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4 Nov

http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/anyone-can-learn-to-be-a-polymath/
 

Master of many trades

Our age reveres the narrow specialist but humans are natural polymaths, at our best when we turn our minds to many things

Renaissance man: Portrait of a Young Gentleman in His Studio by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1530. Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. Photo by CorbisRenaissance man: Portrait of a Young Gentleman in His Studio by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1530. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Photo by Corbis

Robert Twigger is a British poet, writer and explorer. He lives in Cairo, Egypt.

 

I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.

We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world. You think I jest? In June, I was invited on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to say a few words on the river Nile, because I had a new book about it. The producer called me ‘Dr Twigger’ several times. I was flattered, but I also felt a sense of panic. I have never sought or held a PhD. After the third ‘Dr’, I gently put the producer right. And of course, it was fine — he didn’t especially want me to be a doctor. The culture did. My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert — otherwise why would anyone listen?

The monopathic model derives some of its credibility from its success in business. In the late 18th century, Adam Smith (himself an early polymath who wrote not only on economics but also philosophy, astronomy, literature and law) noted that the division of labour was the engine of capitalism. His famous example was the way in which pin-making could be broken down into its component parts, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of the production process. But Smith also observed that ‘mental mutilation’ followed the too-strict division of labour. Or as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: ‘Nothing tends to materialise man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labour.’

Ever since the beginning of the industrial era, we have known both the benefits and the drawbacks of dividing jobs into ever smaller and more tedious ones. Riches must be balanced against boredom and misery. But as long as a boring job retains an element of physicality, one can find a rhythm, entering a ‘flow’ state wherein time passes easily and the hard labour is followed by a sense of accomplishment. In Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur (1962) there is a marvellous description of Neal Cassady working like a demon, changing tyres in a tyre shop and finding himself uplifted rather than diminished by the work. Industrialism tends toward monopathy because of the growth of divided labour, but it is only when the physical element is removed that the real problems begin. When the body remains still and the mind is forced to do something repetitive, the human inside us rebels.

The average job now is done by someone who is stationary in front of some kind of screen. Someone who has just one overriding interest is tunnel-visioned, a bore, but also a specialist, an expert. Welcome to the monopathic world, a place where only the single-minded can thrive. Of course, the rest of us are very adept at pretending to be specialists. We doctor our CVs to make it look as if all we ever wanted to do was sell mobile homes or Nespresso machines. It’s common sense, isn’t it, to try to create the impression that we are entirely focused on the job we want? And wasn’t it ever thus?

In fact, it wasn’t. Classically, a polymath was someone who ‘had learnt much’, conquering many different subject areas. As the 15th-century polymath Leon Battista Alberti — an architect, painter, horseman, archer and inventor — wrote: ‘a man can do all things if he will’. During the Renaissance, polymathy became part of the idea of the ‘perfected man’, the manifold master of intellectual, artistic and physical pursuits. Leonardo da Vinci was said to be as proud of his ability to bend iron bars with his hands as he was of the Mona Lisa.

Polymaths such as Da Vinci, Goethe and Benjamin Franklin were such high achievers that we might feel a bit reluctant to use the word ‘polymath’ to describe our own humble attempts to become multi-talented. We can’t all be geniuses. But we do all still indulge in polymathic activity; it’s part of what makes us human.

So, say that we all have at least the potential to become polymaths. Once we have a word, we can see the world more clearly. And that’s when we notice a huge cognitive dissonance at the centre of Western culture: a huge confusion about how new ideas, new discoveries, and new art actually come about.

Science, for example, likes to project itself as clean, logical, rational and unemotional. In fact, it’s pretty haphazard, driven by funding and ego, reliant on inspired intuition by its top-flight practitioners. Above all it is polymathic. New ideas frequently come from the cross-fertilisation of two separate fields. Francis Crick, who intuited the structure of DNA, was originally a physicist; he claimed this background gave him the confidence to solve problems that biologists thought were insoluble. Richard Feynman came up with his Nobel Prize-winning ideas about quantum electrodynamics by reflecting on a peculiar hobby of his — spinning a plate on his finger (he also played the bongos and was an expert safe-cracker). Percy Spencer, a radar expert, noticed that the radiation produced by microwaves melted a chocolate bar in his pocket and developed microwave ovens. And Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the modern machine gun, was inspired by a self-cocking mousetrap he had made in his teens.

I thought you were either a ‘natural’ or nothing. Then I saw natural athletes fall behind when they didn’t practice enough. This, shamefully, was a great morale booster

Despite all this, there remains the melancholy joke about the scientist who outlines a whole new area of study only to dismiss it out of hand because it trespasses across too many field boundaries and would never get funding. Somehow, this is just as believable as any number of amazing breakthroughs inspired by the cross-fertilisation of disciplines.

One could tell similar stories about breakthroughs in art — cubism crossed the simplicity of African carving with a growing non-representational trend in European painting. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Banksy took street graffiti and made it acceptable to galleries. In business, cross-fertilisation is the source of all kinds of innovations: fibres inspired by spider webs have become a source of bulletproof fabric; practically every mobile phone also seems to be a computer, a camera and a GPS tracker. To come up with such ideas, you need to know things outside your field. What’s more, the further afield your knowledge extends, the greater potential you have for innovation.

Invention fights specialisation at every turn. Human nature and human progress are polymathic at root. And life itself is various — you need many skills to be able to live it. In traditional cultures, everyone can do a little of everything. Though one man might be the best hunter or archer or trapper, he doesn’t do only that.

