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

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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

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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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What do your fingers say about you?

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Anthropology / Health / Myths / Psychology

Have you ever had your palm read? I haven’t; I don’t believe that the lines on my palms can tell me anything whatsoever about who I am or how long I’m going to live. But look down at your hands. There’s something else staring you right in the face that genuinely can tell you about yourself: the relative lengths of your fingers. Seriously.

Is your index finger longer or shorter than your ring finger? Any why does it matter? Image credit: Yamashita Yohei via Flickr

Is your index finger longer or shorter than your ring finger? And why does it matter? Image credit: Yamashita Yohei via Flickr

Talk to the hand

The art of palm reading has been around for thousands of years. Palmistry began in India and purports to be able to describe your personality on the basis of the lines and marks on your palms. Not only that, but palm readers also claim your palms predict your future, determining such things as how many children you’ll have and how long you’ll live. You won’t be surprised to read I’m a sceptic: there’s zero evidence it works. Despite many claims to the contrary, there’s also no evidence fingerprints reveal our personalities. Does that mean any suggestion our hands contain information about our character and health is dodgy pseudoscience? Not so fast.

Look down at your hands and focus on the relative length of your index and ring fingers. Which is longer? And by how much? If you want to do this properly, use a ruler to measure the length of your index and ring fingers (for consistency, measure your right hand) from the crease where your finger joins your palm to the fingertip. Divide the length of your index finger by the length of your ring finger. That number is your very own personal 2D:4D ratio (D stands for digit). The relatively longer your ring finger, the lower your 2D:4D ratio. On average, men have lower ratios than women – the average for men is around 0.95 and for women, closer to 1. There’s plenty of solid evidence this ratio has a lot to say about you, particularly if you’re male. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

The long and the short of it

Among men, the 2D:4D ratio has been linked to everything from appearance and personality to probability of risk-taking, success on the sports field and proneness to disease. For a start, men with relatively longer ring fingers (a lower 2D:4D ratio) tend to be better at sport and are considered more attractive by women. These men are also considered to be more physically aggressive. A study of male stock market traders found that those with relatively longer ring fingers made more money, took more risks, were more vigilant, had quicker reaction times and stayed in the job longer. Men with a lower 2D:4D ratio have more children and in case you’re wondering, yes, a man with a relatively longer ring finger is also likely to have a relatively longer penis.

A man with a relatively longer index finger (higher 2D:4D ratio) is more likely to have schizophrenia and suffer early heart disease. But he is less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer and is also less likely to have autism. There is also evidence for a link between digit ratio and sexual orientation: homosexual and bisexual men tend to have a higher 2D:4D ratio than heterosexual men.

Does the 2D:4D ratio have anything to say about women? As with men, there’s evidence that females with relatively longer ring fingers have more athletic ability. These women also tend to have a better sense of direction than women with relatively longer index fingers and are also more likely to consider themselves assertive and competitive. Similarly, feminist activists are also more likely to have relatively longer ring fingers.

Blame it on testosterone

How on earth does this work? It turns out to be quite simple. The relative lengths of your index and ring fingers are controlled by your exposure to sex hormones not long after you were conceived. Relatively longer fourth digit (low 2D:4D ratio) indicates higher exposure to testosterone while still in the womb, whereas a longer index finger (high 2D:4D ratio) indicates higher exposure to oestrogen. To the best of our understanding, your relative finger lengths are a signature of the hormones you were exposed to during this window of development, about eight to fourteen weeks after you were conceived. A longer ring finger says ‘testosterone was here’. And, importantly, this digit ratio is pretty much set before birth and doesn’t change during puberty.

The key to understanding the digit ratio is that it wasn’t only your fingers developing during this period; so was your brain. Exposure to testosterone at this time promotes growth of the right side of your brain. It is clear that hormone exposure in the womb fixes aspects of your personality well before you were even born. So what are you waiting for? Grab a ruler and work out your 2D:4D ratio.

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Seeing red: why do we blush?

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Evolution / Health / Myths / Psychology

Do you blush easily? Many of us blush when we feel embarrassed, ashamed, or nervous, generally when we least want to be noticed. It might happen when you meet someone new, receive a compliment or have to speak in front of a group. Why do our cheeks go red, and why can’t we control it? And do our red cheeks serve any purpose?

