Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

  1. The Attractiveness Of Height


    Nature is full of animal displays associated with good genes. Animals can through sound, colour or just through sheer size attract a mate. From an evolutionary perspective, good quality genes would be those that minimize the risk of disease in future generations. The displays aim to show off your quality and persuade prospective mates that you are the one to go for.

    But just like the yellow eyed penguins with the most vibrantly orange eyes and feathers on their head are the ones with the most ‘mating success’, certain characteristics seem to be more important than others when determining attractiveness in humans.

    One of these suggested attractive features is height. Questionnaires have reviled that, in general, men prefer women to be slightly shorter than themselves and women want men to be taller than them. With increased female height, partner height also increases. These trends have been confirmed in real-life relationship data, so regarding our partners height, we actually manage to fullfill our wishes.

    With all of this importance attributed to height, it is easy to assume that the taller you are as a man, more you would appeal to the opposite sex. But the questionnaires also show that women accept shorter men. In fact, women usually find men attractive if their height ranges above or below her own height. Basically, there is a ‘too short’, a ‘just right’ and a ‘too tall’.

    Investigating the mating success in 3,500 men arrived at the conclusion that men of average height fared the best. They got married earlier and therefore had a head start at making babies. (Apparently, the study also confirmed that for men, having a high income helps and education hampers baby making).

    Fortunately, we come in all different heights and will therefore consider different people in our ‘attractive’-range. With the added dimension of different countries having different average height, most of us must be winners somewhere in the world. And for us who are not, ther are luckily many people who do not follow the popular trends.

  2. Try To Not Think Of A Bear


    I was 12 years old and gearing up to go cross-country skiing for PE (yes, it’s a useful sport). Most of the other kids had gone alpine skiing down steep mountains in France, but had never done it on a flat surface. Being brought up not too far away from a golf course (which obviously becomes a cross-country skiing field in the winter) and having parents that showed no interest in skiing down mountains (thank god!), I grew more confident that the two or three times I had gone cross-country skiing made me a pro in this crowd.

    With the skies fastened to my boots and a pole in each hand, I pushed to the front of the line declaring to everyone: “Follow me! We’re going to the golf course almost next to my house (an exaggeration). I have been there and done this many times before (another exaggeration). It won’t be difficult at all (delusion). Just watch me!”

    We all lined up, waiting for the teacher to make sure no one was missing and that everyone had tightened their skies properly. As we got the all clear to get going (knowing my 12-year-old self) I probably turned to the others around me and said something ridiculous like: “This is going to be a wild ride”.

    In the following second I got an image in my head. It was of me starting to ski, but getting tangled in the person next to me and tumbling down the small hill in front of us, before we even left the school grounds. It was a worst-case assessment and yeah it was pretty bad. I tried to ignore this new worry my brain had just delivered. I had done this at least a few times, it would be fine. Just push yourself down the small hill and get moving. Don’t worry about it.

    Of course, after my confident display and a head full of ideas of how I would fall, I found myself crawling on the ground trying to get up (which is not very straight forward with skies on). I was holding up the entire group of classmates behind me. As I finally got on all fours, I realised that it was better for me to stay down and let everyone pass rather than trying to get up further. So there I was, looking up at those judgmental glances as they passed one by one.

    We make many mistakes in a day. But the most annoying are those that appear from nowhere and leave a fail-sticker on your latest idea. Those that preoccupy your thoughts as you try your hardest to ignore them.

    According to ironic process theory, there might be a part of your brain that, while it is trying to suppress an idea, makes it more prominent. For instance, there is not much difference in mood between people that write about sad or happy memories, but ask them to suppress any feelings related to the memory and you’ll see a big difference in mood.

    Luckily in most instances these warnings are useful and help us to avoid disaster. But why they sometimes slip into action seems to be related to pressure or stress. Trying to name the colour of words related to a subject that you have been asked to suppress any thoughts on, is harder with some added stress. Processing the word interferes with naming the colour, showing that with stress the ‘forbidden’ behaviour is more prominent in your mind than the more sensible behaviour. This has been explained by two parallel thought processes going on in our heads. The operating and the ironic process, where the ironic one is guessed to be a back-up that sometimes is reviled under pressure or distraction.

    I will never get to rectify my amazing ski-related nosedive, but I learned an important lesson of what can happen when a lot is at stake and you let the doomsday part of your brain get to you.

  3. With A Brain Like Yours You Don't Need Enemies


    To give you some advantage in your survival, your brain makes sure that emotional events are remembered. (Your brain can even interpret a new situation as one of those old memories and, to be on the safe side, get you to act out the same emotions that got you through it last time. And – Tadaa, we have explained the theory behind therapy!)

