Do early birds catch all the worms?

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Biology / Health / Myths / Psychology

We’ve all heard ‘Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’. But what evidence did Benjamin Franklin have when he said it? Is it true the hours of sleep you get before, rather than after, midnight contribute more to your health and wellbeing?

Does the early bird always get the worm? Image credit Jack Langton via Flickr

Is it really worth getting up early? Image credit Jack Langton via Flickr

Nighty night, sleep tight

Most parents I know prioritise getting their kids to bed early. We all know only too well how kids fare if they’re short on sleep: hello tears and tantrums. You probably have a good sense of how sleep deprivation affects you too and it’s never pretty. If you’ve ever been tempted to find out how long you can go without sleep before you go crazy, don’t do it. But this post isn’t about the benefits of getting enough sleep. Let’s just all agree everyone needs somewhere between six and nine hours of sleep to function (kids need a lot more). What I’m interested in is whether it makes a difference when you get your hours of sleep. Do us grown-ups need to put ourselves to bed early too?

We all have particular sleep patterns: I’ve written before about night owls and early birds. Which sleep group you belong to depends on things like when you like to get up, how alert you feel in the morning and when you normally get tired. At this point I should probably out myself as the extreme early bird I am. I’ve learned from years of trial and error that I feel a million times better if I both go to bed and get up ridiculously early. I can get exactly the same number of hours of sleep starting after midnight and feel lousy. But am I just weird? (Friends, don’t answer that). Or is there some truth to Benjamin Franklin’s edict?


Is there any evidence morning people are healthier? The short answer is yes. In one study, 2,200 Australians aged 9 to 16 were put into categories according to their natural sleep and wake times. Even though they slept for the same total time, compared to those in the early bed/early rise group, late bed/risers were 1.5 times more likely to be obese and twice as likely to be physically inactive.

In a study of 250 healthy men aged under 60, it didn’t matter how much total sleep they got, but men who went to bed before midnight had fewer signs of future heart disease: their arteries were healthier. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear night owls consume more alcohol, nicotine and caffeine than early birds. Early risers still drink caffeine, but less of it, and in tea rather than coffee or cola. A large study of Finnish twins found night owls were much more likely to be current and lifelong smokers.

In a fascinating twist, researchers have identified a difference in the brain structure of larks and owls: the hippocampus of night owls has a smaller volume than in early birds. The hippocampus is important for memory and emotion and a reduction in hippocampus volume has been linked to depression. But other studies have found no link between better health and early rising.

Wealthy? Happy? Wise?

There hasn’t been a lot of research into whether early birds are wealthier. One study from the late 1990s did look at the income level of more than 1200 people and suggests Franklin got it wrong: on average, night owls earned more. But a different study of almost 1000 men found no relationship between sleeping patterns and wealth. I think the jury’s out on this one. But there has been some research on the personality of people with different sleep patterns.

Are morning people happier than night owls? In a Canadian study, adults who were early birds reported being much happier and more satisfied with life than night owls of the same age. We know people who stay up late are more likely to worry and have repetitive negative thoughts: sometimes it’s much better just to go to bed. A study of 15,000 adolescents found those going to bed at midnight or later were 24% more likely to suffer from depression and 20% more likely to consider suicide.

Early birds also tend to be more proactive, and several studies have shown night owls procrastinate more. In a personality study of more than 1200 people, early birds were more agreeable and conscientious than those used to burning the midnight oil.

Ok, so what about wise; are early birds smarter? No, not so fast. In a study of 420 people linking standard intelligence test scores and sleep habits, night owls came out on top in the brain stakes. In another study of 200 Masters students, night owls got significantly higher scores on the infamous GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test). But in a study of German medical students, the timing of sleep had more of an effect on exam results than the length or quality of the sleep. Going to bed earlier resulted in better exam results. A different study of US college students found those who did best academically were early birds too. There’s no simple answer.

Should you make the switch?

Standard school and work hours tend to suit early birds better and if you’re a night owl who wants to switch, you almost certainly can. On the proviso that you’re willing to embrace new habits, like turning off your phone at night. But unless you have to, should you? A study of Major League Baseball players in the US tells an interesting tale. Baseballers who are morning people play better overall than night owl players. But if you look a bit closer, at the timing of the games, the story changes: yes, early birds play better in daytime games. But in games played in the evening, night owls do better.

Maybe the moral of the story is simply to sleep and wake up at whatever times feel right for you. There’s nothing wrong with being a night owl.

But I’m going to continue to embrace my inner early bird. Unless of course it turns out the secret to wealth is staying up late.

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comments 4
Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

Is it a bird? Or a plane? No, it’s a baby. When we think of babies, it’s easy to focus on all the things they can’t do – walk, talk, look after themselves, or think like we do. But there are also plenty of things babies can do that we can’t. And few of us are aware of the ‘superpowers’ we’ve lost.

Why do we lose our infant ‘superpowers’. Image credit Nick Nguyen via Flickr

Sadly we all lose our infant superpowers. Image credit Nick Nguyen via Flickr

Seeing is believing

Are you good at remembering faces? Most of us do a decent job of recognising different human faces. Whether we’re six months, six years, or sixty years old, we tend to be equally good at telling human faces apart. But we’re lousy when it comes to other animals’ faces. Even researchers who work with primates tend to tell monkeys and apes apart by personality, habits or fur markings rather than their faces. Not so babies. Six-month-old babies are pros at telling individual monkeys apart from their faces (in this case, Barbary macaques). Even when the monkey faces were upside down. But by nine months of age, unless they’ve kept practicing their skills, babies have lost the ability to pick which monkey is which.

