directed to find out information about his sport and position, men tend to focus on private anatomy as well as the face. For the women, the face is the only place they viewed." According to a supervisor of the study, "men tend to fixate more on areas of private anatomy on animals as well, as evidenced when users were directed to browse the American Kennel Club site." Male readers' reaction: Where can I find out more about the Kennel Club thing? Female readers' reaction: I don't want to know. (For more on animals and male prurience, see Human Nature's takes on lesbian moms, gay sheep, sex with dogs, and teacher-student affairs. For more on brain scans that can read your secret thoughts, check out this column.)
Some conservative Christian leaders are endorsing prenatal treatment to prevent homosexuality. Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes, "If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin." In an AP interview, Mohler says this would be morally no different from curing fetal blindness or any other "medical problem." A leading Catholic thinker agrees: "Same-sex activity is considered disordered. If there are ways of detecting diseases or disorders of children in the womb, and a way of treating them that respected the dignity of the child and mother, it would be a wonderful advancement of science." Conservative reaction to Mohler: How dare you suggest homosexuality is biological. Gay reaction: How dare you say it's still wrong even if it's biological. Mohler's clarifications: 1) I oppose genetic, as opposed to hormonal, intervention in the fetus. 2) I'm trying to head off something worse and more plausible: abortions of gay fetuses. (For Human Nature's takes on prenatal treatment to prevent homosexuality, click here and here.)
Male infertility may be cured by swearing off hot tubs. Researchers studied 11 infertile men (age range: 31 to 44) who had experienced significant "wet heat exposure in the forms of hot tubs, Jacuzzi or hot baths." After laying off the heat exposure for 3 months, 5 of the 11 "had a mean increase in total motile sperm counts of 491%." Of the 6 who didn't improve, 5 were chronic smokers. Approved conclusion: Take better care of your body. Unapproved conclusion: Sex in a hot tub doubles as birth control? Excellent! (For previous updates on male infertility, click here, here, here, here, and here.)
A federal appeals court ruled that employer-provided health insurance doesn't have to cover birth control. Ruling: 1) It's not sex discrimination, since the company in question didn't cover birth control for men, either. 2) It's not pregnancy discrimination, since pregnant women don't need contraceptives. Dissents: 1) It's pregnancy discrimination, since lack of birth control causes pregnancy, and only women suffer the consequences. 2) It's sex discrimination, since the company covered other preventive drugs, Rogaine, and Viagra. (For Human Nature's takes on birth control and responsibility, click here and here. For the joy of sex and food without consequences, click here.)
Organ harvesting from people who may not be brain-dead has doubled in three years. Transplant programs aren't getting enough organs from people whose brains die before their hearts, so they're seeking more organs from people whose hearts die before their brains, even when cardiac death is induced by withdrawal of life support. This includes cases in which "neurological criteria for death cannot be met." Some doctors start removing organs only 75 seconds after the heart stops. Objections: 1) "The person is not dead yet." 2) Pressure to get organs will cause families to withdraw life support more quickly. 3) Next, we may seek organs from incapacitated people. Rebuttals: 1) We need the organs to save more lives. 2) We're helping more donors fulfill their wishes. 3) Ethicists review all decisions. 4) The donors "meet the legal definition of death because there is no intention of reviving them." (For recent updates on getting organs from prisoners in South Carolina and patients in California, click here and here. For Human Nature's take on using embryos to grow organs for harvesting, click here.)
Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Machines that read your mind. 2) Real diets for real people. 3) Invasion of the naked body scanners. 4) The future of pain-beaming weapons. 5) Gay sheep and human destiny. 6) More on gay sheep. 7) The power to shrink human beings. 8) The first human embryo factory. 9) Lesbians of mass destruction.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph on Slate's home page of a hand holding a cell phone by Digital Vision. Photograph on Slate's home page of a man napping by David De Lossy/Photodisc Green/Getty Images.