Scaling great heights

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Anthropology / Evolution / Genetics / Health / Myths

Sherpas – sometimes called superhumans – are extraordinary mountaineers who are at home in the peaks of the Himalayas. What is it about Sherpas that enables them to power on at such high altitude?

Sherpas perform extraordinary feats of endurance at high altitude. Image credit: Niklassletteland via Wikimedia Commons

The top of the world

Standing at 8,848 m above sea level, the peak of Mt. Everest is not a welcoming place for humans. We need oxygen, and up there, oxygen levels are only a third of those found at sea level. Some people begin to experience mild altitude sickness, including headaches, nausea, dizziness and exhaustion, at only 2500 m above sea level. Climbers who venture above 8000 m have entered the ‘death zone’: our bodies, particularly our brains, don’t do well without oxygen.

The way to help our bodies cope with high altitude is to allow them to adjust gradually. Climbers spend many weeks acclimatising to high-altitude conditions, slowly moving higher into the mountains. Research has shown our bodies are reasonably good at adjusting to low-oxygen conditions: spending just two weeks in the mountains cause changes in our blood that may last for months. But fewer than 200 climbers have ever managed to reach the summit of Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen.

One group of people famous for their ability to thrive in low-oxygen conditions are the Sherpas. Sherpas are an ethnic group from Nepal who have lived in the high altitudes of the Himalayas for generations.

Superhumans

Behind virtually every successful summit of Mt. Everest by foreigners, there are climbing Sherpas. We’ve all heard of Tenzing Norgay, famous for having been the first, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, to reach the top of Mt. Everest in 1953. While Sherpas have been called the forgotten heroes of the mountain, you’re sure to be familiar with their incredible climbing abilities. Sherpas hold the world records for reaching the summit of Mt. Everest the fastest and the most times, and Sherpas who act as guides and porters for foreigners who climb Himalayan peaks.

Researchers have long wondered how Sherpas live and work at altitudes that make the rest of us sick. Scientists have put together pieces of the puzzle over the last few decades, studying Sherpa genetics and the evolutionary history of Himalayan people. We know the Sherpa people have been living at high altitude for centuries and have many evolutionary adaptations to low-oxygen conditions.

One normal response our bodies have to low levels of oxygen is to produce more red blood cells. This is a great way for our blood to carry more oxygen, but it also means our blood gets thicker and is more likely to clog blood vessels. Past research has shown Sherpas actually have fewer red blood cells, but higher levels of nitric oxide, a chemical that opens up blood vessels. But research published this month has given us new insights into Sherpa physiology, and the trick to their high-altitude living is not just in their blood.

Extreme science

In 2013, an Xtreme Everest science expedition headed to Everest Base Camp, located at 5,300 m above sea level. The researchers wanted to learn more about human biology at high altitude and took 180 volunteers with them. Sixty-four were Sherpas, the rest, members of the public who live at low altitudes (‘lowlanders’). The scientists looked at the blood, bones and muscle of each member of the two groups before and after they had reached base camp.

It turns out Sherpas can conserve muscle energy at high altitude because of the way their mitochondria function. Mitochondria are like batteries, the energy centres in each of our cells. The research showed the Sherpas’ mitochondria use oxygen much more efficiently then the lowlanders when producing the energy their bodies need. And while the energy reserves in the muscles of the lowlanders decreased the longer these people spent at basecamp, energy reserves increased in the Sherpas’ muscles, despite the low oxygen.

Sherpas have spent thousands of years living at high altitudes, so it should be unsurprising that they have adapted to become more efficient at using oxygen and generating energy.  Dr Andrew Murray, University of Cambridge

This research isn’t just about helping gung-ho adventurers survive the slopes of Everest. Many critically-ill patients also experience a fall in oxygen levels, for example when suffering heart failure, lung diseases and many cancers. Understanding the way Sherpa physiology has evolved to cope with extreme conditions may just help all of us one day.

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Early learning

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Anthropology / Evolution / Myths / Zoology

Love spicy food? Find certain songs calming? You started developing preferences for flavours and sounds while you were still in the womb.  And it’s not just us: many animals begin learning about the world around them before they’re even born.

Learning by sound and taste. Clockwise from top-left: elephant, horse, kangaroo, cheetah, dolphin and emperor penguin. Image credit Peter Chinn / National Geographic

Listening from the inside

Before you were born, you had a lot to listen to. There was the regular thumping of your mother’s heart, the blood whooshing through her body, and even the rumbling and gurgling of her stomach. You were also getting to know your mother’s voice and from the moment you were born, you preferred her voice over a stranger’s. What’s more, you already preferred listening to your mother’s native language over other languages.