Babies also see everything around them slightly differently to adults. Next time you’re on a train platform, watch a train as it approaches. The train changes from being a distant dot, to something way taller than us. At the same time, it changes shape and probably colour, depending on the light. But our brains create a constant image of a train for us: despite all the changes, we don’t for a second think the train is actually growing in size or changing colour as it approaches. We’ve got something called ‘perceptual constancy’ to thank for this trick. But it’s a trick little babies can’t yet do. Their loss? Yes, and no. Without perceptual constancy, babies under five months are at risk of seeing a world of constantly-changing chaos, but they also have an amazing ability to pick slight differences in pictures that we simply can’t see.

Baby talk

Baby talk might sound like nothing more than babble but don’t be fooled. Babies are whizzes when it comes to language. Even though they can’t talk, babies know the meanings of common words, like apple, mouth and ear, at only six months. Even more impressive, many studies have shown how good young babies are at learning languages.

At birth, babies can tell the difference between their native tongue and a different language. In fact, they can hear differences between the sounds of all languages. Four-month olds can tell languages apart just by watching silent videos of adults talking: the mouth movements are enough to tell when the language being spoken changes. By eight months, only bilingual babies can do this. At six months, babies raised in English-speaking homes can pick subtle differences between sounds that occur only in Hindi. But in our first year, we all lose the ability to hear these differences – soon we can only distinguish between the sounds of the language, or languages, we hear spoken by the people around us.

Babies… can discriminate all the sounds of all languages, no matter what country we’re testing and what language we’re using, and that’s remarkable because you and I can’t do that. – Professor Patricia Kuhl

Young babies don’t just pass with flying colours when it comes to spoken languages. Four-month olds can pick small differences in hand shapes in sign language, but 14-month olds can’t. And why stop at humans? Six-month olds can match the barking sound of a friendly or aggressive dog to the right dog in a photo, showing either a playful or aggressive posture. This is true even if the baby has never met a dog.

Baby brain

If you’ve ever had much to do with babies, it’s easy to assume they are the most selfish of all people. Solely focused on their needs and wants: ‘I’m hungry, I’m tired, I need a fresh nappy, I don’t know why but I just feel miserable. Help!’

In fact, research shows babies and toddlers are incredibly tuned in to the people around them. Six-month olds take in lots of information about the social situations they watch, deciding who is friendly on the basis of watching either the helping or obstructive behaviour of other people. In one study, 18-month olds were found to be ‘emotionally eavesdropping’ – listening to and watching emotional reactions between adults and then changing their own behaviour in light of what they found out.

And baby brains aren’t just capable of social feats. Babies also have a basic number sense and understand that one plus one should equal two. What’s more, newborn babies have in inbuilt sense of rhythm. The brains of two-day old babies respond differently when the drum rhythm they are listening to isn’t what they were expecting to hear.

We shouldn’t be surprised baby brains are capable of so much: in the first few years of life, our brains form 700 new nerve connections every second. By the time we are three, we’ve got about a thousand trillion connections – more than double the number an adult has.

So next time you’re tempted to dismiss a baby as an eating, sleeping and pooing machine, it may be time to think again.

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A laughing matter

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Anthropology / Evolution / Myths / Psychology

When was the last time you laughed out loud? Can you remember what set you off? It turns out laughing is more complex than it might appear: we laugh for many different reasons. And some of them aren’t that funny.

Why exactly do we laugh? Image credit Marc Kjerland via Flickr

Why exactly do we laugh? Image credit Marc Kjerland via Flickr

Is laughter the best medicine?

Laughter has been claimed to be good for just about everything, from boosting the immune system, to decreasing stress and lowering blood pressure. There’s some evidence laughter protects against heart disease and laughing has been shown to improve short-term memory in older adults. A 15-year study of more than 53,000 people in Norway found both men and women with a strong sense of humour lived longer. Laughter definitely helps us cope with pain – laughter releases endorphins, which increases our pain threshold. That’s why ‘clown doctors’ are popular visitors for kids in hospital.

It may not cure any diseases, but most of us would agree a decent belly laugh, or even a quiet chuckle, can make us feel good. It’s not surprising laughter clubs and laughter yoga are popular. Gelotologists – researchers who study laughter – have long explored both the health benefits and the origins of laughter. Not only humans laugh: primates do it too. But why, and what exactly makes us laugh?

Know any good jokes?

Let’s answer the what first. An obvious response to the question of what makes people laugh is: ‘a good joke’. So back in 2001, one well-known researcher set out to find the world’s funniest joke. Richard Wiseman asked people to submit their favourite joke (his team collected 40,000 of them) and over a million people rated the jokes for funniness. You can find the winning joke and runner-up on the Laughlab website. Most of the funniest jokes were simply stories about unexpected things happening. We’re expecting one resolution to a situation but the punch line delivers a funny and completely different ending. The surprise makes us laugh: it’s called the incongruity theory of laughter.

But research has shown often our laughter isn’t to do with anything even vaguely funny. One theory suggests laughing is about feeling superior. The person who has just slipped over and hurt themselves looks stupid. That makes us feel good (and superior) because unlike that person, we don’t look stupid. And so we laugh.