The benefits of polymathic endeavour in innovation are not so hard to see. What is less obvious is how we ever allowed ourselves to lose sight of them. The problem, I believe, is some mistaken assumptions about learning. We come to believe that we can only learn when we are young, and that only ‘naturals’ can acquire certain skills. We imagine that we have a limited budget for learning, and that different skills absorb all the effort we plough into them, without giving us anything to spend on other pursuits.

Our hunch that it’s easier to learn when you’re young isn’t completely wrong, or at least it has a real basis in neurology. However, the pessimistic assumption that learning somehow ‘stops’ when you leave school or university or hit thirty is at odds with the evidence. It appears that a great deal depends on the nucleus basalis, located in the basal forebrain. Among other things, this bit of the brain produces significant amounts of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the rate at which new connections are made between brain cells. This in turn dictates how readily we form memories of various kinds, and how strongly we retain them. When the nucleus basalisis ‘switched on’, acetylcholine flows and new connections occur. When it is switched off, we make far fewer new connections.

Between birth and the age of ten or eleven, the nucleus basalisis is permanently ‘switched on’. It contains an abundance of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and this means new connections are being made all the time. Typically this means that a child will be learning almost all the time — if they see or hear something once they remember it. But as we progress towards the later teenage years the brain becomes more selective. From research into the way stroke victims recover lost skills it has been observed that the nucleus basalis only switches on when one of three conditions occur: a novel situation, a shock, or intense focus, maintained through repetition or continuous application.

Over-specialisation, eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt rather than making new connections

I know from my own experience of studying martial arts in Japan that intense study brings rewards that are impossible to achieve by casual application. For a year I studied an hour a day three days a week and made minimal progress. For a further year I switched to an intensive course of five hours a day five days a week. The gains were dramatic and permanent, resulting in a black belt and an instructor certificate. Deep down I was pessimistic that I could actually learn a martial art. I thought you were either a ‘natural’ or nothing. Then I saw natural athletes fall behind when they didn’t practice enough. This, shamefully, was a great morale booster.

The fact that I succeeded where others were failing also gave me an important key to the secret of learning. There was nothing special about me, but I worked at it and I got it. One reason many people shy away from polymathic activity is that they think they can’t learn new skills. I believe we all can — and at any age too — but only if we keep learning. ‘Use it or lose it’ is the watchword of brain plasticity.

People as old as 90 who actively acquire new interests that involve learning retain their ability to learn. But if we stop taxing the nucleus basalis, it begins to dry up. In some older people it has been shown to contain no acetylcholine — they have been ‘switched off’ for so long the organ no longer functions. In extreme cases this is considered to be one factor in Alzheimers and other forms of dementia — treated, effectively at first, by artificially raising acetylcholine levels. But simply attempting new things seems to offer health benefits to people who aren’t suffering from Alzheimers. After only short periods of trying, the ability to make new connections develops. And it isn’t just about doing puzzles and crosswords; you really have to try and learn something new.

Monopathy, or over-specialisation, eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt rather than making new connections. The initial spurt of learning gives out, and the expert is left, like an animal, merely defending his territory. One sees this in the academic arena, where ancient professors vie with each other to expel intruders from their hard-won patches. Just look at the bitter arguments over how far the sciences should be allowed to encroach on the humanities. But the polymath, whatever his or her ‘level’ or societal status, is not constrained to defend their own turf. The polymath’s identity and value comes from multiple mastery.

Besides, it may be that the humanities have less to worry about than it seems. An intriguing study funded by the Dana foundation and summarised by Dr Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that studying the performing arts — dance, music and acting — actually improves one’s ability to learn anything else. Collating several studies, the researchers found that performing arts generated much higher levels of motivation than other subjects. These enhanced levels of motivation made students aware of their own ability to focus and concentrate on improvement. Later, even if they gave up the arts, they could apply their new-found talent for concentration to learning anything new.

I find this very suggestive. The old Renaissance idea of mastering physical as well as intellectual skills appears to have real grounding in improving our general ability to learn new things. It is having the confidence that one can learn something new that opens the gates to polymathic activity.

There is, I think, a case to be made for a new area of study to counter the monopathic drift of the modern world. Call it polymathics. Any such field would have to include physical, artistic and scientific elements to be truly rounded. It isn’t just that mastering physical skills aids general learning. The fact is, if we exclude the physicality of existence and reduce everything worth knowing down to book-learning, we miss out on a huge chunk of what makes us human. Remember, Feynman had to be physically competent enough to spin a plate to get his new idea.

Polymathics might focus on rapid methods of learning that allow you to master multiple fields. It might also work to develop transferable learning methods. A large part of it would naturally be concerned with creativity — crossing unrelated things to invent something new. But polymathics would not just be another name for innovation. It would, I believe, help build better judgment in all areas. There is often something rather obvious about people with narrow interests — they are bores, and bores always lack a sense of humour. They just don’t see that it’s absurd to devote your life to a tiny area of study and have no other outside interests. I suspect that the converse is true: by being more polymathic, you develop a better sense of proportion and balance — which gives you a better sense of humour. And that can’t be a bad thing.

Published on 4 November 2013

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10 Ways to Happiness – Because Science

8 Aug

http://lifehacker.com/ten-things-you-can-do-to-be-happier-backed-by-science-1065356587?utm_campaign=socialflow_lifehacker_facebook&utm_source=lifehacker_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

 

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

 

Happiness is so interesting, because we all have different

ideas about what it is and how to get it. I would love to be happier—as I’m sure most people would—so I thought it would be interesting to find some ways to become a happier person that are actually backed up by science. Here are ten of the best ones I found.

