Do we need vitamin D supplements?

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Health / Medicine / Myths

There’s a lot of hype around vitamin D. We’ve long known it’s essential for healthy bones, but over the last decade it’s been claimed low vitamin D levels are linked to a whole host of other illnesses. How clear are those links and how many of us really need vitamin D supplements?

So many supplements to choose from. Image credit Angel Sinigersky via Unsplash

Get some rays

Also known as the sunshine vitamin, there are two ways to get vitamin D. The first is the same way we get all the other vitamins and minerals essential to good health: from the food we eat. Foods high in vitamin D are oily fish and egg yolks. Because many people’s diets are low in vitamin D, in some countries, foods like milk, orange juice and cereal have vitamin D added during processing.

But there’s another way to get vitamin D – your body can make it through a series of steps starting with your skin being exposed to the sun. How easy it is for your body to make enough vitamin D depends on how dark your skin is, and where you live. For example, in Australia in summer, just a few minutes each day of sun exposure in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon is enough for most people.

Why we need vitamin D

We’ve known for a long time that vitamin D is essential for healthy bones. This is because vitamin D plays a vital role in absorbing calcium from your gut. Without enough vitamin D, children develop rickets – weak and soft bones, and in the worst cases, bone deformities. A lack of vitamin D is also associated with osteoporosis and other bone conditions in adults.

The importance of vitamin D in contributing to the growth of healthy bones is not in any dispute. But over the past decade, it’s been claimed low vitamin D levels are also responsible for a variety of other illnesses. Studies have reported links between low vitamin D levels and cancer, heart disease, autism, depression, type 1 diabetes, high blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis among other conditions.

Popping pills

These research claims led to a massive media focus on vitamin D. For example, in 2010, the New York Times declared ‘a huge part of the population….are deficient in this essential nutrient’. The US-based Vitamin D Council helped to spread the message that we would all be healthier with higher levels of vitamin D became widely accepted. Dr. Oz claimed vitamin D was ‘the number 1 thing you need more of’.

It’s an appealing story: we evolved near the equator where there is plenty of intense sun year-round. Humans also used to spend almost all their time outside wearing minimal clothes. It makes sense that people working in offices, particularly those living far from the equator could become vitamin D deficient.

With all the media hype about vitamin D as a cure-all, it’s no surprise people turned to vitamin D supplements. Pills are a quick fix – much easier than eating sardines or herring every day. Today, millions of people take vitamin D tablets without any evidence it is doing them any good. We know people in the US spend more than a billion dollars a year on vitamin D supplements.

At the same time, millions of people who have no medical complaints or symptoms, and no particular disease risks, are having their vitamin D levels tested. But there’s little consensus about the best form of vitamin D to measure in the body,  and how to best measure it. Not only that, but there is no general agreement on what level of vitamin D actually constitutes a deficiency.

One osteoporosis researcher has gone on the record claiming vitamin D has become ‘a religion’.

The truth about vitamin D

Recent large-scale studies have upended the idea that a lack of vitamin D is the cause of most of the illnesses it has been linked to. A recent study showed vitamin D supplements don’t prevent heart attacks. Another showed vitamin D supplements didn’t reduce the risk of cancer in older women.

Late last year a large clinical trial involving 25,000 people found no evidence for the benefits of the supplements in protecting against heart disease or cancer. Another large study of 5,000 New Zealanders found no evidence vitamin D supplements prevented heart problems.

Interestingly, a review of 81 existing studies also found no evidence that vitamin D supplements reduced falls or bone fractures. The results of many of the other studies claiming links between low vitamin D and illnesses have been called into question after further review.

On the other hand, there does appear to be evidence that people who live in areas with high sun exposure, and particularly those who spent lots of time in the sun as kids are less likely to develop multiple sclerosis. Recent studies have also supported a possible association between vitamin D levels and depression.

Some researchers are concerned people have assumed that if some vitamin D is good, more must be better. As a result, people are buying high-dose vitamin D tablets online. But unlike the B and C vitamins, vitamin D can be stored in the body and an overdose can cause vomiting, nausea, loss of appetite and weakness.

Please always follow your doctor’s advice. But if you’ve decided to take vitamin D supplements on the basis of what you’ve read in the media or heard on the grapevine, it might be time for a rethink. You may be wiser to save the money and spend it on more real food instead.

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What a coincidence!

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Myths / Psychology

We’ve all been floored at some point in our lives by what seems an impossible coincidence. It’s tempting to interpret such improbable, even eerie events, as signs from the Universe. But what can science tell us about coincidences? Are they as rare as we think?

What are the chances? Image credit Colton Sturgeon via Unsplash.


She was one in a million, so there’s five more just in New South Wales.   Charlie No. 1 by The Whitlams

One in a million

My husband (who I met in my late 20s) grew up in the same street where my best friend in high school lived. Two of my Aunts passed each other on an escalator one day in New York when neither of them had any idea the other was even in the United States, let alone New York.

They seem like crazy coincidences and I could list plenty more; I’m sure you could too.

