By Emily Truax

Coffee Drinkers—Your Gums May Thank You

August 20th, 2014 in 2014, Goldman School of Dental Medicine, News Releases 0 comments


Contact: Mary Becotte
Director of Communications & External Relations
Boston University Henry M. Goldman
School of Dental Medicine

(Boston) – Coffee contains antioxidants. Antioxidants fight gum disease. Does coffee, then, help fight gum disease?

That is the question researchers at Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine explored in a study published in the August issue of the Journal of Periodontology.

Lead author and 2014 DMD graduate Nathan Ng said, “We found that coffee consumption did not have an adverse effect on periodontal health, and, instead, may have protective effects against periodontal disease.”

Additional study authors were Drs. Raul Garcia and Elizabeth Kaye. Dr. Garcia is Chair of the Department of Health Policy & Health Services Research and Director of the Northeast Center for Research to Evaluate and Eliminate Dental Disparities. Dr. Kaye is a Professor in the Department of Health Policy & Health Services Research.

Coffee consumption was associated with a small but statistically significant reduction in number of teeth with periodontal bone loss. Researchers concluded that coffee consumption may be protective against periodontal bone loss in adult males—the group examined in the study.

“This is the first long-term study of its kind that has investigated the association between coffee consumption and periodontal disease in humans,” Ng added.

Researchers looked at data collected from 1,152 men in the US Department of Veterans Affairs Dental Longitudinal Study (DLS) during triennial dental visits between 1968 and 1998. The DLS is a prospective study of the oral health of medically healthy male veterans that began in 1968. The men were 98% non-Hispanic white males ages 26 to 84 at the start.

Information on coffee intake was self-reported by the participants. Researchers controlled for risk factors such as alcohol consumption, education, diabetes status, body mass index, smoking, frequency of brushing and flossing, and recent periodontal treatment or dental cleanings.

Researchers suggest exploring their findings in a more diverse study population in the future.


About Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine: Founded in 1963, the Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine is the premier academic dental institution promoting excellence in dental education, research, oral health care, and community service to improve the overall health of the global population. With a faculty of more than 325 educators, clinicians, and researchers and more than 250 staff members, the School offers a full spectrum of pre-doctoral and post-doctoral specialty education programs and a complete range of graduate programs and degrees to more than 700 students.

Boston University Names Mark Crovella 2014 Innovator of the Year

July 15th, 2014 in 2014, News Releases 0 comments

EMBARGOED until Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 5 p.m.

Contact:  Vinit Nijhawan, 617-353-0606,

(Boston) – In a ceremony today, the Office of Technology Development honored Boston University Computer Science Professor Mark Crovella with Boston University’s 2014 Innovator of the Year award. The annual award recognizes a BU faculty member whose cutting-edge research and ideas lead to the formation of companies that benefit society at large.

BU Vice President and Associate Provost for Research Gloria Waters presented Crovella with this year’s Innovator of the Year award at “Tech, Drugs and Rock & Roll” — BU’s annual networking event for individuals involved in University Technology Transfer in the Boston area.

“Professor Crovella is an entrepreneurial scientist, whose inventions have been licensed to two start-up companies,” said Waters.  “His accomplishments in the past year include ten peer-reviewed papers published, five patent filings and $30.0 million invested in BU-spinoff Guavus.”

The Boston University Innovator of the Year award highlights translational research at BU by recognizing an entrepreneurial faculty member and the potential for commercialization and/or wider adoption of their inventions.  It also encourages faculty to become entrepreneurial while promoting role models who can inspire graduate students to pursue entrepreneurial careers. Past winners are Mark Grinstaff of Biomedical Engineering, Avi Spira of School of Medicine, Jim Collins of Engineering and Ted Moustakas of Engineering.

Professor Crovella is Professor and Chair of the Department of Computer Science at Boston University, where he has been since 1994. He also currently serves as Chief Scientist of Guavus, Inc., a venture-backed company founded by his graduate student Anukool Lakhina. Professor Crovella was also a co-founder of Commonwealth Networks, now part of Network Appliance.