Have you ever laughed at a completely inappropriate time or place? A funeral perhaps? This sort of laughter is explained by the relief theory: we laugh to cope with stressful situations. Laughter releases nervous energy and helps us to feel better. Comic relief is a powerful thing. But the fact it’s normal to laugh at inopportune times still doesn’t explain why we’ve evolved to laugh.

It’s a social thing

Have you noticed that laughter is contagious? That’s why sitcoms always play the sound of people laughing at all the right moments. You are thirty times more likely to laugh if you’re with other people than if you’re alone. And it’s probably this social aspect that best explains why we laugh in the first place.

What we find funny is such a personal thing – but laughing at a joke signals we share beliefs or preferences with the joke teller. People are much more likely to disclose personal information after laughing with someone. Laughter promotes new relationships and laughing together with someone is a way to signal to each other and to other people ‘we have a bond’. Of course laughter can also be a sign of sexual interest between two people. How many online dating profiles talk about having and wanting a sense of humour?

You are laughing to show people that you understand them, that you agree with them, that you’re part of the same group as them. You’re laughing to show that you like them. Professor Sophie Scott

Research suggests we are highly tuned into the social signals contained in laughter. Our brains can tell the difference between genuine and forced, or polite laughter. And our brain responses suggest we attempt to understand how non-genuine laughers are feeling and why they might be laughing.

Fascinating research published earlier this year showed that we can work out if two people are friends or strangers simply by their laughter. Researchers recorded the laughter of pairs of American college students. In some cases the two students were good friends and in others, they had only just met. The researchers played these laughter recordings to almost 1000 listeners from 24 countries across five continents. All of the listeners were good at picking which laughter belonged to friends or strangers. It didn’t matter which culture they were from and it made no difference whether the listener spoke English. The sound of friends laughing is simply different.

Maybe laughter, not love, is the universal language.

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What do your fingers say about you?

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Anthropology / Health / Myths / Psychology

Have you ever had your palm read? I haven’t; I’m not convinced the lines on my palms can tell me anything whatsoever about who I am or how long I’m going to live. But look down at your hands. There’s something else staring you right in the face that genuinely can tell you about yourself: the relative lengths of your fingers. Seriously.

Is your index finger longer or shorter than your ring finger? Any why does it matter? Image credit: Yamashita Yohei via Flickr

Is your index finger longer or shorter than your ring finger? And why does it matter? Image credit: Yamashita Yohei via Flickr

Talk to the hand

The art of palm reading has been around for thousands of years. Palmistry began in India and purports to be able to describe your personality on the basis of the lines and marks on your palms. Not only that, palm readers claim to be able to predict the future, determining things like how many children you’ll have and how long you’ll live by studying your palms. You won’t be surprised to read I’m a sceptic. To the best of my knowledge, there’s zero evidence it works. Despite many claims to the contrary, there’s also no evidence fingerprints reveal our personalities. Does that mean any suggestion our hands contain information about our character and health is dodgy pseudoscience? Not so fast.

Look down at your hands. Look at the relative length of your index and ring fingers. Which is longer? And by how much? If you want to do this properly, grab a ruler and measure the length of your second and fourth fingers (for consistency, measure your right hand) from the crease where your finger joins your palm to the fingertip. Divide the length of your index finger by the length of your ring finger. That number is your very own personal 2D:4D ratio (D stands for digit). The relatively longer your ring finger, the lower your 2D:4D ratio. On average, men have lower ratios than women – the average for men is around 0.95 and for women, closer to 1. There’s plenty of solid evidence this ratio has a lot to say about you, particularly if you’re male. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

The long and the short of it

Among men, the 2D:4D ratio has been linked to everything from appearance and personality to risk-taking, success on the sports field and disease risk. For a start, men with relatively longer ring fingers (a lower 2D:4D ratio) tend to be better at sport and are considered more attractive by women. These men are also considered to be more physically aggressive. A study of male stock market traders found those with relatively longer ring fingers made more money, took more risks, were more vigilant, had quicker reaction times and stayed in the job longer than other men. Men with a lower 2D:4D ratio have been found to be on average nicer to women and to have more children. In case you’re wondering, yes, a man with a relatively longer ring finger is also likely to have a relatively longer penis.

A man with a relatively longer index finger (higher 2D:4D ratio) is more likely to have schizophrenia and suffer early heart disease. But he is less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer and is also less likely to have autism. There is also evidence for a link between digit ratio and sexual orientation: homosexual and bisexual men tend to have a higher 2D:4D ratio than heterosexual men.

The other half

Does the 2D:4D ratio have anything to say in women? As with men, there’s also evidence that females with relatively longer ring fingers have more athletic ability. These women also tend to have a better sense of direction than women with relatively longer index fingers and are also more likely to consider themselves assertive and competitive. Similarly, women who are feminist activists are also more likely to have a relatively longer ring finger.

There’s also been research into digit ratio in children. Among kids, those with relatively longer index fingers have more self-control and are more able to delay gratification. And children with longer index fingers get better scores in tests of reading and writing whereas those with relatively longer fourth digits have been found to perform better on assessments of maths ability.

Blame it on testosterone

How on earth could this work? It turns out to be quite simple. The relative lengths of your index and ring fingers are controlled by your exposure to sex hormones not long after you were conceived. Relatively longer fourth digit (low 2D:4D ratio) indicates higher exposure to testosterone while still in the womb, whereas a longer index finger indicates higher exposure to estrogen during the same period. To the best of our understanding, your relative finger lengths are like a signature of the hormones you were exposed to during this window of development about eight to fourteen weeks after you were conceived. A longer ring finger is a tag to say ‘testosterone was here’. And importantly, this digit ratio is pretty much set before birth and doesn’t change during puberty.