You may have developed more specific preferences too. If your mum liked listening to a particular song or type of music, you would have recognised it and liked it too. One striking example of this comes from a study of women who watched the Australian soap opera Neighbours daily during their pregnancy. Four or five days after birth, babies who had heard the muffled strains of the show’s theme song before they were born became immediately calm upon hearing the song again. The song had no such effect on babies who hadn’t heard the song before birth. The same has been shown for babies who frequently hear particular nursery rhymes before birth.

Other studies have shown we learn words and sounds in the womb and that the memory of these sounds can be detected in our brains. The melody of our newborn cries have characteristics of our native language, and if your mum spoke multiple languages during her pregnancy with you, you were born liking the sound of each of the languages you were exposed to.

A taste sensation

It’s not only sound we’re exposed to in the womb: we also learn about flavour. Before you were born, you swallowed the amniotic fluid that surrounded you. And this fluid bore the signature flavours of the food your mother ate. If she ate spicy food, you developed a taste for it too. We know a variety of flavours can be easily detected in amniotic fluid, including garlic, mint, aniseed and vanilla. One study showed that mothers who ate lots of garlic during pregnancy gave birth to babies who also liked garlic. Babies who aren’t exposed to garlic before birth generally hate the flavour. The same goes for carrots: mothers who drank carrot juice during the last few months of pregnancy had babies who went on to happily eat carrot and carrot-flavoured cereal. So if you want kids who’ll eat their veggies without complaining, make sure you eat plenty of veggies during pregnancy.

These preferences have also been found in other animals. Rats whose mothers eat a high-fat, high-sugar diet are born preferring the same kind of ‘junk’ foods. Female sheep that eat hay infused with oregano oil give birth to lambs that prefer oregano-flavoured hay over normal hay. Newborn chicks are also influenced by the flavours of their mother’s diet.

What’s it like out there?

There are many amazing examples of unborn animals learning about the world waiting for them on the outside. Quail prefer the sound of whatever call they hear while still inside the egg, even if it is the call of a different species. Superb fairy wrens learn a distinct ‘password’ call from their mothers while still in the egg. After hatching, they mimic this call to get fed by their mothers in the presence of imposter cuckoo birds. Zebra finches use song to communicate information about climate to their unhatched eggs. This, in turn, affects the birth weight of the chicks (it’s better to be small in a hotter climate). There’s little doubt that’s going to come in handy in the face of climate change.

Frog embryos learn to be afraid of salamanders, a common predator, if they are exposed to the smell of danger (a mixture of crushed tadpole and salamander). Tadpoles that are exposed to the smell while still in the egg recognise salamanders as dangerous. Cuttlefish prefer eating crabs over shrimp, but only if they’ve been able to see crabs through the transparent wall of their egg before birth. No wonder animals have evolved such early learning: it’s easy to imagine the benefits of knowing about the world waiting on the outside.

So if you’re pregnant, or you’re near someone who is, be aware: the baby inside is listening to every sound.

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Is training your brain just a game?

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Psychology

Want to be smarter and better at concentrating? Want to improve your memory and protect yourself against dementia? Brain-training programs promise all this and more – but do they work?

Do brain-training games make you smarter? Image credit: dire schaefer via Flickr

The claims

The logic behind brain training is simple. Carry out a mental task repeatedly, and you get better at it. It could be memorising a string of numbers, or fitting together a series of shapes as fast as possible or any number of other ‘fun games’. If repeating these tasks improves your memory, concentration or critical thinking, it seems reasonable to suggest you’ll also get better at real-life tasks that depend on the same skills. The catch phrase is neuroplasticity: our brains change as a result of how we use them.

You don’t have to spend long exploring brain-training websites to find a huge variety of claims about the benefits awaiting you once you start playing. For a start, you can expect ‘135 percent faster auditory processing’, ‘increased brain activation’, ‘improved cognition’sustained improvements in working memory’, improved focus and speaking abilities, ‘lower risk of depression’ and ‘more happy days’. All of the brain-training websites I looked at cited long lists of scientific research papers to back up their claims.

Many respected scientists have put their names to brain training, serving as experts for the numerous brain-training companies. And hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have documented the benefits of brain training. One important study published in 2015 looked at the effects of brain training in nearly 7000 people over the age of 50. The results? Within six weeks of beginning training, the study participants showed improved reasoning skills.

It would be easy to conclude that investing time – and money – in brain training would be a wise choice. We’ve certainly embraced the phenomenon: it’s been estimated we’ll spend $US3.38 billion on brain training annually by 2020. But are we putting our money to good use, or are we being conned?