    For instance, when I think back on the times I rode my bike to work through the mean streets of London, I remember sometimes arriving to the office full of rage. I had, yet again, been stressed and honked at by taxis. Once, a man who felt like he had priority crossing a two-lane street even knocked me in the head with a newspaper. Just being in the hostile environment that was the London morning traffic would make me all worked up. Even thinking about it now, my immediate memories are mainly of the bad times. I don’t remember the pedestrians that respectfully stopped or when other cyclists helped out.

    When it comes to us humans, we have a very strong reaction to anything negative. From an evolutionary point of view, this is a good thing. Remembering how to get out of trouble and keeping an eye out for evil can only help you.

    For modern man, however, this evolutionary gem means that we tend to remember negative events rather than positive events. Being upset because of a bad situation will always generate a stronger feeling that lingers for longer than any happiness from a good situation.
    This effect of always focusing on the negative extends beyond life events, even negative words affect you more than positive words.

    So, next time your life seems bleak and full of crap, it might not be true. It could just be your brain filtering all the negative bits through in a twisted attempt to help you.

  4. 'The Intellectual' And 'The Creative' In Your Brain


    People with sliced brains intrigued Michael Gazzaniga. At the very early age of 20, he already subscribed to the radical idea that our abilities were preformed in certain areas of the brain. At the time, it was common knowledge that functions such as memory, was controlled uniformly by the entire brain.

    In 1960, he approached a surgeon who successfully lowered the number of seizures in people with epilepsy by separating the two brain hemispheres. Despite tempering with their brains, patients showed no changes in IQ, temperament or personality. They were perfect subjects for Gazzaniga to test his theory.

    His early results showed that the two brain halves functioned as separate entities. Early after the operation, the left hemisphere emerged as the dominant one, leading to patients favouring the right side of their body.

    He was also able to allocate certain abilities two each of the hemispheres. The patients were subjected to images or audio from either the right or the left side. When shown an image of a bicycle on the right side patients could confirm that they saw an image, but replied ‘Nothing’ when asked what they had seen (and in all fairness the left side, which was hypothesised to control speech did not see anything). Similarly patients could not process syllables presented on their right. The disconnect between the two sides of the brain, did not allow the information to travel form the right side to the left.

    The two sides of the brain were soon identified as two different characters, the left being the ‘Intellectual’ and the right being the ‘Creative’. However, further investigation showed that certain individuals were able to name objects seen only by the right hemisphere.

    People with an intact brain do not notice any conflicting mental activity between the two sides and no person is controlled by only one hemisphere. Our brain seems to work in very individual ways and is dynamic enough to keep our perceptions unchanged in case of damage. Depending on age, if a part of the brain is damaged any affected abilities can be reinstated nearby. Additionally, both hemispheres are involved in processing information and, in some, both sides are able to preform the same action.

    It seems that, though heavily featured in popular culture, the roles of the right and left hemisphere are not as clear-cut as initially thought.

  5. Creativity: Symptom Or Treatment?


    There is no single definition of art. Most definitions revolve around ‘aesthetic’ reasons for creating, rather than a strictly pragmatic reason for creating an object. Some will claim that art makes us different from other animals. Even though there are certain art forms unique to humans, animals are known to preform intricate (and sometimes dramatic) mating displays.

    So, it is not surprising to find artistic expression in other species. Captive chimpanzees are known to enjoy finger painting, much like young children do. The London-based chimpanzee artist Congo was during his lifetime in the mid-1950s described to assess his own work and only stop painting upon completion. He could not be persuaded to continue a piece once he had decided it was finished. Congo’s abstract paintings outsold works by both Renoir and Warhol at a 2005 auction.


    How Humans Became Artists

    Starting at the captive chimpanzee, our unique human expressions seem to have sprung from a slow evolution. It is hard to trace history back all the way to the exact start of human art. We know for a fact that many of the old traces of early artistic expression are long gone. Even today, art takes place as one of the temporary elements in certain rituals. Most likely the pieces made to withstand time (or some randomly fosilised) are available for us to examine.

    But there are many interesting traces of early human creativity and there is much speculation of how the different types of expressions developed. For instance, body paint dates back as early as the Neanderthals, which seem to have preferred black colouring on their skin (presumably for hunting). However, the sharp increase in brain size in preceding humans makes it likely for body art to have started much earlier. Theoretically, it could have been in use since we lost our body hair.

    Body paint is thought to be the first step towards art that does not feature the human body. Making patterns is a more complex action and a sign of creative evolution. Very early patterns could have started as a happy accident of someone carving along shadows cast on a wall. The early patterns do resemble those seen during epilepsy, migraine or drug use and could have developed a deeper symbolic meaning over time. Symbolic meaning would be yet another step forward in creative evolution, since it opens up everything to interpretation and is a fundamental feature of art.


    Art And Health In Modern Science

    The intimate connection between creativity and our brains has been noticed in modern science. A review of four types of art: Music, visual arts, movement-based art and writing shows that these all impact us. Music reduces anxiety, whereas visual arts can distract patients with chronic illness and increase self-worth. Movement-based art forms, such as theatre or dancing, can stimulate the elderly brain and writing can reduce pain and increase the immune response in HIV patients.