The key to understanding the digit ratio is that not only were your fingers developing during this time; so was your brain. Exposure to testosterone during this period of development promotes growth of the right side of your brain. The evidence suggests aspects of your personality were set before you were even born as a result of this hormone exposure. So what are you waiting for? Grab a ruler and work out your 2D:4D ratio.

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Seeing red: why do we blush?

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Evolution / Health / Myths / Psychology

Do you blush easily? Many of us blush when we feel embarrassed, ashamed, or nervous, generally when we least want to be noticed. It might happen when you meet someone new, receive a compliment or have to speak in front of a group. Why do our cheeks go red, and why can’t we control it? And do our red cheeks serve any purpose?

Why do we blush? Why do some of us blush more than others? And could blushing actually be useful? Image credit rebecca pedro via Flickr

Why do we blush? Why do some of us blush more than others? And could blushing actually be useful? Image credit rebecca pedro via Flickr

The puzzle of blushing

Back in 1872, Charles Darwin wrote a whole chapter about blushing and concluded:

Blushing is the most peculiar and most human of all expressions. Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals 

Darwin wrote letters to colony administrators and missionaries all over the world to find out the answer to one simple question: do all humans blush? The answer is yes, people of all ethnicities blush, although blushing is less visible on darker skin. Fascinatingly, blushing is one of the things that sets us apart from other animals: unlike most expressions, no equivalent has been found in any animal. It’s not that we can’t see an animal blushing under its fur or feathers; animals just don’t blush.

On the one hand, the process of the skin on our faces turning crimson isn’t terribly complicated. The muscles in the walls of your veins relax and allow more blood to flow. Blood flow to your skin is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system responsible for the fight or flight response). When this part of your nervous system is activated, the hormone adrenaline is released into your system. Adrenaline acts as a stimulant. Your heart rate goes up, your pupils dilate so you can take in as much visual information as possible. Your blood vessels dilate to improve blood flow and maximise the delivery of oxygen to your muscles. You’re all ready to put up a good fight or get the hell out of there.

I’m so embarrassed

But sometimes, the veins in your face also respond to the adrenaline, dilating and letting more blood flow through them than usual. This increased blood flow is responsible for the spreading crimson and warmth we call blushing and we have no conscious control over it. You can’t blush on command and neither can you stop blushing when you want to. The interesting thing is veins don’t normally respond to adrenaline: in other parts of your body, your veins don’t do much in the presence of adrenaline. There are other times when your cheeks may become flushed: after a couple of drinks at the pub or when you’re exercising, but these are different to what we call blushing.

So why do our cheeks go bright red? We don’t know for sure, but we do know there are specific triggers for blushing: we blush when we’re feeling embarrassed, ashamed or exposed. Blushing occurs when we are receiving unwanted social attention. It seems cruel that at the exact moment we wish the floor would swallow us up because we’re so embarrassed, our cheeks turn flame-red, drawing even more attention to ourselves. Fear of blushing (erythrophobia) is a recognised social phobia and causes enormous distress to sufferers. Research has shown people who fear blushing believe they will be judged negatively for blushing. Feeling anxious about being judged means blushing can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even being told we are blushing when we’re not can cause many of us to actually blush.

When blushing is a problem

Chronic blushing – when a person blushes more often and more obviously than most of us – is also a debilitating condition. About 5% of the population suffer from it and a quick read of an online support page reveals stories of sufferers feeling unable to leave the house. Chronic blushers blush in normal social situations that wouldn’t usually result in blushing, for example, in response to someone saying their name. There are a few different treatment options for chronic blushers: some sufferers use corrective make-up, others have success with medication, others find relief with cognitive behavioural therapy or hypnotherapy.

A more controversial response is surgery. Bilateral Endoscopic Thoracic Sympathectomy involves cutting the nerves responsible for blushing. These are the nerves that cause the veins in the face to dilate and are usually cut under the armpit. This surgery has mixed reviews: while many patients report it solves their blushing problem, some are unhappy. Because the nerves involved with blushing are also involved in sweating, some patients end up with a different, but equally unsettling problem. Post-surgery, patients are unable to sweat from the face, which can lead to excessive sweating in other parts of the body.

The benefits of blushing

All of this begs the question: why have we evolved to blush? Can there be any benefit to that hot glow of embarrassment most of us have experienced? Research suggests the answer is a definite yes. One study demonstrated we are more likely to trust people who are easily embarrassed. For example, we are far more likely to trust and want to hang out with someone who shows embarrassment rather than pride at being told they’ve done well on a test.

And what of blushing itself? A number of studies point to the fact blushing may have evolved as a way of signaling regret or remorse. Blushing signals we know we’ve done something wrong and we’re sorry. It’s reliable evidence of the fact we genuinely feel bad about having done something wrong because it can’t be faked. Because it’s out of your control, blushing is much more reliable than a verbal ‘sorry’. We trust and forgive people who blush more than those who don’t: a number of researchers believe blushing is an important part of the social glue that keeps human societies functioning.

So next time you feel that familiar warm glow of discomfort, try to remember there is an upside. You’re telling the world you can be trusted.

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Can animals count?

comments 2
History / Mathematics / Myths / Zoology

We’ve all heard about ‘clever’ animals. Chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins… there are plenty of examples of animals learning to use tools, communicate complex information and solve problems. But how about maths: can animals count?

