The perils of seeking happiness: why our fixation on happiness might be bad for us

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Health / Myths / Psychology

It’s easy to imagine that if you live in one of the world’s happiest countries, your life is probably pretty good. But it turns out that the relationship between social expectations around happiness and our mental health is not so simple.

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

Could our obsession with happiness be undermining our mental health? Image by D Jonez on Unsplash.

Do we overvalue happiness?

Every March, in the lead-up to the International Day of Happiness, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network releases its annual World Happiness Report (WHR), a sweeping assessment of the state of happiness across 146 countries around the globe.

The report is famous for its country-by-country ranking of happiness levels, which, without fail, sparks a score of headlines about which country has claimed the title of ‘happiest on Earth’. Making use of the famous World Gallup Poll, the WHR ranks national levels of happiness by asking 1000 participants from each nation about their own individual experiences with happiness. Survey respondents are asked to evaluate their quality of life, and indicate often they experience positive, or negative, emotions.

All of this information is then combined into a national ‘World Happiness Index’, or WHI, allowing for happiness levels to be ranked on a country-by-country basis. Nordic and Western European countries consistently finish in the top 10 in these rankings, with Finland claiming the top spot in the most recent assessment. Meanwhile, those countries impacted by recent conflict or humanitarian crises, tend to finish lowest.

When you see these world happiness results, it’s easy to feel envious of the highest-ranking countries, and to commiserate with the places where happiness appears to be in short supply. But according to recent research, those living in the world’s happiest countries, may not be so happy after all. Paradoxically, people living in the world’s “happiest” countries may actually find it more difficult to find happiness than those living elsewhere.

But how could this be? Seemingly, it all comes down to how ‘pressured’ we feel to be happy.

The danger of overvaluing happiness

Over the past decade or so, psychologists and social scientists have become increasingly attuned to the danger of a society that values happiness too highly. In particular, when human societies view happiness as central to a good, fulfilling life, it appears that individuals are more likely to experience a perceived and harmful, social pressure to be happy.

Today, the digital age means that this perceived societal pressure can be all-consuming. The ubiquity of social media means that we’re surrounded by images of influencers living seemingly perfect lives, while self-help books, motivational speakers, and commercials incessantly promote the importance of happiness to mental well-being.

This landscape can often have us thinking that happiness is an essential part of living, and that to be unhappy, or to experience negative emotions is some sort of failure, our inadequacy of our own. But negative emotions are an inevitable part of life, and there is nothing inherently wrong with feeling sad, anxious, or stressed. Research has even shown that experiencing such emotions can be important to our overall well-being.

The downsides of living in a “happy” country

If a perceived ‘social pressure’ to be happy can be the cause of poor mental wellbeing, then it’s logical to assume that this effect is accentuated in countries with high WHI rankings, where happiness is presumably valued higher.

A recent study published in Scientific Reports sought to explore exactly this question, investigating whether a perceived ‘social pressure’ to be happy was associated with poorer mental wellbeing, and whether this effect is accentuated in countries with a high WHI. The study surveyed over 7,000 people from 40 different countries, inquiring whether individuals felt a “perceived social pressure to be happy” and not depressed and anxious, and also about people’s emotional well-being, clinical experience with mental health disorders, and their levels of life satisfaction.

Overall, the research found that there is a strong correlation between experiencing a ‘social pressure’ to be happy and poor mental wellbeing, but perhaps more notably, this effect is considerably heightened in countries with high WHI rankings, such as Finland and Denmark.

So, do people living in “happy” countries really have it best?

Importantly, this recent research doesn’t show that people living in high WHI countries are ‘unhappy’. The findings of the World Happiness Report strongly show that the citizens of these nations are, on average, happier. But for many people living in ‘happy’ countries, a heightened ‘social pressure’ to be happy appears to be contributing to a higher degree of poor mental health. The research adds to an accumulating collection of evidence that suggests we need to put our perception of happiness into perspective. While there’s value in recognising the importance of positive emotions, we need to stress the importance, and normality, of negative ones too.

Accepting, and experiencing, the entire range of human emotions appears to be the key to true mental wellbeing.

