behavior · brain · cognition · happiness · health · Mental · mental health · Nature · psychology

Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime – Scientific American

I’m working on an article for work, and came across this article as part of my research for the article. It pretty much sums up everything I wanted to say (darn it!).

Americans and their brains are preoccupied with work much of the time. Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy. What if the brain requires substantial downtime to remain industrious and generate its most innovative ideas? “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

In contrast to the European Union, which mandates 20 days of paid vacation, the U.S. has no federal laws guaranteeing paid time off, sick leave or even breaks for national holidays. In the Netherlands 26 days of vacation in a given year is typical. In America, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong workers average 10 days off each year. Yet a survey by Harris Interactive found that, at the end of 2012, Americans had an average of nine unused vacation days. And in several surveys Americans have admited that they obsessively check and respond to e-mails from their colleagues or feel obliged to get some work done in between kayaking around the coast of Kauai and learning to pronounce humuhumunukunukuapua’a.

more via Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime – Scientific American.

The article focuses on mental downtime options like naps and meditation, which are awesome, but I would argue that being awake and aware, but also not actively engaged, like going for a walk or just sitting down and observing a garden, are good options too, especially since getting outside has also shown to be mentally reinvigorating.

behavior · children · environment · happiness · Nature

Make-A-Wish, Woodland Park Zoo grant a child’s wish to play with animals.

When 2 1/2-year-old Rylee, a Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington kid, said she loved animals, we wanted to give her an unforgettable day at Woodland Park Zoo. Two weeks ago, Rylee arrived in a stretch limo, fed elephants Chai and Watoto, pet and fed the goats, pigs and bunnies, enjoyed a picnic and rode the carousel—and had a wonderful time sharing it all with her family. We’re so sorry to learn that Rylee has since passed. But we know that while we gave Rylee and her family the gift of nature, they gave us the gift of sharing one of Rylee’s last days with her. Go outside and play today—nature and time are gifts we should all treasure together. (Photo: Jessica Johnny Photography)

Photo: When 2 1/2-year-old Rylee, a Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington kid, said she loved animals, we wanted to give her an unforgettable day at Woodland Park Zoo. Two weeks ago, Rylee arrived in a stretch limo, fed elephants Chai and Watoto, pet and fed the goats, pigs and bunnies, enjoyed a picnic and rode the carousel—and had a wonderful time sharing it all with her family. We’re so sorry to learn that Rylee has since passed. But we know that while we gave Rylee and her family the gift of nature, they gave us the gift of sharing one of Rylee’s last days with her. Go outside and play today—nature and time are gifts we should all treasure together. (Photo: Jessica Johnny Photography)

Biophilia is amazingly strong for all kids, and it’s simultaneously wonderful and heartbreaking that this was a little girl’s last wish.

community · play

Playful morning collaboration

From Boing Boing:

This video from the American Museum of Natural History details two recent instances where scientists have observed a whale and several dolphins interacting in ways that are something we might classify as “play”.

More from Youtube:

Recent encounters between humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins reveal a playful side to interspecies interaction. In two different locations in Hawaii, scientists watched as dolphins “rode” the heads of whales: the whales lifted the dolphins up and out of the water, and then the dolphins slid back down.

Enjoy the cooperative play:


The Fading Art Of The Physical Exam : NPR

I played sports as a kid, and always had to start my school year with a doctor’s physical exam. Apparently that doesn’t happen much anymore.

Doctors are physically examining their patients less and less, and relying more on technology. Some doctors are bucking this trend and trying to revitalize the practice of listening and actually touching their patients.

As a woman, I am still poked and prodded on a semi-regular basis (yuck!), but I’ve never had to go in for something serious, and I’ve heard others complain about this phenomenon. I’m interested what the experience of others has been.

For centuries, doctors diagnosed illness using their own senses, by poking, prodding, looking, listening. From these observations, a skilled doctor can make amazingly accurate inferences about what ails the patient.