A horse is a horse, of course, of course, that is of course unless the horse is the famous Clever Hans! Image: public domain

A horse is a horse, of course, of course, that is of course unless the horse is the famous Clever Hans! Image: public domain.

Clever Hans and Alex the African Parrot

Clever Hans, an Arabian stallion, was famous for his ability to count. Beginning in 1891, retired high school maths teacher William van Osten wowed European crowds with shows of Hans’ extraordinary abilities. When asked what two plus three equaled, Hans had no trouble giving the correct answer by the number of times he tapped his hoof. Many scientists observed Hans answering maths questions and couldn’t find any evidence of fraud or trickery. It wasn’t until 1907 that the truth was uncovered. Hans’ brilliance didn’t lie with his sums, but rather with his incredible ability to read human body language. Even his trainer wasn’t aware Hans would simply tap until tiny changes in the facial expressions or other body language of his observers indicated he had reached the correct number of taps. When his observers relaxed, Hans stopped tapping.

Unlike Clever Hans, Alex the African Grey Parrot appeared to have genuine mathematical ability. When he died aged 31, Alex could count up to eight and perform a variety of sums. For example, he could tell you that two plus one plus two jellybeans made five. Alex also had a vocabulary of more than 100 English words, which he could use correctly. No, he wasn’t just parroting them. Alex’s trainer says he also had an understanding of zero, which is more impressive than it might sound. Alex’s maths was on par with chimpanzees and other non-human primates and his abilities have been the focus of dozens of scientific papers.

Maths and mammals

It’s not surprising primates have been found to be top maths students in the animal world. Since the 1980s, many researchers have demonstrated the capacity of primates, particularly chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys, to do maths at a similar level to very young kids. This means not only being able to do basic adding up, but also understanding what zero is. Chimpanzees have no trouble learning to match an empty food tray with ‘zero’. Monkeys are also able to match the number of sounds they hear with the right number of objects. More recent research has focused on understanding what is actually going on inside a monkey’s head while doing sums.

What about other mammals; is it only primates who can learn maths? Not at all. Brutus the black bear can discriminate between larger and smaller numbers and dogs can count up to four or five. Like monkeys, elephants can rank small numbers in order and compare the answers of very simple sums. When lions hear the roars of other lions intruding into their territory, they decide to attack only if they outnumber them. Similarly, hyenas can tell the difference between one, two, or three intruders on the basis of calls. And if you’re concerned Clever Hans tarnished the mathematical reputation of all horses, don’t worry. We now know horses really can tell the difference between small numbers.

Counting crows

In the bird world, having some basic maths smarts isn’t limited to Alex the parrot. We’ve known for a long time crows are brainy: they use tools and solve problems. Crows can also learn to count – tell the difference between different numbers of dots. What’s more, researchers have worked out which brain cells are involved in the process. New Zealand robins watch researchers hide tasty beetle larvae in holes in logs and then immediately go to the hole where the largest number of larvae were stashed. If the scientists removed some of the larvae when the robins weren’t looking, the birds got agitated and kept searching: they knew they’d been tricked.

Newborn chicks, without any training, can tell the difference between a small number, and larger number of balls. American coots appear to count the number of eggs in their nest, as well as in the nest of birds around them. Even the humble pigeon can tell the difference between many (six or seven) and few (one or two) dots. In fact, in some maths tasks (like ranking numbers from smallest to largest), pigeons are just as good as monkeys.

Ants on stilts

There’s plenty of evidence you don’t even need a backbone to be able to count: invertebrates can do it too. Honeybees can count up to four objects they encounter while out searching for food. Ingenious experiments making use of tiny stilts showed that desert ants use a perception of number steps to find their way back home to their nest after searching for food. The researchers suggest the ants have something acting like a pedometer in their brains. Recent research showed that cuttlefish can accurately tell the difference between different numbers of tasty shrimp, up to the count of five.

Animals may not be doing long division but in many cases, they can count, or at least tell the difference between bigger and smaller numbers. We shouldn’t be surprised: whether an animal is searching for food, or working out how many enemies are invading, being able to tell the difference between more and less makes a lot of sense.

And hey, even plants can count. Venus flytraps decide whether to snap shut their traps and start producing a cocktail of enzymes to digest their prey on the basis of how many times their trigger hairs get touched. No point wasting energy on a false alarm.

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Just doodle it!

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Health / History / Myths / Psychology

Do you doodle? Sketch? Or like many people, were you told at some point you were bad at drawing and gave it up completely? While virtually all kids draw, few adults do. But there’s good evidence we should all pull out our coloured pencils: drawing and doodling improve focus and memory and can help us learn.

Do you doodle? Your ‘mindless’ scribbles could actually be helping your brain stay focused, process thoughts and retain Information. Image credit: Loes van Voorthuijsen via Flickr

Are you a doodler? Your ‘mindless’ scribbles could actually be helping your brain stay focused, process thoughts and retain information. Image credit: Loes van Voorthuijsen via Flickr

Is drawing a thing of the past?

In days gone by, drawing was an important and valued skill in a variety of jobs. Before cameras, printers, scanners and Flickr, if you wanted a picture of something, you drew it. And humans have been drawing for a long time: the oldest drawings we have found so far are on cave walls on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi. They date back more than 35,000 years.