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The soles of your feet can tell us where you call home

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Biology / Environment / Evolution

A step above GPS, the individual microbiomes of a city can be as unique as a fingerprint and more diverse than a rainforest.

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

Scientists can work out what cities you have spent time in based on the microbiome on the soles of your shoes. Image by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash.

But I thought the microbiome had something to do with your gut?

Microbiomes are the communities of microorganisms that exist in a particular environment and they may be helpful or harmful to the place they call home. These microorganisms can include any number of bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites like microscopic worms. Communities of microbes can exist anywhere that meets their requirements for food, moisture and light or warmth. For example, the microbiome of your digestive tract is a specialised microbe community that helps to break down food into the particles your body uses as fuel. Some microbes can only exist in very specific places and as a result, can be hard to find. And it turns out some microbes are so unique to particular places, they can act like landmarks as distinct as the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Vacation anyone?

Areas that have lots of people in them like train stations and hospitals have been shown to be a breeding ground for microbes, no matter where you live in the world. Your skin, and by extension, your clothing and shoes become colonised (some might say contaminated) with microbes. At the same time, these microbes adapt and evolve to changes in the environment around them.

Factors like climate and geography play a huge role in what microbes live where. The fact we love to travel enables microbes to move by trains, planes, and automobiles to new, more hospitable locations. Environmental factors also help to determine which microbes hitch a ride with us, meeting the people we encounter on our travels. Recent research shows no two cities share the exact same microbiome.

The leader of this research, Dr. Christopher Mason, sees high transit areas like train stations as significant and undocumented ecosystems of biodiversity. His passion for the world of microbes began when his young daughter naively licked a pole on the street. Sounds gross, especially in the highly sanitised world many of us now live in. But to Mason, this was a fascinating interaction between his daughter and the world around her and set him off on a new research path.

Mason, a microbiologist by trade, spearheaded a local New York project, swabbing subway turnstiles, railings, and benches. Mason and his team started to identify new species of microbes very early on: microbes that had never been observed by scientists previously. It turns out that surfaces inside train stations and airports may hold the ticket to a totally unseen world.

In 2015, a consortium of the International Metagenomics and Metadesign of Subways and Urban Biomes was launched to standardise how researchers collect microbe samples in these places. Since then, samples have been collected in major cities from 60 countries across the Americas, Europe, Asia, Oceania, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Researchers use lab techniques to identify both the abundance and diversity of microbes in every sample.

Taking a walk on the wild side

The researchers analysed more than 4,200 different samples and found almost 11,000 new viruses and more than 1000 new bacteria. Perhaps some of these could be the key to new medicines. But this research extends far beyond these new discoveries: it also has the potential to promote the surveillance of these microbiomes for antimicrobial resistance. As medicine has advanced and we’ve come to depend more and more on drugs to treat infections, many epidemiologists, immunologists and doctors are hugely concerned about antimicrobial-resistant microbes. Even closer to home, this network of unique microbiomes could even allow for the surveillance of impending pandemics, allowing our immunologists a head start in public health strategies, vaccine development and prevention.

Environmental microbiomes may be as uniquely identifiable as snowflakes and this global project highlights the benefits of microbial surveillance and mapping to help assess potential health risks and to identify and familiarise ourselves with new species, some of which could be beneficial. The scientists who did this research claim that if you give them your shoe, they’ll be able to tell you with 90% accuracy which city you come from. Who knew a dirty shoe could be so informative?

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A black box for the planet?

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Anthropology / Environment / Health

What happens if we don’t address the climate crisis? If the harm that comes from human greenhouse gas emissions goes on to irreversibly and catastrophically change the planet? Will there be a record of what came before? And of what went wrong?

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

Could the remote Tasmanian wilderness become home to the last remaining record of humanity? Image by Joshua Brown on Unsplash.

In the aftermath of a horrific plane crash, one of the top priorities is the recovery of the aircraft’s flight recorder or ‘black box’. These unassuming devices, installed in every aircraft, preserve a record of its final moments. They are crucial for investigators trying to understand what went wrong and how to avoid a similar disaster in the future.

