Can you do maths in your sleep?

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Imagine waking up in the morning, drunk with sleep, and remembering a wonderful dream. But what if you’d been aware you were dreaming and you could have interacted with your surroundings while you were asleep? Recently, and for the very first time, researchers revealed that this is in fact possible: they were able to communicate with people who were asleep and dreaming.

Share the love: this post was written by University of Melbourne Science Communication student Isolde Gottwald.

A woman is asleep and part of her face and brown hair is visible - her head is on a brown pillow and she os covered by a brown blanket. Part of a window covered by a brown blind is visible behind the pillow.
What goes on in your dreams? Image by Lux Graves on Unsplash.

The nature of dreams and sleep

What makes dream research so complex is the delay between someone dreaming, and reporting what they remember of the dream, which is often also distorted. You can probably relate to having a fragmentary picture of your dreams as soon as you wake up. While asleep, you’re generally unaware of your surrounding environment and unable to perceive or respond to anything going on around you. When you sleep deeply for example, you normally don’t notice when someone opens the door or quietly walks past. Some of you might have experienced what is called lucid dreaming: being aware of the fact you’re dreaming and being able to control your dream. What emerges as a promising strategy in dream research is the investigation of lucid dreamers. According to a new study, lucid dreamers (might) have the potential to perceive and respond to the world around them.

Every second person has dreamt, or will dream, lucidly at some point in their lives. Whereas only about 20% of us experience lucid-dreams regularly. We normally have many different dreams each night. The most vivid dreams occur during a specific recurring sleep phase, which is called the REM phase. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement and deserves its name: while we sleep our bodies are paralysed, which means that we can’t move. Instead, only our breathing muscles and eyes move – rapidly. This is the sleep stage of sleep the researchers had a closer look at.

How to enter someone’s dreams

Four research groups from France, Germany, the Netherlands, and US independently investigated 36 people –  some of whom had experienced lucid dreaming – but all of whom remembered at least one of their dreams each week. Researchers first helped the participants to experience a lucid dream, and then trained them to recognise if they were dreaming lucidly. There are a  number of techniques to learn lucid dreaming, and most of them focus on developing the ability to regularly ask yourself if you’re currently dreaming. 

In this study, participants had to look quickly from left to right while asleep to indicate they were lucid dreaming. The researchers then gave the study participants instructions on how to respond to simple questions while asleep. Some of them were trained to answer in facial muscle expressions or eye movements that matched Morse code. They used simple yes or no questions, as well as easy maths problems.

Surprisingly, – and this can certainly be considered a breakthrough in dream research – 20% were able to give correct answers. They not only recognised the questions and processed the information, but also responded in the way they’d been taught. But the 20% only included people who experienced lucid dreams. 

If you’re wondering about the sort of maths problems some of the lucid dreamers were able to solve, here’s an example: eight minus six. A 19-year-old American participant gave the correct answer by moving his eyes twice from the left to the right. To be sure that this was not simply a coincidence, scientists asked the question a second time and the participant again responded correctly. These eye movements were clearly different from classic eye movements during REM sleep. What makes these findings so remarkable is that in each of the four labs involved in the study, the researchers had a real-time dialogue with the sleeping study participants.

Who is narrating your dreams?

When the participants were awake again, the experimenters asked them about their dreams. Someone remembered they had heard the questions coming from the radio playing in their dreams. Another reported that ‘In my dream, I was at a party and I heard you asking questions. I heard your voice as if you were a God. Your voice was coming from the outside, just like a narrator of a movie.’ Many reported that they perceived the questions as being somehow integrated into their dreams. 

These findings deliver groundbreaking insights into dream research and highlight its potential. Scientists believe that interactive dreaming could help people dealing with anxiety, trauma or depression. It could also inspire artists and writers and promote creativity. Because of its magic and fascinating aspects, dreaming has been studied for a really long time, dating back to Aristotle. This research brings us closer to a deeper understanding of dreams and new ways to investigate them.

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The art of climate change conversations

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Environment / Myths / Psychology

With recent reports of the hottest day ever recorded in Antarctica and Australia’s summer of extreme bushfires, it’s hard not to feel anxious and overwhelmed by the climate crisis.  If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering what personal action you can take that will actually make a difference. There are many things we can all do, and research shows simply having conversations about climate change is one of them.

Are conversations part of the solution? Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash.

How we feel about climate change

Climate change is rapidly taking centre stage as the issue of most concern to many of us. In the US, 56% of adults say climate change is the most important issue facing society today. In Australia, 64% believe we should have a national target for net-zero emissions by 2050. Sixty percent of Australians believe ‘climate change has been established as a serious problem and immediate action is necessary.’

At the same time, many of us feel anger and dismay about the lack of action our governments are taking and the business-as-usual approach we see all around us.

Of course, collective and governmental action is essential if we hope to achieve the targets set by the Paris agreement: limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. But individual action is also going to be a crucial part of meeting this target.