Exercise More

Exercise has such a profound effect on our happiness and well-being that it’s actually been proven to be an effective strategy for overcoming depression. In a study cited in Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, three groups of patients treated their depression with either medication, exercise, or a combination of the two. The results of this study really surprised me. Although all three groups experienced similar improvements in their happiness levels to begin with, the follow up assessments proved to be radically different:

The groups were then tested six months later to assess their relapse rate. Of those who had taken the medication alone, 38 percent had slipped back into depression. Those in the combination group were doing only slightly better, with a 31 percent relapse rate. The biggest shock, though, came from the exercise group: Their relapse rate was only 9 percent!

You don’t have to be depressed to gain benefit from exercise, though. It can help you to relax, increase your brain power and even improve your body image, even if you don’t lose any weight. A study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who exercised felt better about their bodies, even when they saw no physical changes:

Body weight, shape and body image were assessed in 16 males and 18 females before and after both 6 × 40 mins exercise and 6 × 40 mins reading. Over both conditions, body weight and shape did not change. Various aspects of body image, however, improved after exercise compared to before.

We’ve explored exercise in depth before, and looked at what it does to our brains, such as releasing proteins and endorphins that make us feel happier, as you can see in the image below.

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

Sleep More

We know that sleep helps our bodies to recover from the day and repair themselves, and that it helps us focus and be more productive. It turns out, it’s also important for our happiness. In NutureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how sleep affects our positivity:

Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.

In one experiment by Walker, sleep-deprived college students tried to memorize a list of words. They could remember 81% of the words with a negative connotation, like “cancer.” But they could remember only 31% of the words with a positive or neutral connotation, like “sunshine” or “basket.”

The BPS Research Digest explores another study that proves sleep affects our sensitivity to negative emotions. Using a facial recognition task over the course of a day, the researchers studied how sensitive participants were to positive and negative emotions. Those who worked through the afternoon without taking a nap became more sensitive late in the day to negative emotions like fear and anger.

Using a face recognition task, here we demonstrate an amplified reactivity to anger and fear emotions across the day, without sleep. However, an intervening nap blocked and even reversed this negative emotional reactivity to anger and fear while conversely enhancing ratings of positive (happy) expressions.

Of course, how well (and how long) you sleep will probably affect how you feel when you wake up, which can make a difference to your whole day. Especially this graph showing how your brain activity decreases is a great insight about how important enough sleep is for productivity and happiness:

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

Another study tested how employees’ moods when they started work in the morning affected their work day.

Researchers found that employees’ moods when they clocked in tended to affect how they felt the rest of the day. Early mood was linked to their perceptions of customers and to how they reacted to customers’ moods.

And most importantly to managers, employee mood had a clear impact on performance, including both how much work employees did and how well they did it.

Sleep is another topic we’ve looked into before, exploring how much sleep we really need to be productive.

Move Closer to Work

Our commute to the office can have a surprisingly powerful impact on our happiness. The fact that we tend to do this twice a day, five days a week, makes it unsurprising that its effect would build up over time and make us less and less happy. According to The Art of Manliness, having a long commute is something we often fail to realize will affect us so dramatically:

… while many voluntary conditions don’t affect our happiness in the long term because we acclimate to them, people never get accustomed to their daily slog to work because sometimes the traffic is awful and sometimes it’s not. Or as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”

We tend to try to compensate for this by having a bigger house or a better job, but these compensations just don’t work:

Two Swiss economists who studied the effect of commuting on happiness found that such factors could not make up for the misery created by a long commute.

Spend Time with Friends and Family

Staying in touch with friends and family is one of the top five regrets of the dying. If you want more evidence that it’s beneficial for you, I’ve found some research that proves it can make you happier right now. Social time is highly valuable when it comes to improving our happiness, even for introverts. Several studies have found that time spent with friends and family makes a big difference to how happy we feel, generally.

I love the way Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert explains it:

We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.

George Vaillant is the director of a 72-year study of the lives of 268 men.

In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

He shared insights of the study with Joshua Wolf Shenk at The Atlantic on how the men’s social connections made a difference to their overall happiness:

The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics states than your relationships are worth more than $100,000:

Using the British Household Panel Survey, I find that an increase in the level of social involvements is worth up to an extra £85,000 a year in terms of life satisfaction. Actual changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little happiness.

I think that last line is especially fascinating: Actual changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little happiness. So we could increase our annual income by hundreds of thousands of dollars and still not be as happy as if we increased the strength of our social relationships.

The Terman study, which is covered in The Longevity Project, found that relationships and how we help others were important factors in living long, happy lives:

We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the longest.

Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.

Go Outside

In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor recommends spending time in the fresh air to improve your happiness:

Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage; one study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory…

This is pretty good news for those of us who are worried about fitting new habits into our already-busy schedules. Twenty minutes is a short enough time to spend outside that you could fit it into your commute or even your lunch break. A UK study from the University of Sussex also found that being outdoors made people happier:

Being outdoors, near the sea, on a warm, sunny weekend afternoon is the perfect spot for most. In fact, participants were found to be substantially happier outdoors in all natural environments than they were in urban environments.

The American Meteorological Society published research in 2011 that found current temperature has a bigger effect on our happiness than variables like wind speed and humidity, or even the average temperature over the course of a day. It also found that happiness is maximized at 13.9°C, so keep an eye on the weather forecast before heading outside for your 20 minutes of fresh air.

Help Others

One of the most counterintuitive pieces of advice I found is that to make yourself feel happier, you should help others. In fact, 100 hours per year (or two hours per week) is the optimal time we should dedicate to helping others in order to enrich our lives. If we go back to Shawn Achor’s book again, he says this about helping others:

…when researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities—such as concerts and group dinners out—brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches. Spending money on other people, called “prosocial spending,” also boosts happiness.