In December last year, a group of artists, researchers, activists, and architects sparked a great deal of media attention when they proposed the construction of a similar device, but for the planet itself. Styled as the ‘Earth’s Black Box’, this device is intended to preserve an immutable tale of human-induced climate change, and humanity’s pivotal role within it.

Now, after lodging a development application just last month, the project is one step closer to becoming a reality. So, what is the ‘Earth’s Black Box’, how will it work, and what does this project say about the fate of the planet?

Earth’s Black box

Earth’s Black Box would see an enormous 16-metre long and 4-metre-high structure of steel and concrete erected upon a remote granite-spotted plain in South-West Tasmania. Sheltered within multiple layers of steel, concrete and climate-controlled insulation will be a spacious data-storage compartment. It will consist of traditional disk drives that will continuously record a heap of information relating to human-induced climate change and our efforts to fight against it.

The project is designed for durability, intended to preserve a record of data hundreds, if not thousands, of years into the future. The remote Tasmanian location has been selected because of its social, political, geographical, and geological stability. The box will also be powered through two forms of renewable energy generation: rooftop solar and battery storage, and underground ‘thermo-electric storage’, allowing it to continually harvest data under a variety of weather conditions. While the data will initially be stored on traditional drives, eventually the plan is for it to be compressed, encoded, and engraved into the steel of its walls, providing an analogue record of data that could last hundreds of years.

Earth’s Black Box will record a wealth of data relating to physical climate changes, such as average global temperatures, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, all of which will be publicly accessible through a digital app. At the same time, Earth’s Black Box will also scour the internet for media headlines, public speeches and research articles relating to climate change, to illustrate how human actions are causing these physical changes. Eventually, the group also plans for the project to expand beyond Tasmania, with the goal of constructing  similar boxes in other places around the world.

Could we actually be headed for societal collapse?

When the proposal for Earth’s Black Box was announced in December of last year, it sparked a storm of online discussion, seemingly for the statement such a project seems to make. If Earth’s Black Box is intended to emulate an aircraft’s flight recorder, the surviving record of an aircraft that has met disaster, does this project suggest a similar thing? That is: does this project suggest that climate change could mean the end of our place on the planet?

The project’s development application does claim that climate change poses an existential threat to society, and that it could render the planet “uninhabitable”. The mere existence of a structure designed to survive the end of civilisation suggests a similar thing. But the question of whether society could collapse in the face of climate change is a controversial one, and this appears to be the reason why Earth’s Black Box has attracted so much attention.

There is very little scientific research exploring the possibility of climate-change inducing extinction of the human species, nor is this question one that can be answered scientifically. Future impacts of climate change clearly depend on a host of other political, social and economic factors. Many experts, such as Stanford University climate professor Noah Diffenbaugh, have criticised Earth’s Black Box for the fatalistic view of the future it appears to take, since this is not a view that is supported by science.

But in many respects, this debate around the question of human extinction does seem to be missing the greater point made by Earth’s Black Box.

There is no question that climate change does pose an existential threat to many human populations on the planet, for instance low-lying island states acutely susceptible to sea-level rise and extreme weather or regions of the Middle East that are warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Not to mention the fact that climate change has already proven to be an extinction risk for countless organisms other than humans

 And despite being aware of the dangers of climate change, and the urgent need to curb our emissions of greenhouse gases for decades, the world has continued to burn fossil fuels at record rates and current national emission reduction pledges remain insufficient to meet either the 1.5 or 2 degree targets of the Paris Agreement.

It is this tragic conflict that the people behind Earth’s Black Box appear to be trying to draw attention to. The Box contextualises the momentous and fateful impact of human-induced climate change, and the failure of the world’s governments to address it. Even if Earth’s Black Box never serves as the final remaining record of humanity’s plight against climate change, it symbolises the critical position we find ourselves in, and our responsibility to act accordingly.

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Taking the plunge into cold water immersion

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Can 30-seconds of cold water change your life? Let’s dive into the age-old topic of whether being immersed in cold water can bring you better health and wellbeing.