Technology has changed that. “We’re now often doing expensive tests, where in the past a physical exam would have given you the same information,” says Jason Wasfy, a cardiologist-in-training at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

As a result, many doctors are abbreviating the time-honored physical exam — or even skipping it altogether.

more at The Fading Art Of The Physical Exam : NPR.


Possible male contraceptive in ultrasound

A research team thinks it may be able to stop sperm production for up to six months using ultrasound, the same instrument used to look at fetuses in the womb, an often-occurring side effect of sperm:

University of North Carolina researchers, working with a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, think that delivering a single dose of ultrasound to the male reproductive organs can stop sperm production for six months, after which time production fires up again.

Perhaps the best part: it’s non-hormonal, low-cost, and once treated the man has to do/remember absolutely nothing to remain infertile for up to half a year. Such an inexpensive and widely available method of stopping sperm production long-term — but not permanently — has plenty of appeal in the first world, but could be a serious boon for developing nations dealing with overpopulation and poverty.
The work is still preliminary, but the team is pushing forward with more clinical trials aiming to tweak the technique for optimum safety, as well as the greatest effect. In the meantime gents, we don’t recommend any attempts at self-medicating with unattended ultrasound machines. As with any experimentation that requires you to take off your pants, we recommend you let the professionals get a bit further along in the lab before trying this at home.

2009: The Year of Cute

I could go into the social and biological implications of why we’re turning away from sex to cute to sell things because it’s the latest trendy thing to do, or because both sex and cute are biological impulses ingrained in us and we as humans react to sub-consciously. But, eh, I just like this post because Cute Is Back.! 

Kia Hamsters (Vid)

To check out all the cute vids, go to CuteOverload.


Beauty is only city-deep

From MSNBC (with a few edits because I can’t help myself):

Women’s magazines often spread the same message: Money may not buy you happiness, but beauty certainly will. A new study has actually proven that the women’s magazines were right — so long as you live in the city. But if you’re a country girl, it’s more of a case of “pretty is as pretty does.”
Researchers have found that happiness for city women is quite dependent upon physical appearance. But in the country, looks don’t count for much in terms of overall life satisfaction and happiness, according to a new study in the journal Personal Relationships.
“City women who were the most attractive got a lot of bang for their appearance buck,” says the study’s lead author, Victoria Plaut, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. “And if you were even slightly below average, you were very clearly worse off.”
When it came to women living in the country, there was no connection between physical appearance and happiness. Even more interesting — there was a slight trend in the data for women in the country to be happier if they were chubbier, Plaut says.
For the new study, Plaut and her colleagues interviewed 257 women who lived in the city and 330 from the country. The women were asked to rate their satisfaction with life, their connectedness with friends and community, and their general level of happiness. For a measure of satisfaction, they were asked to rate their lives on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “worst possible life you can imagine” and 10 listed as the “best possible life you can imagine.”
To get a sense of the women’s attractiveness, researchers asked for waist and hip measurements. Other studies have shown that the ratio of waist to hips is a reliable indicator of attractiveness, Plaut explains. The lower the ratio, the slimmer the waist — and the more attractive a woman is considered to be.
The new findings fall in line with other research, says Michael Cunningham, a psychologist and professor in the department of communications at the University of Louisville, Ky. “In competitive and individualistic cultures you have to compete for limited social attention,” Cunningham says. “Physical attractiveness is one of the variables that gets you social attention and other positive outcomes. But in communal cultures and rural areas, family reputation and other longer-term variables have a bigger impact on your well-being. As a consequence, physical attractiveness doesn’t have as big an impact.” 
I’m not sure yet if I buy Cunningham’s reasoning why this is true; I think it’s more complicated than competition for attention. But I’d love to hear what other people think.