The Journal of Happiness Studies published a study that explored this very topic:

Participants recalled a previous purchase made for either themselves or someone else and then reported their happiness. Afterward, participants chose whether to spend a monetary windfall on themselves or someone else. Participants assigned to recall a purchase made for someone else reported feeling significantly happier immediately after this recollection; most importantly, the happier participants felt, the more likely they were to choose to spend a windfall on someone else in the near future.

So spending money on other people makes us happier than buying stuff for ourselves. What about spending our time on other people? A study of volunteering in Germany explored how volunteers were affected when their opportunities to help others were taken away:

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before the German reunion, the first wave of data of the GSOEP was collected in East Germany. Volunteering was still widespread. Due to the shock of the reunion, a large portion of the infrastructure of volunteering (e.g. sports clubs associated with firms) collapsed and people randomly lost their opportunities for volunteering. Based on a comparison of the change in subjective well-being of these people and of people from the control group who had no change in their volunteer status, the hypothesis is supported that volunteering is rewarding in terms of higher life satisfaction.

In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman explains that helping others can improve our own lives:

…we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.

Practice Smiling

Smiling itself can make us feel better, but it’s more effective when we back it up with positive thoughts, according to this study:

A new study led by a Michigan State University business scholar suggests customer-service workers who fake smile throughout the day worsen their mood and withdraw from work, affecting productivity. But workers who smile as a result of cultivating positive thoughts–such as a tropical vacation or a child’s recital–improve their mood and withdraw less.

Of course it’s important to practice “real smiles” where you use your eye sockets. It’s very easy to spot the difference:

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

According to PsyBlog, smiling can improve our attention and help us perform better on cognitive tasks:

Smiling makes us feel good which also increases our attentional flexibility and our ability to think holistically. When this idea was tested by Johnson et al. (2010), the results showed that participants who smiled performed better on attentional tasks which required seeing the whole forest rather than just the trees.

A smile is also a good way to alleviate some of the pain we feel in troubling circumstances:

Smiling is one way to reduce the distress caused by an upsetting situation. Psychologists call this the facial feedback hypothesis. Even forcing a smile when we don’t feel like it is enough to lift our mood slightly (this is one example of embodied cognition).

Plan a Trip

As opposed to actually taking a holiday, it seems that planning a vacation or just a break from work can improve our happiness. A study published in the journal, Applied Research in Quality of Life showed that the highest spike in happiness came during the planning stage of a vacation as employees enjoyed the sense of anticipation:

In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks. After the vacation, happiness quickly dropped back to baseline levels for most people.

Shawn Achor has some info for us on this point, as well:

One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent. If you can’t take the time for a vacation right now, or even a night out with friends, put something on the calendar—even if it’s a month or a year down the road. Then whenever you need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it.

Meditate

Meditation is often touted as an important habit for improving focus, clarity and attention span, as well as helping to keep you calm. It turns out it’s also useful for improving your happiness:

In one study, a research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brain scans of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. The study, published in the January issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.

Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier live. I believe that this graphic explains it the best:

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

According to Shawn Achor, meditation can actually make you happier long-term:

Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.

The fact that we can actually alter our brain structure through mediation is most surprising to me and somewhat reassuring that however we feel and think today isn’t permanent.

Practice Gratitude

This is a seemingly simple strategy, but I’ve personally found it to make a huge difference to my outlook. There are lots of ways to practice gratitude, from keeping a journal of things you’re grateful for, sharing three good things that happen each day with a friend or your partner, and going out of your way to show gratitude when others help you.

In an experiment where some participants took note of things they were grateful for each day, their moods were improved just from this simple practice:

The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.

The Journal of Happiness studies published a study that used letters of gratitude to test how being grateful can affect our levels of happiness:

Participants included 219 men and women who wrote three letters of gratitude over a 3 week period. Results indicated that writing letters of gratitude increased participants’ happiness and life satisfaction, while decreasing depressive symptoms.

Quick Last Fact: Getting Older Will Make You Happier

As a final point, it’s interesting to note that as we get older, particularly past middle age, we tend to grow happier naturally. There’s still some debate over why this happens, but scientists have got a few ideas:

Researchers, including the authors, have found that older people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on and remember the happier ones more and the negative ones less. Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods—for instance, pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might bring them down. Still other work finds that older adults learn to let go of loss and disappointment over unachieved goals, and hew their goals toward greater wellbeing.

So if you thought being old would make you miserable, rest assured that it’s likely you’ll develop a more positive outlook than you probably have now.

Conversion factors – Science reminds you that “more calories = more work”, fatty!

18 Mar

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=labels-that-translate-calories-into-walking-distance&page=2

Tread Lightly: Labels That Translate Calories into Walking Distance Could Induce People to Eat Less

 

Including the amount of physical activity needed to burn off the calories from a meal caused people to order on average 200 calories less in an online survey

By Roxanne Khamsi

 

NYC map shows walking distances for burning calories

NYC’s Health Department encourages consumers to choose beverages with less sugar. Image: New York City Health Department

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign to limit sugary drinks is losing juice, but an idea the city has used to convey caloric information about these beverages might actually have legs. Public awareness posters used by the campaign showed the number of miles a person would have to walk to burn off the calories in a 20-ounce soda, and new research suggests that physical activity–based conversions such as these can actually persuade people to make healthier choices.

food labels

FOOTLOOSE: Researchers tested four labeling scenarios.
Image: Courtesy of Dowray et. al.

