Seeing the Light: The chance to erase ingrained customs concerns teens


Art by Michelle Zhuang

Manal Salim

Art by Michelle Zhuang
Art by Michelle Zhuang

When junior Ashley Rippeto starts feeling the stress of her AP classes and various activities outside of school, she knows she has many ways to cope with the tension. However Rippeto always responds by biting her nails, even though she knows this is bad habit. For her, the custom of nail-biting is now a part of her life.

Although biting her nails is natural to her, especially during times of stress or idleness, Rippeto often receives unwanted attention and in some cases, she recieves criticism from her peers. At times, such comments can hurt or make her feel uncomfortable, and they make Rippeto want to erase her habit.

“Pretty much all the time, like almost every day at least once, someone comes up to me and comments on how short my nails are,” Rippeto said. “Sometimes they say it’s gross, sometimes people just say they’re cute, but it’s embarrassing because I don’t like people to point out things.”

Rippeto is just one of the 45 percent of adolescents who bite their nails according to a 2008 study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Although many of her peers have the same habit, she still receives comments that she doesn’t appreciate. However, the habit has ingrained itself into Rippeto’s mind so that it is now something she does subconsciously and she finds it hard to stop. Rippeto wishes she could change that, partly because she feels shorter nails are harder to to take care of.

“I wish I could lose the habit [of biting nails] because I wish I could have more fun with painting my nails, cause now I don’t have much to paint,” Rippeto said. “There’s stuff you can stick on your nails, but they only work for long nails, and I can’t get long nails anymore.”

But she might be able to in the future, thanks to a recent study by M.I.T. researchers. In October, they found that optogenetics can switch bad habits on and off, which involves creating light-sensitive proteins that affect processes in the brain. When a light shines into the eyes of rats, the light-sensitive proteins help to turn off the neurons that control the habitual behavior.

Rippeto realizes nail biting might not be considered as a serious problem in the broad scope of bad habits, especially when considering other habits, such as drug addiction and alcoholism. However, she believes the development of habit-erasing technologies is equally important to all people with any type of bad habit.

“I think all habits are bad, honestly,” Rippeto said. “In a grand scheme of things, I guess nail biting isn’t as important, but it’s still a habit, and I feel like habits are just ways to hold you back. They’re like a weakness.”

Rippeto agrees that technology to erase bad habits should be developed because there are some people who need it, but she does not think she would ever use it herself. While acknowledging the benefits that would come with it, Rippeto would be skeptical about such an invasive procedure and thinks there might be some harmful effects that accompany it.

“I think they should invent it because I think seeing it on somebody else would be really cool and it could be really helpful,” Rippeto said. “I don’t think I’d use it just because I don’t really think anything should be in my brain, erasing stuff because I’m not a big science person anyway. I don’t know how I could believe somebody when they said that it’s possible to just erase habits.”

Senior Sierra Bryant also has a bad habit, but she finds it too hard to get rid of. She is a smoker, and finds it difficult to face this fact in public because of the discriminatory feelings people might have towards her.

“Sometimes, I don’t really want to admit to people that I smoke when I first meet them, until I get to know them better and I know how they feel about smoking,” Bryant said. “Even my grandparents don’t know that I smoke because they don’t approve of it. My closest friends know that I smoke because they either approve of it or they also smoke. It can be kind of embarrassing, because I don’t want people to look down on me for doing it.”

Bryant tried to quit smoking in the past, but she found it too difficult to do so. Because she understands how hard it is to get rid of bad habits such as hers, she said she would be willing to try out any kind of procedure that might be possible in the future.

“I tried to quit two years ago. I was going to quit on my 16th birthday, and I had the nicotine gum and everything, and it just wasn’t that easy,” Bryant said. “It wasn’t as easy as everybody makes it seem. I still have difficulties, and obviously I haven’t quit.”

Although the recent discovery by the MIT researchers has opened up a new option to erase bad habits, both Bryant and Rippeto worry about the negative effects such new technologies might have, and how they might affect how bad habits are dealt with.

“It would lessen our skills of stopping things on our own, [with] our own control,” Bryant said. “We would lean back on that as a go-to thing rather than dealing with our problems on our own, like we’re supposed to.”

Even though the effects of this procedure aren’t publicly known yet, Dr. Mahesh Thakkar, director of research at the Department of Neurology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said this habit erasing technology might be developed for humans at some point. However, he says it “may not be in near future.”

Thakkar sees the new technology as an opportunity to improve modern medicine, but Thakkar believes there are certain steps researchers need to take before such a procedure becomes common.

“Optogenetics is a relatively new technique and we are just beginning to use and understand the pros and the cons of this technique,” Thakkar said. “With every invasive procedure there will be certain amount of risk as there will be good effects. If and only if the pros are able to outweigh the cons significantly, with very persistent and strong evidence enough supporting the pros, in preclinical studies, only then this technique may be developed for humans.”

Personally, Thakkar hopes that the procedure will be further developed and will be made widely available mainly because of the benefits that the procedure may be able to offer to individuals, but he also emphasized the need for safety to be ensured in any such procedure.

“I feel very good about this research. I think these or similar technologies will eventually benefit people,” Thakkar said. “Before I recommend any technology to be used in humans, it has to be thoroughly tested and verified that it is safe to be used in humans with minimal side effects.”

Although the results obtained from the study show that the procedure can work successfully on rats, Rippeto agrees with many of the scientists that are wary of using this new technology on humans, because it might be too intrusive. She is afraid some risks might be involved with the emergence of such a procedure.

“The fact that it’s kind of like messing with your brain a little bit is kind of freaky,” Rippeto said. “I think the cons could be how they actually do that, like how they insert whatever they need to do, how they program it to work. That might hurt you in some way.”

By Afsah Khan