Checkmate

Many scientists have questioned the claims made by brain-training advocates. And while studies have documented the benefits of brain training, other researchers have looked for improvements in mental functioning after brain training and found none. In 2010, a study of more than 11,000 people found no evidence for the transferability of reasoning, memory, planning or attention skills learned playing the training games to any real-life situations. In 2014, a group of more than 70 psychologists and neuroscientists published a ‘consensus statement’ arguing that although as a community, we are very fearful of losing our memories and other mental skills as we age, ‘claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading’. They didn’t suggest we don’t learn new skills playing brain-training games. But importantly,  they argue there’s no evidence that playing brain-training games helps us in the real world.

We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. Consensus statement (2014)

But later the same year, more than 100 scientists responded with another statement, arguing ‘certain cognitive training regimens can significantly improve cognitive function, including in ways that generalise to everyday life’.

To train or not to train

Last year, in what could be the nail in the coffin, a group of scientists published a review of every research paper that brain-training companies have cited as evidence for the power of brain training – a total of 374 papers. It took them two years to review all of the research. The authors concluded that none of this research is without problems. For example, many of the studies included only a small number of participants. Others failed to take the placebo effect into account (simply telling someone that playing a game will improve their skills can lead to improved skills). They conclude brain training might make you good, even exceptionally good, at a particular game. But there’s essentially no evidence that playing a brain-training game will have any flow-on effects in the rest of your life.

Lumos Labs, the group behind the popular brain training site Lumosity, paid a heavy price for exaggerated claims about brain training: $US2 million. In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission declared Lumos Labs misled consumers with unfounded claims that ‘Lumosity games can help users perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions.’ Another smaller brain-training company paid $US200,000 and agreed to stop ‘making a range of false and unsubstantiated claims.’

The fact is, if you want to get good at brain-training games, playing these games is an excellent plan – and there are plenty of free ones available online. But if you want to improve your memory, concentration or ability to think creatively and critically, there are plenty of better things you could do with your time than stare at a screen. Experts recommend a number of more effective approaches. Firstly, get some exercise: your brain will benefit from the increased blood flow. Second, learn something new. This is a sure-fire way of kick-starting your thinking. Finally, hang out with your friends – being sociable is great for our brains.

Anyone care to join me at a salsa class? We know dancing is an excellent way to ward off dementia.

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Take an espresso nap

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Do you like coffee? Do you like naps? If you answered yes to both of those questions, you’re going to like what’s coming next. Research shows that combining the two – a coffee nap – is even better than each on its own.

Coffee or a nap? Why not both!?

Coffee, glorious coffee

There’s plenty of evidence for the health benefits of coffee (unless, like me, you’re allergic to caffeine!). Among other positive effects, drinking coffee may protect you against some nasty diseases and improve your memory. And of course, a major draw card for many people is the buzz that comes with a coffee. We’ve long known caffeine results in increased alertness: even one cup of coffee can make you feel more switched on. Caffeine can increase your alertness and reaction times when driving, reduce the number of mistakes you make at work, improve your mood, reduce mental and physical fatigue, improve athletic performance, and increase your ability to make the right decisions. No wonder caffeine is considered the world’s most popular and widely-used drug.

Why is caffeine so effective at combating tiredness? Because a molecule called adenosine is what is making you feel tired. It’s a by-product of brain activity and it builds up during the day, making you feel worn out and drowsy. But caffeine blocks the adenosine from acting on your brain. So with caffeine in your system, you don’t feel the accumulating tiredness.

Unfortunately, these benefits come with a cost. Drink a coffee too late in the day, and you’ll probably struggle to fall asleep. Caffeine consumed even six hours before you go to bed can interfere with both the quality and quantity of your sleep. As a result, many people recommend a 2 pm cut-off for drinking coffee. And the older you get, the more likely caffeine is going to disrupt your sleep. The message is clear: a coffee will perk you up, but be careful. Sleep is too important to mess around with.

The power of a nap

If you’ve ever thought of seeing how long you can stay awake for, please don’t. A lack of sleep, even over a short period, can have disastrous effects on your physical and mental health. Sleep deprivation will interfere with your memory, cause problems for your immune system, and at its most extreme, a lack of sleep could kill you.

We’ve all heard napping is good for us – it’s one good way to fit a bit more shut eye into your day. Even a 10-minute nap can increase your ability to concentrate for up to four hours. And a six-minute nap can improve your memory. People who nap for at least half an hour three times a week have a significantly lower risk of suffering heart disease. A 40-minute nap taken during the work day improves the performance of both doctors and astronauts. Research shows that in the case of learning to do new tasks that rely on your powers of perception, a one-hour nap is just as good as a full night’s sleep in consolidating the new skills.

Napspresso

Separately, caffeine and napping can both work wonders for improving alertness, concentration and productivity.

It may seem counterintuitive, but over the last 20 years, researchers have shown that putting the two together is in fact even more powerful. Enter the ‘coffee nap’.

