Seeing in the dark

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Anthropology / Evolution / Myths / Zoology

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

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

Seeing with sound

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

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

Under the sea

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

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

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

‘The remarkable batman’

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

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

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

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

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

Just another reminder of how incredibly versatile our brains are.

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Feeling out of the loop?

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Health / Myths / Psychology

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

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

FOMO explained

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

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

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

Is the grass on Facebook greener?

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

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

FOMO’s ancient beginning

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

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

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

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

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The long way home

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Biology / Ecology / Evolution / Zoology

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

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

Just keep swimming

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

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

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

Follow me

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

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

Around the world in 46 days

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

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

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

It’s a small world after all

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting in the zone

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Psychology

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

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

Going with the flow

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

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

These are a few of my favourite things

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

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

When your brain is in the zone

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

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

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

The dark zone

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

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

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


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Do I know you?

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Psychology

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

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


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

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

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

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

When everyone looks the same

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

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

What’s in a face?

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

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

Can we fix it?

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

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

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A new you

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Anthropology / Health / Myths / Psychology

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

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


Who are you?

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

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

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

In it for the long haul

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

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

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

Turning over a new leaf

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

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

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

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Are we seeing eye to eye?

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Anthropology / Evolution / Myths / Psychology

Making eye contact with someone is powerful: at the very least, it shows you’re listening attentively. But how long before holding someone’s gaze starts to feel uncomfortable? And why is it hard to maintain eye contact and think at the same time?

How long can you maintain eye contact before it gets awkward? Image credit Dan Langendorf via Flickr

How long can you maintain eye contact before it gets awkward? Image credit Dan Langendorf via Flickr


Can’t take my eyes off you

From birth, we prefer looking at faces that look directly at us. And from a very early age, our brains respond more to a face looking into our eyes than one looking away. We’ve evolved to have eyes that make it extremely obvious which direction we are looking: no other primate has an exposed white area around the coloured iris like we do. And when we see a person, the eyes are the part of the body we look at first and for longest. Other than talking, eye contact is one of the most powerful forms of communication we have.

When someone makes frequent eye contact with you, you tend to judge that person as likeable, trustworthy, and having higher self-esteem than someone who makes less eye contact. In turn, as you maintain eye contact with someone, you become more attentive and stimulated. At the same time, your focus turns inwards, and you become more aware of yourself and more tuned into your own emotional reactions. Research has shown even images of eyes can influence us. A simple picture of eyes taped to a wall makes people less likely to steal, less likely to litter and pay more attention to recycling rules.

Look at me

Making eye contact with someone makes us feel good: we feel connected. But you’ve probably also experienced the sensation of discomfort and vulnerability that comes with eye contact that goes on for too long. How long is too long? Researchers set out to answer this question last year by asking 500 volunteers to watch a video in which an actor looked directly at them for somewhere between one-tenth of a second and ten seconds. The volunteers pressed a button as soon as they felt the actor had looked at them for an uncomfortably long period. Equally, the study participants felt that too quick a glance indicated the actor was sneaky or suspicious. The average preferred length of eye contact was 3.3 seconds.

What happens if you maintain eye contact with someone well beyond what feels comfortable? People who sat in pairs and looked into each other’s eyes for 10 minutes in a dimly-lit room reported entering an altered state of consciousness (with no drugs involved). Half of them said they’d seen their own face in their partner’s face; three-quarters reported having seen a monster and 90% of the study participants said they’d seen their partner’s face look deformed. Perhaps there’s a good reason why we feel the urge to look away!

Look away

Have you ever noticed someone repeatedly breaking off eye contact with you during a conversation? As though they are finding it hard to look you in the eye and talk at the same time? Or perhaps you’ve found yourself needing to look away to think when someone asks you a difficult question? It can be awkward, especially if you are in the middle of an intense discussion.

Back in 1988, researchers showed the more our brains are working on a particular task, the more likely we are to look away from someone’s gaze. It isn’t because of embarrassment or shyness and looking away did allow people to perform better on memory and general knowledge tests.

Last year, researchers in Japan tested the effect further by asking volunteers to play word association games while looking at a computer-generated face. In some cases, the volunteers were asked to maintain eye contact with the face. At other times, the animated face was looking away. The researchers found it was harder for people to come up with appropriate words when making eye contact. And the less familiar the word a participant in the study was searching for, the harder it became for that person to keep their attention on the face. It seems maintaining eye contact is so mentally stimulating, our brains become overloaded when trying to think straight and hold someone’s gaze at the same time. If thinking clearly is the priority, we look away.

So next time you’re talking with someone and they look away, don’t assume it means they’re bored. Just the opposite: it may well be a sign that your conversation is so interesting their brain is working overtime.


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The fiction and facts of speed reading

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Myths / Psychology

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

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

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

Death by Tsundoku

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

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

Speed demons

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

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

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

Eyeballing it

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

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

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

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

No quick fix

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

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

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

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

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Red wine for a long life?

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Biology / Health / Medicine / Myths

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Red, red wine

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

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

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

Pop it in a pill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How sweet it is

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Zoology

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

Honey: the original superfood.

Honey: the original superfood.

The magic of bee vomit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not bad for something that is essentially bee vomit.

A recipe for honey

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

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

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

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

No use by date

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

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

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

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

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