A coincidence is defined as ‘a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection’. Coincidences delight, astound and confound us. They can seem so impossible that we wonder if something mysterious or supernatural must be involved.

A third of us notice coincidences regularly and the frequency of experiencing a coincidence isn’t related to gender, age, occupation or level of education. Coincidences make us ask ourselves ‘what are the chances of that?’ Researchers have studied coincidences for a long time and have in fact calculated the chances of seemingly highly unlikely events happening.

The Law of Truly Large Numbers

Let’s start with The Birthday Paradox. Let’s imagine a room of people. How many people need to be in the room before it’s likely two of those people will share a birthday? You’d imagine quite a few given there are more than 360 possible days someone could have been born. But statisticians have done the sums and it turns out you only need 23 people before there’s a 50-50 chance that two of them will share the same birthday.

On September 6, 2009, the Bulgarian lottery winning numbers were 4, 15, 23, 34, 35 and 42. Four days later exactly the same six numbers were drawn. The repeat was labelled as a freak coincidence – never before seen in the lottery’s 52-year history. The then sports minister ordered an investigation to look for evidence of fraud. But mathematicians calculated that in the space of only 43 years, it is more likely than not that a lottery machine will draw an identical set of six numbers.

According to mathematicians Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller, if you have a large population, very low probability events will happen. This is now known as the Law of Truly Large Numbers. Put a different way, ‘With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is apt to happen’. With more than 7 billion people alive today, highly improbable events happen every day.

When a woman won a US lottery twice in the space of four months, it was reported as a one in 17 trillion event. In fact, analysis showed that the odds of the same event happening to someone somewhere in the United States was more like one in 30. Of course the odds of you being that lucky person are unfortunately significantly higher!

How about the likelihood you’ll have a correct premonition about someone you know of dying? In a country the size of America, calculations show that 70 people a day will think of a specific person dying five minutes before that person actually dies. Not exactly a rare event.

Similarly, Littlewood’s Law says that you can expect a miracle (defined as a one in a million event) about once a month. The logic is that during the hours you are awake and engaged with the world around you (around eight hours), you experience something every second. That’s 28,800 experiences a day. So a one-in-a-million event will happen every 35 days.

These laws aren’t new ideas: British mathematician Augustus de Morgan wrote back in 1866 ‘Whatever can happen will happen if we make trials enough’.

Why do we love coincidences?

Despite the very good odds of extraordinary coincidences happening every day, we are all impressed and affected by them. One study found that students who believed they shared a birthday, first name or fingerprint similarities with someone asking them to perform a task were much more likely to perform the task than if they didn’t share that similarity.

Part of the explanation is no doubt the fact that we’re no good at probability calculations. We’re astonished by coincidences but pay no attention to the millions of instances in our daily lives when nothing extraordinary happens. Coincidences stay in our memories for a long time and sometimes come to hold great meaning.

Notably, research has shown that although we all notice coincidences, some people are more likely to ascribe meaning to them. People who describe themselves as religious or spiritual and people who spend lots of time seeking meaning in their life are all more prone to experiencing coincidences. We are all more likely to notice coincidences when we are extremely angry, anxious or sad.

It won’t surprise you to hear that we are also far more amazed by our own coincidence experiences than other people’s. That makes sense – it is far more unlikely that a given weird coincidence will happen to you than to some other person on the planet.

We like to believe our life has meaning and identifying connections is a powerful way to find meaning. We also like patterns – we find life much easier to understand if it comprises a series of patterns rather than just random events. Humans also love hearing and telling stories and coincidences lend themselves beautifully to storytelling.

The upshot of all this is that rather than being surprised when one-in-a-million coincidences happen, we should expect them. We can all look forward to the next time something seemingly crazy happens that shakes us out of our day-to-day routine and makes us exclaim ‘what are the chances?’

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Why we procrastinate

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Myths / Psychology

It’s Friday afternoon. You’ve known for weeks your final report is due by the end of the day. But somehow you’ve managed to put off working on it until now. And you can’t possibly get it done in time. Sound familiar? According to one researcher, procrastination is ‘a common pulse of humanity’. Why do we procrastinate and how can we stop?

I will definitely stop procrastinating……tomorrow. Image credit Lynn Friedman via Flickr.

Just do it……soon

Procrastination is ‘voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay’. That’s right. We know putting off doing something is going to be bad, but we do it anyway.

It’s easy to imagine procrastination is a recent thing, a result of the constant barrage of social media and other digital distractions. Not at all: procrastination has been around for a long time.

Egyptologist Ronald Leprohon translated some 1400 B. C. hieroglyphics as ‘Friend, stop putting off work and allow us to go home in good time.’ And Hesiod the Greek poet advised not to ‘put your work off till tomorrow and the day after’ back in 800 B.C. Ancient Greek philosophers coined the term Akrasia, which is a state of acting against your better judgement.

In a study of more than 1300 adults from six countries (including Australia), about a quarter of people reported that procrastination was one of their defining personality traits. Other research found one in five people qualify as a chronic procrastinator. In a study of uni students, only one percent reported they never procrastinate.

Is procrastination actually a problem?

