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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Mosquito magnets

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Genetics / Health / Medicine / Myths / Zoology

Are you irresistible to mosquitos? We all know someone who gets covered in bites every time they venture outside. Why are some of us so much tastier than others?

Are you irresistible to mozzies? Image credit Erik F Brandsborg via Flickr

The deadliest animals

Only female mosquitos bite: they need the protein that comes from a blood meal to make their eggs. But there are thousands of species of mosquito, and they have different ideas about who and what is tasty. Some prefer birds, some frogs, some reptiles and some choose to bite mammals. And as we know only too well, some are particularly fond of humans.

Mosquitos are attracted to body heat and carbon dioxide, which we breathe out. That makes good sense: warmth and carbon dioxide are reliable signs that a body contains blood. So anything that increases your body temperature or makes you release more carbon dioxide will make you more of a target. This includes having a bigger body, being pregnant, or exercising.

But once a mosquito gets a bit closer there are a variety of factors that make you more or less appealing. The bacteria and chemicals we carry on our skin and that we release in sweat play a big role. In one study, researchers identified 300 different chemical compounds on skin that may play a role in attracting or repelling mosquitos.

Given mosquitos are responsible for the spread of some serious diseases – like malaria, yellow fever, dengue, Zika and Ross River fever – there has been a lot of research into what attracts them. After all, mosquitos are famous for being the ‘deadliest animals’.

Beer and genes

First of all, there’s no good evidence that anything you eat or drink changes how attractive you are to mosquitos. Taking Vitamin B tablets will not keep mosquitos away. Nor will eating garlic. But one small study did suggest drinking beer may make you more appealing to mosquitos.

One of my favourite studies of mosquito preferences compared mozzies’ responses to human hands, socks that had been worn for three days and Limburger cheese – that’s the REALLY smelly one. Human hands got the most interest from the mosquitos.

But the smelly socks were a big drawcard too – we know mosquitos respond to our sweat. Lactic acid attracts mosquitos – another reason why exercising is likely to make you more of a target. There’s also evidence some species of mosquito are attracted to people who have O-type blood.

And research published a couple of years ago showed our genes also play a role in our mosquito magnetism. The study showed identical twins were equally attractive to mosquitos, but non-identical twins weren’t. There’s a lot more work to be done on understanding the role of genetics in how mozzies respond to us.

Mozzies, be gone

If mosquitos happen like you a lot, what are your options? A study published earlier this year set up a wind tunnel in a lab designed to replicate a backyard patio. One unlucky person acted as bait at one end of the tunnel while the scientists counted how many yellow fever mosquitos moved towards the bait.

The researchers tested a variety of repellents on the human bait: sprays, wearable devices and a citronella candle. Most of them only had a weak effect, or no repellent effect. Neither bracelets containing herbal extracts or sonic mosquito repellers worked at all. Citronella candles were no good either: in fact, they might slightly attract mosquitos. But DEET and the oil of lemon eucalyptus both reduced mosquito attraction by 60%. Another study showed that while mosquito coils may reduce the number of mosquito bites, they don’t stop people getting malaria.

Australia’s mozzie expert Dr Cameron Webb has explained there are a variety of ways to avoid having your Christmas barbeque spoiled by mosquitos. For example, get rid of any places in your garden they could breed – bird baths, and other water-filled containers. Wear loose clothing and apply mosquito-repellents properly.

And the other thing to remember is that you may not be getting bitten more than your friends, you may just have more of a reaction to bites. Mosquitos inject saliva when they bite and you may react to that saliva more than others.

So if you’ve got a friend who is bragging about how they never get bitten, let them know they may very well be wrong. Something that could really matter when it comes to travelling in places where the mozzies carry nasty diseases.

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Oldest, youngest, middle or only?

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

Are you a rebellious youngest child, a responsible first-born, or perhaps a people-pleasing middle child? Much has been said about how birth order affects personality and intelligence. Is there any truth to the stereotypes?

Oldest, youngest or middle: does birth order affect personality? Image credit amyelizabethquinn via Pixabay

Neurotic, spoiled or independent?

Personalities are interesting things. We like to understand our own personalities and wonder how hard it might be to change our personality. We want to know if it’s possible to predict personality, for example on the basis of what time of year we were born. It’s also widely accepted that birth order influences personality.

It seems reasonable our position in the family – oldest, middle, youngest or only – might affect who we are. It’s not a new idea. Alfred Adler, a colleague of Sigmund Freud’s, suggested in the late 1920s that birth order affected personality.

Adler suggested firstborns feel ‘dethroned’ when a younger brother or sister comes along. The arrival of a new baby makes oldest children neurotic, but also good leaders. Adler proposed youngest children are likely to be spoiled, but also outgoing, whereas middle children are more independent. Only children revel in being the sole focus of their parents’ attention but as a result are more controlled and scrutinised.

