The fiction and facts of speed reading

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Myths / Psychology

Seems likely you suffer from the same problem I do: there’s so much good stuff to read and not enough time to read even a fraction of it. But what if we could all learn to read at double or triple our current speed? Surely that would fix the problem. There’s no doubt about it; speed reading sounds appealing. But research suggests books about speed reading may well belong on the fiction shelves.

How fast could you read and understand a book like this? Image credit Sam Greenhalgh via Flickr

How fast could you read and understand a book like this? Image credit Sam Greenhalgh via Flickr

Death by Tsundoku

I suffer from a pretty serious case of tsundoku: I have a massive, and ever-growing pile of books beside my bed that I don’t have time to read. Sound familiar? Given email, work reports, blog posts, books and text messages, we’re surrounded by words. Current estimates are we now read around 54,000 words per day.

Most educated adults read at a speed of 200–400 words per minute. Surely the simple answer to our toppling reading piles is simply to learn to read faster? It’s not a new idea: back in 1959, teacher Evelyn Wood published Reading Skills and later launched her Reading Dynamics training program. The story goes Wood could read at a speed of 2,700 words per minute. Her argument was simple: the way we read is inefficient.

Speed demons

You don’t have to look far to find claims of even faster reading. In 2007, Ann Jones read all 199,797 words of the final Harry Potter instalment in 47 minutes. That’s 4,251 words per minute. It would take an average reader 11 uninterrupted hours to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The 1990 Guinness World Record book recognised Howard Berg as the fastest reader in the world. His reading was clocked at more than 25,000 words a minute.

How could such feats be possible? Speed reading techniques centre around a few key approaches. Firstly, you can simply skim read and focus only on important words – no surprises it’s faster to read if you skip over many of the words.

You can also learn not to spend time saying each word in your head (called sub-vocalisation). The argument goes this practice is simply a hangover from the way we learned to read – aloud. But when scientists got people to ‘turn off’ this little inner voice by humming while reading, their understanding of the text plummeted. Another technique involves trying to read groups of words, or potentially even whole pages in one mental snapshot (also called chunking), rather than labouring over words one-at-a-time.

Eyeballing it

Other speed reading proponents argue one of the main reasons most of us read more slowly than we could, is the time it takes for our eyes to track each individual word on a page. There are a number of apps that purport to solve this problem by presenting only one word at a time in rapid sequence on a screen. This technique is known as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP). But we’ve known for decades this approach limits our understanding of the text.

A further hindrance to reading speed is our habit of often going back and re-reading something we haven’t completely understood the first time – it’s called regression. Sounds like a big time-waster, doesn’t it? But prevent readers from being able to go back and re-read and once again, their comprehension of the text drops.

Research published late last year investigated decades of research into how we read and then applied that understanding to speed reading techniques. It turns out when you read faster, you are simply trading off between speed and accuracy. Sure, you can read faster, potentially much faster, but you may not understand much of what you read. And you may remember even less of it. Woody Allen makes the point well:

I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.

No quick fix

The main obstacle to speed reading turns out to be nothing to do with our speed of seeing words, but rather our ability to put words together into meaningful phrases. Scientists suggest unless you already know a lot about a topic, you’re unlikely to remember much of what you read at high speed. For example, they suggest Ann Jones couldn’t have read and understood the plot of Harry Potter nearly so quickly had she not read the rest of the series first.

Does that mean there’s nothing you can do to read more quickly? No, but it depends on what you’re reading and why. We can all become more effective skim readers – glossing over some parts of a text while focusing on other, more important bits. But reading this way is only ever likely to give us the gist of a text’s meaning.

Researchers suggest the best way to become a better reader is – no surprises here – to read more. And to read without being distracted by our phones, or anything else. We also need to improve our comprehension and vocabulary by reading a variety of different types and styles of writing. This is because the maximum speed we can move from one word to the next when reading is determined by how quickly we can recognise and understand the meaning of those words. The more varied the writing you read, the bigger your vocabulary.

Makes sense, and isn’t it lucky I have a big pile of books beside the bed just waiting to help me.

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Red wine for a long life?

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Biology / Health / Medicine / Myths

If you believe everything you read, drinking red wine will prevent you getting cancer or heart disease, can treat diabetes, and will make you live longer. That’s right, according to some headlines, red wine is the elixir of life and a miracle cure-all. Is there any truth behind the hype?