One of the first studies attempting to get a handle on the effects of procrastination followed the academic performance, stress, general health and procrastination habits of U.S college students in 1997.

In the short-term, procrastinators were less stressed than others, presumably because they chose fun stuff over study. But in the long run, procrastinators got lower marks and experienced greater stress and more illness compared with non-procrastinators. Since then evidence has been mounting: putting things off can seriously undermine our wellbeing.

The procrastination war

Procrastination has been the subject of much research over recent decades, and there’s no one cause. In fact procrastination is psychologically complex.

What we do know is that despite being commonly associated with laziness, procrastination doesn’t have much at all to do with time management skills.

Put simply, procrastination is a war between two parts of our brain: the limbic system (think of it as your inner 4-year old) and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system seeks instant gratification while the prefrontal cortex is involved with planning and decision making.

The limbic system is one of the oldest parts of our brains and tends to function on auto-pilot. Anytime you’re not consciously engaged with a task, the limbic system leads you to give into what feels immediately good. The limbic system is powerful and wants pleasure now. As a result, we value immediate rewards much more highly than future ones.

In contrast, it takes effort to kick the more recently evolved pre-frontal cortex into action.

What this means is that distant rewards, even if they are big ones, don’t have much sway over us compared with immediate pleasure. Procrastination isn’t a bad habit; it’s pretty much hard-wired into your brain.

Research published last year also suggests procrastination may have more to do with managing emotions than time. Brain scans suggest people who procrastinate more are less successful at filtering out emotions and distractions.

How impulsive are you?

Piers Steel from the University of Calgary is one of the word’s experts on procrastination. He analysed more than 200 procrastination studies and found a clear link between impulsiveness and procrastination.

People who tend to act impulsively are also likely to procrastinate a lot, which makes sense. In one instance, we should wait but instead do whatever it is now. In the other instance, we should do something right now but instead we wait. The common feature is self-control.

Another factor is self-confidence. If we doubt our ability to successfully complete a task, we are much more likely to put it off.

Unfortunately it’s unlikely you’ll be able to settle the ‘do it later versus do it now’ war once and for all and never procrastinate again.

So what can you do about it when you find yourself procrastinating?

Ask yourself why

Perhaps the most important thing is to notice you’re procrastinating and ask yourself why. Is the task too big and overwhelming? Are you missing some of the tools you need to get it done? Do you genuinely not care about getting it finished? Are you surrounded by too many distractions?

Once you know there’s a specific problem, you can do something to fix it.

Start and reward yourself… in intervals

One of the best tactics to beat procrastination is just to start. But of course, that’s the whole problem. So instead of telling yourself you have to complete the whole thing, commit five or ten minutes to starting one small part of your task. Building a habit of simply making a start can be one of the most effective ways to tackle procrastination.

And once you work for the specified period, give yourself a reward. Merlin Manne has a good approach for this, called the (10 + 2)*5. It’s a version of the Pomodoro technique.

The idea is that before you know it, you’ll be engrossed in your task and kicking goals.

Stop beating yourself up

Interestingly, one study found forgiving yourself for procrastinating makes it less likely you will procrastinate next time. By forgiving ourselves, we minimise the negative feelings we associate with a task that can lead us to avoid doing it again in the future.

And if you can focus on how good you’ll feel once something is done, you’ll have much more motivation in the here and now to get started on it.

Set deadlines, be specific and remove distractions

It’s a well-known fact that deadlines spur many of us into action.

Having a firm and costly deadline is an excellent way to get stuff done. And contrary to what you might think, it’s ok for this deadline to be self, rather than externally imposed.

It’s also extremely helpful to think about your task in concrete specific terms. You are significantly more likely to do what you need to do if you focus on the how, when and where of getting it done. Being specific requires your pre-frontal cortex to take over.

Finally, commit to getting rid of distractions. Turn off your WiFi and phone, and don’t check email. Your limbic system will always be tempted by whatever distractions are on hand.

So instead of reading this blog post, is there something else you should be doing right now?


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Food fakes

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Health / Myths

We’re all aware of fake watches, sunglasses and handbags. But what about fake food? Counterfeit food is more common than you might think.

Real or diluted honey? Image credit PollyDot via Pixabay

Fishy business

It’s estimated the fake food industry is worth more than US$40 billion each year. Seafood, coffee and oils are some of the foods most likely to be counterfeited, but it doesn’t end there.

You may remember the ‘horsegate’ crisis of 2013 when it was discovered some ‘beef’ for sale in Europe actually came from horses.

Australian Consumer Organisation CHOICE analysed dry oregano samples from 12 different brands and found only five were 100% oregano. In the other seven brands, ingredients other than oregano made up between 50% and 90% of what was in the packet.

In 2006, chemical analysis showed more than half of 44 samples of supposedly premium Spanish saffron actually originated in other countries such as Iran and India.

