September 25, 2013
When I got back from vacation the other day, I returned to a clean desk. Well, not actually clean, but every stack of paper was aligned. Not a sheet was askew.
This lasted about 20 minutes.
But rather than stare forlornly at the paper swirl building before me, this time I gave myself a big “attaboy,” because clearly I was getting my creative on.
When things get messy
That’s right, a messy desk is a sign of an innovative mind at work, not a chaotic one. At least that’s the sage suggestion from a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota.
Here’s how they reached this conclusion. First, they arranged a room to look either particularly tidy or especially messy and haphazard. Then they invited people in for what they were told was a “consumer choice study.” The study participants were shown a menu for fruit smoothies. Actually, there were two versions of the menu. On one, smoothies with a “health boost” of added ingredients, were labeled “classic.” On the the other menu, those same smoothies were promoted as “new.”
And here’s how it played out: When people were in the tidy room, they picked smoothies with a health boost twice as often if it was labeled classic. Conversely, when they made their smoothie choices while in a messy room, they opted for those described as “new”—again twice as often. In short, they preferred convention while in a clean environment and novelty when immersed in messiness.
Interesting, but it doesn’t feel like this is quite enough to declare that messiness fosters creativity. So the Minnesota researchers, led by Kathleen Vohs, ratcheted up the research. They used the same tidy and messy rooms, only this time, they asked subjects to propose as many different uses for ping pong balls as possible. Then they had a team of independent judges rate the ideas based on the level of creativity.
Suggesting that the balls be used for beer pong wouldn’t have impressed the judges. Recommending that they could be converted into ice cube trays would.
Once again, the messy room worked its magic. As Vohs explained recently in the New York Times, the people who spent their time there offered up five times as many ideas deemed “highly creative.”
Maybe it’s time to aim a fan at the papers on my desk and start thinking deep thoughts.
It’s all about connections
If only it were that simple. Turns out that even the way our brains produce creative thoughts appears to be a lot more complicated than long believed. The conventional wisdom that the right half of our brain handles creative thinking? Way too simple—at least according to a study published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A team of Dartmouth scientists found that human imagination is much more of a whole brain experience.
That’s what they observed after they hooked 15 participants up to an fMRI scanner and asked them to visualize specific abstract shapes, then told them to imagine combining those shapes into more complex figures. Large networks within the subjects’ brains became active as they conjured up the images. This included areas that deal with visual processing, along with others related to attention and executive processes. All of them worked together to make the imaginary images take shape.
While their findings didn’t provide a clear answer as to why some people are more creative than others, it did allow the scientists to speculate that it may come down to a matter of connections, that in truly creative people, the different brain regions needed to shape imagination are particularly well-connected.
Here’s other recent research on what may help make us creative:
- Still, they should not be encouraged to take apart the air conditioner: Researchers at Vanderbilt University say that a teenager’s ability to figure out how things work may be a better predictor of innovative thinking than more conventional math or verbal skills. The study found that students who did well on the Differential Aptitude Test, which measures the ability to manipulate two-and three-dimensional objects, often proved to be high achievers in math, science and engineering.
- I did it my way…and so should you: A study published by Northwestern University scientists challenges the notion that creative people can be a bit flighty. Instead, their research suggests just the opposite, that people who achieve creative success tend to cling to ideas, sometimes to the point where it keeps them from shifting focus.
- And you scoffed: A British psychologist commissioned by the music streaming service Spotify to determine what type of music benefits which topics of study came to the conclusion that listening to the music of Miley Cyrus can actually boost a person’s creativity.
Video bonus: Singer Annie Lennox offers her take on catching creative ideas and why it’s important to keep our internal critic out of the room at those moments.
Video bonus bonus: You gotta admit that there’s something creative about putting birds on hang gliders.
Also on Smithsonian.com
Working In a Creative Field? Despite What You Think, Coffee Is Not Your Best Friend
August 12, 2013
Not many people want to live to be 120.