“Mark has been a prolific academic entrepreneur but this past year was especially productive with the rapid growth of Guavus,” said BU Office of Technology Development Managing Director Vinit Nijhawan.

Professor Crovella uses measurement, data mining, and statistics to uncover important properties of networks.  He has mainly focused on computer networks, but also studies social networks and biological networks.  His work is data-intensive and often has applications that lead to improved designs for computer systems and communication networks.   He is best known for discoveries related to the “fractal” nature of computer network traffic; for methods of detecting unusual patterns in computer network traffic, including evidence of intrusions and malicious activity; for improvements to the design of web servers and content delivery systems; and for methods of measuring networks to uncover traffic bottlenecks, interconnection patterns, and geographic locations of networked systems.

His work on content delivery systems led to patents and a start-up (Commonwealth Network Technologies) that was eventually acquired by Network Appliance.  His work on detecting traffic anomalies led to patents and a start-up (Guavus, Inc) that is now a 500+ person company in San Mateo, CA, with over $87M in VC investment, where he serves as Chief Scientist.

Professor Crovella is co-author of Internet Measurement: Infrastructure, Traffic, and Applications (Wiley Press, 2006) and is the author of over two hundred papers on networking and computer systems. He holds ten patents deriving from his research and is a Fellow of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) and the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

# # #


Office of Technology Development to Host Fifth Annual “Tech, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll” Conference

July 9th, 2014 in 2014, News Releases 0 comments

2014 Innovator of the Year Award will be announced by Provost Jean Morrison

Boston, MA – The Office of Technology Development at Boston University will host its fifth annual networking conference entitled, Tech, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll (TDRR), on July 15, 2014 from 4 – 8 pm at 775 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA.

TDRR is a networking event designed to connect scientists and engineers with entrepreneurs, investors, and innovators. The event will showcase emerging technologies from Boston University’s research programs in the fields of life sciences, physical sciences, medical technology, new ventures, and student-based ventures.

At 5:30 pm, BU’s Vice President and Associate Provost for Research, Gloria Waters will announce the recipient of the 2014 Innovator of the Year Award. This award seeks to highlight translational research at Boston University by recognizing an entrepreneurial faculty member who translates his/her world-class research into inventions and innovations that benefit humankind.

Gloria Waters, the Innovator of the Year Recipient, and Managing Director of the Office of Technology Development Vinit Nijhawan will be available following the announcement of the award to participate in a photo-op and press conference.

In what has become an annual tradition, the event will also provide live music to foster a dynamic atmosphere for networking. This year, TDRR welcomes the live music of Parsonfield, formerly Poor Old Shine, an alternative Americana touring band based in Mansfield, CT.

TDRR will include participation from key translational research centers including the Evans Center – Affinity Research Collaboratives, Center for Regenerative Medicine, and Boston Biomedical Innovation Center among others. Additionally TDRR will showcase the first Social Entrepreneurship award where four projects that hope to make a difference in the world, will be competing for a prize of $3,000 to further their research. TDRR attendees will decide the winner the day of the event. Contestant projects include a smartphone-enabled biometric identification that can identify people by imaging their ears, and a cellphone card incentive system for new mothers to continue ART among others.

BU Leads Study That Shows Surprising Spread of Spring Leaf-Out Times

June 18th, 2014 in 2014, News Releases 0 comments

Observing 1,600 species at 8 botanical gardens globally should impact climate-change models

Contact: Richard Primack,,  cell 857-636-8378


Rhodo Fargesii

Rhodo Fargesii

(Boston) – Despite conventional wisdom among gardeners, foresters and botanists that woody plants all “leaf out” at about the same time each spring, a new study organized by a Boston University biologist found a surprisingly wide span of as much as three months in leaf-out times.  Significantly, observations the past two springs of 1,597 woody plants in eight botanical gardens in the U.S., Canada, Germany and China suggest that species differences in leaf-out times could impact the length of the growing season and the activities of birds, insect and other animals and therefore must be factored into climate-change model predictions.