Choosing what to eat or drink based on calorie numbers alone is challenging for some restaurant-goers, according to Anthony Viera at the University of North Carolina (U.N.C.) at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “It requires a computation that many people might not find easy to make at the point of decision,” he says. So Viera and his colleagues conducted an online survey of 802 individuals randomly presented with one of four hypothetical menus. One of the menus provided only calorie counts, another supplemented this with information about the number of minutes one would need to walk to burn those calories whereas the third menu showed calorie numbers plus the distance necessary to walk them off. The fourth menu had no nutritional data whatsoever. All of the physical activity labeling for walking was based on the energy expenditure of a 160-pound adult walking at a rate of 30 minutes per mile—so a “regular burger” was, for example, listed as containing 250 calories, the equivalent amount burned in 2.6 miles, or 78 minutes of walking.

People who viewed the menu without nutritional information ordered a meal totaling 1,020 calories, on average, significantly more than the average 826 calories ordered by those who viewed menus that included information about walking-distance. Study participants ordered meals adding up to averages of 927 calories and 916 calories from menus with only calorie information or calorie information plus minutes walking, respectively, although the differences between these two totals were not statistically significant. The findings appear in the March issue of the journal Appetite. “The next stage is to see how this might work in a real-world setting,” says Sunaina Dowray, a medical student at the U.N.C. School of Medicine and lead author of the study. She says that the team might try to work with the school’s cafeteria about the possibility of testing the concept their labels there.

Although a difference of 200 or even 100 calories might not seem large, a 2011 study from researchers that included scientists at the National Institutes of Health calculated that eating just 10 fewer calories a day would make a person shed a pound of weight over three years.

Running with the idea
The notion of physical activity–based calorie labeling has stirred interest. “This is a huge window of opportunity for the public health community to provide consumers useful information about calories,” says Sara Bleich of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was not involved in the new study. “Information-based interventions that require less mental processing are typically more successful than information-based interventions requiring greater computation effort,” she adds. Bleich co-authored a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health that looked at sugary drink sales at four corner stores in a low-income Baltimore neighborhood in which the scientists placed brightly-colored signs on the beverage cases asking, “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” The signs that included this physical activity estimate reduced the odds of adolescents purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages whereas signs that included only the calorie content produced no statistically significant decline in such odds.

Subway riders in the Big Apple saw exactly this calorie–physical activity equivalence approach rolled out in fall 2011, when posters warned them that they would need to walk three miles—from Union Square in Manhattan to Brooklyn—to burn off the calories in a 20-ounce soda. “We found that this information was new for many people and helped people better understand the number of calories in a sugary beverage,” says Susan Kansagra, assistant commissioner of the city’s Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Tobacco Control.

New York is, of course, the same city that instituted a requirement in 2008 that required restaurant chains with more than five locations to list calorie content on their menus. Although some studies have found an appreciable reduction in calorie consumption following this rule, a handful have not seen a difference. Meanwhile public health advocates are waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to publish a final version of a rule proposed in April 2011 that would require restaurants with more than 20 locations nationwide to list caloric information on their menus. The agency has estimated that approximately 1,640 chains with a total of 278,600 establishments across the country would fall under this rule.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Science in the Public Interest, is optimistic that calorie counts on their own will make a big difference in the fight against the obesity epidemic in the U.S. “We don’t know what the full impact of menu labeling is, and we won’t know until it’s been in effect nationally for several years,” Wootan says. She’s less sanguine about adding physical activity labels: “It’s a clever idea, but for most restaurants’ menus it probably wouldn’t be practical.” The addition of such information means that menus “could really get cluttered and hard to read.”

In the meantime those curious about physical activity equivalents of the food they eat can chew on this: the recent publication Convert Anything to Calories reportedly states that you can burn off the calories in one Big Mac with 350,000 clicks of a computer mouse.

Experiencing Awe Improves Well-Being and Personal Awesomeness

25 Jul

http://www.adventure-journal.com/2012/07/experiencing-awe-improves-well-being-and-personal-awesomeness/
 

Experiencing Awe Improves Well-Being and Personal Awesomeness

by brendan leonard on July 9, 2012

 

 

Experiencing awesome things can make you more awesome, according to a recently published study. More scientifically, standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon can change your perception of time, make you less materialistic, and alter your understanding of the world, according to a recent study. So can going backpacking in the Tetons, or climbing El Cap, or kayaking a big river, or any other method of experiencing perceptual vastness. Awe is often experienced in nature, or when we encounter things we think are unfathomable.

The study, to be published in Psychological Science, examined what happened when test subjects experienced feelings of awe — which is different than happiness. Awe, according to research, has two features: Perceptual vastness, or the understanding that a person has come upon “something immense in size, number, scope, complexity or social bearing,” and the stimulation of a need for accommodation, meaning it “alters one’s understanding of the world.”

Researchers from business schools at Stanford and the University of Minnesota conducted a series of experiments to determine what happens when we experience awe, compared to a feeling of happiness. The findings:

“[The experiments] showed that awe, relative to happiness, engenders a perception that time is plentiful, curbs impatience, and inspires a desire to volunteer time. These outcomes have been related to well-being, suggesting life satisfaction itself might be affected by awe.”

“Eliciting a feeling of awe, versus a neutral state, increased perceived time availability, which in turn led participants to more strongly prefer experiential over material goods and view their lives as more satisfying. [The experiments] also found evidence of mediation: Greater perceived time availability mediated awe’s effect on momentary life satisfaction and participants’ choice of experiential (over material) products.”