In our own lives, drawing tends to be a big part of childhood but then peters out. Kids start scribbling at about two and from around the age of four, begin to draw shapes. By the age of seven, kids are accurately portraying the people, animals and scenes around them: kids in detention centres often draw fences and barbed wire. But by the age of nine or ten, many kids become critical of their drawings and declare ‘I’m no good at drawing’. When they discover they don’t have the skills to draw their reality accurately, many give up. There have been recent calls for drawing to be brought back into school curricula. The argument is that drawing is a learned skill and more of us would continue to draw if we were taught how to do it better.

Doodling is a long way from being a bad habit

Of course some adults do continue to draw. But often we draw during meetings, on the margins of the agenda papers. We try to hide the fact we’re drawing because we’re worried about the impression it creates. The thing is, we tend to think someone who’s doodling is not doing what they are supposed to be doing: that is, listening. Even the word doodle carries negative connotations. In the 18th century, to doodle meant to swindle or ridicule someone. A century later, a doodle was a corrupt politician.

The irony is we now know just how wrong many assumptions about doodling are. Doodles aren’t meaningless marks and doodling isn’t a waste of time. I’ve written before about the calming benefits of the colouring-in craze. And many people find doodling to be enjoyable and relaxing. But doodling is also a powerful way to improve listening, thinking, focus and concentration. We rarely set out to doodle; doodling is just what happens when our brains are processing information. There are a number of well-known instances of U.S Presidents doodling while making decisions.

One of the first studies that aimed to test whether doodling improves concentration asked people to listen to a monotonous telephone message. Their job was to listen out for the names of people coming to a party amongst lots of irrelevant information. Half of the listeners were asked to doodle: shade printed shapes while listening to the call. The rest had to listen without anything else to do. When they were given a surprise memory test, the doodlers remembered a third more names than those who had concentrated only on the message. The researchers believe doodling prevented the listeners from daydreaming and getting distracted.

Drawing to remember

Forget surprise memory tests: if you know you need to remember something, try drawing it. In one study, 14-year olds were given 850 words to read about the biology of flu. It was a hard read, and the students knew they were going to be tested on what they had learned. Importantly, half the students were asked to make a drawing to represent each of the seven paragraphs. The remainder simply read the text. When they were later tested on how much of the science they had understood and remembered, the drawers did way better. In a second experiment the same was true even when the reading-only group was given the text with drawings already provided. It was the act of drawing their own pictures that resulted in those students remembering what they had read. It seems science is now demonstrating what artists have known for a long time.

“When you draw an object, the mind becomes deeply, intensely attentive. And it’s that act of attention that allows you to really grasp something, to become fully conscious of it.”                 Designer Milton Glaser

In another series of experiments, researchers tested whether it was easier to memorise a series of words by writing or drawing. University students were given a list of easily-drawn words like ‘apple’. For each word, they students had 40 seconds to either draw the object, or write the word repeatedly. Later the students were given a minute to remember as many of the words as they could. The drawing students remembered twice as many words as the writing ones. Again, looking at pictures drawn by someone else didn’t have the same effect. Even when the students were only given four seconds for their drawings, these students had a huge advantage in later memory: the quality of the drawing didn’t matter.

So it doesn’t matter whether we think we’re any good at it or not. The time has come for us all to get doodling.

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Breaking bad… habits

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Got any bad habits? Smoking, biting your nails, compulsively checking your email or heading to the vending machine every day at 3pm? We’ve all got habits we’d like to break. Perhaps there are a few new habits you’d like to adopt too. What can science tell us about how to do it?

Breaking habits can be hard, so why not tackle them all at once? Image credit: via Flickr

Breaking habits can be hard, so why not tackle them all at once? Image credit: Vaping360 via Flickr

Your brain on autopilot

Ever arrived somewhere in your car and realised you have no memory of having driven there? Do you remember putting on your shoes this morning, or brushing your teeth? Probably not. There are plenty of times during the day that we act on autopilot. And this is precisely why habits are hard to break: we find ourselves doing the very thing we want to stop doing before we’ve even noticed we’re doing it. Habits are unbelievably powerful and account for about 40% of our behaviours on any given day.

Habits are deeply ingrained in our brains and changing them can prove extremely difficult. Rats that have been trained to seek out chocolate milk continue to do so even after a chemical is added to the milk that causes nausea. People who like to eat popcorn at the movies eat just as much even if it’s horribly stale. Breaking one habit means establishing a new one and despite many people claiming you can form a new habit in 21 days, a 2009 study found for some people it took more than 200 days.

Baby steps

The conventional wisdom on how to change habits is to take a gentle approach. If you want to lose your sweet tooth, cut back on sugar gradually rather than going cold turkey. Another popular recommendation is to tackle one habit at a time. The argument is that if you start small – exceedingly small – long-term change becomes far easier to achieve. Makes sense, right?

Except that maybe we are underestimating our capacity for change. Research published earlier this year suggests we may be up for a way bigger challenge. The researchers put a group of university students to the test. Before the experiment began, they gave the students a series of mental and physical tests, and scanned their brains. The students were split into two groups, one of which went about their daily lives.

The other group made major changes to many different parts of their lives. Every morning they spent an hour in a stretching, resistance training and balance class. Next they spent an hour learning meditation and other stress reduction techniques. In the afternoon they spent another hour and a half exercising and twice a week they did intense interval workouts. They also went to lectures about nutrition and sleep and kept daily records of their moods, diet and sleep patterns.

Does a major overhaul work?