That’s one of the findings of a Pew Research Center report that came out last week. In fact, almost 70 percent of those surveyed said an ideal lifespan would be somewhere between 79 and 100 years.
Yes, one reason they’re wary of that much longevity is the fear of how their bodies and minds would hold up–despite the promise of medical advances that will keep both healthy much longer. But more than half also think treatments that prolong life for at least four more decades could be a bad thing for society. More specifically, two out of three people agreed with the statement that “longer life expectancies would strain our natural resources.” And while almost 80 percent of those surveyed said they believe life-extending medicine should be available anyone who wants it, two-thirds of them thought it would be accessible only to the wealthy.
Naturally, this raises some hefty ethical issues, which Pew addresses in an accompanying report.
Would so many more healthy old people make it that much harder for young ones to get jobs? Will everyone just assume they’ll have multiple marriages since one won’t have much chance of lasting a lifetime? With mortality put off for decades, would people feel less motivated to have children? And the big one: By delaying death so long, would daily life have less meaning?
Live long and prosper
Which brings me to one more question: How realistic is the notion that science can one day make 100 the new 60?
For starters, we’re not only living longer–life expectancy in the U.S. is now close to 79–but the period of truly dismal health before death is getting shorter. That’s one of the main findings of a Harvard University study published last month–that most people no longer are very sick for six or seven years before they die. Instead, that stretch of poor health has shrunken to about a year or so. Thanks to medical science, we are becoming more like light bulbs–we work well, then go out fast. “People are living to older ages,” said lead researcher David Cutler, “and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones.”
As far as adding more years to our lives, there’s been some serious progress there, too. In May, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York concluded that by suppressing the release of a single protein produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, they were able to extend the lives of mice and reduce the onset of age-related illnesses. Plus, the mice performed better on learning tests.
A little earlier in the year, researchers at the Harvard Medical School found more evidence that resveratrol, a chemical compound found in berries, grapes and particularly red wine, can help cells in the body live longer. And that could lead to the development of drugs that stifle the conditions that can make old age a slice of hell–heart disease, diabetes, and that old demon, mental decline.
And a week or so ago, scientists at the National Institute of Aging said their research found that men who take metformin, a drug often prescribed for type 2 diabetes, may be helping themselves live longer. At least that’s what happened with mice. The researchers gave middle-aged mice small doses of metformin and they not only lived 6 percent longer than the control group of mice, but they also weighed less, even though they ate more.
None of the above means we’re on the cusp of having a pill that will let us dance at our 100th birthday party. But each means we’re getting closer to finding ways to not just fight the diseases of old age, but take on age itself.
Out with the old
Here’s other recent research on the battle against aging:
- Now find out something good about marshmallows: Hot cocoa doesn’t just hit the spot on a winter morning; It also may be keeping your brain sharp. A new study from Harvard University says that two cups of cocoa a day was enough to increase the blood flow in the brains of older people. It also apparently helped their memories work faster.
- Didn’t see that coming: Living through a traumatic experience may actually help men live longer. Research just published in PLOS One says that male survivors of the Holocaust tend to live longer than men who didn’t experience it. That may seem counter-intuitive, but the researchers say it could reflect a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth,” where high levels of psychological stress serve as stimuli for developing personal skills and strength and a deeper meaning to life. The same longevity effect was not seen in women Holocaust survivors.
- In with the bad air: A study by M.I.T. professor Michael Greenstone has quantified the impact of the heavy air pollution from coal-burning power plants in China. By comparing statistics from a more urbanized region where power was supplied mainly by coal plants with a more rural one without any power plants, Greenstone concluded that regular exposure to coal pollution can take more than five years off a person’s life.
- Now will you get your beauty sleep?: If you don’t get enough sleep, you aren’t doing your skin any favors. That’s the conclusion of a study that found that the skin of poor sleepers ages quickly and also takes longer to recover from sunburn and dirty air.