In terms of seafood, a 2016 investigation by conservation group Oceana found one in five of the over 25,000 samples tested globally was mislabeled. DNA testing of the fish samples exposed seafood fraud on every continent (except Antarctica). Mostly, it’s cheap fish being passed off as more expensive ones. Eighteen different kinds of high-value fish all turned out to be no more than farmed Asian catfish. Fish labelled as snapper and tuna are the most likely to be fake. Ninety-eight percent of the 70-odd tuna dishes which Oceana tested in Brussels restaurants were not real tuna.

Oils ain’t oils

Stories of oil tampering go back to antiquity. There are records from the twenty-fourth century B.C. of the King’s inspectors touring olive mills on the lookout for dodgy practices.

These days, the words “Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ are associated with fakery almost as much as the real deal. We know olives often come from Spain, Morocco, Syria or Turkey and are initially processed in those countries. This oil is trucked to Italy so it can be legally sold with the label ‘Packed in Italy’ or ‘Imported from Italy’.

Not only is the oil not of Italian origin, but in many instances, it is diluted with cheaper oils. In some cases, the oil for sale contains no olive oil at all: instead, flavour and colour are simply added to cheap vegetable oil. The mafia is known to be behind at least some of these crimes.

Sophisticated chemical techniques can reasonably reliably distinguish between olive oil and other vegetable oils. But it turns out one of the best ways to know whether olive oil is pure or not is to teach people to determine the quality of the oil by smell and taste. A small group of police have been trained for this work – not a bad day job.

If you’re not too fussed about oil but care a lot about your coffee, avoid ground coffee. A variety of fillers have been detected by chemical analysis, including maize, soybeans, sugar, rice, beans, and even twigs. After roasting and grinding, it’s impossible to spot these additions.

Pollen to the rescue

Honey is another food well known to those who investigate food fraud. So-called honey is often diluted with high fructose corn and other grain syrups. Or highly processed honey is sold as high quality, unrefined honey. You can’t easily tell the difference between ‘real’ and heavily diluted honey by sight which makes it very vulnerable to fraud.

But there is help at hand in the form of pollen grains. All honey includes pollen grains. These grains are tiny: one grain is somewhere between ten and 50 thousandths of a millimetre across.

But if you’ve got a good microscope and you know what you’re looking for, you can tell which plant a pollen grain comes from. That means you know two things. First: where the bees that made the honey have been feeding. Second: whether the honey has been diluted with grain syrup.

In Australia, almost all honey contains pollen from Eucalypt trees. Which is useful to know, but bees in a variety of other countries also feed on these trees. For example, in Spain, Italy, China and Brazil. So just knowing there are Eucalypt pollen grains in honey doesn’t prove it’s Australian.

But research published earlier this year showed Australian honey also includes the pollen of many other native Australian plants. Meaning it’s possible to show which honey is authentically Australian, and which isn’t.

The moral of the story is to read ingredient lists carefully and grow your own food, or buy it directly from local producers whenever you can. One final comment on food fraud: if whisky is your thing, you’re in luck. Food writer Larry Olmsted, who has spent years investigating counterfeit food says:

Scotch whisky is the single most reliable and protected foodstuff on earth.

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Photos versus memories

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Myths / Psychology

How many photos have you snapped on your phone in the last year? A lot, if you’re anything like most of us. But how well do you remember the actual places and events in the photos? Research suggests you would remember much more if you’d left your phone in your pocket and just enjoyed the moment.

When was the last time you enjoyed a sunset without taking a photo of it? Image credit Ben White via Unsplash

Photos, photos everywhere

Every day around the world, we take billions of photos. Gone are the days of carefully choosing what images to preserve on our precious 24 or 36-roll film. We can capture as many moments as we like, safely preserved digitally to help us remember people and places.

But does taking a photo of an event change how we remember it? The simple answer is yes.

In one study, students were led on a guided tour of the Ballarmine Museum of Art. They were asked to take photos of some artworks and simply observe others. The next day, researchers asked questions to find out how much the students remembered about different artworks. Not only did the students remember fewer of the artworks they had photographed, but they also didn’t remember as many of the specific details of the art they had captured on their devices.

In another study, a few hundred people went on a self-guided tour of the Stanford University Memorial Church. Some of them were instructed to take photos of the building’s features, some went in empty-handed. A week later, they were all given a surprise quiz, designed to check how much they remembered about the building. Same thing: those who had taken photos remembered significantly less than the people who simply looked around.

This phenomenon has been dubbed the photo-taking-impairment effect.

Outsourcing remembering

One explanation of this effect is cognitive offloading. We are outsourcing the act of remembering things to our photos. A well-known study published in 2011 showed if people are told a computer will save a piece of information, they are less likely to remember it themselves.

The idea is that if we know we can rely on our photos rather than our brains, there’s no need for us to mentally store the information for later. According to Professor Linda Henkel:

You’re basically saying, ‘Okay, I don’t need to think about this any further. The camera’s captured the experience.’ You don’t engage in any of the elaborative or emotional kinds of processing that really would help you remember those experiences, because you’ve outsourced it to your camera.

But researchers have also explored the role of cognitive offloading in photography more directly. In one experiment, people knowingly took photos for Snapchat (an app where photos and videos disappear soon after sharing). In another experiment, the study volunteers knew they would be asked to manually delete the photos after taking them.