Fermented red grapes are the most concentrated source of the powerful antioxidant known as resveratrol. But will another glass of merlot help you live longer? Image credit U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr

Fermented red grapes are a source of the powerful antioxidant known as resveratrol. But will another glass of merlot actually help you live longer? Image credit U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr


All the excitement about red wine is actually to do with resveratrol, a compound found in the skin of red grapes. Resveratrol is also found in other foods such as blueberries, cranberries, peanuts and cocoa (part of the reason you’ve been told chocolate is good for you). Some plants produce resveratrol when under stress: it’s part of a plant’s system of defence against diseases or fungal infections. Resveratrol is an antioxidant, which means it can help prevent damage to cells.

There have been literally thousands of studies published on the effects of resveratrol, dating back to the 1980s. Resveratrol first made big news in 2003 when scientists showed it extended the lifespan of yeast. The research suggested resveratrol ‘switched on’ a longevity gene in the yeast.

Since then researchers have shown – at least in mice – that resveratrol acts as an anti-inflammatory, prevents hypertension, may reduce the risk of bowel cancer, inhibits the growth of skin cancers, could be a promising treatment for diabetes, and inhibits a variety of viruses. Resveratrol has also been found to protect against noise-induced hearing loss and to be a successful treatment for acne.

There have also been studies on the effects of resveratrol in humans. One found high doses of resveratrol reduced the high hormone levels experienced by women suffering from polycystic ovarian syndrome. Another suggested resveratrol holds promise as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Following from the research in yeast, resveratrol has also been shown to increase the lifespan of other organisms, for example fruit flies, roundworms and fish. There was huge excitement in 2006 when research showed resveratrol improved the health and significantly increased the lifespan of mice.

Red, red wine

It all sounds very promising, doesn’t it? Surely if even half of those benefits are real we should drink more red wine, just to be on the safe side.

But there’s a problem. A big problem. It turns out that to consume enough resveratrol to mimic these studies, you’d have to drink around two thousand bottles of red wine a day. Resveratrol is only present at trace levels in red wine. And given we know drinking alcohol can actually cause cancer and a host of other health problems, upping our alcohol intake even a little bit is not a good idea.

To better understand the effects of resveratrol, scientists looked at the health of a group of almost 800 Italian men and women aged over 65 who had a diet naturally high in resveratrol – as a result of their traditional Tuscan fare. The researchers measured the amount of resveratrol products in the participants’ urine (a more accurate measure than asking people to keep track of what they eat and drink). Then over nine years, the scientists looked at which people developed heart disease and cancer, and which people died. The researchers expected the healthiest people to have the highest levels of resveratrol. But that wasn’t the case. There was no relationship between resveratrol and health. It may simply not be possible to eat and drink enough resveratrol in a normal diet to gain the health effects researchers have found in mice.

Pop it in a pill

If it’s too hard to get enough resveratrol in food or wine, there’s an obvious answer: put loads of this magic ingredient into a pill. Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first to come up with this idea. A few years ago, annual sales of resveratrol supplements had already hit $30 million, just in the United States.

But again, it’s not so simple. Our livers break down most of the resveratrol taken in pill-form before it’s had the chance to do us any good: three-quarters of it ends up being flushed down the toilet.

There’s something else to worry about too. In a study of 65-year old men, those taking resveratrol supplements got less benefit from high-intensity exercise than those men taking a placebo. Results suggest resveratrol actually blocks the cardiovascular benefits of exercise. Not quite what the companies selling these supplements were hoping for.

It seems to me the jury is still out. Although Dr Oz has put red wine on his ‘Ultimate Anti-Ageing checklist’, I’m not convinced we’ve got evidence red wine is the answer to living longer.

Rather than stocking a cellar full of your favourite shiraz, your best shot at a long life may be far less decadent: eat more vegetables, eat less overall, spend a little over an hour a day exercising, get enough sleep and have a regular sleeping and waking schedule.

But even though it might not make you live longer, that’s no reason not to relax and enjoy a delicious red or two this Silly Season.

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How sweet it is

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Zoology

Before goji berries, chia seeds and spirulina, there was honey. The second sweetest thing found in nature, honey is the original superfood. Not only is it extremely tasty, honey has been used in medicine since ancient Egyptian times. What is it about honey that makes it so special?

