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Student Questions: Bird Gender and Bad Karma

Skeptoid answers questions sent in by students all around the world.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #233
November 23, 2010
Podcast transcript | Download | Subscribe



Today we're going to tackle another round of questions sent in by students all around the world. Teachers, let your students know about this resource. Submitting a question through the website is quick and easy; all you need is a computer with a microphone built in. Our questions in this round pertain to whether food preservatives cause your body to be automatically embalmed when you die; the benefits of playing music for unborn fetuses; whether violent video games create violent people; sexing a bird with a pendulum; and whether karma actually exists. Let's get started with food preservatives:

Ben Schmidt, from the Worsham College of Mortuary Science. There is an urban legend claiming that embalming is easier thanks to food preservatives. Can you please address this?

This is a really popular urban legend. Supposedly, we eat so much prepared food these days that when we die, our bodies are laced with preservatives and are automatically embalmed. The simple answer to this is that it's completely untrue, since common food preservatives are very easily metabolized by the body. Even the most basic embalming fluid, formaldehyde, is naturally found in the human body as it's a byproduct of metabolism. It seems paradoxical, but chemicals such as alcohol, salt, and formaldehyde preserve our bodies when we die, but are naturally consumed and processed by a living body. Antioxidants are a fundamental food preservative, yet are widely marketed as miracle health products.

That's not to say that food preservatives are without risk. Ongoing research continues to scrutinize food preservatives for health concerns, and plenty of studies have found danger, though most of it inconclusive. But even the worst of this finds that some synthetic food preservatives may be correlated with effects such as attention deficit disorder, or anaphylactic shock for those allergic to them. Preventing your body from decomposing has never been among the observed effects.

Hi, I'm Daniel, age 15, and I want to know: Is playing music for an unborn child really beneficial to its development?

Playing music to unborn babies is, first and foremost, a way to sell snake oil — in the form of "special" musical recordings — to mothers desperate to breed superior children. It is also one way to get a late-term fetus to react to sound. No good research has ever shown that this reactivity has any benefits.

The audio environment inside the womb is a peaceful one, and filled with natural low frequency rhythms. The mother's breathing and heartbeat are the dominant sounds, followed by low frequency external sounds below 50 Hz, and the mother's own voice. It's unlikely that any of the higher frequency sounds of music, anything above about 500 Hz, could be heard by the fetus at all unless it's extremely loud. By about 25 weeks into gestation, the fetus is able to hear sounds, and will often react with a faster heartbeat to noise. Simple tapping on the mother's abdomen is a far more effective way to transmit low frequency rhythm than playing music, most of which can't be heard anyway. But once again, though the reaction is definite, there is no good reason to think this carries any benefit.

Claims that babies can remember and recognize certain music are highly improbable, as the hippocampus (that part of the brain that stores experiences in memory) does not develop until well after birth. People who say that their newborn appears to smile or react upon hearing the same music played during gestation are probably just experiencing confirmation bias: They think it's so, therefore they notice behavior that confirms the belief, and fail to notice behavior that doesn't.

In any case, avoid buying special musical recordings that claim to be supported by research that shows the music will benefit the child. If you choose to entertain your fetus, any low frequency beat is all it takes.

Hi, my name is Andrew from California, and I would like to know if violent video games promote violence in youth?

This is one of those topics on which everyone seems to have an opinion, including researchers; and those opinions and conclusions are all over the map. I spent a few hours and looked through a couple of dozen different studies in various journals, including a number of meta-analyses of even more studies. The only thing that I learned for sure is that there are two clearly defined camps, and they're still going at it hammer and tongs. Many researchers are steadfastly convinced that gamers do not become more aggressive in real life, but a larger number of researchers find that there is a correlation. The battle between research camps is at least as heated as the battles onscreen.

Many researchers note that the environment in which we develop plays a large role influencing our personalities. If that environment includes violent games, it would make sense for such behavior to become ingrained. And, according to my own quick survey of the research, the majority of observational evidence does indicate that violent game play is a predictor of future aggressive behavior. But it's not clear how much of the effect is causal. One thing that nearly everyone seems to agree on is that more aggressive people tend to gravitate toward more aggressive games, so we should expect to see a correlation regardless.