- This explains many things: And finally, researchers in Japan found that aging animals like sweets less and are more willing to put up with bitter tastes.
Video bonus: As chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation, Aubrey de Grey has plenty to say about longevity. Here’s an interview he did for Big Think, broken up into snippets.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 2, 2013
Not that any holiday is a testament to healthy eating, but none quite compares to the Fourth of July when it comes to embracing our inner pig.
Exhibit A: The National Meat Institute says that on Thursday, Americans will consume about 150 million hot dogs. That means every other person will eat one dog, although more likely a lot of people will chomp down two or three. And those of us who don’t will be eating burgers or sausages or ribs, after warming up with a pile of chips.
In truth, though, it really doesn’t take a special occasion for us to fall to the siren song of naughty chow. As Stephanie Clifford noted last weekend in a New York Times piece titled “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries,” the dilemma for many Americans when they enter a fast food restaurant is that while their head says “salad,” their heart is screaming “BACON!” She listed some of the more recent hits on fast food menus–the bacon habanero Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s, the bacon-filled tater tots at Burger King, the six-slices-bacon-and-cheeseburger at Carl’s and Hardee’s and the piece de resistance, Dunkin’ Donuts’ egg and bacon sandwich between two halves of a glazed doughnut.
The story also quoted McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson, who pointed out although the chain spends about 16 percent of its advertising budget promoting salads, they account for only two to three percent of its sales.
Clifford cited a study done a few years ago at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, which concluded that the mere presence of healthy items on a menu actually encourages diners to tumble for the unhealthy ones. Lead researcher Gavan Fitzsimons calls this “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Simply seeing healthy items are available, he says, allows people to feel they’ve made the effort. And then they order meals they know aren’t good for them.
Enough with all the counting
We have ourselves a quandary.
Almost a third of Americans now qualify as obese and yet, to believe Fitzsimons, putting healthy meals on fast food menus only makes it more likely that we’ll gravitate to the bad stuff. There are those who believe that providing calorie counts for meals will start to make a difference. In fact, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare, requires that starting next year, any restaurant chain with more than 20 outlets must tell customers how many calories its meals contain.
Sadly, this doesn’t seem to help much, at least according to several studies that already have been done. Research at the University of Pennsylvania, published in 2011, found that even though most of the study’s participants said they noticed the calorie counts, and almost a third said they were “influenced” by them, they didn’t lower their calorie intake all that much. That’s pretty much what a 2011 study of Taco Time restaurants in Seattle also concluded–that people consumed as many calories in the outlets with listed calorie counts as in those without them.
So what gives? Does that mean that no amount of calorie-guilting will make a difference?
Now it’s personal
Maybe not. Maybe it’s all in the presentation. Some experts believe that calorie totals aren’t all that effective because they make people add up a bunch of numbers, and if they do make the effort, many still don’t realize when a meal has gone over the top.
Recent research suggests that what may work are basic visual cues. A study published earlier this year showed that menus using symbols of green, yellow and red lights seemed to make a difference. A green light was printed next to foods with fewer than 400 calories, yellow lights next to foods with between 401 and 800 calories and red lights next to foods with more than 800 calories. And it turned out that diners ordering from menus without calorie info or symbols ate meals averaging 817 calories, while those exposed to the streetlight icons consumed meals averaging 696 calories. Not a huge difference, but it can add up over time.
Another approach is to make calorie consumption personal. Two recent studies, one at Texas Christian University and another at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that telling people how much they would need to walk to burn off the meal they were about to order got their attention.
When you read that it could take two hours of “brisk walking” to get rid of the calories in a quarter-pound double cheeseburger, well, that’s hard to ignore. People using menus providing that information ordered meals with an average of 100 to 200 fewer calories than those without it.
Said Ashlei James, who worked on the TCU study: “Brisk walking is something nearly everyone can relate to.”