There are many straightforward and relatively simple actions each of us can take to reduce our impact on the planet. Eating less red meat, flying less, walking and cycling more, reducing food waste and embracing slow fashion are all genuinely useful things you can do. But it turns out talking about climate change is also a meaningful contribution to change.

Talking the talk

Given the huge impacts of climate change today and into the future, you would expect us all to be talking about it. Surprisingly, that’s not the case. Surveys show very few of us engage in conversations about climate change, for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, people say ‘it never comes up’, ‘we already agree’ or ‘I don’t know enough about the science’. This lack of conversation has been termed the Spiral of silence. In the US, only one-third of people say they talk about climate change at least occasionally.

But it turns out having a deep understanding of the science of climate change is not a requirement for effective conversations. And who should we be talking to? Surveys show friends and family are one of our most trusted sources for climate change information so that is a great place to start. We trust our peers, friends and family more than experts!

Research published last year found that talking with friends and family about climate change led people to learn new influential information, such as the fact scientists agree human-caused climate change is real. The more people were aware of this scientific consensus, the more they were likely to believe in the fact that climate change is real and human-caused. In turn, the more they were likely to see climate change as a cause for concern and something we need to take action on.

The researchers also identified a positive feedback loop: the more people were aware of the overwhelming scientific agreement that climate change is real and caused by us, the more people wanted to talk about it.

Talking with sceptics

Having a chat with often like-minded friends and family doesn’t sound too difficult, but what if your goal is to help shift the views of a climate change denier? Or if you unexpectedly find yourself speaking with a sceptic and you want to encourage them to be more open to the evidence?

We know that these conversations can be incredibly difficult because on the one hand, deniers doubt the evidence. On the other hand, those of us who accept that human-driven climate is real can’t fathom the inability of others to accept the scientific consensus.

There’s a strong general understanding that the facts of climate change don’t speak for themselves, at least not to everyone. Confirmation bias – where we take on board information that supports the views we already hold, but disregard other information – is extremely common. But research out last year suggests a useful approach: reinforcing someone’s belief in science more generally can be a powerful way to begin a conversation about climate change.

Researchers gave study participants a brief survey to explore their belief in science. For half of the participants, the survey included only questions about climate change. But for the other half, the survey first asked other questions to explore their belief in science, for example: ‘How credible is the medical data that germs are a primary cause of disease?’ and ‘How certain are you that physicists’ theory of gravity accurately explains why objects fall when dropped?’

Those who answered these general questions first were more likely to report a greater belief in climate science in response to the later questions. If we can get people to focus on the science they find credible, it becomes harder for them to deny the facts of climate science.

The art of conversation

Extensive research into climate change communication means we know a lot about how to have more effective conversations about climate change.

We know it’s important to find common ground and shared values and to listen carefully to others’ points of view. When having a conversation, focus on the other person’s experiences, hopes and fears and ask lots of questions. Emphasise the ways climate change is affecting us all now: it’s no longer a distant threat.

You don’t need to be able to explain all the science: the crucial information to share is that scientists agree climate change is real, caused by us and is a serious threat. And try to focus on the benefits of taking action, rather than all the possible negatives you could talk about.

If you’d like to practice your conversation skills and get feedback on your approaches to talking about climate change, visit the Suzuki Foundation’s chatbot CliMate. And if you’d like to make your own promise for a more sustainable future, visit I Promise to Act.


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The sound and the fury in misophonia

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Does the sound of eating, a pen clicking or finger tapping grate on your nerves? We dig into the unusual phenomenon of why some people are enraged by everyday sounds.

Hearing other people eat can be triggering for some. Photo credit: Henrique Felix on Unsplash.

Picture this: the person sitting across from you at a communal table is enjoying their meal – really enjoying it by the sound of it. You try to ignore it but you can’t stop your eyes zeroing in on their mouth. Every smack and slurp makes your stomach roil and you can feel your hackles rise. “Don’t they know how annoying they’re being?” you fume internally. Sound familiar?

An extremely odd response

Misophonia, a.k.a. selective sound sensitivity syndrome, is described as the unusually intense, negative emotional experience to specific, normally harmless sounds experienced by some people.

People who experience misophonia – ‘misophonics’ –  are commonly triggered by other people’s breathing noises, lip smacking during eating, drinking, pen clicking, tapping and typing. Some people can also be triggered by rhythmic visual stimuli, for example legs swinging or watching someone chew. Note that misophonia is different to what people feel in response to almost universally-discomforting sounds, such as fingernails scraping on a blackboard or screaming.

Self-reports of misophonia are quite common (about 1 in 5) but in reality, less than 1 in 10 people experience responses intense enough to cause significant disturbance to their everyday lives. It greatly affects their ability to concentrate on tasks as well as engage in normal social interactions such that they may even withdraw from society. When surveyed, misophonics typically say these experiences started in childhood or adolescence.