Interestingly, my observation was that most research supporting a link seems to come from Europe, while most research dismissing the link comes from the United States. Both sides almost always report their findings as cross cultural.

Whatever effect there may be is probably small, and does not appear to significantly affect the vast majority of people. Therefore, if you play a lot of Call of Duty, you (or any other given gamer) are unlikely to become more aggressive in real life, so fire away. It's going to be interesting to see how this particular battle shakes out.

I recently purchased a pet bird and was told I could determine the sex using a magnetic pendulum. If it spins in a circle, the bird is a female. If back and forth, it's a male. Is there a natural mechanism to explain this apparent phenomenon?

Yes there is, but it has nothing to do with the bird's gender or magnetism. It's called the ideomotor effect. This is a well-documented psychological phenomenon that's been tested and retested extensively. It involves unconscious movements by the experimenter's own hand that causes a pendulum, dowsing rod, or Ouija Board planchette to move in the manner expected by the experimenter. These movements can be so minute that the experimenter is unaware they're even happening. Consequently, many dowsers have a fully honest belief that their perceived ability is indeed of supernatural origin.

Regarding your bird's gender and magnetic pendulums, there is demonstrably no such effect. This would require that birds generate a reasonably powerful electromagnetic field that oscillates or changes polarity according to a gender-dependent pattern.

If you have any doubts, place a compass on a solid surface near your bird or any other animal. A compass needle is a magnetic pendulum that weighs much less than your pendulum and should react much more dramatically. You'll see that once your hand's movements are taken out of the picture, your bird does not emit any sort of pulsing magnetic force, regardless of its gender.

Hey Brian, I'm Mike from Housatonic Community College in Connecticut, and I was wondering if there is any real evidence that people have bad or good karma.

Karma is a concept originating in ancient India in which your actions, either good or bad, have consequences. Rob a bank and you'll get cancer; give to the poor and you'll live a long fulfilling life. While it sounds like it should be relatively easy to set up a small test of this concept, true karma is not really testable for a couple of reasons. First, the timeframe for payback is often believed to be over multiple reincarnations of your life; and second, it's not necessarily a linear system. Robbing a bank today could be the cause of falling and skinning your knee when you were six, or of having to live a previous life as a slug.

Even designing a test to correlate some people who have generally good or bad luck with generally good or bad actions would be problematic, as it would be impossible to control for much more powerful influences such as their socio-economic status, their intelligence, personality, etc.

Belief in karma, however, is a different story. At least one study has found that belief in karma may be associated with personal experience of trauma. This is an interesting result. When something bad happens, people tend to seek an explanation, a reason, even if it means blaming themselves. Such a tendency may well explain how the concept of karma came to be in the first place.

Got a question you'd like Skeptoid to answer? If you're a student of any age, come to and click on Student Questions.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Bird Gender and Bad Karma." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 23 Nov 2010. Web. 28 Feb 2017. <>


References & Further Reading

Abrams, R. Perception and Cognition of Music. Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 1995. 83-101.

Anderson, C., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E., Bushman, B., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H., Saleem, M. "Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review." Psychological Bulletin. 11 Dec. 2009, Volume 136, Number 2: 151-173.

Easton, R., Shor, R. "An Experimental Analysis of the Chevreul Pendulum Illusion." Journal of General Psychology. 1 Jul. 1976, Volume 95: 111-125.

Ferguson, C., Kilburn, J. "Much Ado About Nothing: The Misestimation and Overinterpretation of Violent Video Game Effects in Eastern and Western Nations: Comment on Anderson et. al." Psychological Bulletin. 11 Dec. 2009, Volume 136, Number 2: 174-178.

McCann, D., Barrett, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D., Dalen, L., Grimshaw, K., Kitchin, E., Lok, K., Porteous, L., Prince, E., Sonuga-Barke, E., Warner, J., Stevenson, J. "Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8-to-9-year-old children in the community: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial." The Lancet. 3 Nov. 2007, Volume 370, Issue 9598: 1560-1567.

Stock, A. and C. "A Short History of Ideo-Motor Action." Psychological Research. 1 Apr. 2004, Volume 68, Numbers 2-3: 176-188.


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