Researchers have studied the influences of birth order for many years, but among thousands of studies, there hasn’t been a lot of consensus. In just the past two years articles have appeared with the headlines ‘Birth order is basically meaningless’ and ‘Research shows birth order really does matter’.

And of course in many families, the story is much less simple than these predictions suggest. Age gaps between children, the gender of each sibling, step-children and adoptions may all have an effect. And in a big family, there are many middle children. So is there any evidence for Adler’s theories?

First-born advantage

If you’re the eldest in your family, you may have already taken note of the many claims you’re likely to be smarter and more successful than your younger siblings. Perhaps you’ve heard you’re more likely to become a president, or an astronaut, or to make more money. Potentially dubious online reporting aside, there is some truth to the idea of the first-born advantage.

Francis Galton noticed many scientists in the 19th century were first-borns. First-borns are more likely to be managers or take on other occupations that require leadership. In a 2015 study of more than 20,000 people from the US, UK and Germany, researchers did find first-born children score higher on IQ tests. The theory goes that parents have more time and energy to give their first child and this boosts that child’s intelligence. Kids who come later have to share their parents’ attention.

A study of 5000 American children found beginning at a young age, first-born kids do better on a variety of tests including reading, comprehension and maths. The researchers found younger siblings weren’t born at a disadvantage, but they got less mental stimulation from their parents as their parents became busier with a larger family. Other studies have suggested the same effect.

A large study of families in Denmark and the US found that in families with two or more children, second-born sons were much more likely to be disciplined at school and end up in trouble with the police than their older brothers. And a study carried out in Chile showed first-borns are less likely to use drugs.

Finding your place

The idea that birth order shapes personality comes from the evolutionary view that siblings compete with each other to get their parents’ attention. The best way to do this is to be different to your brothers and sisters – to stand out. For example, younger siblings need more help than their big brothers and sisters so they become outgoing and extraverted to get attention.

Interestingly, our birth order does influence who we are more likely to form close relationships with. First-borns are more likely to be married to, or friends with other first-borns, middle children with other middle children and the baby of the family is also more likely to be in a relationship or close friendship with other youngest siblings.

A study of 377,000 U.S. high school students found only a small effect of birth order on personality. Oldest children did tend to be a little more conscientious and dominant, and less sociable (although more agreeable). But these results were only significant because the researchers studied so many thousands of people. And the large study of US, UK and German families found no effect of birth order on any of the ‘Big Five’ personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. So we certainly don’t have good evidence for the personality stereotypes we so often hear about.

Regardless of birth order, there’s no question the relationships we have with our brothers and sisters have a strong influence on us. And I count myself very lucky to have two wonderful big brothers.

But now I’d better get off the computer and go back to trying to be the centre of attention, just in case.

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Watch my space

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

We all have a bubble around us, a sense of personal space we don’t like to have invaded. How close are you happy to stand next to a friend? A stranger? And how is your comfort zone influenced by your nationality?

Need a bit of personal space? Image credit Mihai Damian via Flickr

Invisible bubbles

Remember Elaine’s ‘close talker’ boyfriend on Seinfeld, who stood too close? So close that Kramer fell over trying to get away?

Most of us have experienced meeting someone who just doesn’t seem to get personal space. It’s an icky feeling to have someone insist on standing too close. Especially when your backwards shuffle simply results in them stepping forward to close the gap.

Psychologists have been studying personal space since the 1960s, and we know quite a lot about it. You can think of personal space as the area around your body that you consider being psychologically yours. One study in the 1970s observed how long it took men to start peeing depending on how close the nearest occupied urinal was.

But personal space is an immensely variable thing. It changes, depending on where you are and who you’re with. Most of us will put up with standing much closer to a stranger on a crowded train than we would at other times.

In 1963, Edward T. Hall defined four ‘bubbles’ each of us perceives. Our intimate bubble (15 – 45 cm) is reserved for family, pets and closest friends. Next is our personal space (45 cm – 1.2 m), for friends and acquaintances. But we feel very uncomfortable if a stranger enters that zone. Then there’s social space (1.2 m – 3.6 m), fine for both new acquaintances and strangers. Finally, we all have a sense of public space, shared by all.

But this was a study of white American men. And it turns out where you’re from affects your preferred personal space.

Personal space around the world

In a study published earlier this year, researchers asked almost 9000 people from 42 countries to say how close they would be comfortable standing to a stranger, an acquaintance and a close friend.

Within each country, women and the elderly needed more space to be comfortable. But there were striking patterns across nationalities. Of the 42 countries included, Romanians had the largest personal space and Argentina the smallest. In Romania, people preferred to be almost a metre and a half from strangers, whereas Argentinians were happy to be about 80 cm from a stranger.

The researchers suggest this is because warm weather makes us feel socially closer. Beer garden, anyone? (Their alternate theory was that people living in warmer climates would stay well away from other people to reduce the risk of sharing parasites).

Interestingly, Romanians were very happy to be close to an intimate friend (50 cm). And Norwegians like to be even closer: 40 cm from a close friend. Maybe cold weather prompts us to want to get cozy with our nearest and dearest.