Misophonics respond to trigger sounds with a range of negative emotions including disgust but the most common response is anger. Over time, the stress they feel can further induce anxiety and panic and they avoid situations where they may be exposed to triggers. During an episode, sufferers experience physical symptoms that indicate arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which is the one responsible for our ‘fight-or-fight’ responses. They experience muscle tension and increased heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature.

Short-term coping strategies vary from trying to block out the sound (e.g. with headphones), being physically aggressive with the offender, confronting them to stop, to even mimicking the offender to reduce their irritation. The last one is interesting because misophonics don’t have the same negative responses when they themselves make the sounds that usually trigger them.

Not just imagining things

It was only in the early 2000s that misophonia was given a name and considered worthy of scientific research. But its physiological effects on individuals are very much real, as researchers have found using the skin conductance response test to measure sweating: an indicator of the activation of the fight-or-flight nervous system.

So why do misophonics react the way they do?

We know abnormal hearing isn’t the cause of their woes. Misophonics have normal hearing thresholds and respond to typical unpleasant sounds with the same annoyance that other people do. Misophonics aren’t more angry than other people until they’ve been exposed to their trigger. Instead, brain imaging studies suggest that it’s the unusual way their brains learn to associate emotions with hearing trigger sounds.

A breakthrough study by British researchers in 2018 found that a brain region called the anterior insular cortex (AIC) functions differently in misophonics. The AIC integrates information from both inside and outside the body as well as processes emotion. It is connected to the ‘salience network’, a group of areas in the frontal lobe of the brain, which also help process and regulate our emotions, for example by picking out what’s worth responding to.

In misophonics, trigger sounds increase brain activity in both the AIC and salience network whereas in other people, increased activity is seen in AIC but the salience network’s activity is decreased. The structure of the frontal lobe is also different in sufferers.

Back tracking even further in the brain processing stages, later research argues that misophonics have an exaggerated activation of the flight-or-fight system to unpleasant sounds in general. This may make them pay more attention than normal to potentially-triggering sounds.

Mind over matter? Towards treatment

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have any effective treatment for misophonics. A big part of the problem is that misophonia still isn’t recognised as an official disorder. There isn’t even a list of diagnostic criteria that is universally agreed upon by researchers. Another complication is that people with misophonia often also have other conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette syndrome.

Despite this, case studies show that psychological treatments can work for misophonia, in particular cognitive behavioural therapy. Patients are trained to focus on neutral sounds and do mindfulness/relaxation exercises. Treating misophonia with drugs is another but little-explored option.

So, in the meanwhile, don’t hold your breath – or breathe too loudly!

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Rethinking daydreaming

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Your mind often escapes when you’re in a boring meeting or washing the dishes. Previously considered undesirable and unhealthy, science has come around to the silver linings of letting our thoughts drift.

Losing yourself in thought ain’t so bad. Image credit: Wes Hicks on Unsplash.

Driven to distraction (in a good way)

Daydreaming, otherwise called mind-wandering or self-generated thought, often gets a bad rap as something indulgent, unwanted and unproductive. It distracts us from the task immediately at hand and can result in errors. In extreme cases, called maladaptive daydreaming, the behavior can severely impair important functions in everyday life.

Yet research conducted in normal adults show we engage in it anywhere between 3050% of the time in our daily lives. One study found that the only activity during which our mind wanders less than 30% of the time is sex. Even rats engage in mind-wandering.

These observations have convinced scientists of the benefits to letting your thoughts drift. They’ve shown several advantages, including: greater creativity to solve problems, consolidation of memories, opportunity to form a sense of self-identity and continuity over time. Daydreaming enhances socioemotional skills e.g. empathy and also learning by giving us a brief break from tasks.

In healthy people, tests have shown mind-wandering is positively linked to fluid intelligence (ability to reason and think flexibly) and openness to experience (curiosity and exploration of ideas). In turn, openness to experience is a strong predictor of creative achievement.

What happens in our brains when we daydream?

Self-generated thought is most likely to happen when we’re engaged in an undemanding external task, like waiting for the bus.

Our human condition is such that we are forever in the situation of deciding how much attention to give to self-generated thought and how much to information from the external social or physical environment.

Jerome L. Singer

Focusing on an external task and consciously processing our environment makes use of our brain’s executive control network, which is responsible for impulse control and goal-oriented thinking. By contrast, our default mode network (DMN) is switched on when we’re not actively attending to anything.  The executive control network and DMN are usually described as being in a tug-of-war with one another. Scientists think that daydreaming occurs when the balance is tilted towards the DMN.

You might think that the brain’s activity would be minimal when DMN is ‘winning’ i.e. when you’re daydreaming. But it’s during this time that the DMN performs ‘housekeeping’ duties like sorting out memories, thinking of the future, and categorising new information. Accordingly, brain imaging studies show many brain areas are active, with some even more so than when performing tasks. Daydreaming also recruits additional brain regions, such as the insula, which is involved in awareness of our body’s internal functions as well as emotions.   