Also interesting: Although awe increased participants’ willingness to donate time, it did not increase their overall generosity, or willingness to donate money. But still, they were more awesome.

Photo of the Grand Canyon by Shutterstock

Quote

Power Through

20 Jul

“High volume/high frequency anything sucks ass the first week or three. I’d expect a lot of fears of overtraining and adrenal fatigue, plenty of second guessing, and generally lots of bitching and moaning.

“But it passes. I was as stunned as anyone, but if you just keep going, you shake it off and enter this wonderful land where you feel indestructible. That’s not quite right, because you still feel horrible in a way – and your markers of stress will almost certainly reflect it – but it’s like you learn to ignore it.

“You go into a different headspace where it doesn’t matter, and the motivation to keep going overrides anything else; a very strange place that is, but also wonderful from a training standpoint.

“Body comp changes happen. It’s unavoidable. Likewise for neuro-endo-immune markers – unavoidable, but at the same time, so decoupled from the performance variables that you can power through.

“The powering through is what becomes the Useful Thing. It’s a skill that can be practiced like anything else.”

http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/ten_thousand_swings_to_fat_loss

The science of hangovers – now with 530% more animated videos!

29 Jun

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/06/29/scientific-cure-for-hangovers/

https://twitter.com/#!/AsapSCIENCE

http://www.facebook.com/AsapSCIENCE

 

Happy Friday!

 

Why alcohol and coffee dehydrate you:

 

What actually causes hangovers:

 

And finally, how to side-step some of those super shitty hangover symptoms the next morning

Because no one likes skin cancer, here’s some useful info

13 Jun

http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2011/the-sunscreen-smokescreen/

Fitness Tips from the World’s Greatest Athlete – Olympic Decathlete Trey Hardee

13 Jun

http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/Train-Like-an-Olympian-20120701.html?page=1

Outside Magazine, July 2012
Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The World’s Greatest Athlete

Spoiler alert! You’re not making this year’s Olympic team. But here’s your consolation prize: Priceless advice from reigning world champion decathlete Trey Hardee, who has distilled a decade of training and nutrition wisdom into one totally customizable gold-medal fitness formula.

By: Ryan Krogh

 

 

Hardee’s routine of choice is something he calls speed-endurance workouts. “They’re designed to tip you over the edge of your lactate threshold,” he says. “You’re in oxygen debt, and you’re forcing your body to work through it.” A common example for Hardee is a 450-meter run, a 350, and a 250, all with relatively short recovery times (roughly four minutes) between each one. He’ll follow those with a 10-minute break and then three 150-meter sprints, with a longer recovery period in between (five or six minutes). “At the end, your muscles are just swimming with lactic acid,” says Hardee. “Your body feels like it’s going to shut down, but it will learn to recover faster, which is particularly important for me when there are short times in between events.” For you, it means faster recovery between ascents on the bike or ski laps at the resort.

I’m just a runner/cyclist/swimmer. Is the weight room really worth my time?
Hitting the weights, insists Hardee, is necessary no matter what sport you do. But it’s not about getting bigger by isolating muscles. It’s about getting stronger for your sport through dynamic exercises. Hardee does heavy rotations of Olympic movements—power cleans, squats, and bench presses. “They’re our bread and butter,” he says. “There’s almost a one-to-one transfer of power we build there to all of the events we do on the track.” Not surprisingly, Olympic exercises are good for many outdoor sports, too, because they engage muscles throughout the body. Hardee and his coach incorporate other exercises, but Olympic movements are the foundation.

What about warming up? Should I stretch before I work out?
“Stretching isn’t warming up,” says Hardee. “Warming up is literally that—raising your body’s temperature and getting blood flowing to your muscles.” Hardee recommends dynamic exercises that are movement-oriented. Instead of going for a jog around the track and then bending over to touch his toes, Hardee goes for a jog around the track and then does lateral shuffles, jumping jacks, backward runs, lunges, box hops, legs swings, and other light exercises. “The idea is not to elongate your muscles,” explains Hardee. “It’s simply to wake them up and let them know what they’re about to do.” 

How much water should I drink when I’m training?
“For me, there’s no such thing as too much water,” says Hardee. “My body craves it from the moment I wake up until I go to bed, and I drink until my body tells me I’m loaded.” Good call. Recent research backs up this basic but intuitive guideline: Hydrate if you’re thirsty, don’t if you’re not. In a survey of distance runners last year, more than a third said they drink according to a preset schedule, such as one liter per hour, and nearly 10 percent simply down as much as they can. Thirst, which has been honed over millennia, turns out to be a pretty good measure of how much to drink when working out. As you pay more attention to your body’s signals, Hardee says, you’ll be able to recognize the subtleties of thirst more quickly. “Even if you don’t change your diet but pay more attention to how much water you drink, it will make a difference,” he says. “You’ll be surprised at how good you feel.”

I’ve just done a hard workout—what’s my recovery routine?
“I can spend as much time getting ready for the next day’s workout as actually doing the current day’s regimen,” Hardee says. After an intense sprint session, he’ll go for a low-intensity jog, do exercises like leg swings against a wall or lateral jumping jacks, then stretch for 10 to 15 minutes. Hardee says the biggest mistake most athletes make is not taking the time to properly cool down after a heavy session. “You’re breaking down your muscles when you’re working out,” Hardee explains, “and you need to work equally hard to help them recover. I’m always actively trying to recover and get ready for the next day.”