“As species distribution and abundance shift due to climate change, interspecific differences in leaf-out timing may affect ecosystem processes such as carbon, water, and nutrient cycling,” reported the study in the journal New Phytologist.  “Our open-access leaf-out data provide a critical framework for monitoring and modelling such changes going forward.”

While previous researchers observed leaf-out for a limited numbers of species in a single location, this study uniquely obtained observations of the same species from gardens around the world.  Notably, the order of leafing out of species was almost the same in different gardens and with different climates, suggesting that leafing out time is a fixed character of a species, like the shape of its leaves or flowers; some species tend to leaf out early others late.

“Prior to this study, no one would have suspected that there was so much difference in the leafing out times of different species,” says BU Prof. Richard Primack, who recruited colleagues from around the world for the study.  “At the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, some gooseberry and honeysuckle shrubs start leafing out mid-March and early April, and evergreen rhododendrons and pine trees don’t start leafing out until two to three months later in late May or even June.  These differences are quite striking.”

The study showed that shrubs leafed out on average 10 days before trees and deciduous plants leafed out on average 17 days before evergreens.  And certain groups of plants — such as honeysuckles, willows, lilacs, and apples — tended to leaf out early, while other groups — such as oak, beeches, honey locusts, and grapes — tended to leaf out late.  As a result, forests will have flushes of new leaves over an extended period, which adds to the beauty of spring growth, but it also has implications for insect survival and for carbon dioxide absorption by forests.

“Leaf-out phenology affects a wide variety of ecosystem processes and ecological interactions and will take on added significance as leaf-out times increasingly shift in response to warming temperatures associated with climate change,” the study said.  “There is, however, relatively little information available on the factors affecting species differences in leaf out phenology.”

Primack explained that as the climate warms, trees will tend to leaf out earlier in the spring, perhaps extending the growing season and affecting animal behavior.  But this pattern will become complicated if the overall tree composition changes.  For example, in eastern North America, maple and birch trees, which leaf out early, may be replaced gradually by more heat-tolerant oak trees, which tend to leaf out later in the spring.

The data was obtained by walking around each of the botanical gardens once a week and recording the appearance of first leafing out for all of the species.  Leaf-out time was considered when the young leaves had emerged from their buds and their adult shape could be seen even though the leaves were still small.

Along with Primack, the team included Zoe Panchen (Carleton University), Birgit Nordt and Albert Dieter-Stevens (Berlin Botanical Garden), Elizabeth Ellwood (Florida State U.), Susanne Renner (U. of Munich), Charles Willis and Charles Davis (Harvard U.), Robert Fahey (Morton Arboretum), Alan Whittemore (U.S. National Arboretum), and Yanjun Du (Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing).  Their next project will extend their observations to autumn to determine if there are also major differences among species in when trees change color and drop their leaves at the end of the growing season.


About Boston University—Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized private research university with more than 30,000 students participating in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs. As Boston University’s largest academic division, the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences is the heart of the BU experience with a global reach that enhances the University’s reputation for teaching and research. In 2012, BU joined the Association of American Universities (AAU), a consortium of 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada.


Contact data for other authors:  Zoe Panchen (; Carleton Univerisity), Birgit Nordt and Albert Dieter-Stevens (; ad.stevens@bgbm.orgBerlin Botanical Garden), Elizabeth Ellwood (; Florida State U.), Susanne Renner (; U. of Munich), Charles Willis and Charles Davis (;; Harvard U.), Robert Fahey (; Morton Arboretum), Alan Whittemore (; U.S. National Arboretum), and Yanjun Du (; Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing)

#     #     #




Boston University Honors Three Professors with 2014 Excellence-In-Teaching Awards

May 2nd, 2014 in 2014, Commencement, News Releases 0 comments

For Release May 2, 2014, noon

Contact:  Richard Taffe, 617/353-4626,

(Boston) — Boston University will bestow its highest teaching award, the 42th Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, to College of Engineering mechanical engineering Assistant Professor Stormy Attaway, one of nearly 4,500 faculty members.