Content and timing matters

As far back as the 1960s, American psychologist Jerome L. Singer recognised that not all wandering thoughts were bad. Since then, scientists have identified two major influences on whether or not daydreaming is beneficial.

One factor is content.

Mind-wandering allows us to ‘time travel’ and reinterpret past experiences when we receive new information. However, repetitive negative self-generated thoughts (‘rumination’) about the past is linked with depression and anxiety. In contrast, daydreaming about the future and weighing possible options, can be helpful since it can lead to better economic and moral choices that rely on patience instead of impulse. Envisioning failure can even motivate us to avoid it.

The other crucial factor is timing.

Obviously, drifting off to la-la-land is bad when you need to pay attention to a difficult task, have an imminent deadline or when the external environment is risky e.g. crossing the road. (Although, some scientists say that if you can stay on-task but simultaneously mind-wander, it may be a sign that you have a greater working memory capacity – a more ‘efficient’ brain.)

But there are some situations when a drifting mind is good.

Science advocates that when solving a problem requiring creative thinking, you can achieve better results by letting your thoughts stray while doing an undemanding task. For me, it’s when I’m showering or brushing my teeth. This strategy is better than working through the problem non-stop, simply resting, or engaging in another demanding task.

Interestingly, not all daydreaming is unintentional – about half the time we allow it to happen.

Scientists think it is the ability to restrict when mind-wandering occurs – to deliberately allow it only during undemanding situations – is the key to success. In an investigation of 274 college students, those that could focus during demanding tasks but reported frequent daydreaming in other situations, tended to be intelligent and were higher achievers. In fact, brain imaging in people who intentionally daydream has revealed they have better connectivity between (and perhaps control of) their brains’ executive control network and DMN…  blah blah blah…

… Have you drifted off amid all this science talk? Well now you have good reason(s) to. Happy daydreaming!

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Time flies, but why?

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Time is meant to be one of the few completely reliable and objective things in life. But it seems to slow down when we are afraid — think of a slow-motion car crash. And time flies when we’re having fun. Why is it that time seem to pass more quickly the older we get? Does our ability to assess the passing of time change as we age?

Do the days feel like they’re racing past faster and faster? Photo by Image by Eduin Escobar from Pixabay

I remember vividly as a child the last few days before Christmas seemed to last an eternity. And on the morning of my 8th birthday party, it felt impossible that I would have to wait until afternoon to see my friends.

At the same time, although I feel like I “just” had my son, it won’t be too long before he’s at high school. And even though in my mind I was an undergraduate student until very recently, I am now teaching undergrads who hadn’t even been born when I started uni. What on earth is going on?

I have hopefully become wiser with age, but that doesn’t mean I’ve learned to disrupt the space-time continuum. It clearly comes down to my perception of time.

We know our perceptions of time change as a result of all sorts of factors. When we feel rejected, or depressed, time seems to slow down. Experiments confirm that when we feel genuinely frightened, we also perceive time to pass slowly. But when listening to music, time seems to go faster.

As we age, people across all cultures share the feeling that time speeds up. Psychologists and philosophers have been trying to explain this phenomenon for at least 130 years.

We all feel time passes quickly

A number of studies report that in fact people of all ages feel time passes quickly. Researchers have asked people of different ages how quickly they feel time has passed during the previous week, month, year and decade. But the only clear age-related pattern is that the older the person, the more likely they are to say that the last 10 years had passed quickly. Over shorter time-scales, people of different ages have similar perceptions of the speed of time passing.

But researchers have identified that regardless of age, the more time-pressured we feel, the more likely we feel the days, weeks and months are passing too fast. This is closely linked to a perception of not having enough time to do all the things we want to do and is true of people in a variety of Western cultures.

Why do we feel like time is racing away from us?

Scientists have a number of different theories. One is called the ‘proportionality theory’. This simply argues that a year seems to pass much faster when you are 40 than when you are four because it constitutes only one fortieth of your life, rather than a whole quarter.

Many theories have to do with how many novel experiences we have at different stages of life. The idea is the first time we experience something, our brains store lots of information about it. This results in our memories of an event being very rich and dense. So upon thinking back to childhood experiences, the many vivid memories we have give the impression that these memories must have formed over a very long time.

The reason we remember our youth so well is that it is a period when we have more new experiences than in our thirties or forties. It’s a time for firsts — first sexual relationships, first jobs, first travel without parents, first experience of living away from home, the first time we get much real choice over the way we spend our days. Claudia Hammond

In contrast, when our days are somewhat indistinguishable from one another, when we are following the same daily routines (as is more common later in life), passages of time seem to go faster. As adults we generally have fewer new experiences that imprint on our minds.

Each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse. William James (1890)

How can we slow life down?