Here’s more recent research on our eating habits:
- You mean you’re supposed to get a low score?: Even when they go to restaurants where calorie counts are posted, people–particularly teenagers–grossly underestimate the number of calories their meals contain. In a study published in the British Journal of Medicinelast month, diners’ estimates of the calories on their trays were, on average, 200 calories too low. For adolescents, the number was closer to 300. Oddly enough, the estimates were farther off the mark in Subway restaurants, apparently because people associate them with healthier meals.
- But it’s nice to have all that time to get to know the bread: For all the beatings that fast food restaurants take, a study by University of Toronto researchers found that the average number of calories in meals of sit-down chain restaurants were considerably higher. The average meal contained 1,128 calories, compared to 881 at fast-food places. Plus, meals at the sit-down places, on average, contained contained 151 percent of the recommended daily salt intake, 89 percent of daily fat, and 60 percent of daily cholesterol.
- Dreaming of Doritos is way less fattening: New research published last weekend in the journal Sleep confirms the bad news for night owls: the later you stay up, the more you eat.
- But how will they know what tastes good?: According to a study by Canadian researchers, young children who eat a lot of their meals in front of the TV tend to have higher cholesterol levels than kids with better eating habits.
- I’ll see your tofu and raise you a carrot: And if all of the above has motivated you to look for a new way to lose weight, there’s now an app called DietBet. Based on the principle of “social dieting,” it gets a group of people to pony up a little money–about $25–and everyone who loses four percent of their body weight in four weeks splits the pot.
Video bonus: Casey Neistat turns calorie detective to see how accurate calorie counts on labels really are. Not very, it turns out.
Video bonus bonus: And from BuzzFeed, here’s what 2,000 calories looks like.
More from Smithsonian.com
We Used to Actually Set Food on Fire to Figure Out How Many Calories It Had
June 25, 2013
The Summer of 2013 officially began only last Friday, but already it has a good shot at achieving a dubious distinction in the annals of parental indulgence. This could be the summer that ice cream trucks for dogs go mainstream.
Ever since the K99 ice cream truck set up shop in the parks of London during the summer of 2010–to the tune of the Scooby Doo theme song, no less–the trend of cruising trucks full of specially-made canine ice cream treats and cookies has been spreading and appears to be hitting its jaunty stride. Last summer, they started dropping by dog parks in more and more American cities, confident in the knowledge that all it takes is one person ponying up $3 for a doggie cone and in no time, every other dog owner in the vicinity will feel compelled to do the same for their own little precious. And now, according to a story on NBC’s website this weekend, some of the more successful dog food trucks are talking about franchising their brands.
This was inevitable, I suppose, given all the singles whose significant other has paws, and all the aging Baby Boomers whose own kids have moved out, or at least down to the basement. These days, dog love swings easily into sweet, excessive indulgence.
Among recent examples of ideas whose time apparently has come are a device developed by a San Francisco firm that allows pet owners to track how active their dog is during the day while they’re at work, and a high-end dog food whose main ingredient is ground-up chicken feathers. It’s designed for dogs with food allergies.
Products like those get much of the media attention, yet some of the more interesting developments in the deepening entanglement of dogs and owners have not been in the marketplace, but in scientific laboratories. Researchers have been focusing on the potent bond between dogs and owners, particularly how it affects a pet’s behavior.
For instance, a study done at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, found that connections between dogs and their owners can have striking similarities to parent-child relationships. Okay, no surprise there, but what they learned about how it influences a dog’s confidence was pretty revealing.
Specifically, they saw that, as in parent-child bonding, dogs use their caregivers as a “secure base” from which to interact with the world around them. In this case, the dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating toys. But they showed much less interest in working for a treat when their owners weren’t around. If they were there, it didn’t seem to make much difference if the owner was silent or encouraging. What mattered was their presence. And it couldn’t be just any human–the dogs weren’t very motivated when a stranger was in the room with them. Only when their owners were nearby did they go after the food with gusto.