The idea is simple. Drink a coffee and then immediately lie down for a 15 – 20-minute nap. The timing is essential. And if you get the timing right, you get to reap the combined rewards of a nap and a caffeine buzz. This is because it takes about 20 minutes for the caffeine in your coffee to kick in and take effect.
In one study, a caffeine nap improved driving performance and reduced sleepiness better than either a short nap without the coffee, cold air, or a strongly-brewed coffee without the nap. In another study, researchers found a coffee nap could reduce afternoon sleepiness in drivers by more than 90 percent. Even nappers who just dozed during their nap got the same alertness benefits as those who slept more deeply.

In a Japanese study, a group of sleep-deprived people compared the benefits of five different approaches: a 20-minute nap, a coffee nap, being exposed to a very bright light immediately after napping, washing their face immediately after napping and resting, but not sleeping. In terms of how sleepy the study participants felt, and how successfully they were able to carry out cognition tests, the coffee nap won hands down.

So you know what to do people. Fire up the coffee machine, then have a snooze and look forward to how great you’re going to feel once the caffeine kicks in. In 20 minutes, you’ll be leaping out of bed.

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Seeing in the dark

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Anthropology / Evolution / Myths / Zoology

You’ve probably heard of echolocation. Whales, dolphins and bats all use it to find their way around when their eyes just aren’t up to the task. But did you know some blind humans have learned to do it too?

What do bats, beluga whales and certain talented blind people have in common? Echolocation. Image credit: Киты via Wikimedia Commons

Seeing with sound

In the late 1700s, Italian scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani surgically blinded bats in an attempt to work out how they navigate when flying in the dark. He was amazed to discover blind bats could avoid obstacles just as well as sighted bats. But when he blocked the bats’ ears, they started crashing into things. His logical conclusion: bats find their way using hearing.

We now know a lot about how they do it. Most insect-eating bats call or make tongue clicks as they fly at night (or in caves) and listen carefully to the echoes of these sounds as they bounce off nearby objects. Most of these sounds are ultrasonic, which means they are too high-pitched for us to hear. Lucky, because some bats produce sounds louder than a smoke detector ten centimetres from your ear. Bats use these sounds to paint a detailed picture of the world around them including the food they are trying to catch. Imagine a bat chasing a moth in the dark: with echolocation, the bat can work out the moth’s size, location, and the speed and direction it is flying. Scientists that developed sonar and radar navigation systems are said to have got the initial idea from bat echolocation.

Under the sea

Echolocation doesn’t just come in handy at night – it’s also a massive to help to animals living in water. Light doesn’t travel well through water, meaning it’s hard to see underwater. But sound travels more than four times faster through water than air. So it’s not surprising some water-living animals use biosonar.

‘Toothed’ whales (which include dolphins and porpoises) all use echolocation and fossils suggest they evolved the ability millions of years ago. Bats and whales are no more closely related than a mouse and an elephant, but they’ve come up with the same nifty trick to get around and find food. The way whales use echolocation depends on the food they are hunting for. The exact way they produce the sound also varies. Dolphins send out series of very quick, high-pitched sounds by forcing air through their nasal passages. Research suggests the mucus – snot – covering these passages is essential for making these sounds successfully.

Narwhals, affectionately called the unicorns of the sea because of their huge horn (which is actually a giant tooth), are thought to have the most accurate biosonar of all. Narwhals live in the Arctic where it’s dark more than it’s light, and there’s more ice than open sea. But as mammals, they still need to come to the surface to breathe, on average every four to six minutes. To survive, they need to find rare cracks in the ice to breath. They also need to find squid and fish in complete darkness: they hunt during dives that can be as deep as 300 metres beneath the surface. How do they do it? By making up to 1,000 clicks per second and creating a detailed picture of what’s around them using the echoes that bounce back.

‘The remarkable batman’

It’s not surprising humans aren’t known for our echolocation abilities – most of us have exceptionally good vision, and have no need to see with sound. Except of course, people who are blind. And we now know some blind people have developed incredible echolocation abilities.

Most famously, Daniel Kish, who lost both eyes to cancer before he was one-and-a-half years old. Daniel makes clicking sounds with his tongue and creates an image in his mind with the echoes, exactly as bats and whales do. He calls it ‘flash sonar’ and his abilities have earned him the nickname ‘the remarkable batman’. Among many other things, Daniel successfully rides a bike using this technique. As an extra bonus, his sonar works just as well behind him as in front, and works around corners. Daniel is president of an organisation, World Access for the Blind, which trains blind people to use echolocation.