Honey: the original superfood.

Honey: the original superfood.

The magic of bee vomit

The earliest written reference to honey hails from about 2000 BC: a Sumerian clay tablet refers to its use as a drug and an ointment. Aristotle knew plenty about honey bees and the fact honey could be used to treat wounds. Bronze age burial mounds show evidence of honey being used to preserve burial objects: archaeologists have found still-red 4,300 year old berries. Alexander the Great is said to have been laid to rest in a sarcophagus full of honey and other ancient cultures may have used honey to mummify their dead.

These days we know a lot about honey: it has been rediscovered by modern medicine as a powerful antibacterial. This simply means honey can prevent the growth of bacteria. Given the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance, anything that can stop bacteria in its tracks is a good thing. It also means honey has the potential to be an excellent natural food preservative.

A few factors make honey so powerful: its syrupy consistency keeps air out of wounds, which reduces the risk of infection. Honey is packed full of sugar and is also acidic, both of which make it hard for bacteria to grow. But artificial honey with the same thickness and sugar concentration doesn’t kill bacteria nearly as effectively as honey.

Manuka honey, also known as healing honey, is an effective dressing for wounds, and kills a number of pesky bacteria. It is made from the nectar of a plant in the tea tree family that grows in New Zealand and Australia.

While Manuka honey is considered to be medical grade honey (and comes with a higher price tag), other honey has been found to also fight bacteria and other tiny organisms that can make us sick. Among other things, honey helps burns to heal, can treat a variety of skin conditions, may reduce allergy symptoms and works better than cough mixture to calm a tickly throat. Unprocessed honey also contains many different antioxidants, which can reduce your risk of heart disease.

Diluted honey works just as well as expensive sport gels for endurance athletes. And one study found taking honey supplements improves memory. There is even some evidence honey interferes with the growth of cancerous cells.

Not bad for something that is essentially bee vomit.

A recipe for honey

Bees do some pretty nifty processing to make honey. Worker honeybees leave their hive to search for pollen and nectar. It’s the nectar that becomes honey and bees do intricate and highly informative ‘waggle’ dances to communicate to their hive mates where good nectar can be found. One estimate is it takes more than 500 worker bees visiting 2 million flowers to make half a kilo of honey. The average worker bee will make one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

Bees drink nectar from flowers and store it in a special extra stomach. When a forager bee returns to the hive, she regurgitates the nectar to honey-making bees. These bees pass the nectar from mouth-to-mouth to partially digest it – breaking down the complex sugars into glucose and fructose as well as reducing the water content.

The bees deposit the newly-made honey into the hexagonal wax honeycomb and flap their wings over the honeycomb to dry out the honey even more. When the consistency is right, the bees cap each hexagon with wax for storage.

Why do bees make and store honey? Honey is food for the larvae – baby bees – as well as for the adults during times of year when flowers are thin on the ground.

No use by date

Fancy a spoonful of three thousand-year-old honey? There’s no reason you couldn’t: archaeologists have found pots of perfectly-preserved honey in ancient Egyptian tombs.

How can honey have no use by date? There are a few factors at play, many of them the same reasons why honey is more than just a folk remedy. The key: honey simply doesn’t provide a nice place for bacteria or other tiny nasties to live. It’s too thick, too low in moisture and too acidic.

But molasses, although also thick, low in water and acidic, will eventually spoil. What makes honey so special is what the bees add to it. Bees have a particular enzyme in their stomachs, which gets added to the nectar when they regurgitate it. When mixed with the water in nectar, this enzyme breaks down into hydrogen peroxide, a kind of bleach. The hydrogen peroxide partly explains honey’s anti-bacterial effect, as well as its long life. As long as you leave it sealed, just like bees do, your honey should last forever.

I seem to recall Winnie-the-Pooh never had lids on his pots of honey. But I guess he ate it so fast there was no risk of his honey going off anyway.

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The problem with optimism

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Anthropology / Health / Myths / Psychology

Are you an optimist? Quite likely – more than three-quarters of us are. And it’s a good thing to be: optimists are healthier and live longer. But there’s also a dark side to optimism. Optimists are not very good at being realistic, and that can cause problems.