After six weeks, the researchers asked the students to repeat the original tests. Unsurprisingly, there hadn’t been any change for the students who continued with their normal habits. But the group who overhauled their lives were happier, calmer, fitter, stronger, more flexible and improved their test results for thinking and memory. Their brain scans suggested these students were now much better able to focus on any particular task at hand. Six weeks later and the improvements were still there even though the students weren’t exercising or meditating as often.

This study has obvious flaws. For a start it only included a small number of people. And those of us with commitments like jobs and families are unlikely to be in a position to make such major changes to how we spend our time. They also didn’t have a group of people who changed just one daily habit to compare with. But the fact remains that with support and guidance, these students made concurrent and major changes to many of their daily habits.

The limits of the human capacity for change may be much greater than we, as scientists, have given people credit for.

Michael Mrazek, University of California

Despite its shortcomings, I think the study has something interesting to say. Under the right circumstances we may be far more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for. Rather than trying to make small and incremental changes, it may be that the best way to change bad habits is to unceremoniously dump them all at once.

Habits be gone

But if trying to change everything at once doesn’t appeal, there are a number of other strategies you can try. There are still plenty of people advocating for the “start so small you can’t fail” approach. Other people like the Pavlok (yes, it was named after Pavlov of drooling dog fame), a device you wear on your wrist to give yourself a painful electric shock every time you slip back into old habits.

There’s also evidence that simply walking a different route to work may be enough to break your habit of stopping by the bakery for a bagel every morning. You just have to interrupt your autopilot. And of course like everything else these days, there are apps to help you keep track of your habits.

Some of the most striking evidence for habit change comes from mindfulness research. When it comes to quitting smoking, mindfulness training was twice as good as other quit programs. Mindfulness can also help with emotional eating, checking your phone while driving and other addictive behaviours. The key is to notice your compulsion to do certain things and become curious about what’s going on in your body and mind at the time.

I’ll take being curious and aware over an electric shock any day.

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Gotta spot ’em all!

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Ecology / Myths / Psychology / Zoology

Can’t get enough of Pokémon Go? There’s no shortage of people glued to their screens desperate to catch a Snorlax or Vaporeon. At the same time, thousands of people are hooked on Wildlife Spotter: a National Science Week project that involves spotting real animals. Why is the search for these real and imaginary creatures so addictive?

Thousands of citizen scientists are identifying animals from millions of iamges taken by automated cameras across Australia. But why is it so addictive? Image credit: Stebbing via Flickr

Thousands of citizen scientists are identifying animals from millions of images taken by automated cameras across Australia. But why is it so addictive? Image credit: Stebbing via Flickr

When you don’t know what you’re going to get

Back in the 1950s, psychologist B. F. Skinner made a fascinating discovery. Inside a Skinner Box, lab rats had learned to press a lever to get food. Rats that received the same amount of food each time they pressed the lever pressed it regularly in order to get their treat. But in a different experiment, things became less predictable for the rats. Despite pressing the same lever in the same way, sometimes the rats got a tiny treat and other times they got a big one. At other times, the rats got nothing at all. You might think these rats would get frustrated and give up. Quite the opposite: rats that couldn’t predict what treat they were going to get ended up pressing the lever obsessively.

Research ever since has shown rewards that are unpredictable, or variable, affect us profoundly. It’s the times we don’t know what we’re going to get that we seek out a reward most compulsively. If you think I’m talking about playing the pokies, that’s a good example. No one can never predict when, or how much they’re going to win. But someone wins just often enough to keep everyone coming back for more.

An unexpected reward has much more power in driving behavior than one that is regular. This has been known for a very long time.

– Nora Volkow, Head of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Dopamine made me do it

Even if you’ve never put a coin in a slot machine, I’m guessing you’ve still experienced the power of variable rewards. Ever found yourself compulsively checking your email? Facebook? Twitter? It’s the same deal. Every time you refresh your inbox, there’s a chance you’ll find a new and exciting email. Every time you check, it’s possible someone – or lots of people – will have liked or commented on something you posted. But it’s very hard to predict which of your photos, posts or tweets will be the popular ones. You just never know. And that’s what keeps you checking again and again.

Our reward-seeking behaviour is driven largely by the chemical messenger dopamine. Dopamine has lots of functions in our brains, including playing a role in our perception of rewards. When we get a reward, dopamine systems in our brains are activated and as a result, dopamine motivates us to seek out more rewards. Dopamine is released in our brains in response to lots of pleasurable things like social contact, eating food and listening to music. Explaining our love of social media, research has shown that our dopamine system also activates when we share information about ourselves. Self-affirmation also appears to activate our brain’s reward pathways. Dopamine leads us to anticipate rewards and is particularly stimulated by the unpredictable rewards we’ve just been talking about.

Wildlife Spotter

What does all this have to do with spotting wildlife? I’ll explain shortly.

Wildlife Spotter is the ABC’s National Science Week Citizen Science Project for 2016. It asks the public to help scientists in their efforts to conserve Australia’s precious native animals. One of the exciting ways wildlife researchers can work out where particular animals occur is using camera traps. These are remotely-triggered cameras that are motion sensitive. So when an animal moves, the camera snaps a photo of it, day or night. Camera traps allow scientists to keep an eye on their research sites 24-hours a day for months, or even year at a time. This is particularly beneficial in a country the size of Australia where much of the wildlife we want to monitor lives in remote areas.