The only reason sighted people can’t do it is they don’t have to – Daniel Kish

Recent research has shown that given the opportunity, sighted people can learn to work out the relative sizes of rooms using only echo information. One study participant became so good at it, he could tell if there was as little as four percent difference in the size of two rooms by listening to the sound of his tongue clicks. Another study found most sighted people can become reasonably good at echolocation with two to three weeks of training. A key to successful echolocation is moving the head – which mimics the way bats turn their ears when echolocating.

Studies have shown the visual cortex in experienced echolocators brains is highly active when echolocating. This area is usually devoted to processing visual information. But it seems in echolocators, the region has been repurposed to give extra capacity to sound instead.

Just another reminder of how incredibly versatile our brains are.

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Feeling out of the loop?

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Do you ever feel left out? That everyone else is somewhere way more exciting than you are, experiencing things far more interesting than you? That’s the Fear of Missing Out, otherwise known as FOMO. Why do you experience FOMO and what can you do about it?

The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day, and you’re… checking Facebook. Maybe it’s time to face up to your FOMO.

FOMO explained

The word FOMO was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. What exactly does it mean? A recent study defined FOMO as “the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.”

Sound familiar? Many people have written about their experience of FOMO and according to a 2015 Australian survey, a quarter of adults and half of teenagers experience FOMO. Young men experience particularly high levels of FOMO and research shows people who experience FOMO are less satisfied with their lives than the average person. In particular, FOMO often accompanies feelings of incompetence as well as low levels of autonomy and connection with other people.

With FOMO comes anxiety, restlessness and feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. We feel jealous of others, detached from our family and friends and we are more likely to be dishonest in the way we portray our own self-image. We also tend to be harsher in our judgement of others. FOMO leads us to want to constantly know what is going on in other places. And of course, since the rise of social media, checking in on other people is something we can do instantly, 24 hours a day.

Is the grass on Facebook greener?

For many of us, it’s hard to imagine a world without social media. In Australia, on average we spend more than a full work day per week – 12.5 hours – on Facebook alone. Half of the Australian adult population checks social media first thing in the morning and just over a quarter of us check our social media accounts more than five times per day. One US study found 24% of teenagers are online ‘almost constantly’. Social media enables us to stay in touch with friends, near and far, and to share the important things going on in our own lives.

We know people who experience high levels of FOMO are also more likely to use social media. Why might social media use and FOMO be related? Because using social media makes us more likely to compare our lives and our achievements with other people. And it’s not a fair comparison. We know our own lives in messy warts-and-all detail. But our view of the lives of people we interact with only online is like a highlights reel: carefully edited and curated. It’s a dangerous comparison to make.

FOMO’s ancient beginning

It’s tempting to think FOMO is a very recent phenonenon, but we’ve probably always experienced it to some degree. Social media has simply upped the ante. And the potential for FOMO has been with us for a long time. In times gone by, our survival depended on the fact we were social – one member of a tribe. It was vital we were aware of potential threats – both to ourselves and our tribe. Being ‘in the loop’ was essential. We needed to know where to catch and grow food, who was sick and who could help in any given situation. We evolved to keep tabs on the people around us. The problem is simple: we are now trying to keep tabs on too many people and we don’t have a realistic view of their lives.

There are two common responses to FOMO: one is to commit to every opportunity, the other is to commit to none. Saying yes to everything results in overwhelm and a schedule that is impossible to keep up with. But never saying yes, (generally in an attempt to keep all options open) is equally problematic. At the extreme, this response results in a person doing nothing for fear that any choice will be the wrong choice. Either way, we end up in a physiologically stressed state trying to stay on top of everything we might be missing out on.

What can we do to tackle FOMO? The answers aren’t rocket science. We need to turn off our phones, be more aware of the fantasy social media can easily portray and pay attention to whatever is going on around us.

After all, the only thing we really miss out on when FOMO takes hold is our own lives.

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The long way home

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Biology / Ecology / Evolution / Zoology

Fish do it, so do reptiles and insects. Mammals – including humans – do it too. The way some birds do it will blow your mind. We’re talking migration. Why do some animals travel around the globe and how do they find their way? And what happens when the habitat they need along the way disappears?

Thirty-seven species of migratory shorebird visit Australia each year, traveling thousands of kilometres from their northern-hemisphere breeding grounds.  Image credit Josie Hewitt

Just keep swimming

It’s hard to know where to begin when it comes to writing about animal migrations: there are so many extreme journeys to choose from. Perhaps I’ll start with whales, some of the best-known migrators. For example, Humpback whales spend their summers in Antarctic waters gorging on krill, but as it starts to turn cold, they migrate north to breed, off the coasts of Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa. The longest humpback migration we know about was 18,840 km.