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

A quick dip in ice cold water – refreshing… right? Image by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

What is cold water immersion?

Have you ever heard of ‘The Iceman’? He’s a famous Dutch motivational speaker and founder of the ‘Wim Hof Method’. His method aims to achieve an ‘optimal natural state’ between your mind and body. One ‘pillar’ of this practice involves cold water immersion because according to Wim, ice baths or cold showers can unlock the natural healing powers of the body. Now, this may seem farfetched, but there is an abundance of scientific research which confirms that cold water immersion really is good for you.

So, let’s dive a little deeper.

Cold water therapy is an ancient practice, found in various cultures around the world. For many years, Scandinavians incorporated a post-sauna cold dip into their routine to cleanse themselves of toxins, increase blood flow, and release endorphins. This method involves using water <15°C to invigorate the body. This practice has evolved over time, from outdoor swims to ice baths, and even cryotherapy sessions. At the same time, our knowledge of the benefits and risks of cold water immersion has also progressed. 

A boost for your metabolism

Many people revel in the joys of a warm shower after a long day. But have you ever considered what a crisp, 30-second cold shock to your system would feel like? 

There is a wealth of evidence which highlights the physiological effect of cold water immersion on our bodies. A cold shower or an ice bath increases your heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. 

This refreshing experience can also increase your body’s metabolism, and potentially burn some of your body fat too! When your body is exposed to extreme cold conditions, you involuntarily shiver to keep warm. This is known as shivering thermogenesis – where shivering generates heat for your body, thereby boosting your metabolism. 

In one study, people were exposed to water temperatures of 32°C, 20°C and 14°C for one hour. They identified that the metabolism of young men increased by 93% in the 20°C water, and a remarkable 350% for the 14°C water. 

Now, before you start filling up your bathtub with icy water, careful consideration and caution is still required. With a balanced diet, this increase in metabolism during cold exposure could possibly result in weight loss. But a large increase in metabolism can also result in an equally large expenditure of energy, meaning you may experience heightened hunger and overeating – as seen in mouse studies.

Could a cold shower cure Alzheimer’s?

In 2015, Professor Giovanna Mallucci, Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute’s centre at Cambridge University and colleagues, conducted a series of experiments investigating the effects of cold water on dementia. They looked at the effects on ordinary mice, and mice with Alzheimer’s disease. Both groups were cooled until they became hypothermic: defined as a body temperature below 35°C. This condition causes a loss of synapses – which are connections between brain cells – and these connections breaking down can cause dementia. 

Their study showed that when the mice were re-warmed, only the ordinary mice could restore their broken down synapses, and a cold-shock protein from the brain was produced – called RNA-binding motif protein 3 (RBM3). Interestingly, the mice with Alzheimer’s lacked high levels of this protein, but the levels in ordinary mice skyrocketed! So researchers thought, what if we artificially boost RBM3 levels in mice? And much to their surprise, this reduced and prevented synapse damage in the mice with Alzheimer’s.

But what about humans? The same research group found that outdoor swimmers who regularly experience hypothermic conditions had higher levels of RBM3 in their blood. The research shows that cold water immersion can trigger the release of this cold-shock protein, and perhaps RBM3 could be the key to synapse regeneration and preventing the onset of dementia.

Should I take the plunge?

Cold water immersion has also been used as a treatment for mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Extreme cold temperatures can activate our sympathetic nervous system, and this elevates the levels of endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine in our brains. The combination of these hormones and neurotransmitters generates that ‘high’ or ‘feel good’ feeling people experience after cold water immersion, demonstrating antidepressant effects. But it’s important to note cold water should not be used as a replacement for the medical treatment of mental health conditions. 

Despite the wealth of knowledge we have on the benefits of cold water immersion for our mental health and physical wellbeing, we must also keep in mind the complexity of the human body. You might be persuaded to dip into the wonders of cold water immersion, but first consider your current health conditions, and even have a conversation with your doctor for more information.

Whether you prefer to jump into an ice-cold pool or lake, or add a refreshing blast of cold water to your shower, cold water immersion could be the cure you’ve been searching for.

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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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