How do you see the glass? Image credit: Sudheesh S via Flickr

How do you see the glass? Image credit: Sudheesh S via Flickr

Silver linings

If you’re an optimist, there are plenty of things to be glad about. Optimists are less likely to suffer heart disease or stroke and have better immunity. Optimists recover from illness more quickly, handle stress better and live longer. They are more likely to stick to dietary recommendations from their doctor and have healthier cholesterol levels. Optimists also find jobs more easily and are more successful at work. Studies of soldiers who have been held as Prisoners of War for long periods reveal that more than any other characteristic, optimism can lead to resilience in the face of trauma.

Whether you’re healthy or sick, you’re less likely to die if you’re an optimist. A study of nearly 100,000 women found the most positive women were 30% less likely to die from heart disease than women with a pessimistic outlook. Nearly 7000 U.S students entering University in the 1960s were asked to take a personality test. Researchers followed up with these students over the next 40 years. Close to 500 of them died during that period, most commonly from cancer. The pessimists had a 42% higher chance of dying than the optimists.

It’s no surprise there are plenty of people telling us life is better as an optimist. ‘Think positively’ has been a leading mantra of the self-help industry for many years.

The future looks bright

Optimism begins with mental time travel: we imagine ourselves in the future. The ability to do this has clearly been vital for human survival. Whether storing food for winter, setting off on migration or working hard now to reap rewards down the track, picturing the future is an essential skill. But it can come at a cost for optimists.

When optimists envisage the future, everything looks rosy. And to some extent that’s good: imagining a brighter future allows us to set goals. The problem comes when, in the process of thinking about a positive future, in our minds we feel like we’ve already got there. For example, obese women taking part in a weight loss program who envisaged themselves as having lost weight were less likely to actually lose weight. Those who already imagined themselves slimmer had less incentive to change their habits.

When we have happy fantasies about the future, our energy levels sag: we relax and our blood pressure drops. Sounds nice, doesn’t it. Except we end up feeling lazy and that’s the last way you want to feel when you’re trying to achieve a goal. University graduates who were doubtful and worried about whether they would get a job ended up getting more job offers and earning more than graduates who indulged in positive daydreams about their future career.

The act of dreaming about a positive future saps the motivation we need to actually achieve that future.

Rose-coloured glasses ignore risk

Optimistic thinking is widespread. Many surveys have shown just how optimistic we are about ourselves. In one study, 25% of people said they were in the top 1% for getting along with others. No less that 93% of US college students said they were above average in driving ability in another study. By definition, neither of those things can be true. We all believe ourselves to be better-than-average.

We are stubborn in our optimism: volunteers in another study were asked to imagine a variety of bad situations. Scenarios like getting fired, having their car stolen, getting divorced or developing cancer. They were asked to estimate the likelihood of this event actually happening to them. Later, the study participants were told the true probability of the misfortune occurring and then asked to reassess their own personal risk.

Let’s say someone initially predicted a 40% chance of getting cancer. When told the actual likelihood of developing cancer is only 30%, that person was quick to revise the estimate down the second time around.

How about the other way around? Someone who thinks their likelihood of a cancer diagnosis is only 10%? You’d assume when told the true risk is 30%, that person would up their estimate to reflect reality. Barely – on average, the revised estimate only goes up to 11%.

The more optimistic we are, the more we ignore negative information about the future. It’s called the optimism bias and researchers have even identified the part of our brain responsible for it. And it’s not just humans who suffer from this bias, so do rats and birds. About the only people we know who don’t have optimism bias are those suffering depression.

If most of us have it, how bad can optimism bias be? Does it mean we should all aim to be pessimists? Not at all, we just need to be aware of our bias. The problem is that being overly optimistic may stop us taking precautions to avoid harm.

So we can stay optimistic, but researchers remind us we need to be proactive: get health check-ups, save for retirement and remember to put on sunscreen. We need a heavy dose of realism with our optimism.

Hmmmm, it certainly sounds sensible but surely all will be well if I just keep assuming the best? Yep, I’m an eternal optimist.

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Smiley face

comments 5
Anthropology / Health / Myths / Psychology

We all smile. We smile when we’re happy, but also when we’re sad, embarrassed or in pain. If someone smiles at us, we can’t help but smile back. We judge each other by our smiles, although exactly what you make of a smile depends on your culture. But is it true even a forced smile will make you feel happier?

