5 Creepy Recent Studies to Satisfy Your Love of Both Science and Halloween

It's as if these scientists were trying to time their research with the spookiest time of the year.
Publish date:
October 23, 2015
babies, science, studies, scary, brains, Toes

Remember a couple years ago when Olivia would put a YouTube video at the top of articles as a soundtrack for that post? It's OK if you don't—just trust me that she did. Anyway, this post totally calls for exactly that, and exactly this song:

I spend way too much time on the website ScienceDaily. Typically, I'm looking for the latest in cosmetic science research because of my xoVain duties, but I always find myself wandering off into the other sections of the site. Oh, the clarion call of spintronics!

Almost every time I browse their latest news—which is more or less the press releases sent by the universities behind the research—I end up making a face of horrified disbelief in reaction to at least one study. It's not that I'm like, "Ew, science"—I'm fascinated and guided by science, even though I totally failed honors chemistry in high school. It's just that, even if I fucking love science, I'm sometimes totally weirded out by it.

And, as if on cue for Halloweentime (what—Christmastime is a word, so why can't Halloweentime be one?), I stumbled upon several creepy studies recently. Sometimes it's the findings that are scary; sometimes it's the methodology. Either way, the following studies gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Researchers made corpse arms punch things

Have you ever wondered why we can make a fist? Me neither. Biologists at the University of Utah have, though. Specifically, they wanted to determine if the human fist is an evolutionary coincidence that came with dexterity or if our hand proportions were adapted for punching each other in the face.

"We tested the hypothesis that a clenched fist protects the metacarpal bones from injury by reducing the level of strain during striking," professor David Carrier wrote in the Journal of Experimental Biology. But they didn't test the hypothesis with student fists or even their own.

No, they used disembodied cadaver arms.

The arms were set up in a pendulum-like apparatus so they could swing into a dumbbell, allowing two strong-stomached undergrads to record the force and strain. Just picture that for a second, OK? Swinging corpse arms, hitting stuff over and over, sometimes breaking from the force. Shudder.

Ultimately, Carrier believes that our anatomy may be adapted for fighting, among other purposes, and "we need to be aware we always may be haunted by basic emotions and reflexive behaviors that often don't make sense—and are very dangerous—in the modern world."

Haunted is right, dude.

Magnets can make you accept immigrants, reject god

Think you're pretty set in your ideology? Well, if you see someone carrying around one of those giant horseshoe magnets, you may want to avoid them. Because, you know, people are always carrying around big ol' cartoon magnets.

But seriously, magnets can apparently change your mind—and maybe even turn you into an agnostic liberal.

A team from UCLA used transcranial magnetic stimulation to temporarily and safely (I hope) shut down the posterior medial frontal cortex region of the brain in a group of participants who were then asked questions about religion and immigrants. The findings published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience show that this treatment caused an approximately 33% lessened belief in god and 29% more positive feelings towards immigrants.

Magnetic manipulation of ideology is a pretty creepy idea, but I'm kind of hoping we can figure out how to transcranially magnetically stimulate the next Republican National Convention.

The best guessing games are the kind played with your brain linked to someone else's

OK, this is something out of Ghostbusters—specifically, the scene where Venkman is "testing" subjects' psychic ability—and Lawnmower Man. And again, it involves magnets, which are now officially terrifying to me.

University of Washington research published in the journal PLOS ONE details an experiment in which one person—the respondent—wears an ugly old swim cap connected to an EEG machine that records brain activity, and another person—the inquirer—sends "yes" or "no" questions to the respondent. A "yes" answer, unheard by the inquirer, sends that inquirer a phosphene—a brief disruption in the visual field—via magnetic coil behind the inquirer's head. It worked 72% of the time.

And of course, the experiment was carried out in dark rooms for extra creepiness.

"This is the most complex brain-to-brain experiment, I think, that's been done to date in humans," assistant professor of psychology Andrea Stocco wrote, presumably followed by "MWAHAHAHAHAHA!"

You think you know where your toes are, but DO YOU REALLY?!

In the most scientific edition of "This Little Piggy" ever recorded, a study in the journal Perception highlights how humans pretty much have no idea what's going on when someone pokes our toes.

Dr. Nela Cicmil of Oxford University conducted an experiment in which testers "gently prodded" each finger and toe of barefooted participants and then asked those participants which digit was being touched.

It probably won't surprise you that people could determine which fingers were being touched 99% of the time. However, when it came to the three middle toes, the ability to identify exactly which toe was being touched dropped to 79%, 60% and 57% respectively. People—healthy people with no neurological conditions—can't tell the difference between their own three toes!

You're totally gonna try this on your friend later, aren't you...

Babies smile manipulatively, and this terrifying robot toddler proves it

I'm one of the only people I know who thinks babies can be total phonies. Like, I can tell you want something from me, baby—I know a forced laugh when I hear one.

Anyway, this study, published in PLOS ONE last month, may actually help prove my cranky opinion, but not without scaring the living hell out of me in the process.

"If you've ever interacted with babies, you suspect that they're up to something when they're smiling. They're not just smiling randomly," writes Javier Movellan, a research scientist in the Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the study's authors, and also my soulmate because I thought I was the only one who felt this way. In an effort to prove this, he and his team created a humanoid toddler, thus disqualifying him from being my soulmate because that's terrifying.

To show that babies smile with a purpose—to make the person they're interacting with smile, too—they programmed robot nightmare baby to behave like babies they'd previously studied and then had the robot interact with undergrads. Ultimately, the robot got the students to smile as much as possible, while smiling as little as possible. That's right: babies want to put in as little smiling effort as possible to get maximum smiling from you, their pawn.

Here's a video of the robot from a couple years ago, shortly after it was built:

I'm sorry.

None of these creepy studies will make me lose interest in science, of course. I find this research as fascinating as I do spooky, and as superfluous as some experiments seem, I think it all contributes to a better understanding of ourselves and the world. But then again, I have a big magnet pointed at my head right now, so who knows if I really feel that way?