There are two downsides to this otherwise brilliant technology. One: the cameras are very sensitive, so even leaves swaying in a breeze can prompt the camera to snap an image. This means plenty of camera trap images don’t have any animals in them at all. Two: partly as a result of downside one, and also because of the long periods of time camera traps can operate, researchers end up with enormous numbers of camera trap images they need to look at.

This is where citizen scientists come in: members of the public who are keen to volunteer their time to assist scientists from around Australia who have contributed their camera trap images to Wildlife Spotter. Since Wildlife Spotter was launched just over two weeks ago, around 26,000 people have identified nearly 700,000 animals in 570,000 photos. These are some extremely impressive numbers.

Spotting ’em all

Why has Wildlife Spotter captivated so many people? I think it’s because of the random nature of the reward. Camera traps give us a fascinating insight into a world we would otherwise never get to see: what animals do when we’re not around. But you never know what you’re going to get. With each new image that appears on your screen you may see a common animal like an emu or wombat. Or you may get to spot a rare and threatened animal like a bettong, malleefowl or bandicoot. But you may also see nothing more than some trees and grass. You just never know. And that’s what keeps you looking at a new photo again and again.

So if you’re a keen Pokémon Go player, how about switching your allegiance for a few hours (or days) and using your keen spotting skills to help conserve Australia’s wildlife? You might just find it even more rewarding.


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Remembering what never happened

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Do you often forget things? Wish you had a better memory? Me too. But there’s a far more sinister way your memory may be failing you. Being positive you remember an event is no guarantee it ever happened.

Could your memory be fooled into believing you had taken a ride on this balloon, just from the photograph? Balloon image credit Jayson via Flickr

Could you be fooled into believing you had taken a ride on this balloon? Balloon image credit Jayson via Flickr

Your memory is fickle

It’s tempting to think our memories work like video recorders: faithfully recording our surroundings, thoughts and feelings. We can accept our brains might not have room for everything, so we only end up holding onto the most important, (or traumatic, or embarrassing) bits. But do our brains construct entirely made-up memories? Sometimes, yes.

It’s not surprising our recollections of past events can be hazy and that we get small details wrong. For example, seven weeks after the event itself, a researcher asked people about their memories of September 11, 2001. Among other questions, was “on September 11th, did you see the videotape on television of the first plane striking the first tower?” Three-quarters were confident they remembered watching the footage on that day. Seems reasonable, except that the footage wasn’t actually aired until a day later. A tiny detail, but a good illustration of the way we misremember events.

Research has shown we constantly fill in the gaps between real pieces of memory, and along the way we make assumptions, and plenty of mistakes. We construct our memories, without even being aware we’re doing it. Emotional memories may be more accurate, but no memories are immune to contamination. Memories that are not quite right might lead to arguments with our loved ones, and probably won’t serve us well at trivia night. But at least our memories always vaguely resemble the truth. Right? Wrong!

The question isn’t whether our memories are false, it’s how false are our memories. Dr Julia Shaw, psychologist.

How was your balloon ride?

Far more unsettling than misremembering some aspects of a real-life event is remembering an event that never took place. Researchers now know exactly how to implant a false memory. It turns out to be an easy-to-follow recipe, particularly successful when applied to people who are ‘prone to suggestion’. What sort of false memories can you implant? Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to lead people to recall small, made-up details about a real event they witnessed. Hey, most of us have trouble recalling the small details of our lives anyway.

But under the right circumstances, you can lead people to create wholly fake memories. Psychologists showed people doctored photos of themselves in a hot air balloon. They followed up with guided imagery and voila: half of the study participants had memories of the completely fictitious balloon ride. Researchers also successfully got people to remember they had accidently spilled a bowl of punch on the parents of the bride at a wedding reception, despite the fact it never happened.

Participants in another study were asked to recall as many details as they could about childhood events – one that was entirely made up, involving being lost at the shops. About 30 percent of the study participants later recalled being lost, some creating specific details about a kind adult who had helped them. Recollections of the fake event were less detailed than those of real events but nonetheless, these people were convinced the event had happened.

Did you commit the crime? (Are you sure?)

Can you imagine ever confessing to a crime you didn’t commit? Seems unlikely, but research has shown how easily it can happen. In one experiment, people were falsely accused of making a computer crash by pressing the wrong key during a study supposedly about reaction times. All of those accused were completely innocent. Initially, all denied the charge. But after a witness admitted to having seen it happen, many signed a confession, felt guilty and went on to form their own memories of the ‘crime’.

In another study, seventy per cent of people became convinced that as teenagers, they had committed an assault with a weapon, which led to an encounter with the police. Half of these recounted specifics of their dealings with the police. A little bit of suggestion from someone with authority goes a long way.

And of course, witnesses aren’t immune to false memories. In a series of experiments back in the 1970s, students were shown images depicting an accident between a car and pedestrian. These students were then exposed to further information about the accident: either true (the car had been at a stop sign), or misleading (the car had been at a give way sign). The results showed witnesses integrated this additional information into their memory of the event. Those who had been given the suggestion tended to claim they’d seen a give way sign.

Given how powerful confessions are, what does all this mean for our legal system? Plenty. In particular, that the questioning of suspects (and witnesses) must be done very, very carefully.

Will the real memory please raise its hand?

How can you tell the difference between real and false memories? With great difficulty. Because once they’ve taken hold in your brain, false memories and real memories are pretty much indistinguishable. Corroboration is your best bet so if you want to be sure something really happened, you need reliable witnesses to validate your memories for you.

A good reason to make sure you’ve got at least one friend with an excellent memory.

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