What do you mean by active recovery?
For one, Hardee soaks in a 55-degree cold tub daily—he has one in his house—to help reduce inflammation. More important for non-Olympians is one of his other protocols: a quality meal high in protein and carbs within an hour or so after the last workout of the day (see his daily meal plan, below). After a training session, your body is primed to take in nutrients and use them to build muscle. To end his daily recovery, he has a foam roller that he self-massages with at night. To use it, he simple lies on it and lets his body weight do the work as he rolls back and forth on tight spots. In addition, he gets a professional massage and visits a chiropractor every other week—the former to loosen any particularly tight muscles and the latter to make sure everything is in proper alignment. The massage-and-chiropractor protocol is not so much an immediate recovery technique, explains Hardee, as a way to make sure there are no weak links that might cause an injury.

What about off days?
There’s no such thing as an off day—but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun on non-training days. “Instead of giving yourself the day off, which may make you feel even worse,” says Hardee, “do something to raise the metabolism a bit.” That may be as simple as a few push-ups and sit-ups and then stretching. “Sometimes I’ll ride my bike or go stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Travis here in Austin.”  

SUPing? Really?
“Oh yeah. It’s great, because it’s low impact and it’s left up to you how hard you want to go. I also like it because it gets me out on the water and I can be in my own serene little world.” 

What about food? Do I need to behave like a cyclist and weigh out every meal?
Not at all, insists Hardee, explaining that his meal plan probably looks a lot like a weekend warrior’s with a few hundred extra calories added in. “My meals are real simple,” says Hardee. “I use organic when I can and eat foods high in antioxidants to help my body recover.” Here’s Hardee’s prescription for a day’s nutrition:

Breakfast: A bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar, along with daily vitamins (more on that in a second).

Lunch: Because Hardee often eats lunch in between training sessions (weights in the morning and track in the afternoon), he likes a carb-heavy meal with a little lean protein, often something like whole-wheat pasta with turkey sausage and a side of broccoli. “If I’m still hungry after that,” says Hardee, “then I go to fruit, like bananas or apples, to fill in the gaps.”

Dinner: It needs to be a dish high in protein to help repair and build muscle, like grilled salmon or a bison-and-quinoa chili that has become a recent favorite of his. “We had a really good sweet Italian chili recipe and started throwing in quinoa to raise the caloric intake,” he says. “It’s unreal how good it is.” 

Snacks?
Pistachios. “I eat my weight in them each month,” says Hardee. “That’s my snack if I’m watching a movie or just vegging out. They’re a good source of amino acids and have a low glycemic index”—a measure of how quickly the food breaks down into glucose in the bloodstream—“so they’re a great healthy snack.”

What about supplements?
Hardee takes a multivitamin in the morning, as well as flax- and fish-oil supplements. Which isn’t a whole lot compared with many world-class athletes. “I try to rely as best I can on the food that I’m already putting in my body for my nutritional needs,” he says. “But I can’t eat or drink enough calories to repair my muscles like I need to.” To augment, Hardee will also down a whey protein shake after a heavy workout. On non-training days, though, he says whole-food nutrition will suffice. 

How do I stay motivated?
Set goals. But don’t make them unreasonable. “I set long-range goals that will be hard to achieve,” says Hardee, “but I keep it interesting by setting small, attainable goals, too. I get to accomplish these on a daily basis. In essence, I rehearse being successful.” For Hardee, the Olympics are always on the horizon, but a daily goal might be envisioning—and then completing—a flawless 27-foot long jump or a fast 400-meter run with perfect form. For you that might mean signing up for a race, like a sprint triathlon, which will serve as your long-term goal. Then, for a short-term objective, do five 100-meter sprint drills one day at two-thirds speed. Two days later, make it your goal to go a little faster or do an extra 100 meters. 

How do I maintain performance all year?
First, recognize that you can’t be at your peak at all times. “There’s a tiny window,” explains Hardee, and his periodized fitness plan is designed to let him peak during competition—and back off some in between. Second, never back off too much. Listen to what your body is telling you, but don’t be afraid to push it. “That’s why older athletes are sometimes better,” says Hardee, “because they know exactly what their body needs to peak, but also how hard they can push it without hurting themselves.” Once you start paying more attention to your training regimen—or start one in the first place—your brain will almost automatically become more in tune with your body, and you’ll be able to expand what you thought were your limits. Lastly, compete with yourself to get better. “People talk about rivalries,” Hardee says. “I don’t have that urge. I just want to get better than my old self. I want to be better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I was last year. That’s what’s most important to me.”

 

 

Are Emotions Prophetic?

10 Mar

From Wired:  http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/03/are-emotions-prophetic/

 

 

Are Emotions Prophetic?

 

For thousands of years, human beings have looked down on their emotions. We’ve seen them as primitive passions, the unfortunate legacy of our animal past. When we do stupid things – say, eating too much cake, or sleeping with the wrong person, or taking out a subprime mortgage – we usually blame our short-sighted feelings. People commit crimes of passion. There are no crimes of rationality.

This bias against feeling has led people to assume that reason is always best. When faced with a difficult dilemma, most of us believe that it’s best to carefully assess our options and spend a few moments consciously deliberating the information. Then, we should choose the alternative that best fits our preferences. This is how we maximize utility; rationality is our Promethean gift.

But what if this is all backwards? What if our emotions know more than we know? What if our feelings are smarter than us?

While there is an extensive literature on the potential wisdom of human emotion – David Hume was a prescient guy – it’s only in the last few years that researchers have demonstrated that the emotional system (aka Type 1 thinking) might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables. If true, this would suggest that the unconscious is better suited for difficult cognitive tasks than the conscious brain, that the very thought process we’ve long disregarded as irrational and impulsive might actually be more intelligent, at least in some conditions.