A genuine smile is hard to fake. Image credit Matteo Martinelli via Flickr

A genuine smile can be hard to fake, but does it matter? Image credit Matteo Martinelli via Flickr

Put on a happy face

One of the odd things about smiling is that in the animal world, the baring of teeth is often a sign of aggression. Among humans, there are two main kinds of smiles. A genuine smile – known as a Duchenne smile – raises your cheeks, gives you crow’s feet around your eyes and signals enjoyment. The other kind of smile only involves raising the corners of your mouth and is essentially a forced ‘say cheese’ kind of smile. It’s also been dubbed a flight attendant smile. These two smiles are controlled by different parts of your brain and emerge very early. Ten-month olds give a fake smile to strangers but a genuine smile to their mothers.

What your smile says about you

People who smile are perceived of as happier, more attractive and likeable. Women smile more than men, but we all smile less often as we age. People who smile are thought of as more polite, relaxed and carefree, as well as more honest and kind. Kids draw both ‘nice’ and ‘clever’ people with smiles on their faces. None of that is terribly surprising, but your tendency to smile may say more about you than you realise.

One well-known study involved analysing the smiles of more than one hundred 21-year old women in their college yearbook photos. Some photos captured real smiles, others, fake smiles, and some of the women weren’t smiling at all. The researchers followed up with these women at several stages through their lives. Even 30 years later, women with genuine smiles at 21 were more likely to be happily married and to score high on measures of overall wellbeing. These women were also more likely to be organised, compassionate, nurturing and sociable.

Another study of photos found if you smiled more in photos taken during your early life, you are less likely to be divorced later on. Smiles captured in photos may even predict how long you’re going to live. Baseball players photographed with genuine smiles in 1942 lived to an average age of 80 years. This compares with players who didn’t smile in their photos and lived an average of only 72 years. That’s eight more (presumably happy) years for the smilers.

The whole world smiles with you

Have you ever traveled somewhere, smiled at someone in an attempt to convey your friendliness and been met with a blank face? Be aware: smiling means different things in different places. For example, according to a Russian proverb: ‘smiling for no reason is a sign of stupidity’. In Iran, people are perceived as less intelligent when they smile than when they don’t. This is also true of people in Japan, India, South Korea, Russia and France. Interestingly, in cultures with high levels of corruption, smiling people are far less trusted than in less corrupt societies.

Other aspects of smiling are likely to be more universal. We know smiling is contagious and the act of you smiling also makes the people around you feel cheerier. Smiling helps us stay calm in stressful situations and prompts us to return to happy memories. But is it true what people say – that smiling, even with a fake smile, makes you feel happier?

Fake it ’til you make it

Most of us are well versed at smiling whenever someone points a camera in our direction. And being able to smile on demand may well be a good thing because research shows smiling makes us happy. It’s officially known as the facial feedback hypothesis.

The idea an expression on your face could influence how you feel goes back to Darwin. Back in 1872, he suggested showing an emotion outwardly would intensify the feeling of that emotion. The famous smile textbook example comes from research published in 1988. The idea was to test whether smiling made people feel more positive. The challenge? How to get people to smile without knowing they were doing it. The simple, but ingenious answer was to ask people to hold a pen either between their lips, or their teeth.

Try it. With a pen held between your lips, you end up frowning. But with a pen held between your teeth, it’s impossible not to smile. Sure enough, in this study people who were forced to smile rated Far Side cartoons as much funnier than those who had been made to frown. The same thing has been found many times, in a heap of different studies. If we smile, even without knowing it, we feel more positive. One study even found using Botox injections to get rid of frown lines can contribute towards recovery from depression.

I should point out that when 17 different research groups set out to exactly replicate the original pen-in-mouth study this year, the results didn’t pan out.

But on balance it still seems finding plenty of reasons to plaster a genuine smile across your face is probably a good way to go through life. I’m certainly up for the challenge.

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Walking the walk

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Biology / Health / Myths / Psychology

It’s been claimed a humble walk can clear your head, put you in a good mood, treat depression, increase creativity, help you deal with stress, improve your health and even make you live longer. Is walking really all it’s cracked up to be? Yes, absolutely.

Is walking all it’s cracked up to be? Well, yes actually. Image credit Bruce Aldridge via Flickr

Is walking all it’s cracked up to be? Image credit Bruce Aldridge via Flickr

In the mood

You’re in a foul mood. What should you do? A: phone a friend. B: reach for chocolate. C: go for a walk around the block. Pick C: chances are you’ve already experienced the mood boost that comes from going for a walk. Me? I’d probably call a friend while walking to the local shop to buy chocolate.