Said researcher Lisa Horn, “One of the things that really surprised us is, that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do.”
Then there was the study published earlier this year in the journal Animal Cognition, which concluded that dogs are much more likely to steal food if they think nobody can see them. Again, big surprise, right? Anyone with a dog knows that even the most guileless mutt becomes a creature of cunning when food is involved.
But there’s a larger lesson here. What the research actually determined was that dogs were four times more likely to sneak food in a dark room than a lighted room. Which suggests that they can understand when a human can or cannot see them. And that could mean that dogs are capable of understanding a human’s point of view.
Explained lead researcher Juliane Kaminski:
“”Humans constantly attribute certain qualities and emotions to other living things. We know that our own dog is clever or sensitive, but that’s us thinking, not them.The results of these tests suggest that dogs are deciding it’s safer to steal the food when the room is dark because they understand something of the human’s perspective.”
In dogs we trust
Here are other recent studies on the dog-human connection:
- Beware of southpaws: According to researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia, dogs that show a preference for using their left paws are more aggressive toward strangers than dogs that are right-pawed or show no preference. But they also found that left-pawed dogs were no more excitable or attention-seeking than other dogs. Only about 10 percent of humans are left-handed, but there’s an even split between left-pawed, right-pawed, and ambilateral canines.
- Fortunately, humans have refrained from chasing their butts: It turns out that Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder (CCD) have similar abnormalities in their brain structure as humans with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). That makes scientists more hopeful that further research in CCD–exhibited in dogs by blanket-sucking, tail-chasing, and chewing–could help lead to new therapies for OCD in humans.
- Thanks for sharing: If you have a dog, you no doubt realize that it brings a lot of bacteria into your home. What you may not realize is that’s not a bad thing. For instance, skin microbes, note scientists at North Carolina State University, can help you fight off diseases. Particularly high levels of microbes related to dogs were found on pillowcases and, strangely enough, TV screens.
- Except when they pee on the rug: No source less than the American Heart Association says that owning a dog can be good for your heart. The organization issued a statement to that effect last month following a scientific review of research showing that dog owners not only get more exercise, but also can have their stress levels and heart rates lowered by the presence of their pets.
- If dogs were on Facebook, they’d like everything: And finally, a survey by the research firm Mintel found that almost half of those who participated said that their pets are better for their social lives than being on Facebook or Twitter. Also, according to the survey, almost one out of five Millenials who own a dog or cat have a pet-related app on their smartphones.
Video bonus: You think dogs couldn’t really appreciate the approach of an ice cream truck? Think again.
Video bonus bonus: When you see a salsa-dancing dog, you feel compelled to share.
Video bonus bonus bonus: And while we’re at it, here’s why you should let sleeping dogs–and cats–lie.
More from Smithsonian.com
June 21, 2013
For a long time, memories were thought of as the biochemical equivalent of 3 x 5 cards kept in a file cabinet. And the words on the cards were written in ink, scientists thought, because, once created and stored in the brain, a memory didn’t change. It might be vivid, but it was static, as fixed as a photograph of a remembered moment.
But in recent years, that theory has been flipped on its head. Now, leaders in memory research don’t think that’s the way the mind works at all. Instead, they’ve come to believe that memories actually are fluid things, subject to alteration every time they’re retrieved. When a long-term memory is recalled, it becomes temporarily fungible and goes through a rebuilding process known as reconsolidation. Which suggests that memories, even terrible ones, can be changed during that period when they’re once again unstable.
Several studies published last fall reinforced this notion. One, from researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden, found that a fear memory could be neutralized if the reconsolidation process is disrupted before the memory can solidify. Another, carried out by scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, concluded that even if a memory isn’t truly erased, it can be made to feel less personal or painful.
Changing the story
The latest evidence that memories can be manipulated came in a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Without using drugs, electroshock or any other invasive procedure, two researchers at Iowa State University, Jason Chan and Jessica LaPaglia were able to tamper with the memories of their study subjects.