At Commencement ceremonies on May 18th, BU also will recognize College of Fine Arts music Associate Professor Terry Everson and College of Arts and Sciences astronomy Professor Alan Marscher as 2014 recipients of Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“Excellent teaching is of paramount importance in Boston University, and we affirm this belief by presenting the annual Metcalf honors during our commencement ceremony,” said BU President Robert Brown.  “The winners of the Metcalf awards are exemplary teachers and mentors.”

The Metcalf Cup carries with it a prize of $10,000.  The Metcalf Award winners each receive a prize of $5,000.  Students, faculty and alumni nominate candidates for the awards established in 1973 by a gift from the late Boston University Board of Trustees chairman emeritus Arthur G.B. Metcalf.


Stormy Attaway

“I love to teach, and even more, I love to enable others to learn,” said Attaway, whose work focuses on the fundamentals of engineering computing and integration of new technologies to enhance teaching.  “The new digital initiatives will transform how we learn.  I am pleased to be an early adopter, and I have never been more excited than I am now about the prospects for enhanced learning environments.”

Attaway grew up in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and now lives in Greenville, New Hampshire.  She earned B.S. from the University of South Carolina and both her master’s and doctorate at Boston University.  She joined the Boston University faculty in 1986.


Terry Everson

            “I truly enjoy music,” said Everson, an internationally renowned trumpet soloist, educator, composer/arranger, conductor, and church musician whose teaching concentrates on developing students into skilled brass musicians.  “I’ve discovered the joy in teaching and coaching, listening to my students put their own personal stamps on music I’ve loved for years, getting a fresh vicarious thrill as they make many of the same discoveries I did at their age, and often being awakened to ideas that had never occurred to me before.”

Born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, Everson now lives in Framingham, Massachusetts.   He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ohio State University.  He joined the Boston University faculty in 1999.


Alan Marscher

            “My task … is to inform the students as broadly as possible what science has figured out about the universe, how it has done so, what challenges to our understanding remain, and how our scientific knowledge relates to larger issues faced by humanity,” said Marscher, whose research explores high-energy astrophysics and the nature of extraglactic phenomena like black holes and exploding stars, but who became an academic star teaching his core curriculum and cosmology courses for non-science majors.

Marscher grew up in a suburb of Utica, New York, and now lives in Wayland, Massachusetts.  He earned a bachelor of science degree from Cornell University and both a master’s and doctorate from the University of Virginia.  He joined the Boston University faculty in 1981.


Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research.  With more than 33,000 students, it is the fourth-largest independent university in the United States.  BU consists of 16 schools and colleges, along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes integral to the University’s research and teaching mission.  In 2012, BU joined the Association of American Universities (AAU), a consortium of 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada.

— 30 —

Note to editors:  High-resolution digital photographs of the 2014 Metcalf Cup and Prize winner and the Metcalf Award winners are available — password “Metcalf” — at

Boston University to Host Symposium on the Legacy of the Women’s Liberation Movement

March 14th, 2014 in 2014, News Releases 0 comments

Political, literary, artistic, and legal reflections on the “Revolutionary Moment”



 For Immediate Release 

Contact:  Jaho King, 617-358-2370,


(Boston) — What is the legacy of the women’s liberation movement, the span between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with no definitive start or end date that roiled the status quo and raised awareness?  An ambitious, 3-day symposium March 27-29, 2014, at Boston University will gather movement veterans and scholars of the era to reflect on and put into context the impact “women’s lib” had on our culture, politics, art, law, media and attitudes.

For media considering retrospective pieces on this groundbreaking time in our history a half-century ago, this offers a rare opportunity to interact in one place with (now aging) activists, artists, authors and academics involved with the “revolutionary moment.”  Films of and about the movement will be screened and a signature play of the period performed.