Leatherback turtles swim massive distances – up to 11000km – in search of jellyfish to eat. The turtles travel in the open ocean, where there aren’t a whole lot of landmarks. But amazingly, they manage to follow a consistent compass direction across thousands of kilometres. How do they do it? We don’t know for sure but they are probably using either the sun or the earth’s magnetic field. Turtles are also famous for being able to find their way back to the very same beach, decades later, where they hatched. We think turtles can memorise the magnetic coordinates of this beach so they can find it again, no matter how far they’ve travelled in the intervening years.

Not content just to swim during their migration, freshwater eels will also wriggle across the ground if that’s what it takes to get where they’re going. Eels begin their lives out in the deep ocean, but migrate to freshwater rivers and lakes, often thousands of kilometres away. A female eel may spend 50 years living in the upper reaches of a river, but when the time is right, she will journey back to the sea, lay up to 20 million eggs and then die.

Follow me

Of course there are famous land migrations too. The spectacle of millions of brilliantly-coloured red crabs migrating from forest to the coast on Christmas Island is a major tourist attraction. Similarly, the mass movement of more than a million Wildebeest and 20,000 zebras through Tanzania and Kenya draws nearly as many tourists. This journey crosses about 800 km and like most migrations, is highly predictable. Caribou, also known as reindeer, may move in herds of more than a hundred thousand and travel nearly 5000 km in a year.

Some migrations are less obvious but no less impressive. Globe skimmer dragonflies fly 18,000 km back and forth across the Indian Ocean – from India to East Africa via the Maldives and Seychelles. This is the longest migration of any insect. Further than the well-known monarch butterfly migration across North America.

Around the world in 46 days

But when it comes to long-distance migration, birds come in at number one – step aside Phileas Fogg. In their lifetime, grey-headed albatrosses may fly not just once, but twice around the entire globe. And they don’t need 80 days to do it: one bird circumnavigated the globe in just 46 days. And a bird doesn’t need wings the size of an albatross to cover big distances. A tiny bird called a Blackpoll warbler, weighing about the same as a box of matches, flies non-stop from northeastern Canada to South America in just three days.

Alpine Swifts leave their Swiss breeding grounds every winter to travel to the warmer shores of West Africa. Extraordinarily, the latest tracking data suggests these animals don’t stop flying for six months. They feed as they go and must also sleep during their 200 days of non-stop flying. An Arctic tern weighs the same as a smallish apple and in a lifetime, can fly up to the equivalent of three round trips to the moon. In just one year, an Arctic tern can fly 80,000 km from the Arctic to breeding grounds in the Southern Ocean. That is a world record.

Another incredible bird journey is undertaken by Bar-tailed godwits – they fly the 11,000 km from Alaska to New Zealand in eight days, without any stops for rest or refueling. And Bar-headed geese follow an unbelievably high-altitude migration path from sea level in India, up over the Himalayas to their breeding grounds in central Asia. The geese fly up to 60 km/hour for seven or eight hours up to 7000 m above sea level – that’s setting a new bar for high-intensity aerobic exercise.

It’s a small world after all

Why do animals migrate?  Because the earth’s geography and seasons mean at different times of the year, there will be plenty of food in some places but not others. Animals migrate so they can find the food they need, and to have opportunities and good conditions for mating and raising their young. For the animals that do it, we can assume migration is essential.

But the sad truth is that for many of these animals, migration is getting more and more difficult. Of course climate change is one huge issue.

Just as important is the fact these migrations cross international and political boundaries. There’s almost no point protecting one part of a migrating animal’s habitat if somewhere else along the route, their breeding or feeding grounds are destroyed. This is particularly true for shorebirds. Birds migrating via the East Asian-Australasian Flyway follow a migration path shared by four billion people in 22 countries on four continents.  Coordinating the protection of these species is a mammoth undertaking, dependent on levels of international cooperation we rarely see.

And that’s why zoologist Milly Formby is taking to the sky in a microlight aircraft flying from Australia to Siberia. She’s following the migration path of the tiny Red-necked stint, a bird that weighs the same as a Tim Tam biscuit but flies 25,000 km every year.

Milly wants us all to know that unless we start protecting their habitat, many migrating shorebirds are going to face extinction, and soon. Please help Milly to raise awareness about what we stand to lose! Not just these extraordinary birds but the habitats they – and we – depend on.

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Getting in the zone

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Psychology

Time has stopped. The world around you has disappeared. You are completely immersed in whatever you’re doing. Anything is possible and you feel invincible. What’s going on in your brain when you’re ‘in the zone’?

When you’re in the zone. Image credit Raffi Youredjian via Flickr

Going with the flow

Do you call it being ‘in the zone’? Or perhaps ‘in the groove’? If you’ve ever felt completely engrossed in a task to the point that nothing could distract you, you’ve experienced what psychologists call ‘flow’. This term was coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi back in 1990.

