Three pounds of sugar refined here in Baltimore are now up floating in space as part of an experiment involving gravity and sugar crystal growth.
There’s the calculating, multiplying, complex side of math, sure — but that’s only one small part of how our brain handles numbers. There’s also a deeper, intuitive feeling for numbers, and according to Johns Hopkins developmental psychologist Melissa Libertus, that number sense is present in infancy, long before we’re taught how to count.
Intuitive number sense is something akin to the ability to estimate how many jelly beans are in the jar, or how many people are in the room. And here’s the bad news: some of us are just better at it than others, from a very young age. Dr. Libertus’s work with toddlers showed that intuitive math sense — something as simple as saying whether there were more blue or yellow dots flashed on a screen — correlates to higher scores on standardized tests.
If you dare, take a test here to contribute to research, and to see how well you measure up. My Weber fraction (w) was .13; take the test and see if you “get” numbers better than I do.
Baltimore’s pot-smoking parents are lightweights next to the Johns Hopkins medical researchers making news this week for delving into more exotic substances — namely psilocybin, or (as the stoner down the block might prefer to call them) magic mushrooms. According to findings published in Psychopharmacology this week, JHU scientists figured out how to “reliably introduce transcendental experiences in volunteers,” thereby offering a sense of peace as well as “long-lasting psychological growth.”
The study wasn’t huge — it included only 18 adults, all healthy and with an average age of 46 — but it seemed to have an outsize impact on the participants: 94 percent (or all except for one lonely experimentee) counted the experiment as one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives. Nearly one in four (39 percent) called it the most meaningful thing that had ever happened to them. And the results seemed to ripple outward as well: friends, family, and colleagues reported that participants became “calmer, happier, and kinder” during the course of the experiment. The researchers are hoping to expand the study, exploring whether psilocybin can soothe terminal cancer patients, or help smokers quit.
Of course, the experimenters have to grapple with the legacy of drug experiments gone awry — as well as the inconvenient fact that psilocybin is classified as a Schedule One drug. But with the institutional might of Johns Hopkins behind them — and the admiration of America’s first drug czar — maybe we’ll find ourselves picking up our mushroom prescriptions at Rite-Aid in the not-so-distant future.