Why do we blush? Why do some of us blush more than others? And could blushing actually be useful? Image credit rebecca pedro via Flickr

Why do we blush? Why do some of us blush more than others? And could blushing actually be useful? Image credit rebecca pedro via Flickr

The puzzle of blushing

Back in 1872, Charles Darwin wrote a whole chapter about blushing and concluded:

Blushing is the most peculiar and most human of all expressions. Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals 

Darwin wrote letters to colony administrators and missionaries all over the world to find out the answer to one simple question: do all humans blush? The answer is yes, people of all ethnicities blush, although blushing is less visible on darker skin. Fascinatingly, blushing is one of the things that sets us apart from other animals: unlike most expressions, no equivalent has been found in any animal. It’s not that we can’t see an animal blushing under its fur or feathers; animals just don’t blush.

On the one hand, the process of the skin on our faces turning crimson isn’t terribly complicated. The muscles in the walls of your veins relax and allow more blood to flow. Blood flow to your skin is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system responsible for the fight or flight response). When this part of your nervous system is activated, the hormone adrenaline is released into your system. Adrenaline acts as a stimulant. Your heart rate goes up, your pupils dilate so you can take in as much visual information as possible. Your blood vessels dilate to improve blood flow and maximise the delivery of oxygen to your muscles. You’re all ready to put up a good fight or get the hell out of there.

I’m so embarrassed

But sometimes, the veins in your face also respond to the adrenaline, dilating and letting more blood flow through them than usual. This increased blood flow is responsible for the spreading crimson and warmth we call blushing and we have no conscious control over it. You can’t blush on command and neither can you stop blushing when you want to. The interesting thing is veins don’t normally respond to adrenaline: in other parts of your body, your veins don’t do much in the presence of adrenaline. There are other times when your cheeks may become flushed: after a couple of drinks at the pub or when you’re exercising, but these are different to what we call blushing.

So why do our cheeks go bright red? We don’t know for sure, but we do know there are specific triggers for blushing: we blush when we’re feeling embarrassed, ashamed or exposed. Blushing occurs when we are receiving unwanted social attention. It seems cruel that at the exact moment we wish the floor would swallow us up because we’re so embarrassed, our cheeks turn flame-red, drawing even more attention to ourselves. Fear of blushing (erythrophobia) is a recognised social phobia and causes enormous distress to sufferers. Research has shown people who fear blushing believe they will be judged negatively for blushing. Feeling anxious about being judged means blushing can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even being told we are blushing when we’re not can cause many of us to actually blush.

When blushing is a problem

Chronic blushing – when a person blushes more often and more obviously than most of us – is also a debilitating condition. About 5% of the population suffer from it and a quick read of an online support page reveals stories of sufferers feeling unable to leave the house. Chronic blushers blush in normal social situations that wouldn’t usually result in blushing, for example, in response to someone saying their name. There are a few different treatment options for chronic blushers: some sufferers use corrective make-up, others have success with medication, others find relief with cognitive behavioural therapy or hypnotherapy.

A more controversial response is surgery. Bilateral Endoscopic Thoracic Sympathectomy involves cutting the nerves responsible for blushing. These are the nerves that cause the veins in the face to dilate and are usually cut under the armpit. This surgery has mixed reviews: while many patients report it solves their blushing problem, some are unhappy. Because the nerves involved with blushing are also involved in sweating, some patients end up with a different, but equally unsettling problem. Post-surgery, patients are unable to sweat from the face, which can lead to excessive sweating in other parts of the body.

The benefits of blushing

All of this begs the question: why have we evolved to blush? Can there be any benefit to that hot glow of embarrassment most of us have experienced? Research suggests the answer is a definite yes. One study demonstrated we are more likely to trust people who are easily embarrassed. For example, we are far more likely to trust and want to hang out with someone who shows embarrassment rather than pride at being told they’ve done well on a test.

And what of blushing itself? A number of studies point to the fact blushing may have evolved as a way of signaling regret or remorse. Blushing signals we know we’ve done something wrong and we’re sorry. It’s reliable evidence of the fact we genuinely feel bad about having done something wrong because it can’t be faked. Because it’s out of your control, blushing is much more reliable than a verbal ‘sorry’. We trust and forgive people who blush more than those who don’t: a number of researchers believe blushing is an important part of the social glue that keeps human societies functioning.

So next time you feel that familiar warm glow of discomfort, try to remember there is an upside. You’re telling the world you can be trusted.

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Can animals count?

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History / Mathematics / Myths / Zoology

We’ve all heard about ‘clever’ animals. Chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins… there are plenty of examples of animals learning to use tools, communicate complex information and solve problems. But how about maths: can animals count?