If you feel like life is escaping you and passing by far too fast for comfort, the answer may be to fill your time with new experiences. Going to new places and learning new things may very effectively slow down our internal sense of time.

Slowing down and feeling under less time pressure could also help. My favourite solution of all is to have more holidays — a combination of reducing time pressure and maximising new experiences. Although at the time a great holiday may seem to be over all too fast, as we look back we feel like we’ve been away from the daily grind for a long time.

A holiday in the name of research? Yes please.

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Blame it on the full moon

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Astronomy / Health / Myths / Psychology

Tomorrow is Halloween, which leads to thoughts of ghosts, witches, vampires and scary pumpkin faces. But year round, many people believe a full moon is linked with other spooky stuff. Crime rates, psychiatric hospital admissions, emergency room visits, dog bites, sporting injuries and hyperactivity in kids are all said to increase during a full moon. Is there any truth to the rumours?

Do strange things happen when there’s a full moon? Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

Bad moon rising

Also known as the Transylvania Effect, the idea that people behave erratically during a full moon is not a new one. Aristotle and Pliny the Elder both suggested that because the human brain is so moist, it responds to the same pull of the moon that drives our tides (which we now know not to be true). In psychiatrist Arnold Lieber’s 1978 bestseller, How the Moon Affects You, he also argued that because our bodies are mostly water, the moon has a strong influence on us. How strong an influence? The story goes that in 19th Century England, lawyers could invoke the defence ‘not guilty by reason of the full moon’. I doubt any lawyers argued their clients had metamorphosed into drooling werewolves, but the argument is clear: under a full moon, people are no longer in control of their behaviour. And we can thank the Roman goddess of the moon, Luna, for the words lunatic and lunacy.

Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? But belief in the Transylvania Effect is alive and well. One survey found 43% of US college students believed people were more likely to behave strangely on a full moon night. The same study found mental health professionals were more likely to believe this than people working in other areas. In another survey, 80% of emergency department nurses and 64% of emergency department doctors believed the moon affected behaviour. Ninety-two percent of the nurses said they found working on the night of a full moon was more stressful, and they should be paid more for working those shifts.

The moon made me do it

In 2007, police in the UK employed more staff to be on patrol on full moon nights claiming ‘Research carried out by us has shown a correlation between violent incidents and full moons’. There are thousands of published research papers exploring the link between the phase of the moon and a huge variety of events and behaviours. The most striking thing about all this research is the almost complete lack of evidence for the moon having any effect on us.

Despite the fact many people believe the time of the full moon is the worst for undergoing surgery, there is no evidence a full moon affects the outcomes of heart surgery, the rate of surgical complications, levels of post-operation nausea and vomiting or post-operative pain. Professional soccer players are no more likely to be injured when playing or training during a full moon. There is no evidence for increased crisis centre calls during full moons and no link between moon phase and frequency of epileptic seizures. Research shows no increase in emergency department admissions or calls for ambulances during a full moon, nor do more people see doctors for anxiety or depression. There is also no relationship between moon phase and birth rates.

Research has found no link between the phase of the moon and psychiatric hospital admissions. A full moon doesn’t lead to increased violence in psychiatric settings, nor is there evidence for a link between moon phase and suicides or suicide attempts. No link has been found between full moons and traffic accidents, and dog bites requiring hospitalisation occur no more often during a full moon than at any other time. Kids aren’t more hyperactive at the full moon, and there are no more murders or other crimes when the moon is full.

The full (moon) truth

If nothing else, research over the past 50 years has provided us with a detailed list of all the human behaviours not influenced by the phase of the moon. Given the lack of evidence, why does the myth persist? It may simply be the result of illusory correlation – if something unusual happens on the night of a full moon, we are more likely to take note and remember it than when nothing unusual happens under a full moon. Confirmation bias probably also plays a role: if you already believe in the Transylvania Effect, you’ll pay particular attention to any information that supports your belief.

But there’s another intriguing possibility. We have some evidence people sleep a little less on full moon nights. One study found people slept an average of 19 minutes less during a full moon; another study recorded a decrease of 25 minutes of sleep on these nights. Study volunteers took longer to fall asleep and slept less deeply at the time of the full moon, even when they couldn’t see the moon and didn’t know the moon was full. They also complained of feeling less rested on waking after a full moon.  A 2-year study of nearly 6000 children living on five continents found kids also slept a little less on nights with a full moon.

Perhaps this is the source of the myth. In times gone by, before our body clocks were under the influence of electric lights and screen time, a full moon may have been very disruptive to sleep. Researchers have suggested the Transylvania Effect may have its root in the fact someone suffering bipolar or a seizure disorder may be highly susceptible to mania at times of sleep deprivation.

Seems plausible but fortunately I don’t think we’ll be hearing the defence ‘not guilty by reason of not having had quite enough sleep last night’ anytime soon.

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Is it just me, or is it the Barnum Effect?

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

Let me tell you about yourself: You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.

Neither they, nor I, can really read your mind. Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash.


Did you read the above statements and think they were eerily accurate?

Here’s the catch – they weren’t written about you.

These generic descriptions, called Barnum statements, could be about anyone regardless of their age, gender or nationality. If you were fooled, you wouldn’t be alone.

The unsuspecting millions

The phenomenon you just witnessed underlies the enduring popularity of astrology, psychics, tarot readers and faith healers – despite what scientists have to say.

Roughly 90% of surveyed people know their star sign. Most identify with the broad personality traits ‘bestowed’ by their Zodiac. For example, Sagittarians agree that they’ve been incurably bitten by the travel bug. Or, that it’s valid to excuse your stubbornness on the account of being a Taurus. Yet if you give people 12 unlabelled Zodiac personality descriptions, the probability that they correctly pick their own is no more likely than chance.

You’re so vain; you probably think this song is about you

The Barnum effect refers to the tendency to believe vague personality descriptions that are presented to be personalised, when in fact they can be almost universally applied. It is otherwise known as the Forer effect, after the American psychologist who conducted the first scientific study on the phenomenon.

In 1942, Professor Bertram R. Forer made unsuspecting first year psychology students take a personality test. (Read the original paper here.) A week later, he then gave them ‘individual’ personality descriptions comprising ambiguous statements based on their answers. When asked how accurate their description applied to them, the students gave an average rating of over 4 out of 5. In reality however, they all received an identical statement cobbled together from a news stand astrology book.

Forer and others also showed that the greater accuracy with which you rate some external description about yourself, the greater your belief in the validity of the person or system dispensing the assessment. Fifty million people in the US and UK believe that Zodiac horoscopes accurately predict their personal future.

In other words, if you truly believe you’re stubborn because you’re a Taurus, you’re also more likely to believe next month’s horoscope that you’ll hit a lucky streak in love or in your job.

What makes Barnum statements so believable?

The Barnum Effect gets its name from the winning formula used by the famous showman Phineaus Taylor Barnum: to include a “little something for everyone”. We can get sucked into believing Barnum statements because they are vague and often double-headed enough to cover all bases.

Consider the statement: “At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.” It seems believable because everyone’s either an extrovert or introvert, and it’s unlikely that you’ll always be one or the other all the time!

Barnum statements seduce us because they also include generally favourable statements that flatter our ego. Most people are less likely to believe them if more negative elements of their personality are described.

Other factors that can make you more susceptible is your belief in the authority of the person giving the assessment, as well as how much detail you provided.

Guarding against gullibility

Don’t like being duped?

The best defense against swindlers who use Barnum statements is a healthy dose of skepticism. Some might say being educated is enough. But even with the same level of education, those that exercised greater logical thinking skills were less prone to having the wool pulled over their eyes.

After all, what are the chances that all Taureans around the world will simultaneously get a raise next month?

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Why you (probably) can’t multitask

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Myths / Psychology

How many different things are you trying to do right now? Reading this blog post while listening to a podcast, posting on Instagram and checking email? It’s easy to think you’ll be more productive by doing lots of things at once. But it turns out for almost all of us, effective multitasking is an illusion.

A different take on driving and texting. Photo by Michiel Gransjean via Flickr.

You’re not really multitasking

With the possible exception of texting while driving, you probably think multitasking is something to aspire to. But the reality is, trying to do multiple things at once actually slows you down and leads to more mistakes. We are simply no good at trying to engage with more than one decision-making process at a time.

In fact, experts tell us even the term multitasking is wrong: we should call it task switching. Researchers suggest we may lose up to 40% of our productivity by trying to multitask. What feels like multitasking is actually rapid switching between tasks and the time it takes to switch between tasks all adds up.

Think it only takes a few seconds to jump between email and the report you urgently need to write? No big deal unless you are switching every time you get a new email notification. And how long does it take you to get to the point where you are writing effectively again? Research shows it takes an average of 23 minutes. In some cases, study volunteers never got back into the flow of writing.

In another study, volunteers were asked to memorise either a 7-digit or single-digit number while eating. Those who had the more challenging memory task were less aware of the flavour of the food they were eating. At the same time, they ate more of both the sweet and salty food on offer.

Some tasks are easier than others

If multitasking is so hard, perhaps you’re wondering why you can read this blog, eat your lunch and listen to music all at once.

How easy it is to juggle tasks depends on how engaged your prefrontal cortex is during the activity. Natural behaviours like walking, talking and eating don’t take a lot of brain effort so we can do those things at the same time as paying attention to something else.

Having said that, talking on your mobile while driving increases your risk of having an accident four-fold. It’s been shown to be equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol reading of about 0.08.

When 56,000 people were observed approaching an intersection in their cars, those who were talking on their mobiles were ten times less likely to actually stop at the stop sign.

Even walking at the same time as talking on your mobile takes up most of your brain’s attention. Only one quarter of people doing both noticed a clown on a unicycle ride past them who had been planted there by researchers.