The latest demonstration of this effect comes from the lab of Michael Pham at Columbia Business School. The study involved asking undergraduates to make predictions about eight different outcomes, from the Democratic presidential primary of 2008 to the finalists of American Idol. They forecast the Dow Jones and picked the winner of the BCS championship game. They even made predictions about the weather.

Here’s the strange part: although these predictions concerned a vast range of events, the results were consistent across every trial: people who were more likely to trust their feelings were also more likely to accurately predict the outcome. Pham’s catchy name for this phenomenon is the emotional oracle effect.

Consider the results from the American Idol quiz: while high-trust-in-feelings subjects correctly predicted the winner 41 percent of the time, those who distrusted their emotions were only right 24 percent of the time. The same lesson applied to the stock market, that classic example of a random walk: those emotional souls made predictions that were 25 percent more accurate than those who aspired to Spock-like cognition.

What explains these paradoxical results? The answer involves processing power. In recent years, it’s become clear that the unconscious brain is able to process vast amounts of information in parallel, thus allowing it to analyze large data sets without getting overwhelmed. (Human reason, in contrast, has a very strict bottleneck and can only process about four bits of data at any given moment.) But this raises the obvious question: how do we gain access to all this analysis, which by definition is taking place outside of conscious awareness?

Here’s where emotions come in handy. Every feeling is like a summary of data, a quick encapsulation of all the information processing that we don’t have access to. (As Pham puts it, emotions are like a “privileged window” into the subterranean mind.) When it comes to making predictions about complex events, this extra information is often essential. It represents the difference between an informed guess and random chance.

How might this work in everyday life? Let’s say, for example, that you’re given lots of information about how twenty different stocks have performed over a period of time. (The various share prices are displayed on a ticker tape at the bottom of a television screen, just as they appear on CNBC.) You’ll soon discover that you have difficulty remembering all the financial data. If somebody asks you which stocks performed the best, you’ll probably be unable to give a good answer. You can’t process all the information. However, if you’re asked which stocks trigger the best feelings – your emotions are now being quizzed – you will suddenly be able to identify the best stocks. According to Tilmann Betsch, the psychologist who performed this clever little experiment, your feelings will “reveal a remarkable degree of sensitivity” to the actual performance of all of the different securities. The investments that rose in value will be associated with the most positive emotions, while the shares that went down in value will trigger a vague sense of unease.

But this doesn’t meant we can simply rely on every fleeting whim. The subjects had to absorb all that ticker-tape data, just as Pham’s volunteers seemed to only benefit from the emotional oracle effect when they had some knowledge of the subject. If they weren’t following college football, then their feelings weren’t helpful predictors of the BCS championship game.

The larger lesson, then, is that our emotions are neither stupid nor omniscient. They are imperfect oracles. Nevertheless, a strong emotion is a reminder that, even when we think we know nothing, our brain knows something. That’s what the feeling is trying to tell us.

Take care of your ticker while you still can!

1 Feb

 

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/01/25/145857358/start-early-to-curb-heart-risks-for-a-lifetime

 

Get out there and do some damn cardio, you bastards!

 

 

Start Early To Curb Heart Risks For A Lifetime

05:35 pm

January 25, 2012

A stethoscope rests on top of a puzzle shaped like a heart.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S. But who’s at the most risk?

A study in the lastest New England Journal of Medicine offers a simple way to predict the risk of a fatal or debilitating heart attack or stroke for a middle-aged person over the rest of his or her life.

“If at age 45 you have two or more of either elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes or smoking, and you’re a man, then there’s a 50-50 proposition that you will have a heart attack or a stroke during your remaining lifespan,” cardiologist Donald Lloyd-Jones, who headed the study at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Women with two risk factors have about a 30 percent chance.

Having even one risk factor dramatically increases the risk of heart disease. And 95 percent of middle-aged Americans (ages 45-55) have at least one risk factor for heart disease.

In this study, Lloyd-Jones and his colleagues tallied the results of 18 long-term studies conducted over the past 50 years. The studies included men and women, African-Americans and whites. All told, there was information on more than 250,000 adults.

The specific risk factors were most important, regardless of age or race.

If you’ve got some of these risk factors, don’t despair, though. You may not be able to get down to zero, but you can reduce the odds for cardiovascular trouble with exercise, a better diet and treatment for the conditions.

Indeed, Lloyd-Jones says talking about lifetime risks may help motivate patients do that sooner rather than later.

He says he worries that patients won’t take action on diet or exercise when they hear they have just a 3 or 4 percent risk of suffering a debilitating heart attack or stroke over the next five or 10 years. If, on the other hand, he provides a clearer picture about what is in store for them over a lifetime, they’ll be more likely to adhere to a healthful lifestyle.

There was some heartening information in the study, according to Lloyd-Jones. Nonsmokers who make it to middle age with normal blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar have almost no risk of heart disease. “Our data suggested that for a 45-year-old man the likelihood that he would have a heart attack or stroke by 80 was only 1.4 percent,” Lloyd-Jones says.

If more people could get to middle age without the usual risks, it could make a big difference. That means patients and doctors should start tracking blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar starting early in adulthood.

Cardiologist Gordon Tomaselli, president of the American Heart Association, says young adults without a doctor should measure their blood pressure on their own with one of the automated blood pressure cuffs common at pharmacies and grocery stores. If the reading is high, get to a doctor.

If there’s a family history for high cholesterol or diabetes, get that checked early too.

Diet, exercise and drugs can be highly effective when people have these health problems, Tomaselli says. And while they can’t wipe out heart disease risk entirely, they can keep it under control.

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