But is it the act of walking itself that has an effect on mood, or some of the other things that tend to go hand-in-hand with walking? For example, maybe the benefit comes from thinking you are getting fitter in the process? Or perhaps it’s just the change of scene. Some studies have shown walking outdoors, particularly in green spaces, improves mental health far more than walking indoors. But is it the fresh air or the walking that lifts our spirits?

New research suggests it is the very act of walking that is the key. Without telling the study participants what they were testing, researchers asked people to do a series of walking or sitting activities. But the activities were carefully matched so as to be as similar as possible aside from the walking or sitting aspect. One experiment involved people either taking a short, boring tour of the inside of a building, or sitting and watching a video of the same tour. Another involved watching a video while either sitting, standing, or walking on a treadmill. The study participants were questioned about their mood before, during and after these events. In every case, walking led to positive feelings such as joviality, attentiveness, vigour and self-assurance. The simple act of walking made people feel better, even if they had to write an essay about their building tour (this part of the experiment was aptly named ‘walking dread’).

Walk, don’t run

Walking isn’t just a good treatment for mental health either. Part of the reason walking is such a health boost is that when you’re walking, you can’t be sitting. We know spending too much of our time sitting down is disastrous for our health. When we spend a long time sitting, the muscles in our legs don’t contract. This means blood, instead of being pumped back to the heart, can pool in our legs and cause serious damage to our arteries.

But it doesn’t take much to counteract the time we inevitably spend sitting down. Two minutes spent walking out of every 20 minutes spent sitting has massive health benefits and three slow, five-minute walks each day are enough to counter the negative effects on your leg arteries of three hours of sitting. These studies tell us even small amounts of walking can improve our health.

Many studies confirm the health benefits of walking: walking for an hour or two each day reduced the risk of stroke in men over 60 by a third. Just half an hour of walking each day was found to reduce the risk of dying in the next three years by one-third for people suffering kidney disease. Another study found walking 3km per day cuts your chances of ending up in hospital with severe lung disease by a half. One study even suggested walking in a forest boosts our immune systems and could play a role in fighting cancer.

If walking is good, is running better? Research published in 2013 looked at the health over a six-year period of more than 48,000 runners and walkers aged 18 – 80. The research showed in some cases, a brisk walk is better for your health than running. If you balance out the amount of energy expended on both activities, walking actually reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol more effectively than running. The difference is of course, that it takes much longer to use the same amount of energy walking as it does running.

Get your creative juices flowing

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking – Friedrich Nietzche

Today there is plenty of science to back Nietzche up. If improving your mood and health isn’t enough, walking is also one of the best things you can do to boost your creative thinking. Using standard tests of creativity, 100% of people in a 2014 study thought more creatively when walking than when sitting. On average, the increase in creativity associated with walking was measured at 60%. This was true even when the study participants were walking on a treadmill facing a blank wall. Walking appears to also help with memory – both children and young adults did better on memory tasks when they were walking rather than sitting, as long as they were allowed to walk at their own pace.

Why is walking so good for us? It may be really quite simple. When we walk, our hearts pump faster. More oxygen is delivered throughout our bodies, including to our brains. A year of walking led to new connections between brain cells in adults, and walking at least 72 city blocks a week (10 – 14 km) is linked to increased brain volume in a few different areas, including the hippocampus, an area crucial for memory. Walking arouses our whole body and gives us more energy. And because it doesn’t take much conscious effort to walk, that energy can be invested in creative thinking and problem solving.

So what are you waiting for? Grab your sneakers and out the door you go.

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Natural born liars

comments 2
Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

How often do you lie? If your answer is ‘hardly ever’, I reckon you’re lying right now. We all lie. Often our lies are harmless and may have been told for a good reason. But the point is, we all say things that aren’t true. Why is lying so common and at what age do we begin to tell fibs?

How old were you when you told your first lie?

How old were you when you told your first lie?

Secrets and Lies

Lying is more common than you might think. According to one study, most of us lie at least once or twice a day. Think of any conversation you had during the past week that lasted 10 minutes or more: if you’re like most people, there’s a one-in-five chance you lied during that conversation. During one week, you are likely to deceive nearly one-third of the people you interact with one-on-one. Some relationships involve more lying than others. For example, university students have been found to lie to their mothers in half of all conversations. And it’s worth pointing out social pleasantries like ‘I’m well thanks’ or ‘it’s no trouble’ didn’t count as lies in this research.