All sessions are open to the media (see for agenda and bios), including a ceremony at 6 p.m. Friday, 3/28, at which The Bette Davis Foundation will present its lifetime achievement honor to award-winning actress (and BU alum) Geena Davis for advocacy through her namesake Institute on Gender in Media.


Event:               “A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the late 1960s an early 1970s”

Date:                  Thursday-Saturday, March 27-29, 2014

Time:                 See schedule:

Place:                 Boston University

George Sherman Union

775 Commonwealth Ave.

Boston, MA (with break-out sessions across the BU campus)


— 30 —


Boston University Research Reveals Surprising Results about Kids’ Capacity for Scientific Literacy

March 11th, 2014 in 2014, News Releases 0 comments

Storybook Helps Five to Eight Year Olds Learn Natural Selection

It turns out kids can understand complex scientific concepts – like natural selection – far beyond what anyone would have expected.

To demonstrate this, Boston University cognitive developmental psychologist Deborah Kelemen and her co-researchers created a 10-page picture storybook about pilosas, a group of fictional mammals with long trunks. Then they read it aloud to five to eight year old’s.

The pilosas use their trunks to catch insects. In the past, most of the pilosas had wide trunks. Only a few had thin trunks. Then extreme climate change drove most of the insects underground, into long, narrow tunnels where only the pilosas with thin trunks could reach them.

The drama unfolds around a central question: How did the pilosas evolve over time from a group of animals having trunks of varying widths to those with thin trunks predominating?

It’s a story about adaptation by natural selection, which is one of the core mechanisms not just of evolution, but of all biology. It is also one of the most widely misunderstood concepts in science. It is generally viewed as so complex – so beyond the grasp of young children – that educational standards in the U.S. suggest that it should not be taught comprehensively until ages 13 to 18.

The kids who heard the story about the pilosas got it.

“We’re still astonished by what we found,” said Kelemen, who reports the findings in a study published last week in Psychological Science.

CAS Psychology Associate Professor Deborah Kelemen

CAS Psychology Associate Professor Deborah Kelemen

“It shows that kids are a lot smarter than we ever give them credit for.  They can handle a surprising degree of complexity when you frame things in a way that taps into the natural human drive for a good, cohesive explanation.”

“I had one child say to me, ‘Wow, I think my head is going to explode I learned so much today,’” said Boston University developmental psychology postdoctoral fellow Natalie Emmons, an author on the study.

The conventional wisdom is that young children should be taught only piecemeal biological facts, such as that food is needed for survival or that animals have useful body parts, without tying the facts together into an explanation of how the mechanism of natural selection works.

But why bother trying to explain the mechanism to young kids? Kelemen and her colleagues make the case that teaching it earlier may help head off learning problems later on.

Young children are natural explanation seekers, Kelemen writes in the study. Around pre-school age, they start intuitively thinking that natural phenomena exist for a purpose or operate by design. To a five or eight-year-old, it makes perfect sense to think that rivers exist so crocodiles have a place to live or that giraffes got long necks because they needed them to reach leaves high in the trees.

This scientifically inaccurate thinking is known as teleological explanation. While it helps young children’s everyday reasoning, Kelemen said, the kind of beliefs associated with it can impede the ability of older students – and, ultimately, adults – to understand the counter-intuitive logic of natural selection. A species evolves over time as animals with certain traits that fit better with their environment survive and reproduce at higher rates than those without the advantageous trait.

Not only did the kids understand how the pilosas evolved in the storybook, but they accomplished one of the most difficult tasks of learning: generalizing the concept. They applied what they learned from the pilosas to another species of novel animals, in some cases, even after three months.

Kelemen’s experiment, born amid the growing discussion about the need to improve science literacy in the U.S., began with this question: Was it possible to teach young children a basic concept of adaptation by capitalizing on their efforts to figure out the natural world as well as the fragmentary state of their ideas?

