The Baby Illusion

Dr. Jordy Kaufman, senior researcher at the The Swinburne BabyLab, asked himself why many parents, after the birth of a second child report that their first child appears to grow suddenly and substantially larger? Is it simply because of the contrast that stems from the comparison of the older child to the new sibling or is there a more complex bio-psychological reason for this phenomenon? Kaufman hypothesized that parents are subject to a kind of ‘baby illusion’ under which they routinely misperceive their youngest child as smaller than he/she really is. Then, when a new baby is born, this illusion ceases and the parent sees, for the first time, the erstwhile youngest at its true size. No wonder they’re shocked. They routinely misperceive their youngest child as smaller than he or she truly is. To proof this, the researchers asked mothers to estimate the height of one of their children by marking a featureless wall. The outcome was that youngest-children’s heights were significantly underestimated by no less than an average of 7.5 cm while estimates on older children were right on the money. (+ o.4cm).

It’s possible that the “baby illusion” actually leads to better caregiving, Kaufman said, because a perception of baby-like features, such as cuteness or smaller size, helps parents prioritize care for the child who most needs it. Although the illusion of smallness is not what we’re after at The Incredible Shrinking Man, we do have an interest in the relationship between the perception of size and emotional attachment, for instance in the relationship between men and women.

Read the full REPORT for more information on the psychological reasons for the baby illusion.

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Desiccation Tolerance

Small people have more skin than tall people, in relation to body volume. With every 10% decrease in body height, body volume decreases with 27%, while skin surface decreases with only 19%. This means, among other things, that smaller humans dehydrate more rapidly. There’s more evaporation and less volume. In regards to shrinking the human species to an average size of 50 centimetres it may be of some interest to investigate how specific organisms deal with situations of desiccation by physiological or behavioural adaptations.

In man, a 7% fall in body weight caused by water loss is described as severe dehydration, while water depletion leading to a 15-20 % loss of body weight causes coma and death respectively. Certain animals however deal with such, and much more extreme levels of dehydration, easily by tolerating a larger proportion of overall water loss from the body. Their desiccation tolerance is aided by a specific sugar by the name of trehalose that enables them to retain the cellular structures necessary for life while they wait for a drop of rain. The sugar is thought to form a gel phase as cells dehydrate, which prevents disruption of internal cell-organelles, by effectively splinting them in position. Rehydration then allows normal cellular activity to be resumed without the major, lethal damage that would normally follow a dehydration/rehydration cycle. Among the animals performing this resurrection are waterbears, sea monkeys and the larvae of a small fly, Polypedilum vanderplanki, which can lose up to 97% of its watercontent and wake up after re-hydration without so much as a skirm. Although it is not our aim to introduce another speculative element to the already steep challenge of shrinking the human species it’s important to think of ways to limit the physical risks of becoming smaller, or at least embrace the new possibilities of such a future. If fruit-flies can be a our genetic body-double than certainly vanderplanki can.

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Small Fork Interface

Tiny cutlery can function as an effective shrink experience machine. Eating a normal sized meal with a small fork gives its user a real sense of abundance. Not only will the tiny fork interface prolong the time of having a meal, it also functions as a lense to perceive your food differently. Such utensils can be applied to temporarily upset and overcome the instinctive act of sizing things up with our body (as was proven by the Barbie Doll illusion) and for a moment feel an overwhelming enormity of food ingredients we’ve become familiar with. It’s zooming in without a magnifying glass.

Thanks Asia.

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Catch-Up Growth

Catch-up growth is the accelerated growth of an organism following a period of slowed development. Such slowing down is most often the result of environmental influences such as food scarcity, sudden changes in temperature, or other environmental stress factors. After the situation is normalised, growth not only returns but speeds up to compensate for lost time. The Incredible Shrinking Man is investigating specific environmental factors as strategies to reduce human height. Among these are calorie restriction and the modification of diet to include growth relaxers. If calming down growth during a certain period only results in the acceleration of growth afterwards it is important to know how to neutralise such effect.

Two hypotheses have been proposed to explain the mechanism : the neuroendocrine hypothesis, for which no persuasive experimental data have been produced, and the growth plate hypothesis, which cannot explain the increased growth rate observed in human catch-up growth. So it’s all still a bit of a mystery. And there’s good reason even beyond the desire to become smaller to investigate further. As any farmer will tell you in domestic animals compensatory growth is known to reduce lifespan. Now a new research paper titled ‘How boys grow determines how long they live‘, shows that the same health risks apply to people. Perhaps because of the body’s irrational focus on gaining height, other more important things get less attention, like making sure your organs, immune system and brain are well developed. In fact it makes you wonder if ‘normal’ growth hasn’t already been replaced by a permanent state of catch-up growth, speeding towards ever greater height and in the process compensating for … For what?

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FOXO3a

Recent studies have identified the FOXO3a (Forkhead Box 3a) transcription gene as an important regulator of morphological scaling. It’s a key regulatory gene in a nutrient- and energy-sensing biological pathway (insulin/IGF-1 signalling pathway),that is evolutionarily conserved from yeast to humans. FOXO3a anticipates food scarcity by slight alterations to its functionality with resultant phenotypic changes including increased insulin sensitivity, longer lifespan and most importantly, smaller body size. This highly conserved stress response increases an organism’s chance of survival because it needs less to sustain itself. A recent study by the University of Hawaii concluded that the G allele of the FOXO3a SNP rs2802292 (genotypes GG and GT) is associated with shorter stature as well as longevity. They are just ever so slight alterations in the genetic fabric yet have considerable impact. One of the authors of the paper,Dr. Willcox, stated that people with the “protective” version of the gene had double the odds of living to 100 — triple, if the person inherited that gene from both parents.

