11/29/2012 12:09 EST | Updated 01/29/2013 05:12 EST

Behind the Headlines: Don't We Have Better Things to Research?


Behind the Headlines: The social causes in current events. In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about. You'll never read the news in the same way again.

As non-scientists, we've been casually observing a trend for some time that we'd initially dubbed: the baffling research phenomenon.

There are strange advancements in the field of neuroscience (brain scans of freestyle rappers). There are seemingly meaningless medical discoveries (itchiness is as contagious as yawning!). And parents, brace yourselves for this sociological breakthrough: your teens have "mixed feelings" about accepting your friend request on Facebook.

Finally, we know the truth.

Cursory research using a popular Internet-based search engine led to more discoveries: bizarre studies funded by universities and think-tanks, executed by reputable scientists, published in peer-reviewed journals. What follows is a compilation of evidence for our theory.

First, a note on observer bias. Research, to us, should involve science for the betterment of humanity, or at the very least, science for some discernible point. Hasn't that been our deal with science since the Enlightenment? The pursuit of reason and the betterment of humankind?

The all-encompassing field of human ingenuity doesn't need a frivolous research portfolio.

We still haven't eradicated polio in all parts of the world. Or malaria, for that matter. Or yellow fever. Every day, people die from vaccine-preventable diseases. Maternal death rates are frighteningly high in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries, treatment for mental illness is stuck in the Dark Ages. It's this disparity between Western research and stunted medical advancements the world over that's so striking.

Knowing that teen gamers perform virtual surgery better than actual doctors does not seem all that vital. New research out of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that teens who played video games daily outperformed medical residents at simulated, gaming-style surgery tasks. Something to do with hand-eye coordination.

We applied our For The Good of Humanity Test, and wondered what to take away from this; it's not that doctors should spend more time playing Xbox, or that teens should perform actual surgery. The university's website quotes the study's lead author, who suggests that when gamers reach med school, training should reflect their affinity for technology.

The follow up study will surely be From Halo 4 to the O.R.: How Many Teen Gamers Become Surgeons?

This is a friendly rant, so we'll admit that we're consoled by the fact that people more qualified than us are studying future physicians. At least this is study is medical in origin and not an urban legend.

In other news, the moon does not make us crazy.

A Quebec-based study published last week in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry found no connection between lunar phases and psychological instability. Researchers studied emergency room admissions for 771 patients who complained of inexplicable chest pains over a four-year period. Full moon phases did not correspond to increased incidents of anxiety. No kidding.

Thankfully, we know for certain that the term lunatic is passé. And hospitals can finally stop bulk-ordering Clonazepam in anticipation of the next full moon.

Have you heard the one about the sullen ape who bought a sports car to compensate for his mid-life crisis? We have.

An international team of scientists have found evidence that chimps suffer from mid-life crises. Caretakers observed 500 great apes, orangutans and chimpanzees, recording evidence of well-being over their lifetimes in zoos around the world (just to account for cultural variances).

At first we imagined that zookeepers gave the great apes access to Nietzsche and Woody Allen's filmography and recorded the effects. As the naive euphoria of youth faded, the apes realized that they'd never see Rome, pay off their mortgage, head their own company, or be one of those accomplished primates from the Infinite Monkey Theorem -- the ones who write Shakespearean plays when given a typewriter and a flexible deadline.

But in all seriousness, zookeepers mapped a plunge in both the chimps' moods and their social activity when they hit the middle of their lives, which for a great ape in captivity is around 30. The primate happiness factor then peaked again later in life. This U-shaped pattern to a lifetime of mood swings is also observed in humans. We too, experience a "nadir in well-being" during middle age.

By anthropomorphizing animal behaviour we've explained human neuroses.

Granted, not every study needs to have an uber noble purpose. We can appreciate science for the sake of science (full disclosure: the ape crisis is fascinating). But we humbly encourage future Ph.D candidates in search of dissertation topics, university funding committees and government granting agencies to keep this in the back of their minds.

Our collective time and money, as a species, might be better spent elsewhere. According to the Ontario Ministry of Health website, the provincial wait time for an MRI is 91 days. Meanwhile, psychologists in Britain are using diagnostic imaging to determine whether or not itchiness is contagious by scanning the brains of healthy people who've recently observed someone scratching themselves.

This is hardly a good use of Ingenuity for The Good of Humanity.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit