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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The sense of claustrophobia

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Evolution / Health / Myths / Psychology

Your panic is rising. The walls are closing in. You’re sweating, trembling, having trouble breathing and on the verge of fainting. It’s claustrophobia and it’s all-consuming. Many people experience claustrophobia and it can be utterly debilitating. Why, and what can be done?

Claustrophobia: like the walls are closing in... arrrgh! Image credit Catalina Olavarria via Flickr

Claustrophobia: like the walls are closing in… arrrgh! Image credit Catalina Olavarria via Flickr

When the ceiling is too close

Last week, I had an MRI. And for the first time, I had an inkling of what claustrophobia must feel like. I couldn’t see out either end of the MRI tunnel, and the ceiling did feel remarkably close to my face. Curiosity, rather than anxiety, filled my mind. But it wasn’t hard to imagine being engulfed by panic in that situation.

The word claustrophobia comes from the Latin, meaning fear of being shut in a place. Some of the most common places people experience claustrophobia are tunnels, cupboards, lifts, aeroplanes and MRI machines. Around 5% of the world’s population is thought to experience claustrophobia and women are more likely to suffer than men.  The severity of symptoms vary: in extreme cases a person may choose to walk dozens of flights of stairs rather than take a lift, avoid tunnels at all costs, or refuse to get into an underground train for decades.

Get outta my space

Why do only some people experience claustrophobia when few of us would claim to like feeling trapped? There are a few different theories as to what causes it. Of course, in many cases, claustrophobia is the result of a traumatic experience like being stuck in a lift – or an MRI machine. It’s hardly surprising that after being trapped somewhere we feel anxious about going back into that place. But research suggests some people are also predisposed to feeling claustrophobic.

One study found people with panic disorders have a smaller amygdala than average. Your amygdalae – there are two in your brain and they’re shaped like almonds – process emotions like fear. Perhaps someone with smaller amygdalae perceives the risk of danger differently and these are the people more likely to experience claustrophobia. A few years ago, other researchers announced they’d found that a mistake in a single gene causes claustrophobia symptoms in mice. Humans have the same gene, found in an area of a chromosome linked to panic disorders. If a defect in this gene can also explain claustrophobia in people, the fact is some of us simply have claustrophobia in our genes.

A fascinating study connected people’s perception of their personal space to their experience of claustrophobia. We all have a perception of how far our personal space extends beyond our body – interestingly this distance is related to arm length. This personal space is our comfort zone, and we are very aware of anything entering it. But people who experience claustrophobic fear tend to feel their personal space extends further than we would predict. For these people, the larger space means there are more frequent intrusions into that personal space. They are more likely to feel like someone or something is ‘in their face’.

Claustrophobia makes sense

There are a variety of treatments for claustrophobia. Virtual reality has been successfully used to reduce fear of confined spaces and cognitive behavioural therapy has also helped many claustrophobes. There’s no lack of internet sites claiming to have the answer to solving claustrophobia. Some claustrophobes find that being forced to face their fears head on, for example, by being trapped in a lift is actually a good thing. Although terrifying at the time, people find their panic eventually disappears.

I completely understand that claustrophobia sufferers are desperate to find a cure for their fears. But it’s worth considering why we experience claustrophobia. If you think about it from an evolutionary point of view, claustrophobia makes very good sense. Of course we’ve evolved to be fearful of being trapped in a confined space. Throughout our past, and still today, many of the situations that result in us feeling trapped are life-threatening. Whether a collapsed cave, or collapsed building, we have every reason to fear for our lives. It’s to be expected that we’ve evolved to hate the feeling of being confined: claustrophobia makes complete sense.

The problem comes when a completely non-life-threatening situation evokes the same paralysing fear. I feel fortunate to be someone who can endure an MRI without panic. Although it did mean I got to focus all my attention on the terrible musac blaring through the headphones I was told to wear. The music is intended to mask the loud and decidedly unsettling noises made by the machine itself. To be honest I’m not sure which was worse.

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Blink and you won’t miss a thing

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Biology / Health / Myths / Psychology

You may not have noticed, but you spend about ten per cent of the time you’re awake with your eyes closed. I’m talking about the fact you blink your eyes every few seconds. Why do we blink so often and why don’t we notice the world plunge into darkness every time we do?

Don't be afraid to blink; you won't miss anything! Image credit Randy Wick via Flickr

Don’t be afraid to blink; you won’t miss anything! Image credit Randy Wick via Flickr

Be clean, eyeball

If you’re awake for 16 hours a day, you have your eyes closed for more than an hour and a half each day. That seems a lot and suggests blinking must be doing something important. The most obvious explanation for blinking is the fact a blink clears away any pesky dust particles that might have landed on your eye. Blinking also keeps your eyeball moist. Each blink lasts only a fraction of a second, but that’s enough time to spread the perfect mix of lubricating fluids across the surface of your eye. Is it as simple as that? Yes, and no.

The act of blinking does keep our eyes clean and lubricated, but research has shown we wouldn’t need to blink nearly so often if that were the main game. Think about the last time you had a staring competition: you were easily able to stop blinking for far longer than a few seconds. There’s more going on when we blink than just a cleaning service.

A clue as to the role of blinking is when we blink. You might think blinking is random, but it’s not. We blink at predictable times. When reading, we blink at the end of a sentence. When listening to someone talking, we blink during natural pauses in speaking. And when watching a movie, we blink during scenes when the action lags. Perhaps just after something important has happened or when the main character is briefly out of shot. And what’s more, if we’re watching with friends, our blinks tend to be synchronised. One fascinating study found skilled magicians take advantage of synchronised blinking to hide the secret of their illusions.

A moment of calm

Scientists interested in the timing of our blinks measured people’s brain activity while watching Mr. Bean. (Apparently Rowan Atkinson is very effective at synchronising blinks). The idea was to work out which parts of the brain were more or less active during blinking. They found during blinking, there’s a spike in activity in the areas of our brain involved with the ‘default mode of brain function’. Default mode is how your brain operates when you’re in a state of calm, wakeful rest, not distracted by what’s going on in the outside world. It’s the same mode of brain function often brought on by silence. Perhaps blinking is a way to snatch a quick mental time-out every few seconds.

To test if this little mental break is simply the result of not seeing anything for a brief moment, the researchers inserted tiny blackouts in the video – a blank screen that lasted for the same amount of time as a blink. But looking at the brain again, the default mode didn’t kick in during the blackouts. So for our brains, blinking is more than not seeing anything for a moment. The researchers suggest these brief moments of calm and introspection may help us focus and to pay more attention to the world around us when we open our eyes again.

I can see the light

An odd thing about blinking is that we’re barely aware we do it. If you were to sit in a windowless room and I turned the lights off and then on again every few seconds, I reckon you’d notice. In fact I’d be willing to bet you’d get pretty annoyed. But that’s similar to what’s happening every time you blink: the world goes dark for a moment. Yet we don’t feel as though our view of the world around us has been interrupted at all.

What is going on in our brains to allow us to be oblivious to these moments of darkness? Research out last week tested two possible answers. Firstly, that after each blink, our brain backdates what we see. In this case, we assume what we see after a blink was also true during the time our eyes were closed. Our brain simply fills in the gap. A second possibility is that our brains hold onto the image of what the world looked like before the blink and assume this to have continued during the time our eyes were closed.

To test these two possibilities, scientists used some nifty experiments involving flashing a letter on a screen. Students taking part in the study had to say how long the letter appeared on the screen when they were allowed to blink and again when they weren’t. But the results of the study suggest neither of these theories is right. The study participants simply underestimated how long the letter was visible for when they blinked. This suggests our brains just ignore blinks, momentarily shutting down our perceptions of the outside world. What we still don’t know is how our brains make the world appear continuous despite our blinks. But I know that next time someone says to me ‘Don’t blink or you’ll miss it’, I’ll remember a blink may be just the time-out my brain needs.

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A phantom menace

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Psychology

Virtually all amputees experience ongoing sensations in their missing limb, and many also experience intense pain: phantom limb pain. How on earth can you treat pain in a body part that doesn’t exist? And what is causing the pain in the first place?

Many amputees feel ‘phantom’ pain in their non-existent limbs.

Many amputees feel ‘phantom’ pain in their non-existent limbs. Image credit David Ingram via Flickr

The pain is real

One of the most famous examples of a phantom limb belonged to Lord Horatio Nelson, a much-decorated British Naval officer. In 1797, he had to have part of his arm amputated after it was shot in battle. He went on to experience severe pain in his missing arm and hand, including the sensation that fingernails were digging into his palm. Nelson used this experience to argue for the existence of the soul: if his arm could ‘survive’ being destroyed, why not an entire person?

Phantom limb pain is extremely common. In a study of 5000 veterans post amputation, 78% experienced it. Sufferers explain that a phantom limb can experience all the same sensations a real limb can: pain, heat, sweating, tingling, paralysis and movement. And phantom sensations don’t only occur in limbs. Up to 80% of women experience phantom breast pain after a mastectomy. Some women also report a phantom uterus with monthly cramps after a hysterectomy.

Perhaps one of the only vaguely similar experiences non-amputees can have of phantom pain is after a local anaesthetic at the dentist. Your nerves go dead, but you don’t feel like your lips and cheek have disappeared. If anything they feel swollen and puffier than usual.

All in the mind

At first glance, phantom pain seems exceedingly odd – and that’s putting it mildly. How can a body part that doesn’t exist experience pain? But if we think about what pain actually is, phantom pain becomes easier to understand. Put very simply, pain is a perception similar to hearing or smelling. If you break your arm, nerve cells in your arm send a message to your spinal cord and then onto the brain to indicate there’s a problem. Your brain translates this message and perceives the feeling of pain. The pain is in your brain.

For a long time, it was thought phantom limb pain derived from inflamed, irritated or frayed nerve endings in the stump sending incorrect messages to the brain. In the past, doctors sometimes performed surgery to remove more of the stump in the hope of fixing the problem. But it didn’t work.

Your plastic brain

Our current understanding of phantom limb pain highlights how extraordinary our brains are. Inside your brain is a virtual, sensory model of your body. In effect, your brain contains a map of your body, but composed of brain cells. Each of your body parts has a corresponding section of the map in your brain. Research suggests that if some parts of the map are inactive (for example, as a result of amputation), adjacent areas of the map begin to take over. So the nerve connections in the brain become reorganised and that’s what we refer to as brain plasticity.

Researchers have shown the part of the brain’s sensory map that used to represent the now-amputated limb can be taken over by representations of different body parts. In the case of arm amputations, the areas that have been found to take over are the face and lips. This is because in the brain’s map, the face and arm areas are right next to one another. This means touching an affected person in particular places on the face results in corresponding feelings in the phantom limb. Scientists have been able to draw on the faces of amputees (literally, with a texta), to show where the missing limb and digits are felt.

Gaming to tackle pain

For many years, phantom limb pain proved incredibly difficult to treat. Drugs don’t tend to work. How do you treat pain that is perceived to occur in a body part that doesn’t exist? Of course, you don’t; you treat the brain, which is where the sensations originate.

One of the first successful treatments for phantom limb pain is deceptively simple, and impressively cheap. In some cases, all that is required to retrain the brain is a mirror. Mirror therapy provides the brain with an opportunity to match what it sees with what it feels. A person suffering from phantom limb pain can position a mirror so that the reflected limb seen in the mirror appears to be the amputated limb. The limb can be moved and stretched and many people have reported huge reductions in pain as a result.

A slightly higher-tech and very promising treatment for phantom limb pain is augmented reality. This technology enables a wider range of motion of the replacement limb and incorporates gaming to keep patients motivated to do their exercises. Truth be told, we don’t fully understand why these treatments work. But whatever extraordinary brain tricks are going on, I’m guessing phantom limb pain sufferers will be happy to play the game.

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The silent treatment

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Anthropology / Biology / Health / Medicine / Psychology

Stop right now and listen. What can you hear? I’m betting you can hear something: it’s a noisy world we live in. You’re probably well aware that too much noise is bad for you. As well as obvious problems like hearing loss and ringing in the ears, noise has been shown to cause stress, insomnia and even heart disease. New research suggests it’s time we embraced the power of silence.

How's the serenity? Science says silence is good for the brain.

How’s the serenity? Science says silence is good for the brain. Image credit Moya Brenn via Flickr

Silence is golden

If you’re anything like me – young kids, a busy job and an addiction to good conversation, podcasts and audiobooks – there’s probably a distinct lack of quiet in your life. But beyond all the wonderful sounds I choose to surround myself with, there’s also plenty of noise, sounds I’d rather not have to listen to. Traffic, the building site right outside my window at work and annoying mobile ringtones, to name a few.

The word ‘noise’ comes from the Latin meaning pain or queasiness. And noise, now often referred to as noise pollution, has been blamed for a variety of ills. Sleeping problems, high blood pressure, difficulty concentrating and heart disease are some of the main concerns. And noise can also simply get to us, hence the diagnosis of ‘noise annoyance’. Sound vibrates the bones in our ears, which get converted into electrical signals to our brain. Our bodies respond to these signals, often resulting in the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Noise has this effect even if you’re sound asleep, and it’s not good news. If you live in a noisy place, you’re probably also living with permanently high levels of stress. Kids living in noisy places may experience learning difficulties amongst other problems.

What to do about it? Research suggests that it’s not enough to simply seek a little peace and quiet, but that silence is more powerful than we ever guessed.

Of mice, memories and music

Ten years ago, scientists who were also amateur musicians wanted to study how music affects people physiologically. Study participants listened to a two-minute track of each of six different music styles, with a two-minute break between each track. The researchers measured breathing rate, blood pressure and various other physiological changes. They were expecting to find the tempo, rhythm and melody of the music as well as people’s previous musical training and own musical preferences to have an effect. And they did find these things. But the biggest finding of the study was something the researchers didn’t even set out to look at: it was the two minutes of silence between tracks that had the biggest relaxation effect.

More recently, researchers studied the effects of various sounds on the brains of adult mice. The sounds of interest were music, baby mouse calls and white noise. Silence was used as a control for the experiment. Again, without trying to, this study showed the power of silence: none of the actual sounds had a long-term effect on the brain. But two hours of silence a day had a profound effect on the mice brains: they developed new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for emotions and memory.

Quieting the mind

At some level we all know quiet is good for us. Sales of noise-cancelling headphones have sky-rocketed in recent years and Finland’s Tourist Board’s slogan ‘Silence, Please’ has been a massively successful way to market the country to the world. Most of us have a strong sense that time in nature will do us the world of good and this is at least partly due to the quiet that can often be found in natural places.

Your brain is always active, but when it’s not distracted by noise, or being required to focus on a particular task, it enters a state called the ‘default mode of brain function.’ This is when our brains get to do a bit of housekeeping: processing messages that come both from the outside world and from within ourselves. In silence, our brain has the opportunity to integrate these messages. We can reflect on who we are, empathise with others, reflect on our own wellbeing and think creatively. Silence allows us to connect with ourselves and replenishes our inner reserves.

Too much of a good thing?

So does all this mean the more quieter the silence, the better? Not so fast. The most silent place on earth, an anechoic chamber in Minnesota is so quiet that the background noise is measured as a negative. This means you can hear your heart beat, your stomach gurgle and sometimes even your nerves firing. It’s a place companies can test the volume of their products and where NASA can send astronauts to get a taste of the silence of space.

But if you think it would be a great place to hang out and grow some new brain cells, you’re wrong. Most people find the room deeply disorientating. Reports are that the longest anyone has even been able to cope with staying in the room is 45 minutes.

I reckon I’d rather head to Finland, thanks.

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The buying game

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

Love it or hate it, shopping is something most of us do. And shopping is all about making decisions. What will you buy, and why will you choose one brand over another? Marketers know your senses play a major role in the decision-making process.

Do you know what makes the perfect flame-grilled burger? Apparently, a lot of Photoshop! Image credit Lucan Rosa via Vimeo. Check out the video to see what goes into making such a juicy, succulent... photograph.

Do you know what makes the perfect flame-grilled burger? Apparently, a lot of Photoshop! Image credit Lucan Rosa via Vimeo. Watch the video to see what goes into making such a juicy, succulent… er, photograph.

Eye candy

Next time you go to the movies, watch TV, or read a magazine or newspaper, pay attention to how many images of food you see: food advertising is big business. These images have been painstakingly created to prompt you to imagine how the food would taste in your mouth right now and begin drooling. And it’s not just your sense of taste marketers are interested in. It’s now well understood that all of our senses are vulnerable to targeted advertising: it’s called sensory marketing.

How something looks obviously plays a major role in whether you want to eat it or not. Colour holds enormous sway over us and it’s no different when it comes to food. In one classic experiment, people were invited to a meal of steak, chips and peas. The only unusual feature was the fact the dining room was very dimly lit. Halfway through the meal, the lights were brightened and the dinner guests were able to see they’d been happily eating dyed food: the steak was blue, the chips, green and peas red. Suddenly a number of people felt ill and headed straight for the bathroom.

It’s not only colour that influences our reactions to food and other products. Both adults and kids prefer glossy surfaces over matte ones: we like gleaming cars, glittery lipsticks and shimmering jewels. Intriguingly, we are more likely to like and want to buy a product displayed on a glossy surface, for example, glass, rather than wood. Why the preference? Several studies have suggested it’s because fresh water is so incredibly valuable to us. And yes, our preference for glossy is even stronger when we’re thirsty.

A warm touch

I’ve written before about the incredible power of touch. It’s a well-known fact you are more likely to buy a product if you can touch it first. Holding something makes you already feel a sense of ownership of it and at that point it’s not such a big leap to fork out the cash and actually buy it. What your own body is touching at the time you are deciding whether or not to buy something can also influence you. When standing on soft carpet rather than a hard vinyl floor, you are more likely to decide you like something that’s for sale.

The touch of another person can also turn us off buying something. In one experiment, shoppers were asked to find a particular T-shirt, try it on and decide whether they wanted to buy it. The study was set up so that the T-shirt could be found either on a normal shopping rack, on the return rack in the dressing room or inside the cubicle of a dressing room. All of the T-shirts were brand new and untouched by anyone else but shoppers who thought someone else had tried on the T-shirt first were less likely to buy it.

The sensations of warm and cold are also important aspects of touch. Research has shown briefly holding something physically warm (for example a cup of coffee) leads us to feel interpersonal warmth. After holding the warm object, we are more likely to judge a stranger as friendly and having a warm character. Experiencing physical warmth, even for just a matter of seconds, makes it more likely that when given the choice, you’ll choose to give a gift to someone else rather than take a reward for yourself.

How does this relate to shopping? We are willing to pay more for something, such as a coffee, CD, batteries or soft drink when we are in a warm, rather than cool room (where the temperature difference is only 4 degrees.) By the same token, we like romantic movies more and are happy to pay to watch them when we feel physically cold.

The smell of a new car

Scratch ‘n’ Sniff stickers aren’t quite the sought-after items they were when I was a kid but the fact remains our sense of smell is powerful. Advertisements incorporating smell tend to be very successful. In the UK, McCain foods ran a campaign where the smell of a freshly-baked potato was released from a bus shelter ad by the touch of a button. Dunkin’ Donuts used ‘flavour radio’ in South Korea whereby an atomizer installed in buses released the smell of coffee only while the brand’s ad was playing on the radio. As a result, Dunkin’ Donuts shops near the buses had a 16% increase in visitors and coffee sales went up by 29%.

We accurately remember particular smells for years and hotel chains use their ‘signature scents’ so that you’ll associate your (hopefully) positive experience with that smell and want to return. A pleasant smell in a shop prompts you to like a shop and stay there longer. Car manufacturers have spent decades perfecting the ‘new car smell’. This chemical cocktail arises largely from new carpets, upholstery, plastics and glues and has come to signal quality and superiority. The smell tends to disappear within six months but don’t fret: if you want to get it back there are plenty of companies who promise to deliver you the new car smell in a spray can. Whether they’ve got the signature smell right or not is another thing.

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A trick of the light?

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Psychology

Did you know the winter blues, aka Seasonal Affective Disorder, can be treated with light therapy? You’re probably aware that the blue light emitted by your phone and computer may be wreaking havoc with your sleep. But could light also be affecting your health and mood in other ways?

Is your smartphone affecting your sleep?

Could your smartphone be wreaking havoc with your sleep cycle?

Let there be light

Danielle Feinberg, Pixar’s director of photography, argues that light is the magical ingredient that brings animated worlds to life. For example, without careful attention to lighting, WALL-E is just a metal robot, not a lovable personality with a soul. Yet light is such a fundamental part of our lives that we tend to take it for granted.

The sun rises and light floods our world. After sunset, we flick on a light switch anytime we want to. It’s easy to forget light has a profound effect on our brain, body rhythms and overall health. Light obviously allows us to see, but our eyes also have light-sensitive cells that have nothing to do with vision. Instead, they send information about light levels to our brain, controlling our 24-hour body clock, triggering us to be alert and playing a role in our short-term memory.

Exposing our bodies to irregular light cycles affects our mood and brain function. The most well-known example of this is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a pattern of repeated depression that occurs during autumn or winter in up to 9% of people. There is some evidence that exposure to bright light improves this form of depression although a study published earlier this year questioned the existence of SAD.

The dark side of light: red, white and blue

If you live in a city, one of the most obvious aspects of light is that it’s virtually impossible to escape. Research out this week – the atlas of artificial night sky brightness – brought the depressing news that more than 80% of the world lives under light-polluted skies. Gone are the days of navel-gazing under a starry sky – more than a third of people can no longer see the Milky Way because the night sky where they live is so artificially bright.

There has been plenty of research looking at the health effects of light pollution. Essentially, being exposed to light at night completely stuffs up our body clocks with flow-on effects such as depression, cancer, weight gain and learning difficulties. How? Being exposed to artificial light at night suppresses production of the hormone melatonin, which we need to regulate our natural body rhythms.

Of course, artificial lights come in different colours and chances are you’ve heard that the blue light streaming out of your smart phone, or tablet, or computer, is particularly bad for you at night. During the day, being exposed to blue light makes us alert, better able to pay attention and faster in our reaction times.

But at night, blue light is the most powerful at suppressing melatonin. In one study, people were asked to read either a printed book or e-book for five nights in a row. Those who read the e-book had a delay in melatonin release of more than an hour and a half, they took longer to fall asleep and were less alert in the morning. This research has led to the popularity of plenty of programs and apps that reduce our exposure to the blue light of our screens. White light is somewhat better and red light, the least disruptive at night.

Mood lighting

If I say mood lighting, you probably think of dimly-lit lamps. And with good reason: there’s strong evidence that brightness of lighting affects our moods. Bright street lighting makes us feel safe and something as simple as having access to a window at work can result in better sleep and a better quality of life. At work, we feel happiest when our office lights are neither too bright nor too dim. Sunshine makes us feel optimistic and can even influence the stock exchange.

But there’s more to it than that. Under bright light, we feel warmer, regardless of temperature. And the more intense the lighting, the stronger our emotional response. Under bright lights, we judge attractive people to be more attractive, positive words to be more positive, and negative words to be more negative. In bright lights, we also choose the spiciest foods!

Ambient lighting also influences how calm we feel. It’s not surprising then that airlines are now investing in mood lighting for cabins: no more instantaneous changes from dark to bright lights on a long-haul flight when the aim is to calmly get breakfast into you before landing.

And mood lighting isn’t just for us: farmers have found mood lighting makes for ‘relaxed, happy chickens.’ That’s something to crow about!

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The science of cute

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Anthropology / Evolution / Psychology

As cute as a…  button? Puppy? Kitten? Panda cub? There’s no shortage of things we respond to by saying ‘Awwww, that’s so cute’. But what is it exactly that we find cute, and why? And why do we often feel an overwhelming urge to squeeze cute things?

Oh kawaii desu ne!? Japanese have taken cute to a whole new level. Image credit Tomohiro Ohtake via Flickr

Oh! kawaii desu ne!? Japanese have taken cute to a whole new level. Image credit Tomohiro Ohtake via Flickr


Baby animals, in particular mammals, rank high in the cuteness stakes. When twin baby pandas were born last year at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., 868,000 people watched panda cam over one weekend. There are more ‘cute baby animal’ websites than you could ever have time to look at and Buzzfeed even attempted a definitive ranking of the cutest baby animals. In case you’re wondering, baby otters beat puppies, kittens, and panda cubs to claim ultimate cuteness. Check out #CuteOff on Twitter if you want an overdose of cuteness.

Unsurprisingly, there’s money to be made out of cuteness: advertisements featuring cute children or animals abound. Cute soft toys are a massive industry and we can trace how these soft toys have become cuter over time. During the 20th century for example, the humble teddy bear changed from having a long snout to bearing a short snout and high forehead. Similarly, Mickey Mouse changed over a 50-year period – ending up with a larger relative head and far bigger eyes. These days, it’s hard to think of a Disney or Pixar character that doesn’t have enormous eyes. Whether on a mermaid, princess, fish, ant, monster, emotion, car or robot, the eyes are gigantic.

Whether you’re talking anime, manga or Pokémon, popular Japanese characters also tend to have exaggerated features, in particular, large eyes. Japan has taken the worship of cute to a whole new level. Ever since Hello Kitty said her first hello in 1974, Kawaii (translated these days simply as cute, loveable or adorable) has become a mainstay of Japanese popular culture. But what defines cute?

Baby face

It’s not just huge eyes that cute things share. There are a number of other features we associate with cute: a large head (Hello Kitty’s head accounts for half her body), a small ‘button’ nose, chubby cheeks and a prominent forehead. Research across cultures and races has shown this combination of characteristics is considered near universally adorable. Why have we evolved to respond so strongly to this set of facial features? Because these are the features of human babies.

Back in 1943, Konrad Lorenz dubbed this set of features the baby schema. Research in the 1970s showed we rate babies with the more pronounced of these features most attractive, that we like to look at cute babies, and babies make us smile. Lorenz argued that these physical features have come to signify vulnerability and prompt our parental instincts. Essentially, we are hardwired to want to nurture cute things. It makes sense: if we hadn’t evolved to be compelled to take care of our completely helpless newborn babies, humans probably wouldn’t have lasted long. Interestingly, although men and women are equally good at picking the age and facial expressions of babies, women are much better at rating different levels of cuteness.

And you don’t have to be a parent to feel this overwhelming desire to take care of a cute baby. Recent research recorded what was going on in the brains of women who had no children as they looked at photos of cute babies. The photos activated parts of the brain involved with our reward centres: we really are primed to respond to cute.

Care, concentration… and bubble wrap

Seeing something cute doesn’t just make us want to care for a baby. We know looking at cute things makes us feel more positive. I’m not kidding: research found that watching Internet cats makes you happier. And research has also shown that looking at cute images makes us pay more attention to detail, narrow our focus and behave more carefully. Yes, that’s right – checking out cute pictures on Instagram can improve your concentration and may even make you work more productively.

But contrary to what you might expect, cute things can also make us feel aggressive. Have you ever had the urge to pinch the chubby cheeks of a cute baby? Squeeze a kitten within an inch of its life? Given that cute things are often vulnerable, or fragile in some way, it seems odd they can lead us to say ‘you’re so cute I want to eat you up!’ Researchers suggest the aggression results from frustration: we can’t satisfy our intense desire to care for the cute thing in front of us which leads to an aggressive response.