Unfortunately, Australians weren’t part of the study, but both England and the USA came out somewhere in the middle of the 42 countries, with Americans being happier to stand a bit closer to others than the Brits.


In monkeys, the area of the brain called the amygdala is involved in a sense of personal space. The amygdala plays an important role in memory, decision making and in our emotions.

Nearly a decade ago scientists determined the amygdala also plays a strong role in human perceptions of personal space. They worked it out by studying a patient known as ‘SM’, also known as the ‘woman with no fear.’

SM suffered major damage to the amygdala on both sides of her brain and can’t easily recognise the expression of fear in other peoples’ faces or judge the trustworthiness of other people. She also virtually never experiences fear herself. Scientists discovered SM felt comfortable standing just over 30cm from another person and it didn’t matter how well she knew the person.

Standing nose-to-nose with someone, even a stranger, didn’t make her uncomfortable. On average, other people in the study preferred to be just over 60cm from others. Experiments showed just the idea of someone standing close by is enough to make our amygdala fire up.

But next time you’re travelling, perhaps you can challenge your amygdala and do some experiments. Especially if you happen to be in one of the many countries not included in the study. Let’s fill the gaps.

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A measure of creativity

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

Are you creative? Many people believe everyone is creative. But how do we define creativity and how can we measure it?

What’s creative thinking anyway? Image credit Axel Tafernervia Flickr

What’s creativity?

Creativity is a fascinating thing. We all have an idea of what it means to be creative – perhaps you’re thinking of Leonardo Da Vinci or Steve Jobs. But coming up with a solid definition of creativity has proven challenging. Most researchers use the words ‘new’ and ‘useful’ to describe creative thoughts, ideas and actions. Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value.

Many researchers agree creative people simply see more possibilities than others. So it makes sense that one of the most common ways scientists assess a person’s creativity are tests of divergent thinking.

Creative thinking

Convergent thinking, one aspect of being creative, is the ability to come up with the one right answer to a problem. Divergent thinking is coming up with as many solutions to a question or problem as possible. Psychologist J. P Guilford coined these terms in the 1950s. And although creativity and divergent thinking aren’t the same thing, most people agree the ability to think outside the box is an important part of being creative.

One popular divergent thinking test is known as the alternate uses test. You get two minutes to come up with as many uses as you can for an everyday object like a paperclip, cardboard box or fork. You’re scored on how many uses you can come up with, how unusual these uses are, how detailed your ideas are and how many different categories they fall into. Most adults come up with 10 or 15 uses; people who blitz the test might think of 200.

One of the most well-known studies exploring divergent thinking followed a group of children starting in kindergarten. At that age, 98% of the kids scored at the top of the charts in divergent thinking. Five years later, half of the same kids made the cut and at age fifteen, only 10% of them showed the same high level of divergent thinking.

If we accept that our ability to think creatively in this way declines as we age, it’s worth thinking about ways we might be able to increase divergent thinking.

Dark, messy, on a treadmill, or sleepy

There has been plenty of research exploring what factors lead to more divergent thinking. One study found dim lighting reduces distractions and leads to a feeling of being free from constraints. People working in darkness were more creative in their thinking.

Walking also influences our ability to think outside the box. More than three-quarters of people scored higher on the alternate uses test after walking, even if the walking was done on a treadmill. But walking outside led to the most original thinking.

Another study found working in a neat, clean ordered environment leads to healthier snack choices and people being willing to give more money to charity. But people who work in a cluttered, messy environment were better at coming up with more ideas, and more creative ideas.

Spending time living overseas and meditation also appear to lead to more divergent thinking. And people who listen to ‘positive’ classical music (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) do better on divergent thinking tests than people who do the same tests in silence.

One study involved half of the participants going 32 hours (one night) without sleep before taking divergent thinking tests. Unsurprisingly, not getting enough sleep had a clear detrimental effect on creative thinking. Worth remembering if you’re considering an all-nighter. (Although a different study found people are more creative at solving problems at a time of day when they feel tired).

A creative placebo

What if simply believing you’re creative allowed you to think more creatively? One fascinating study found that asking people to ‘take on’ a stereotype of either an ‘eccentric poet’ or ‘rigid librarian’ had a big effect on their performance in an alternate uses test. Students who imagined themselves to be poets while they were doing the test were much better at thinking divergently than those who put themselves in librarians’ shoes.

A study published this year showed the placebo effect also has a role to play in creative thinking. Ninety students were asked to sniff a cinnamon-like substance and half were told this substance had been designed to enhance creativity. Of course in truth, there is no such thing.

But sure enough, the students who had sniffed the supposed creativity elixir were much better at coming up with alternate uses for shoes, nails and buttons. They also did better on other divergent thinking tests than the students who hadn’t been told the odour increases creativity.

So although many of us think, or have been told, we aren’t creative, clearly we just need to believe we are.

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