Interesting, yet the more important question is how much height reduction could be achieved if our desire for longevity makes us embrace FOXO3a SNP rs2802292.

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Japanese Miniatures: One Rice Sushi

The Japanese have a natural pull towards miniaturisation that never seizes to inspire our investigation into shrinking the human species. Our series on Japanese Miniatures zooms in on this special quality.  It articulates a sensitivity for smallness that, through a process of abstraction, may ultimately help us attain the desire to downsize ourselves.

Sushi itself already attests to this desire but chef Hironori Ikeno took it to its logical extreme by letting the size of one of its key components determine its ultimate logical size: the one rice sushi. The other extreme, a very large sushi, has also been tried, and is defined by the strength of the nori sheets and the chefs having to roll it. While the ultimate small sushi manifests shrink-desire itself, the giant sushi role on the other hand gives us a sense of the overwhelming abundance we’d experience if we would physically shrink ourselves.

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The Curious Case of Adam Rainer

When he was 18 years old, Adam Rainer was just a little over 138 cm’s tall, which classified him as a dwarf. Around that time however he developed a benign tumour in his pituitary gland which stimulated the excessive production of growth hormone. As a consequence he started to increase his height in the exact moment when growth in young adults normally comes to an end. To his misfortune Adam continued to grow for the rest of his life. When he died aged 51 his height had increased to an astonishing 2,38 meters tall, making him the only person in history to be classified as a dwarf, as well as a giant, during his adult life. The Incredible Shrinking Man can’t help but wonder if, however unlikely, such a reversal of size could also be achieved in the opposite direction, from tall to small. We know animals can.

There is something poetic/tragic about that hug that people with acromegaly give themselves to show the medical photographer the extreme growth of their hands: hands that in the life of Adam Rainer became a lens that showed him that the world of things was shrinking as he grew.

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Voluntary Simplicity

Voluntary simplicity is characterised by individuals being satisfied with what they need rather than what they want. The principles of voluntary simplicity are of interest to The Incredible Shrinking Man because of two main reasons. For one, if the human body were to become smaller we would need less. Therefor the systems that are in place to sustain us could become a lot simpler. This principle relates both to external systems such as the housing, energy and food systems, as well as the body itself. J.B.S. Haldane has written on how lungs and other organs would be much less complicated if the body hadn’t become so big. Largeness leads to complexity and complex systems are intrinsically hazardous systems.

Secondly The Incredible Shrinking Man is interested in how the radical choices in some simple living movements already display the mindset and behaviour needed for humanity to make drastic changes. Since shrinking the human body is perceived as a radical proposition, voluntary simplicity’s many secular and religious manifestations could function as a source of inspiration in understanding how to open our minds to the notion of the small body. And let’s not forget it’s not just idealism or saving the world that makes people choose a simpler life; stepping back from the irrational rat race for growth more often than not creates an immense sense of relief.

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Towards the 5th Stage

An often heard criticism of the theory of shrinking ourselves to reach a sustainable human presence on Earth is that in the long run we’ll fill up the space we’ve created with more people and that, even at a much smaller size, we may be worse off. Although such criticism seems valid at first, it is very unlikely because we’ll shrink into a world of abundance. And contrary to what we might indeed have expected based on evolutionary biological rule, well-off people don’t have lots of children. Thus shrinking is more likely to lead to a stable population.

The historical demographic transition that underlays the phenomenon of developed nations having lower birth rates is traditionally divided into 4 stages. Stage 1 refers to a time when high birth and death rates more or less balance each other out. Stage 2 sees an enormous decline in death rates while birth rates remain high, leading to the population explosion we’ve seen over the past 50 years. In the third stage the population moves towards stability through a strong decline in birth rate, one of the most important reasons being that when we experience abundance we prefer to spend time doing other things than raising children. In the 4th stage population stability is reached. Some have suggested to include a 5th stage where populations will decline because of sub-replacement fertility. In theory this means that shrinking ourselves into abundance may ultimately lead the way to that other ‘big’ solution to an overpopulated world: downsizing the number of people on Earth.

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Microbial Temper Tantrums

In stressful conditions, cells must prevent the initiation of replication and shift their priorities to protective functions. Experiments in bacteria at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have uncovered the mechanism that translates stress into blocked cell growth. According to molecular biologist Peter Chien stressful conditions causes proteins to be bent out of shape. ”You might think of this as microbial temper tantrums. Bacteria deal with stress by destroying proteins. Specifically, we’ve shown that certain kinds of bacteria respond to high temperatures by destroying proteins needed for DNA replication. Therefore, they stop growing.”

The signal for this destruction turned out to be the buildup of proteins that were misfolded because of the stress. Bacteria contain a large variety of differently shaped proteins that help cells do all the chemical reactions needed for life. Stressful conditions cause some proteins to be misfolded and stop working, stopping growth until the cell copes with the stress. Until these experiments scientists did not fully understand the molecular mechanisms that cells use to transduce information about environmental conditions to their replication machinery. Now the experiments conducted at the lab have shown that in the bacteria Caulobacter, when a particular enzyme, Lon protease, encounters too many misfolded proteins, it starts destroying the perfectly fine protein DnaA, that normally starts the growth process. When DnaA is destroyed, cells stop growing, allowing them to respond quickly to stressful conditions. Chien: ”Stress and protein misfolding are a universal part of life, so understanding how simple bacteria deal with this kind of stress will help us understand how our cells do as well.”

The question is how much stress we’ll allow ourselves and the environment to experience before we decide to shrink.

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