And just in case you’re wondering, yes, scientists have carried out the ultimate experiment. Looking at adorably cute pictures makes us pop more bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap.

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Love at first whiff?

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Anthropology / Biology / Evolution / Myths / Psychology / Zoology

Have you ever been to a pheromone party? The idea is to find your perfect partner based on smell. That’s right, body odour, and there’s no deodorant allowed. Pheromones are very particular smells: chemical signals animals evolved to communicate with one another. We know pheromones play a key role in the animal world, but scientists are arguing about whether the same is true for us.

Bombykol, the first pheromone to be identified chemically, is used by male silkworm moths to attract mates. Image credit: Nikita via Flickr (modified)

Bombykol, the first pheromone to be identified chemically, is used by female silkworm moths to attract mates. Image credit: Nikita via Flickr (modified).


The first animal pheromone was identified in silkworm moths, back in 1959. The pheromone was christened bombykol, and its discovery was the result of 20 years of painstaking work. Scientists had long suspected a chemical was responsible for the way female moths successfully lure males. But it required extractions from the scent glands of 313,000 female moths to purify just 5.3 milligrams of bombykol. So groundbreaking was the discovery that it earned the German biochemist who led the work a Nobel Prize.

Pheromones aren’t just any old smells. To qualify as a pheromone, a chemical an animal releases has to prompt a consistent reaction in a member of the same species. The reaction might be in behaviour, like male moths flocking around a female. But the reaction can also be a change in how an animal’s body functions. For example, queen bees release a pheromone that results in worker bees being unable to lay their own eggs.

We now know pheromones play a central role in the lives of most animals. The pheromones we hear most about are the ones used to lure members of the opposite sex, which have been studied in many animals, including lobsters, frogs and goldfish. But we also know aphids release alarm pheromones when they are in danger, and ants follow the same path using trail pheromones.

Want to be a sex magnet?

Pheromones play an important role in the lives of mammals. The ancient Greeks knew that female dogs on heat used an invisible signal to attract males. Scientists worked out the chemical structure of that pheromone in 1979. Every time your dog pees against a tree or fence when you’re out walking, it’s using pheromones to communicate with other dogs. Now pheromones have been identified in most mammals, including in elephants, goats, mice and lemurs.

Given that we’re also mammals, it’s reasonable to expect we might use pheromones to communicate with one another. And there’s been plenty of research looking for human pheromones. There was the famous T-shirt sniffing experiment of 1995 in which men were asked to wear a T-shirt for 48 hours, avoiding deodorants, aftershave and smelly foods. Women were then asked to rate the T-shirts according to ‘sexiness’ and ‘pleasantness’. The researchers concluded that the women were able to determine which men had genes, which, in combination with their own, would boost the immune system of potential children. More recently, researchers have reported they’ve identified pheromones that communicate masculinity and femininity.

No wonder people have been so keen to find a human pheromone. Imagine how rich you’d be if you could bottle a substance guaranteed to make a person irresistible to potential partners. A quick Google search and you’ll discover there’s no shortage of sites promising their bottled pheromone will turn you into a sex magnet.

But it’s just a con

It’s hardly surprising the promise of an ultimate aphrodisiac is appealing but the problem is, there’s no good science to back up the existence of a human sex pheromone.

There’s no question smell is a powerful form of communication. But the problem is scent contains hundreds of molecules. To conclude a particular molecule is a pheromone, you have to prove that molecule causes a response in other individuals of the same species. The T-shirt sniffing experiment wasn’t about pheromones; it was about the signature smells we all have. Similarly, pheromone parties aren’t about pheromones at all.

The best evidence for human pheromones we have so far has nothing to do with finding your perfect partner. Instead, French researchers have shown a secretion from the nipple glands of a breastfeeding mother prompts babies (not just her own) to suck and try to breastfeed. Because all of the babies tested responded in the same way, we may have our first human pheromone.

Unfortunately it isn’t going to help anyone find the love of their lives, but it may help premature babies to survive. I reckon that’s worth bottling!

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