And as soon as there are multiple tasks which require thinking, it becomes clear our brains simply aren’t wired for multitasking.

There are supertaskers among us

But all is not lost. Research has uncovered a small proportion of the population — about two percent — who have extraordinary multitasking abilities. Imagine simultaneously doing a driving test, solving complex maths problems and doing memory tests on your phone.

People who can easily do that have been called supertaskers and they have brains that actually become less active the more tasks they are trying to do at once. And that’s not all. Supertaskers do better, not worse, at each individual task the more simultaneous tasks they are doing.

The irony is that as soon as we hear that supertaskers exist, 90% of us decide we belong in that 2%! But research has shown that the people who multitask the most and are the most confident in their multitasking abilities tend to actually be the worst at it.

The cost of multitasking

Assuming like me, you are not a supertasker, it’s worth considering what our attempts at multitasking cost us.

Research suggests the more we attempt to multitask, the more we are training ourselves not to focus. We are effectively teaching ourselves that something unknown – an unread email or the next notification – is always more worthy of our attention than whatever task we are meant to be working on.

We sacrifice focus in order to ensure we don’t miss any unexpected surprises, but in the process we lose our ability to block out distractions. And that means we’re not very good at getting stuff done.

As Cal Newport says in his excellent book Deep Work,

Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.

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The reality of the Uncanny Valley

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Anthropology / Evolution / Myths / Psychology

Technology has made making extremely human-like robots a reality. But is this a good thing? Tara Bautista delves into the unease that many people experience with things that are almost – but not quite – human. Welcome to the ‘Uncanny Valley’.

Feeling weirded out? Me too. Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash.

When realistic isn’t pleasantly real enough

Last weekend I started watching a new fantasy show on Netflix called The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. You could say it’s a cross between Game of Thrones and Jim Henson’s The Muppets.

It’s a great series but it took me three episodes to get over the weirdness of the puppets. The pairing of human voice acting with the puppets’ mechanical facial expressions made for an unsettling experience. (And spoiler alert: I never want to see puppets kiss again).

Turns out I’m not alone in feeling this way.

In 1970, a Japanese robotics professor called Masahiro Mori first predicted the relationship between how human-like something is and our feelings towards it. He argued that at first, we experience increased positive feelings the more human-like the object is. But as something approaches being almost but not perfectly human-like, he predicted a dip in positive feelings and we would experience feelings of discomfort and revulsion.

Professor Mori called the dip the “Bukimi no Tani” – literally translated as “Valley of Eeriness” but more popularly known as the “Uncanny Valley”. Into the valley would fall things like androids (human-like robots), Japanese bunraku puppets, prosthetic hands, corpses and zombies.

The science behind our heebie-jeebies

Up until 2004, the Uncanny Valley hypothesis remained controversial and little studied. Nowadays it’s gaining acceptance as more scientific evidence backs up its existence.

In 2015, a landmark study reproduced Professor Mori’s predicted rise-dip-rise when participants rated the likeability of 80 real-life robot faces (ranging from clearly robot to android) as well as digitally-composed robot faces. The researchers showed the Uncanny Valley effect even influenced participants’ decisions about robots’ trustworthiness.

(Fun fact: Pixar won its first Oscar for the its CGI short film, Tin Toy in 1988. However, audiences were so creeped out by the human baby character that it drove the film studio to initially focus on stories with non-human characters like Toy Story and Cars).

But why do have negative feelings surrounding almost perfect human representations?

Firstly, the existence of a similar phenomenon in monkeys suggests there’s an evolutionary basis for it. Macaques are frightened and avoid eye contact with realistic but not perfect digital images of other monkeys. Like humans, they are more at ease with real images of monkeys and representations that are real but not too real.

An early but largely discredited hypothesis about how the uncanny valley works was that we generally are uncomfortable about things we can’t easily categorise. In the case of androids: are they human, or non-human?

However, the most likely explanation is the perceptual mismatch hypothesis. Because they look so human, we can’t help but want to judge them by human standards. But our brains pick up from their movements and responses that they’re not human.

In a 2011 study, the brain activity of 20 participants were monitored as they watched videos of a human, android and robot performing the same everyday actions such as drinking water from a cup or waving. The largest difference in brain responses between the three types of videos occurred when watching the android.

The researchers interpreted their findings to mean that our brains have no trouble processing when a human moves like a human, or a robot moves like a robot. But the brain lights up with an error message when there’s a mismatch, as in with the human-like appearance but robotic motion of androids.

The expectation that androids would move like us may be why the internal brain regions that help us move smoothly are activated when watching the slightly jerky movements of an android. One such region is the subthalamic nucleus (STN), which is impaired in voluntary movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. In fact, it’s suggested that our brains mistakenly interpret androids as people with Parkinson’s.

Our discomfort with perceptual mismatches also applies to emotions in artificial intelligences.  We’re spooked when something we know to be controlled by a computer appears to show spontaneous empathy like a real person.