But despite knowing they wouldn’t have ongoing access to the photos, these people experienced the photo-taking-impairment effect just as strongly as those who believed they would get to keep the photos.

Which leads us to think there’s more than cognitive offloading going on. Perhaps a big part of the problem is quite simple: when our attention is focused on taking photos, we’re distracted from what’s around us.

Who are you taking photos for?

Interestingly, researchers have shown our reasons for taking a photo of an experience changes how much we enjoy the experience. Rather than taking photos simply as a memory aid, these days photos are also a way of communicating with other people.

If we take photos simply for ourselves – to remember an experience – the act of taking photos doesn’t interfere with our enjoyment. But if take photos with the intention of sharing them with other people, all of a sudden we don’t enjoy ourselves as much. Why? Probably because we become self-conscious about how we’re presenting ourselves. Our attention is focused on how the photo looks, rather than on the experience itself.

Interestingly, whether we take selfies or photos without ourselves in them also affects our memory of the experience itself. Research shows that if you’re in the photo, your perspective changes – you feel more emotionally removed from the original event. It’s as though you’re looking at it through someone else’s eyes rather than experiencing it yourself.

To snap or not to snap

So what are we to do? Stop taking photos all together? Or at least stop posting them on social media? Stop taking selfies? Not necessarily, but we should probably think about how often we take photos as opposed to just being in the moment.

We could also think about the kinds of photos we take. In the art museum study, people who zoomed in and took close-up photos of the art remembered much more than people who just snapped a photo of the whole work. Presumably it took time and thought to choose the right angle for the close-up. Quite different to standing square in front of an artwork, photographing the whole thing and walking away.

Research has also shown that if we take a photo of something, our memory is biased towards what we could see, as opposed to what we could hear, or smell.

Perhaps the best plan is to snap a quick photo with no intention to share it, then put away our phones. Then we can look, listen and sniff at what’s around us. And really remember the moment.

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Counting friends

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Anthropology / Evolution / Myths / Psychology

First: check how many friends you have on Facebook. Next: ask yourself how many of them you consider to be ‘real’ friends? According to Dunbar’s number, we can only maintain about 150 meaningful relationships at one time. And you can probably count your closest friends on one hand.

How many real friends can we have? Image credit Helena Lopes via Unsplash

Your social brain

Robin Dunbar has spent nearly 50 years studying primates. Back in the 90s, he looked at the relationship between group size and brain size of different primate species. Specifically, a part of the brain called the neocortex, which is involved with conscious thought among many other things. Neocortex size turned out to be a good way of predicting how big a group monkeys and apes hung out in.

The next step was to apply this theory to humans. Dunbar came up with a clear prediction. Given our brain, at any one time, we should only be able to maintain genuine social relationships with around 150 people. Actually, the original number was 148 (with a confidence interval of 100 – 230) but over time 150 has become the magic number.

According to Dunbar, we simply don’t have the brain space – or time – to nurture social relationships with any more people than that.

Most monkeys and apes maintain their relationships by grooming each other. We don’t have time to groom everyone in our group – we’d starve in the process. Fortunately the evolution of language allows us to stay connected without spending hours grooming each other. But even with language, we don’t have the capacity to know and be known by more than 150 people.

Dunbar’s number

This prediction of 150 relationships has become known as Dunbar’s number. It’s also been referred to as the monkeysphere. What did Dunbar mean by a genuine social relationship?

The number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.

There has been plenty of argument about how well Dunbar’s number holds up. And many researchers have criticised different aspects of Dunbar’s theory. But Dunbar’s number does hold true in a variety of situations.

Many traditional hunter-gatherer societies are around the 150-people mark and a 2002 UK study found on average, people sent between 120 and 150 Christmas cards.

A well-known story tells of Bill Gore (of GORE-TEX fame) discovering that his factories worked best if each was capped at 150 employees. Beyond that, people didn’t know each other well enough to work effectively together.

Enter social networking

It’s easy to imagine social networking sites have changed the landscape when it comes to how many friends we can have. We don’t need to even talk with, let alone groom, people to stay in touch. We can broadcast our news to hundreds or thousands of people in an instant. We can stay up-to-date with the lives of as many people as we have scrolling time for.

But a study of Twitter users found people could only maintain between one and two hundred stable Twitter connections. A study of 450 undergraduate students found that although many of them had 300 or more Facebook friends, they only considered an average of 75 of them as real friends. The average 18-29 year-old Australian has 394 Facebook friends.

Layer upon layer

More recent research suggests that rather than thinking about our friends in terms of a number, we should think about Dunbar’s layers. Most of us have around five intimate friends, including a romantic partner if we have one, and 15 best friends. Going out in layers, we have 150 friends, 500 acquaintances and a total of 1,500 people we can name if we see them. Researchers have identified these layers in people’s mobile phone use among other networks.

A 2016 study asked more than 3000 people for a bit more detail about their Facebook friends. On average, these people had between 150 and 200 Facebook friends. But when asked how many of those people each could turn to in a crisis, the answer was four. How many would offer genuine sympathy in a difficult situation? Fourteen.