Here’s how they did it. They asked those participating in the study to watch an episode of the old TV drama “24.” One of its more evocative scenes showed a terrorist on an airplane jabbing a flight attendant with a hypodermic needle to knock her out. A bit later, some of those in the study were given a quiz about what they had watched, the goal of which was to make them retrieve their memories of the show.
As their reconsolidation process began, however, they were asked to listen to an eight-minute audio recap of the program–except that several of the facts were inaccurate. For instance, they were told that the terrorist had used a stun gun, not a hypodermic needle to disable the flight attendant. When they were retested later, only 17 percent of the people in that group correctly identified the needle as the weapon of choice.
Meanwhile, 42 percent of another group got the weapon question right when they took the same test. They, too, had listened to the recap with the bogus information. But they hadn’t taken the first test the other group had; instead they played a computer game.
So why did people in the first group have such serious recall problems when they retook the test?
Chan and LaPaglia believe that by taking a test after watching the show, those subjects were forced to retrieve their memories of it, and it was during the rebuilding process that they heard the audio recap. And, the thinking goes, that’s what caused their temporarily vulnerable memories to muddle the story.
Chan noted that there are several key factors in reshaping memories. First, the disruption needs to happen soon after the memory is called up–for now, scientists seem to have settled on a six-hour window. Wait much longer and the changes don’t take. Also, any alterations need to fit into the context of the original memory. If they don’t make sense in the story that structures the memory, they’re not likely to have much effect in changing it.
This is a pretty dramatic shift from the old file cabinet notion. To appreciate how far thinking on the subject has evolved, consider the perspective of Daniela Schiller, one of the world’s leading memory researchers. “My conclusion,” she says, “is that memory is what you are now. Not in pictures, not in recordings.
“Your memory is who you are now.”
You must remember this
Here are more conclusions scientists have made about memories in the past few months:
- Side effects may include memories of bad breakups: According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, people who take the sleep drug Ambien are more likely to remember bad memories. The human brain is built to remember negative memories more clearly than pleasant ones, says University of California Riverside researcher Sara Mednick, and her study found that Ambien seemed to ratchet up this tendency.
- My memory told me about people like you: Scientists at Harvard have found more evidence that memories of the past play a big part in how we predict how other people will behave in the future. The study reinforces the belief that memory is closely linked with imagination and is a tool used by the brain to weave past experience into thoughts about the future. Which could explain why people with memory problems, such as amnesiacs or the elderly, often struggle to envision the future.
- Unfortunately, they also started leaving the toilet seat up: While one recent study supported the belief that women suffer some memory loss during menopause, another one, presented earlier this week at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco, determined that postmenopausal women had sharper memories after they had a testosterone gel rubbed into their skin. This is potentially big news since there currently is no effective treatment to prevent memory loss in women, who are at higher risk of dementia than men.
- They even remember the blank look on men’s faces: Two more studies found that women overall have better memories than men. The first study, from McMaster University in Canada, found that women tend to focus on the eyes, nose and mouth of someone they just met and, as a result, are better at remembering faces than men. The second study, done at Cornell, concluded that women are also better at remembering past events than men. The key, according to the researchers, is that women focus more on relationships and social interactions when recording an event in their mind and that enables them to retrieve more details about it later.
- Don’t forget to brush your teeth: It turns out that the fewer teeth you have, the greater your chances of losing memory. So says a new study published in the European Journal of Oral Sciences, which offered a few possible explanations for the tooth loss/brain decline connection. One is that reduced sensory input from our teeth results in fewer signals to our brain. Another is that chewing increases blood flow to the brain, and if you can’t chew, you can’t get the flow going.
Video bonus: Daniela Schiller talks about her memory research and what her father’s refusal to talk about the Holocaust had to do with it.
Video bonus bonus: And a little slice of how Hollywood views memory-erasing: Jim Carrey turns to “science” to literally get Kate Winslett out of his mind in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
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