When you’re in a state of flow, you’re completely focused on whatever you’re doing in the present moment. To the extent that you forget about yourself and the world around you. You feel a sense of mastery over what you’re doing and completely lose track of time. It feels like nothing else matters: your sole focus is continuing to do whatever it is you’re doing. And chances are, you’re performing at your best.

These are a few of my favourite things

You are most likely to get into the zone when doing your favourite things. Perhaps you’ve experienced this sensation when running, writing, gaming, playing chess, painting or playing music. Many an athlete has described feeling invincible and as if time had slowed to a crawl during a medal-winning performance.

The key factor in flow appears to be the relationship between how difficult a task is and how good you are at it. If whatever you are trying to do is too challenging, you are more likely to end up anxious, scared or frustrated than in a state of flow. If on the other hand, the task is too easy, you’ll be bored and disinterested rather than engrossed. What you need to find is the sweet spot between boredom and stress. You need to feel challenged, but not so challenged you feel anxious; you need to have confidence you can achieve what it is you want to accomplish. Piano players experiencing flow have a slowed heart rate, reduced blood pressure and relaxed facial muscles.

When your brain is in the zone

Interesting things are going on in your brain when you’re in a state of flow. Firstly, your brain is more focused on the subconscious than on conscious thought. The phrase ‘going with the flow’ turns out to be more accurate than we might have once thought: when you’re in the zone, the areas of your brain that are normally involved in decision making are shut off. You don’t need high-power thinking or reasoning to solve problems; in flow you know what to do next without thinking about it. Things simply flow!

Shutting off some of your higher-power thinking (located in your pre-frontal cortex) has other fascinating consequences. With this part of the brain less active, you are less likely to self-monitor and control your impulses. You end up less critical, more creative and more courageous. When scientists scanned the brains of improvising jazz piano players, they got a clear picture of what was going on. While improvising, jazz musicians brains’ are much less active than normal in the areas responsible for planning and self-censoring. As a result, the players feel less inhibited. At the same time, parts of the brain involved with self-expression are far more active.

Your brainwaves also change when you’re in flow. Instead of the usual fast-moving waves when you’re awake, your brainwaves slow down to day-dreaming speed. And being able to move from thought to thought without any resistance fosters creativity. At the same time, your brain is flooded with feel-good chemicals including endorphins. These chemicals increase your focus and ability to link ideas in new ways. No wonder flow feels great – and liberating. Get ready to produce some of your most inspired work.

The dark zone

But there’s a dark side to this state of flow. Christened the ‘machine zone’, it’s when you completely zone out. Perhaps it happens when you’re scrolling through your social media feed. You get into a rhythm – scroll, click like, scroll more and repeat. Everything else fades away, time disappears, and you are fully immersed in… Facebook.

If you’ve got the time, catching up on your friends’ news is no bad thing. But as anyone who has ever been sucked into playing a poker machine knows, this sort of zone can be extremely difficult to leave. You’re in the zone, but without the pleasure, mastery or meaning.

So next time you find yourself in the machine zone, walk away. Instead, lose yourself in doing something you love.

 

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Do I know you?

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Psychology

Are you good with faces? Would you be able to recognise someone you’ve only met once before? Some of us are better at remembering faces than others. But most of us take for granted being able to recognise our family and friends. What if you couldn’t?

Are you good with faces? One in 50 of us aren’t.

Face-blindness

Being able to recognise my partner, kids and parents is something I completely take for granted. But for one in fifty people, it’s by no means a given. That’s how many people suffer from face-blindness, or prosopagnosia. A person suffering face-blindness usually has good vision and can identify the expressions on another person’s face. But a face-blind person simply can’t deduce identity from a face.

I often fail to recognise my children or even my wife … I have failed to acknowledge friends … As a young man I ignored girls whom I had met the night before – not a good mating strategy. – Dr David Fine

For many, face-blindness means not being able to follow the plot of a movie. Keeping up with the storyline is a big ask if you can’t work out which character is which. But for some, face-blindness has more debilitating effects. It often goes hand-in-hand with social anxiety and depression. Face-blindness can cause a range of difficulties in day-to-day life: everything from regularly snubbing friends to not recognising your own child standing beside you. Some face-blind people even have trouble recognising themselves.

On several occasions I have apologised for almost bumping into a large bearded man, only to realise that the large bearded man was myself in a mirror. – Dr Oliver Sacks

When everyone looks the same

In some cases, face blindness is the result of a brain injury like stroke. Damage to regions of the brain involved in processing faces (specialised areas in the occipital and temporal lobes) can destroy someone’s ability to recognise faces. But other people have had the condition as long as they can remember and it wasn’t the result of an injury. There’s some evidence face-blindness runs in families, suggesting it could have a genetic basis.