The quality of our relationships are directly related to how much time we invest in them. And we simply don’t have time to invest in hundreds of friendships. That’s not to say our broad social media communities aren’t valuable, just that nothing beats face-to-face time for genuine relationships.

So next time you’re about to pick up your phone and open Facebook, maybe it would be better to give a friend a call and meet up for a drink instead. That’s my plan!

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Hearing colours, tasting words

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Genetics / Health / Medicine / Psychology

Imagine every time you hear the word chair, your mouth fills with the taste of strawberries. Or to you, Tuesdays are red and the letter T is male, light blue, trustworthy and loyal. Sound strange? Welcome to the fascinating world of synaesthesia.


For some people, every letter has a specific colour.  Image credit: Stephen Lock via Flickr

Blended senses

If someone scratches a blackboard with his or her nails, I taste iron. The intro of “Time” by Pink Floyd is golden yellow and blue.   One synaesthete’s experiences

Scientists have known about synaesthesia (literally ‘union of the senses’) for more than 200 years. Synaesthetes – people who have synaesthesia – experience an unusual blending of the senses. Once dismissed as an imaginary condition, synaesthesia is currently a hotbed of scientific research.

In synaesthesia, the stimulation of one sense (for example hearing a sound) brings about an additional experience in the same or another sense (for example seeing a colour). There are about sixty different forms of synaesthesia and around half of all synaesthetes have more than one kind of synaesthesia.

For many years, synaesthesia was considered to be made-up and not taken seriously by the scientific world. But over the past 30 or so years research has shown synaesthesia is a real neurological condition.

A colourful world

The most common form of synaesthesia is known as grapheme-colour synaesthesia. People with this condition experience colours when viewing written letters or numbers. The colour may be seen in the ‘mind’s eye’ or simply perceived as associated with the letter or number. For example, the days of the week or months of the year are inherently coloured and these synaesthetes have extremely specific coloured alphabets.

Grapheme-colour synaesthetes still see letters printed in the actual colour they appear on the page but simultaneously perceive different colours associated with each one. Six-year old children already have some of these specific colour associations.

In a different kind of synaesthesia, colours are evoked by particular sounds. For example, middle C on the piano may be experienced as lime green and the sound of a door opening a bright crimson.

Another form of synaesthesia – lexical-gustatory synaesthesia – involves words evoking a specific taste in the mouth. One man explained to researchers the word safety tastes like ‘toast lightly buttered’ and Phillip like ‘oranges not quite ripe’.

An extraordinary but rare form of synaesthesia is called mirror-touch synaesthesia. For a person with this kind of synaesthesia, just seeing someone else’s cheek being touched leads to the sensation their own cheek is being touched. Mirror-touch synaesthetes report feeling the pain being experienced by another person.

Are you a synaesthete?

Over the years, estimates of people with synaesthesia have ranged from 1 in 20 people up to 1 in 250,000. Some forms of the condition are much more common than others with about 1 in 500 people experiencing grapheme-colour synaesthesia but only 1 in 25,000 people experiencing sound-odour synaesthesia. And these figures are hard to come by because many synaesthetes do not realise their experiences are any different to ‘normal’. Want to find out if you’re a synaesthete?

A key characteristic of synaesthesia is that the experiences are involuntary, present since childhood and always fixed for life. (One of the key differences between synaesthesia and drug-induced hallucinations is the pairings in synaesthetes never change). And you either have it or you don’t. Synaesthesia runs in families indicating a genetic component to the condition. A study published earlier this year found among families with sound-colour synaesthesia, gene variations may result in unusually high numbers of nerve connections in particular parts of the brain.

Other research suggests at least one kind of synaesthesia may be partly learned and involve memories. A study published in 2013 described 11 individuals whose letter-colour associations matched closely with the colours of the very popular letter magnets that may well adorn your fridge.

A study of more than 6,500 American synaesthetes found 6% have colour associations that match the fridge magnets. This figure goes up to 15% if you only consider those synaesthetes born in the decade after the magnets started being produced. Of course, it may be only people who already have synaesthesia learn these colour associations.

Definitely not a disorder

The jury is still out when it comes to what causes synaesthesia but evidence is mounting that the brains of synaesthetes have increased neural connections between the areas associated with different senses. Interestingly, people with autism are three times more likely to experience synaesthesia than non-autistic people.

Regardless of the cause, one thing is clear: synaesthesia is not a disorder. Synaesthetes report many advantages to the condition, for example having additional cues to remember dates and phone numbers. Synaesthesia seems to be more prevalent among artists, writers and musicians and there’s evidence synaesthetes may be better at certain types of creative thinking.

Importantly, most synaesthetes like having synaesthesia.

If you ask synaesthetes if they’d wish to be rid of it, they almost always say no. For them, it feels like that’s what normal experience is like. To have that taken away would make them feel like they were being deprived of one sense.
Simon Baron-Cohen, synaesthesia researcher at the University of Cambridge

To top it all off, recent research has found training non-synaesthetes to have letter/ number-colour associations may be a great idea. It can help to ward off the cognitive decline that occurs in the early stages of dementia and to assist people recovering from brain injuries.