A horse is a horse, of course, of course, that is of course unless the horse is the famous Clever Hans! Image: public domain

A horse is a horse, of course, of course, that is of course unless the horse is the famous Clever Hans! Image: public domain.

Clever Hans and Alex the African Parrot

Clever Hans, an Arabian stallion, was famous for his ability to count. Beginning in 1891, retired high school maths teacher William van Osten wowed European crowds with shows of Hans’ extraordinary abilities. When asked what two plus three equaled, Hans had no trouble giving the correct answer by the number of times he tapped his hoof. Many scientists observed Hans answering maths questions and couldn’t find any evidence of fraud or trickery. It wasn’t until 1907 that the truth was uncovered. Hans’ brilliance didn’t lie with his sums, but rather with his incredible ability to read human body language. Even his trainer wasn’t aware Hans would simply tap until tiny changes in the facial expressions or other body language of his observers indicated he had reached the correct number of taps. When his observers relaxed, Hans stopped tapping.

Unlike Clever Hans, Alex the African Grey Parrot appeared to have genuine mathematical ability. When he died aged 31, Alex could count up to eight and perform a variety of sums. For example, he could tell you that two plus one plus two jellybeans made five. Alex also had a vocabulary of more than 100 English words, which he could use correctly. No, he wasn’t just parroting them. Alex’s trainer says he also had an understanding of zero, which is more impressive than it might sound. Alex’s maths was on par with chimpanzees and other non-human primates and his abilities have been the focus of dozens of scientific papers.

Maths and mammals

It’s not surprising primates have been found to be top maths students in the animal world. Since the 1980s, many researchers have demonstrated the capacity of primates, particularly chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys, to do maths at a similar level to very young kids. This means not only being able to do basic adding up, but also understanding what zero is. Chimpanzees have no trouble learning to match an empty food tray with ‘zero’. Monkeys are also able to match the number of sounds they hear with the right number of objects. More recent research has focused on understanding what is actually going on inside a monkey’s head while doing sums.

What about other mammals; is it only primates who can learn maths? Not at all. Brutus the black bear can discriminate between larger and smaller numbers and dogs can count up to four or five. Like monkeys, elephants can rank small numbers in order and compare the answers of very simple sums. When lions hear the roars of other lions intruding into their territory, they decide to attack only if they outnumber them. Similarly, hyenas can tell the difference between one, two, or three intruders on the basis of calls. And if you’re concerned Clever Hans tarnished the mathematical reputation of all horses, don’t worry. We now know horses really can tell the difference between small numbers.

Counting crows

In the bird world, having some basic maths smarts isn’t limited to Alex the parrot. We’ve known for a long time crows are brainy: they use tools and solve problems. Crows can also learn to count – tell the difference between different numbers of dots. What’s more, researchers have worked out which brain cells are involved in the process. New Zealand robins watch researchers hide tasty beetle larvae in holes in logs and then immediately go to the hole where the largest number of larvae were stashed. If the scientists removed some of the larvae when the robins weren’t looking, the birds got agitated and kept searching: they knew they’d been tricked.

Newborn chicks, without any training, can tell the difference between a small number, and larger number of balls. American coots appear to count the number of eggs in their nest, as well as in the nest of birds around them. Even the humble pigeon can tell the difference between many (six or seven) and few (one or two) dots. In fact, in some maths tasks (like ranking numbers from smallest to largest), pigeons are just as good as monkeys.

Ants on stilts

There’s plenty of evidence you don’t even need a backbone to be able to count: invertebrates can do it too. Honeybees can count up to four objects they encounter while out searching for food. Ingenious experiments making use of tiny stilts showed that desert ants use a perception of number steps to find their way back home to their nest after searching for food. The researchers suggest the ants have something acting like a pedometer in their brains. Recent research showed that cuttlefish can accurately tell the difference between different numbers of tasty shrimp, up to the count of five.

Animals may not be doing long division but in many cases, they can count, or at least tell the difference between bigger and smaller numbers. We shouldn’t be surprised: whether an animal is searching for food, or working out how many enemies are invading, being able to tell the difference between more and less makes a lot of sense.

And hey, even plants can count. Venus flytraps decide whether to snap shut their traps and start producing a cocktail of enzymes to digest their prey on the basis of how many times their trigger hairs get touched. No point wasting energy on a false alarm.

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