We are born with a fascination for faces, but scientists have shown we also need practice in recognising the differences between faces. Babies born with cataracts have difficulty recognising faces later in life, even if the cataracts were removed at the age of two months. Children who grow up in orphanages often have difficulty in recognising new faces for their whole lives. The fact practice improves our ability to know faces may explain why we tend to be better at picking up differences between faces of people of our own race as compared to people of a different race. We may not have been exposed to enough other-race faces during the crucial learning period.

What’s in a face?

Research shows face-blind people take in information about faces quite differently to other people. For example, they focus on individual parts of the face rather than the face as a whole. They also tend to look more at parts of the face that don’t help much in telling faces apart. This might be the hairline or ear shape – rather than the eyes, nose or mouth, which are much more informative. One face-blindness sufferer suggests a good way to step into his shoes is to imagine going through your day seeing only the back of peoples’ hands. Could you recognise your colleagues and loved ones if that was all you got to see?

People with face-blindness become very good at recognising people by other features. A person’s voice, posture, hair colour, gait, glasses and jewellery can all help. And context is essential: you expect to see your colleagues at work. This is why chance meetings in unexpected places are so difficult for face-blind people.

Can we fix it?

There’s no cure for face-blindness. But training has gone some way to help people improve their ability to recognise and remember faces. If you think you may suffer from face-blindness, get in contact with researchers. The more people who are properly diagnosed and take part in research, the more likely there’ll be effective treatment.

And if you have a friend or colleague who avoids eye contact, has ignored you on the train or acted like he’s never seen you before at a party, don’t be too quick to judge. Could you recognise him if all you saw was the back of his hand?

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A new you

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Anthropology / Health / Myths / Psychology

Think back to how you behaved as a teenager. Are you cringing? Many of us feel very different to the person we were ‘back then’. But are you different? And what will you be like in old age?

How much does your personality change over a lifetime? Image modified from vanes_hud via Flickr and Neill Kumar via Unsplash

 

Who are you?

Have you ever done a personality test? I have: I was intrigued to find out if answering a few dozen questions could give an accurate picture of who I am. Whether Myer-Briggs, the Big Five, or HEXACO, decades of research have gone into validating personality questionnaires. And millions of people take these tests every year.

The tests all attempt to do the same thing – characterise your personality according to some key traits. How extraverted are you? How conscientious? How neurotic? How intuitive? How open are you to new ideas? And the general consensus has long been that our personalities are pretty constant through time: once an extravert, always an extravert. If you watched Seven Up!, you might remember the premise – ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’.

But think back over your own life – do you feel like the same person now as you were in your twenties? How about in your teens? Or when you were only seven? It turns out the idea we’re stuck with certain personality traits for our whole lives may be rubbish.

In it for the long haul

To get an idea of how personality changes over time, we need to study people over many years. There have been a few of these longitudinal studies. One analysed the personality of a group of men in their mid-forties and again in their mid-seventies. Another followed a large group of Hawaiians from primary school through to middle-age, 40 years later. But the longest-running personality study of them all has just been published – it’s been running for a whopping 63 years.

The study started in 1947 when 1,208 14-year old Scottish students were rated by their teachers on six personality traits: self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality and desire to excel. The ratings were put together into a single measure of dependability. Fast-forward 63 years and 174 members of the original group were located and agreed to take part in the study. They rated themselves on the same six traits and also asked a close relative or friend to do the same.

Now it’s obviously not the perfect study: only a small group of people and you can imagine the teachers might have been much better at scoring some traits than others. But it still gives us some insight into how similar – or different – these people were at the ages of 14 and 77.

Turning over a new leaf

It’s a fair bet you’ve changed your dress sense and taste in music since you were a teenager. But the Scottish research suggests you may have changed in other more profound ways too. Over the 63 years of the study, many of the participants changed so much that their former personalities were barely recognisable. There was some similarity between the 14 and 77-year olds in terms of how conscientious and generally stable each person’s moods were. But beyond that, at least in terms of personality, the older Scots had very little in common with their former selves.

And if you’re guessing all the changes probably happened during the twenties or perhaps around fifty, think again. Nearly a quarter of the 23,000 people who took part in a German study changed personality drastically after the age of 70. Why such big changes? There are lots of things that can affect your personality: for example, your job, where you live, becoming a parent, being in a relationship and experiencing trauma. And some changes simply happen with the passing of time. Research involving more than 130,000 adults showed we tend to become more agreeable, conscientious and emotionally stable as we get older.

So whether you like it or not, you’re likely to turn over at least one new leaf during the course of your life. Hopefully the fact you’re also going to become more agreeable means you’re going to like the person you become.

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This post was selected as an editor’s selection on scienceseeker.org