Perhaps those of us not lucky enough to be synaesthetes should spend more time playing with fridge magnets to learn some colour associations.

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Number nerves

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Mathematics / Myths / Psychology

Does the thought of a maths test bring you out in a cold sweat? Maths anxiety is real. But why do so many people find maths stressful, and what can we do about it?

Feeling anxious? Image credit João Trindade via Flickr

Not a maths person

Imagine you’re sitting in a classroom, about to take a mathematics test. How do you feel? Stressed? Tense? Nervous? Wishing you could escape? Sounds like maths anxiety.

If you’re not sure, you can take a maths anxiety test (oh, the irony).

It’s common to hear ‘I’m just not a maths person’ or ‘I’m no good at numbers’. It seems to be socially acceptable to be maths anxious. But how often have you heard someone say ‘I’m just not a reading person’?

Research shows maths anxiety is common. One estimate suggests 10 – 20 per cent of all adults are highly maths anxious. Most people have at least one negative experience with maths during their school years.

An aversion to maths is not just a result of people getting stressed in tests or exams. Research shows peoples’ heart rates go up more when they are doing a maths test than during other sorts of tests.

Maths anxiety is also different to someone simply finding maths difficult. You can be very good at maths and still find it stressful. When we feel anxious, our working memory is busy with feeling worried, and we make mistakes in our reasoning and calculations. We don’t have enough brain power left over to actually do the sums.

Regardless of how good or bad you are with numbers, you’ll be worse at it if you’re feeling stressed. We tend to choke under pressure.

Maths anxiety can impact self-esteem and is more common in girls and women than in boys and men.

Time for maths class

Maths anxiety is a worldwide experience. One study explored maths anxiety in 64 countries which take part in the Program for International Student Assessment (testing maths, science and reading skills in 15-year olds).

Tunisian and Argentinian kids turn out to be the most maths anxious, while those in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are the least maths anxious. Australians are slightly more anxious than the average.

We know our opinions about maths start to form very early. Many primary school students already consider themselves to be bad at maths. Half of kids in grade 1 said they were ‘moderately nervous’ to ‘very very nervous’ about maths.

Research shows that if teachers themselves have maths anxiety, this may pass onto their students. One study of primary school teachers in the US (who are predominantly women) found that at the beginning of the school year, there was no match between a teacher’s maths anxiety and how good her students were in the subject.

But by the end of the school year, if the teacher had maths anxiety, girls (but not boys) were more likely to buy into the idea that ‘boys are good at maths and girls are good at reading’. At the same time, those girls did worse in maths.

Got any homework?

And it’s not only at school that we form opinions about maths. At home, it’s easy to imagine parents with maths anxiety might avoid helping their kids with maths homework. And one study suggests that may be a good thing.

Researchers looked at the relationship between parents’ maths anxiety and how good their grade 1 and 2 children were at maths. If parents were anxious about maths, their kids were also more maths anxious and struggled more with maths. But only if the parent frequently helped with their kid’s maths homework.

If maths anxious parents didn’t help with their kid’s homework often, the kids actually did better. So much for good intentions!

It turns out that a well-meaning parent who empathises with their child by saying something like ‘Don’t worry, I’m no good at maths either’ is doing more harm than good.

Mind your attitude

What can we do about maths anxiety? One of the best approaches would be to stop thinking about maths as something people tend to be either good or bad at. Like anything, the more we practice, the better we get.

And research shows attitude is everything. Students who believe that the key to learning maths is hard work and never giving up do much better at maths than those who believe it’s about being born smart.

A study published just last month found that if students had a positive attitude towards maths, their hippocampus (an important memory centre in the brain) worked better and they did better at maths.

Seems Henry Ford was right about maths too:

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.

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How doors make us forget

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Myths / Psychology

You’ve just walked into a room with a clear purpose in mind. Except now you can’t remember what it was you set out to do. Is it just your imagination, or does walking into a different room make you forget?

Even imagining walking through a door can impact our memory. Image credit Anthony Tran via Unsplash


We all forget things. And most of us have had the experience of walking into a room and feeling confused. Maybe you’ve just gone into the kitchen to find your keys, but by the time you got there, you’d forgotten it was the keys you were after.

To explore why this happens, researchers have carried out a number of different experiments. First, they got people playing a video game. In the game, players used arrow keys to move around the virtual space. Their task was to pick up a coloured object from a table, move to another table, put the object down and pick up another one. Sounds pretty simple. But once they had picked it up, the players could no longer see what it was they were carrying.

The researchers asked the players at various times what colour and shape the object they were carrying was. And it turned out that if the player had just moved through a doorway in the game, they were much worse at remembering. Worse than if they had moved the same distance within the same room.

The next step was to recreate this game in real life. People in the study walked around in the real world, picking up and putting down objects on real tables. They carried the objects in shoeboxes so they couldn’t see them.

Sure enough, even when people walked exactly the same distance, their memory of what was in the box was much worse if they had walked through a doorway. People were two or three times more likely to forget after walking through a door.

