A 12-year-old whiz kid with a penchant for the popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons helped his dad design an experiment that may help researchers better understand autism.
Julian Levy came up with the breakthrough idea over dinner, as his psychologist father, Alan Kingstone, hashed out the details of an experiment involving humans' "gaze-copying" behavior, Discover Magazine reported.
According to Discover, there are two competing theories regarding why people look at others' eyes. One is simply that humans are drawn to other humans' eyes. (The brain's superior temporal sulcus is tasked with processing where people look.) The other is that people actually are looking at faces, and coincidentally, eyes are situated in the middle of faces.
The problem with testing these theories, of course, is that human faces have eyes in their centers, making any comparison impossible. But Julian had a simple solution for his father, who works at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver: instead of human faces, use the monsters from Dungeons & Dragons, which features all sorts of creatures -- some with two eyes, others with one or five.
The resulting paper, entitled “Monsters are people too,” was published online in the journal "Biology Letters" on Oct. 31. Now 14, Levy was the paper's first author, having prepared the images, run the experiment and coded the data. The paper was co-authored by Kingstone and Tom Foulsham.
According to the paper's abstract, university students who volunteered for the study were presented either with images of people, non-human creatures with eyes in the middle of their faces ("humanoids") or creatures with eyes positioned elsewhere ("monsters"). Special cameras tracked the students' eye movements.
The abstract continues:
There was a profound and significant bias towards looking early and often at the eyes of humans and humanoids and also, critically, at the eyes of monsters. These findings demonstrate that the eyes, and not the middle of the head, are being targeted by the oculomotor system.
"I was truly shocked that people target the eyes about as quickly and as much as human eyes despite the fact that human eyes have the benefit of being located in a reliable position — that is, middle of the head in the front of the face," Kingston said, according to LiveScience.
The finding has interesting implications.
"I think that we should test people with autism, or students who vary on the autism quotient scale," Kingstone said. "As silly as it sounds, using monster stimuli might help to screen for autism. When it comes to human faces, people who are autistic often look typical on lab experiments because they may have been taught to look at the center of the head to target the eyes."
Dungeons & Dragons designer Bruce Cordell said he was not surprised by the finding.
Whether a monster's eyes are "regular-sized, or the size of manhole covers, their sudden opening incites a startling transformation, because my brain suddenly bestows the quality of purpose to what it thought was inert,” Cordell said, according to LiveScience.
It should be noted that though young, Julian is not the youngest author to be published in "Biology Letters." In 2010, a class of primary students eight to 10 years of age authored a paper on bumblebee foraging behavior, according to a separate report by Discover Magazine.
Caffeine For Imprisoned Twins
In the late 18th century, King Gustavus III of Sweden was rumored to have carried out a strange experiment to determine the harmful health effects of coffee. Two identical twins who had been condemned to death had their sentences commuted to life in prison on the condition that one would drink three pots of coffee per day, and the other three pots of tea, for the rest of their lives. The only problem was that the doctors assigned to monitor the cases died before either of the patients did, their observations lost--as the story goes, the tea drinker died first, and there's no record of the coffee-drinker's death. The experiment proved nothing, suffering from a lack of rigor (to say the least). Source: Uppsala University, "Coffee - rat poison or miracle medicine?"
Simulated Anthrax On The Subway
In June 1966, the U.S. Army's Special Operations Division secretly dispersed harmless bacteria in the New York Subway system to model the effects of an outbreak of more harmful germs. According to Army reports, "Test results show that a large portion of the working population of New York City would be exposed to disease if one or more pathogenic agents were disseminated covertly in several subway lines at a period of peak traffic." Source: Deadly Cultures: Biological Warfare Since 1945. Wheelis, Rózsa, and Dando. Harvard University Press, 2006.
Weaponized Fleas In The Desert
Operation Big Itch, 1954, was an attempt to discover the potential of weaponized fleas. The operation, part of the Cold War-era United States biological weapons program, took place at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. According to "Using the flea as weapon," an article in the Army Chemical Review, "In the United States, the plague flea concept was competing against the use of mosquitoes, flies, ticks, and lice. Of these concepts, the United States put most of its energies behind weaponizing yellow fever in combination with the Aedes aegypti mosquito."
Food Through A Hole In The Stomach
U.S. Army Surgeon William Beaumont (above) found an extraordinary patient in Alexis St. Martin, a Canadian trapper who was injured in a hunting accident and left with a hole in his belly that led directly into his stomach. Beaumont attached a string to various foods, including oysters and rare roast beef, and introduced them into the wound to observe the rates of digestion. Despite the unorthodox techniques, this research would later lead to the discovery of the importance of stomach acid in digestion, earning Beaumont the epithet "father of gastric physiology." Source: Experiments and observations on the gastric juice, and the physiology of digestion. Beaumont, Martin and Combe. Maclachlan & Stewart, 1838
Candy For Mental Patients
In 1945, Sweden's new National Dental Service commissioned research, now known as the Vipeholm experiments, in which researchers gave subjects large amounts of sticky sugary candy in order to study the development of cavities. This might not have been so controversial, except that the subjects couldn't give consent to their participation: "The use of mentally handicapped subjects was criticized in the Swedish press and all studies on mentally handicapped individuals were stopped in 1954," according to Topics In Dental Biochemistry by Mark Levine (Springer, 2010).