ADHD brains: taking the long way home

This idea that ADHD brains are simply delayed development, not “deviant” development, has been for the most part sort of speculative before, so I’m glad someone has started studying this more thoroughly. Re-posted from Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is the most common developmental disorder in children, affecting anywhere between 3-5% of the world’s school-going population. As the name suggests, kids with ADHD are hyperactive and easily distracted; they are also forgetful and find it difficult to control their own impulses.
While some evidence has suggested that ADHD brains develop in fundamentally different ways to typical ones, other results have argued that they are just the result of a delay in the normal timetable for development.
Now, Philip Shaw, Judith Rapaport and others from the National Institute of Mental Health have found new evidence to support the second theory. When some parts of the brain stick to their normal timetable for development, while others lag behind, ADHD is the result.
The idea isn’t new; earlier studies have found that children with ADHD have similar brain activity to slightly younger children without the condition. Rapaport’s own group had previously found that the brain’s four lobes developed in very much the same way, regardless of whether children had ADHD or not.
But looking at the size of entire lobes is a blunt measure that, at best, provides a rough overview. To get an sharper picture, they used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brains of 447 children of different ages, often at more than one point in time.
At over 40,000 parts of the brain, they noted the thickness of the child’s cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer layer, where its most complex functions like memory, language and consciousness are thought to lie. Half of the children had ADHD and using these measurements, Shaw could work out how their cortex differed from typical children as they grew up.
A child grows, their experiences manifest as connections between nerve cells and their cortex thickens. But during adolescence, the developing brain values efficiency over expansion and the cortex starts to thin, as unused connections are mercilessly trimmed. The growth of a child’s brain into a teenager’s is like the pouring of a block of clay that can then be sculpted away into the refined adult version.
In both groups of children, parts of the cortex peaked in terms of thickness in the same order, with waves of maturity spreading from the edges to the centre. The pattern was the same, but the timing wasn’t.

Reference:Shaw, P., Eckstrand, K., Sharp, W., Blumenthal, J., Lerch, J., Greenstein, D., Clasen, L., Evans, A., Giedd, J., & Rapoport, J. (2007). From the Cover: Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a delay in cortical maturation Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (49), 19649-19654 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0707741104


Tool use in the octopus

The title of this post almost rhymes. But that’s not important – what IS is the fact that we’ve found yet another animal that uses tools. Huzzah!

I’m using Science Daily‘s article:

Scientists once thought of tool use as a defining feature of humans. That’s until examples of tool use came in from other primates, along with birds and an array of other mammals. Now, a report in the December 14th issue of Current Biology, adds an octopus to the growing list of tool users.

The veined octopus under study manages a behavioral trick that the researchers call stilt walking. In it, the soft-bodied octopus spreads itself over stacked, upright coconut shell “bowls,” makes its eight arms rigid, and raises the whole assembly to amble on eight “stilts” across the seafloor. The only benefit to the octopus’s ungainly maneuver is to use the shells later as a shelter or lair, and that’s what makes it wholly different from a hermit crab using the discarded shell of a snail.

“There is a fundamental difference between picking up a nearby object and putting it over your head as protection versus collecting, arranging, transporting (awkwardly), and assembling portable armor as required,” said Mark Norman of the Museum Victoria in Australia.

Julian Finn, also of the Museum Victoria, said the initial discovery was completely serendipitous.
“While I have observed and videoed octopuses hiding in shells many times, I never expected to find an octopus that stacks multiple coconut shells and jogs across the seafloor carrying them,” he said.
In recalling the first time that he saw this behavior, Finn added, “I could tell that the octopus, busy manipulating coconut shells, was up to something, but I never expected it would pick up the stacked shells and run away. It was an extremely comical sight — I have never laughed so hard underwater.”

After 500 diver hours spent “under the sea,” the researchers observed the behavior of 20 veined octopuses. On four occasions, individuals traveled over considerable distances — up to 20 meters — while carrying stacked coconut shell halves beneath their body.

“Ultimately, the collection and use of objects by animals is likely to form a continuum stretching from insects to primates, with the definition of tools providing a perpetual opportunity for debate,” the researchers concluded. “However, the discovery of this octopus tiptoeing across the sea floor with its prized coconut shells suggests that even marine invertebrates engage in behaviors that we once thought the preserve of humans.”

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