Location, location, location

You might think all these players needed to do was go back to the room they were originally in. We call this the encoding specificity principle. The idea is you’ll remember something better in the same context as you first took in the information. This is why we’re told the best place to study for an exam is the same place you’ll be taking the exam.

But the researchers tested this too. And in the experiment, going back to the original room where they picked up the object didn’t help people to remember what it was they were carrying.

What’s clear from this research is that location matters. It’s been called the Location Updating Effect. When we find ourselves in a new location, we have trouble remembering information from previous locations. Even if we were in the previous place only moments earlier.

Out with the old, in with the new

After lots of research, this experience is now also known as the Doorway Effect. And it explains some interesting things about how our memories work.

We know our memories are divided up into separate episodes or events. At any one moment, you have all the information you need to do during this particular event. But it’s not possible to have everything in your brain constantly at hand. Breaking our thoughts and memories up into separate sections is a good way to organise them.

Once a particular event is over, our brains discard some of the old information, ready for new, more relevant things. How do we decide when an event is over? This research suggests one of the triggers for our brains to decide a new event has begun is walking through a doorway. Researchers call it an event boundary.

When you pass through a doorway, it signals to your brain that something new has begun. Information that was relevant in the previous room probably isn’t as relevant or important now. Out with the old, to make room for the new.

Amazingly, even just imagining walking through a door was enough to make people forget things more easily.

And if you’re thinking all this is just a cover for us becoming more forgetful as we age, think again. The effects were the same for people in their late teens and early twenties as for people in their sixties and seventies.

What can we do about the Doorway Effect? Not much, unless you want to follow the advice of one of the lead authors of this research:

Doorways are bad. Avoid them at all costs. – Professor Gabriel Radvansky

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A cosmic perspective

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Astronomy / Psychology

“Something happens to you out there” said Apollo 14 pilot Edgar Mitchell. “We went to the moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians”. Astronauts who have seen the Earth from space come back describing a major shift in how they see the world and their place in it. Is there any way for the rest of us to experience the same transformation?

How we look from a distance. Image credit NASA.

The pale blue dot

Exactly 28 years ago today, the Voyager 1 Spacecraft took an image that changed our view of ourselves. The image (taken at Carl Sagan’s request) showed the Earth from beyond Neptune: a distance of 6.4 billion kilometres. From that vantage point, our planet is nothing more than a tiny pale blue dot.

Later, Sagan wrote “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. Everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives …… on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

We’ve all seen striking pictures of the Earth taken from space. The beautiful blue and green ball looks so familiar. But it’s also nothing like the day-to-day view we get from the surface. Footage taken from the International Space Station showing lightning storms and the northern lights are mesmerising. But how would it feel to see Earth from such a distance with your own eyes? Many astronauts describe it as one of the most meaningful moments of their lives.

When Yuri Gagarin returned to Earth after becoming the first human in space, he wrote “Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship, I marvelled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty – not destroy it”.

Getting an overview

In 1987, philosopher Frank White coined the term The Overview Effect for the shared feelings of awe and wonder these astronauts describe. Researchers are fascinated by the Overview Effect because people much more commonly describe spiritual epiphanies in religious, not scientific contexts.

The Overview Effect is also extremely consistent. Researchers analysed comments from many of the astronauts who have viewed Earth from outside our atmosphere. When astronauts describe how it feels to gaze back at Earth floating in space, there are three common features. They feel an appreciation of beauty, an unexpected and sometimes overwhelming emotion and an increased sense of connectedness to Earth and its people.

Words like unity, rapture, euphoria, compassion, transcendence, fragility, wonder and awe all feature in astronauts’ descriptions. Given that the Overview Effect is a positive experience that already happens in spaceflight, researchers want to understand how to harness it for astronauts in the future who may spend extended periods in space.

The real awesome

It all sounds rather wonderful, gaining this life-changing perspective. And humans experiencing a greater sense of connectedness with each other and nature could only be a good thing given what we’re doing to our planet. And each other. A number of astronauts have suggested world leaders need to travel into space to get some perspective on what they’re making decisions about.

But the reality is only around 550 people out of a population of 7.6 billion have ever travelled into space. Even with the promise of space tourism, this number is hardly going to change dramatically.

One possibility is to use virtual reality to enable people on Earth to experience the Overview Effect. But research suggests there may be another way for earth-bound humans to experience a similar effect. The answer is awe.

Awe is the sensation of being in the presence of something beyond our understanding of the world. And it turns out if you can inspire someone to feel awe, their behaviour changes.

When people feel awe, their perception of time changes. People become more patient, more willing to help a stranger and prefer experiences to possessions. Life feels more satisfying when we experience awe.

Another study found that when people felt awe, they made more ethical decisions and were more generous. After spending time in a grove of tall trees, study volunteers felt less entitled and self-important. Whether it be from looking at images of space or immersing ourselves in nature, many studies have shown experiencing awe is powerful.

How can you go about finding awe? In the words of psychology professor Dacher Keltner, go and seek out experiences that give you goosebumps.

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