Most storybooks that touch on natural selection only further confuse kids, Kelemen said. They anthropomorphize the animals, skimp on the facts and dispense with explanations altogether.

Or the books are so flashy the kids can’t focus on the story. “All kinds of bells and whistles are often built into storybooks,” Kelemen said.” Everyone thinks that is going to make the storybook fun for the kid.”

Kelemen and her co-researchers carefully crafted their book, combining what they knew as developmental psychologists with the research on science education. They invented the pilosas so the children couldn’t come into the lab with pre-conceived ideas about the animals. They kept the story and the pictures simple. The narrative about how the pilosas lived and died – and the explanation of how and why they evolved over time – unfolded gradually, with one biological fact logically connecting to the next.

Current-day Wilkies (right) and ancestral Wilkies (left), fictional creatures from a study by Kelemen et al. (2014).

Current-day Wilkies (right) and ancestral Wilkies (left), fictional creatures from a study by Kelemen et al. (2014).

The researchers asked the children questions before and after reading them the storybook to assess their learning of basic biological facts – such as the link between food and health and health and reproduction — and their ability to integrate these facts into a coherent, accurate explanation of why pilosas’ bodies changed over time.

Learning was particularly striking among older students; in the second experiment, 100 per cent of the seven and eight year olds understood that the reason why the pilosas or other animals changed over time was because individuals with more beneficial traits out-survived and out-reproduced others in the group.

Kelemen’s study suggests that one way to raise science literacy in the U.S. is to start teaching earlier some key concepts that our natural tendencies of mind make especially hard to understand – and that a good place to start would be with natural selection. The concept, Kelemen said, is an important foundation for children’s understanding of other fundamentals, such as the diversity of living things and the origins of species.

“It turns out that if you put the facts into the context of a theory, the kids learn not only the facts, but they also understand the full explanation,” Kelemen said. “And they get it beyond a level we ever imagined they would, given how young they are.”

She added: “We’re not necessarily getting rid of a natural orientation to think everything exists in nature to perform a function. What we are doing is helping children also develop alternatives ways of understanding why some kinds of functions and purposes in nature exist. It is a scientifically accurate way that is going to help them in the science classroom and beyond.”

David Klahr, a professor of cognitive developmental psychology and education science at Carnegie Mellon University, who was not involved with the study, said he was “ impressed with the results,” and with the creativity with which Kelemen and her team conceived and executed the work.

“We’ve known for years that young children can extract the intended message from a coherent story,” he wrote in an email. “Everything from Aesop’s Fables to things in the typical ‘children’s bible stories’ volume exploit young children’s ability to extract meaning from well crafted tales.”

Kelemen said: “Taking insights from developmental research about how children think and applying them to the construction of educational materials can yield incredibly positive results. Early interventions like this might be key to improving scientific understanding of counter-intuitive ideas longer term.”



Contact Information:

Sara Rimer

Director, Science Media Relations, Boston University


Office phone: 617-358-6450

Cell – 617-939-8506


Deborah Kelemen, Ph.D

Association Professor

Director, Developmental Science Program

Boston University

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences



Natalie A. Emmons, Ph.D

Postdoctoral Associate

Department of Psychology

Boston University




Boston University to Host Symposium Marking 150 Years of National Banking

February 4th, 2014 in 2014, News Releases 0 comments


For Immediate Release 

Contact:  Richard Taffe, 617/353-2240, 

Comptroller of the Currency Curry, Volcker, Bair, Dodd and Frank among participants

(Boston) — The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) commemorates its 150th anniversary at a symposium – “Building on 150 Years: The Future of National Banking” – hosted by the Boston University Center for Finance, Law & Policy on March 31, 2014, at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center.

All sessions are open to the media (see here for agenda) and individual interviews with conference participants will be considered upon request.