Lies are also common in romantic relationships. Eighty-five percent of university student couples said one or both partners had lied about past relationships. And dating couples lie in about a third of their interactions – probably more than they lie to other people. But the lies we tell to the people closest to us are more likely to be discovered. It’s also worth pointing out that people in all cultures lie, we just lie about different things and in different ways. And lying isn’t peculiar to humans. Birds do it, butterflies do it, orchids do it, apes and monkeys do it, even dolphins deceive.

Liar, liar, pants on fire

Like The Boy who Cried Wolf, any parent will attest to the fact kids lie. We wish they didn’t and we tell them it’s the wrong thing to do, but still kids lie. And they start early. Research shows even 6-month olds will ‘fake cry’ to get attention when nothing is wrong. And children learn to lie, both to protect themselves and help others, from the age of two. At two, kids lie to deny wrongdoing and escape punishment: I didn’t have any of the cake, says the kid with chocolate icing all over her mouth. Two and three-year olds tend to be very unconvincing liars. When asked about their behaviour, most will confess.

But by three, kids have also learned to tell ‘white’ lies like thanking someone for a present they don’t like or want. These are important social skills to learn, but learning to lie is a complex business. In order to lie, a child has to understand the fact that other people have their own separate, and potentially very different, thoughts. It is the process of learning to consider what other people think and feel that enables a child not only to lie, but lie convincingly.

Even if you think you’re good at picking up when your kid is lying to you, chances are you’re not. Studies of more than 10,000 kids and adults found adults correctly identify lies less than half the time. That’s right – you might as well flip a coin. If you want your kid to tell the truth, research suggests you should do two things. First, reassure your child they won’t be punished for confessing. Second, explain that telling the truth will make them feel happier.

Lies, sweet little lies

We all lie to get what we want and avoid certain consequences. Lying is thought to be closely linked to self-esteem: as soon as we feel threatened, we’re tempted to concoct bigger and more complicated lies to protect ourselves. More often though, the lies we tell to protect ourselves are only small. Small lies allow us to still believe we are fundamentally honest people. We tell lies when we are short on time and need to quickly cover up, but also if we feel justified in doing so.

It turns out rather than being deceiving two-faced fakes, a lot of the lies we tell are designed to help others. Many of our lies are the result of us pretending to like someone or something more than we actually do in order to protect someone else’s feelings. These lies can be important parts of tact and politeness and as Jim Carrey showed us in Liar Liar, the world would definitely not be a happier place if we only ever told the absolute truth.

From little things, big things grow

We all lie and we start doing it when we’re very young. But why do most of us stick with garden-variety little lies, while others lie about big stuff? Research published last month suggests compulsive liars effectively train their brains to ignore the guilty feelings most of us experience when we lie. If you don’t feel guilty about lying, it’s not at all difficult to lie again. Remember the amygdala – the part of our brain linked to fear, pleasure and the ‘flight or flight’ response?   Brain scans of people encouraged to lie repeatedly showed that the response in the amygdala decreased with repeated lies. Our brains become desensitised to lying: the more we lie, the easier it is to lie again and again. It’s a slippery slope.

Whether it’s evading taxes, being unfaithful, doping in sports, making up data or committing financial fraud, deceivers often recall how small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time” – Associate Professor Tali Sharot

Presumably then, lying less often should make it harder to lie. And trying to lie less may well be a challenge we should all embrace: research shows telling the truth when we are tempted to lie can significantly improve our physical and mental health. And that’s the truth.

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Do early birds catch all the worms?

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Biology / Health / Myths / Psychology

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

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

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

Nighty night, sleep tight

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

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


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

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

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

Wealthy? Happy? Wise?

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

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

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

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

Should you make the switch?

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

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

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

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comments 4
Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

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

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

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

Seeing is believing

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

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

Baby talk

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

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

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

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

Baby brain

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

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

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

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

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

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A laughing matter

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Anthropology / Evolution / Myths / Psychology

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

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

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

Is laughter the best medicine?

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

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

Know any good jokes?

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

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

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

It’s a social thing

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe laughter, not love, is the universal language.

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