In sum, scientists think that because androids fail to meet our expectations of a normal healthy human, we have an averse response.

Towards getting un(real)?

So, how should we account for the uncanny valley in an era where androids are being developed to become our caregivers, companions and even priests?

One solution is to simply to design robots that are not too human-like. Think adorable Disney robots like Wall-E, or Baymax in Big Hero 6. (Relatedly, Pixar finally got the formula right for non-threatening, animated human characters with The Incredibles).

Or perhaps it’s just a matter of exposure and time (three episodes?) before the valley becomes a plain.

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The who, why and how of Stonehenge

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Anthropology / History / Myths

Legend has it Stonehenge was created by the wizard Merlin with the help of giants. Meanwhile, scientists have been studying the monument for centuries. What do we know about who built Stonehenge, and why?

An ancient observatory, a healing place, or a landing pad for alien spaceships? Image credit FreeSally via Pixabay

Giants and aliens

Stonehenge, located on Salisbury Plain, is the best-known prehistoric monument in Europe.  It was built around 5,000 years ago by people who left no written record. As a result, it’s become one of our favourite mysteries: there are records of claims about its origin as early as the 12th century.

The Merlin Hypothesis, no longer as popular as it was in the 14th century, has been joined by a swag of other theories (some more plausible than others) about who built it, how and why. Given the incredible effort involved in creating Stonehenge – it’s been estimated building took more than 20 million hours – it seems certain Stonehenge was sacred.

More than 50,000 cremated bone fragments from at least 58 people have been found at Stonehenge so it certainly served as a cemetery. Because many of the skeletons buried nearby show signs of illness and injury, it’s also been suggested Stonehenge was considered a healing place.

Other theories argue Stonehenge was an ancient hunting and feasting site, or a long-distance communication system. Stonehenge has incredible acoustics, which give the impression of having been architecturally designed.

It’s also been suggested Stonehenge creates a passage through the underworld, given the way the moon is viewed on the horizon through a stone avenue at certain times. In 1964, an astronomer proposed that Stonehenge was an ancient observatory used to predict the movement of the sun and stars, including eclipses.

It won’t surprise you to know there have also been alien theories: to some, Stonehenge looks like an ideal landing pad for alien spaceships.

Build me a monument

One of the fascinating things about Stonehenge is research suggests the building process took place over multiple stages, possibly over as many as 1500 years. So maybe it meant different things to different people over that time.

A Stonehenge puzzle we believed we’ve solved is the question of where the stones came from. The biggest blocks of sandstone – weighing up to 30 tons – almost certainly come from about 32km north of Salisbury Plain. That’s an impressive distance to travel with such massive objects.

More extraordinary: we know the 42 smaller bluestones forming the inner circle came from the Preseli Hills in western Wales, a whopping 230km north of Stonehenge.

Researchers are confident they’ve even managed to identify the exact quarries where the stones came from. They’ve found evidence of quarrying at the sites from the right time period, including platforms at the base of rock outcrops. These platforms may have served as loading bays for the stones when they were lowered onto wooden sledges for transport. It’s also been proposed the stones we now know as Stonehenge were first built into a monument in Wales, before later being dismantled.

Over the years there have been many theories as to how the stones were brought to Salisbury Plain. One suggestion – now discredited – was the stones were brought by glacier movement, rather than by people. Other theories involve transport by boat, either on rivers or all the way around the coast.

But the latest research suggests the stones were probably dragged by people on wooden sleighs across ramps made of branches. A reenactment in 2016 using only rope, wood and stone tools showed that ten people were able to drag stones the size of the largest stones at Stonehenge about 1.6km per hour. Exhausting and slow, no doubt. But definitely possible.

Who built it?

Who dragged such enormous stones across the countryside? One of the challenges we’ve faced in understanding more about Stonehenge is the fact that the human remains buried beneath the stones were cremated. The cremation process means many of the standard dating techniques researchers use – for example studying the tooth enamel – don’t work.

But exciting research published last year did manage to analyse the chemistry of the bone fragments successfully. As a result of the foods these people ate in the decade or so before they died, the researchers could determine the ‘chemical signature’ of the bone fragments. Then they set about matching these signatures with the chemistry of the surrounding areas.

The results tell us that although some of the people buried at Stonehenge were almost certainly local, up to 40% came from a long way away. Where from? The area they most likely came from includes the region of Wales where the bluestones were quarried.

It’s possible these people were even cremated in Wales and their remains were brought with the bluestones themselves. But at this stage we can’t be sure of the relationship between these outsiders and the stones. There’s still plenty we don’t understand about Stonehenge and the mystery is likely to keep us entranced for many years to come.

Let’s hope the current battle around how to deal with traffic on the nearby A303 road is solved. Neither major traffic jams, nor the potential building of a tunnel in a world heritage site sound ideal.

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