Participants at panels at the all-day event will include:

  • Comptroller of the Currency Thomas J. Curry
  • ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker
  • ex-FDIC Chair Sheila Bair
  • ex-U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd
  • ex-U.S. Rep. Barney Frank
  • Financial Services Roundtable President and ex-Minn. Gov. Timothy Pawlenty
  • ex-Citicorp Chairman John Reed
  • Sharon Bowles, chair of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee of the European Parliament.


For media credentials, contact:

Bryan Hubbard

Director, Public Affairs Operations

Office of the Comptroller of the Currency


Event:               “Building on 150 Years: The Future of National Banking”

Date:                  Monday, March 31, 2014

Time:                 all day

Place:                 Hynes Convention Center, 900 Boylston St, Boston


— 30 —

Boston University Study Examines the Development of Children’s Prelife Reasoning

January 27th, 2014 in 2014, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases 0 comments

Evidence suggests our hard-wired belief in immortality may be the root of core religious beliefs

For Immediate Release: January 27, 2014

By Barbara Moran

Field Image - Ecuador

Photo Credit: Natalie Emmons

Most people, regardless of race, religion or culture, believe they are immortal. That is, people believe that part of themselves–some indelible core, soul or essence–will transcend the body’s death and live forever.  But what is this essence?  Why do we believe it survives?  And why is this belief so unshakable?

A new Boston University study led by postdoctoral fellow Natalie Emmons and published in the January 16, 2014 online edition of Child Development sheds light on these profound questions by examining children’s ideas about “prelife,” the time before conception.  By interviewing 283 children from two distinct cultures in Ecuador, Emmons’s research suggests that our bias toward immortality is a part of human intuition that naturally emerges early in life.  And the part of us that is eternal, we believe, is not our skills or ability to reason, but rather our hopes, desires and emotions.  We are, in fact, what we feel.

Emmons’ study fits into a growing body of work examining the cognitive roots of religion.  Although religion is a dominant force across cultures, science has made little headway in examining whether religious belief–such as the human tendency to believe in a creator–may actually be hard-wired into our brains.

“This work shows that it’s possible for science to study religious belief,” said Deborah Kelemen, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Boston University and co-author of the paper.  “At the same time, it helps us understand some universal aspects of human cognition and the structure of the mind.”

Most studies on immortality or “eternalist” beliefs have focused on people’s views of the afterlife.  Studies have found that both children and adults believe that bodily needs, such as hunger and thirst, end when people die, but mental capacities, such as thinking or feeling sad, continue in some form.  But these afterlife studies leave one critical question unanswered: where do these beliefs come from?   Researchers have long suspected that people develop ideas about the afterlife through cultural exposure, like television or movies, or through religious instruction.  But perhaps, thought Emmons, these ideas of immortality actually emerge from our intuition.  Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, maybe they also intuit that part of their mind could exist apart from their body.

Emmons tackled this question by focusing on “prelife,” the period before conception, since few cultures have beliefs or views on the subject.   “By focusing on prelife, we could see if culture causes these beliefs to appear, or if they appear spontaneously,” said Emmons.

“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” said Paul Bloom, a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale who was not involved with the study.  “One persistent belief is that children learn these ideas through school or church.  That’s what makes the prelife research so cool.  It’s a very clever way to get at children’s beliefs on a topic where they aren’t given answers ahead of time.”

Emmons interviewed children from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.  She chose the group because they have no cultural prelife beliefs, and she suspected that indigenous children, who have regular exposure to birth and death through hunting and farming, would have a more rational, biologically-based view of the time before they were conceived.  For comparison, she also interviewed children from an urban area near Quito, Ecuador.  Most of the urban children were Roman Catholic, a religion that teaches that life begins only at conception.  If cultural influences were paramount, reasoned Emmons, both urban and indigenous children should reject the idea of life before birth.

Emmons showed the children drawings of a baby, a young woman, and the same woman while pregnant, then asked a series of questions about the child’s abilities, thoughts and emotions during each period: as babies, in the womb, and before conception.

The results were surprising.  Both groups gave remarkably similar answers, despite their radically different cultures.  The children reasoned that their bodies didn’t exist before birth, and that they didn’t have the ability to think or remember. However, both groups also said that their emotions and desires existed before they were born. For example, while children generally reported that they didn’t have eyes and couldn’t see things before birth, they often reported being happy that they would soon meet their mother, or sad that they were apart from their family.

“They didn’t even realize they were contradicting themselves,” said Emmons. “Even kids who had biological knowledge about reproduction still seemed to think that they had existed in some sort of eternal form.  And that form really seemed to be about emotions and desires.”

Why would humans have evolved this seemingly universal belief in the eternal existence of our emotions?  Emmons said that this human trait might be a by-product of our highly developed social reasoning. “We’re really good at figuring out what people are thinking, what their emotions are, what their desires are,” she said.  We tend to see people as the sum of their mental states, and desires and emotions may be particularly helpful when predicting their behavior.  Because this ability is so useful and so powerful, it flows over into other parts of our thinking.  We sometimes see connections where potentially none exist, we hope there’s a master plan for the universe, we see purpose when there is none, and we imagine that a soul survives without a body.

These ideas, while nonscientific, are natural and deep-seated. “I study these things for a living but even find myself defaulting to them. I know that my mind is a product of my brain but I still like to think of myself as something independent of my body,” said Emmons.

“We have the ability to reflect and reason scientifically, and we have the ability to reason based on our gut and intuition,” she added.  “And depending on the situation, one may be more useful than the other.”



Natalie Emmons

Boston University, Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences

64 Cummington Mall

Boston, MA 02215




Sara Rimer

Boston University Science Media Relations



Boston University Researchers Explore Possible Link between Cognitive Depressive Symptoms and Antiretroviral Therapy Uptake

December 20th, 2013 in 2013, News Releases, School of Medicine 0 comments


Contact: Gina Orlando, (617) 638-8490,

(Boston) – Researchers from Boston University’s School of Medicine (BUSM) and College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) found that among HIV-infected Russian drinkers, depressive symptom severity alone was not significantly associated with lower rates of antiretroviral therapy (ART) initiation. However, when examining cognitive symptoms of depression, results showed that high levels of depressive symptoms may be associated with delayed ART initiation. The findings are published online in the journal AIDS and Behavior.

While depressive symptoms impact on adherence to ART is widely studied, there are few studies that have investigated the impact of these symptoms on initiating ART. According to the researchers, understanding factors associated with ART initiation may be particularly useful in locations where it is not as commonly prescribed, such as Russia, which has experienced a dramatic increase in HIV infection rates during the past decade.

Led by Jeffrey Samet, MD, chief and professor of internal medicine at BMC and BUSM and principal investigator of the study, the researchers enrolled participants from the HIV’s Evolution in Russia – Mitigating Infection Transmission and Alcoholism in a Growing Epidemic (HERMITAGE) study. The 133 eligible participants had their depressive symptom severity measured at the six- and 12-month marks.

Although the results did not provide evidence that depressive symptom severity alone had a statistically significant effect on ART initiation, findings suggested a potential role of cognitive depressive symptoms in decisions to initiate ART. According to the researchers, cognitive symptoms of depression are often considered to be an index of depression that is less influenced by HIV symptoms. Further, the study demonstrated findings consistent with existing studies that show participants with co-morbid heavy drinking and injection drug use appeared to have delayed ART initiation.

“Depressive symptoms have been shown to influence progression of HIV and have been associated with poor virologic response to treatment and increased immunologic failure,” said Tracie Goodness, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at CAS and corresponding author of the study. “Timely ART initiation has been associated with multiple positive health effects, such as lower mortality, increased immune functioning and lower rates of HIV transmission,” she added.

Although more research is needed, these results provide initial evidence of the role of depressive symptoms and may contribute to the understanding of ART initiation in HIV-infected populations

The study was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: R01AA016059, U24AA020778, U24AA020779, and K24AA15674.