    One of the clues to a link between art and health is a side effect. Parkinson’s disease can lower the natural dopamine level. Dopamine is a hormone released from the brain and is involved in reward-driven learning. Some patients with Parkinson’s disease treated with dopamine experience a creative drive and increased production of artworks.

    To find the answer as to why some individuals become more creative, researchers looked into genetics. It is well documented that creative ability is passed through generations. Looking closer at our genes, creativity might be controlled not only by what genes you have, but also when they are active. Most of our behaviour is controlled by certain hormones being released though out out body at certain times, the timing of these hormones is ultimately determined by genes in the DNA that switch on or off. Many disorders, such as cancers and psychiatric conditions are also though to be affected by genes turning on an off. Some even think that this is the missing link between art and health. By interfering with the hormonal production there might be a way to impact disorders caused by hormones acting up.

    We are in the early days of understanding how art could be helpful in healing people. But the more we learn, the closer we get to art becoming a useful and successful treatment.

  6. Do It Right Today, Because It Could End Tomorrow


    I once sat on a patch of sand and contemplated religion with a friend. She told me about how religion had affected her youth. Very early in her life she had been told that God, who was very powerful, could see everything she did. He keeps an eye on us all to make sure we follow his rules. It really scared her: A God that can see everything, all the time. There was no room for error.

    I went on to tell her about my childhood experience. Even though I am not sure at what age my dad shared his views on life and death with me, I would have to assume that I was quite young. My dad told me that death is a lot like falling asleep. We feel tired and everything goes dark. If you are buried, your body will end up becoming food for worms in the ground. My friend wondered if that description of death had ever scared me as a child.

    I cannot remember ever being scared at the prospect of falling asleep. Honestly, on account of how poor I was at going to bed at night as a child I probably spent much of my childhood daydreaming of shutting my eyes and dozing off.

    It is a cliché: But one day you will die. I will die and everyone you know will die. That is ok. In that moment it will be ok. Fearing death is natural, but unnecessary.

    What you really should be worried about is what to do with all the time you have to spend before you reach that final moment. Some help on the way can be found in this list of dying people top five regrets in life. Read them and learn from others mistakes.

    Take your time. Make sure you do it right.

  7. The Illusion Of Persuasion


    Imagine being able to communicate better. To persuade others in every single conversation by just saying the right things. There are 1000 uses for (and loads of money to be made from) such a trick. Well, according to many the trick does exists and it is known as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

    NLP is a theory that combines thoughts and language to try to understand how our interactions and overall patterns of communication are programmed. All behaviour stems from processes in the brain, which are organised into ‘maps’ of possible strategies that we then act out through speech and body language. The aim of NLP is to decipher these maps.

    The theory was born from the minds of mathematician Richard W. Bandler and former linguistics professor John Grinder in the 1970s. Today the theory is widespread and is tought in psychology degrees, to staff at major corporations, the US army and US Olympics team. But have we all fallen in love with a clever idea that has no scientific backing?

    Looking over the evidence in a review from 2011, psychologist and skeptic in general, Tomasz Witkowski found that majority of studies of NLP failed to support the theory. In fact, the founders skipped the empirical verification of their findings way back when and immediately moved on to putting their theory into practice. One of the founders has even publicly expressed contempt for being asked to apply empirical tests to his theory, which he considers an art. NLP has therefore been abandoned by academia.

    As mentioned earlier, NLP is going strong in the business sector and is today marketed as a self-development strategy. Unlike in science, maybe empirical verification is not needed when it comes to the self-help genre. As long as you believe in the effect, you will see it?

  8. If You Want To Believe


    A few days before Christmas eve I saw several news broadcasts from Macchu Picchu. It was the 21 December 2012 and old scripture dictated that today would be our last. As we slowly eased into the 21st the news reports started highlighting the fact that the world would only end once the clock struck midnight at Macchu Picchu. This was all done in good humour though. The reports were never serious; they were a solution to the slow news weeks over Christmas. But still, the prediction of these ancient people must have crossed most of our minds throughout 2012.

    Some people think that they can communicate with spirits. Sometimes these spirits are people that passed away and at times they can even help predict the future. Other individuals believe in psychokinesis, that they can influence and move objects with their mind.

    The reasons certain people believe they can do these things can be boiled down to three theories:

    • It could be that paranormal phenomenon exists and these people have just made an accurate observation (a very humble theory, I must say)
    • It could be a way to explain life and death as a part of a life-philosophy or religion
    • It could be that individuals that believe they have these powers could be more prone to misjudge situations and make normal things paranormal

    Looking deeper into the characteristics of people who believe in paranormal phenomenon does not give much clarity. Results are mixed when comparing thinking-ability, tendency to misjudge situations, ability to see connections in distantly related phenomenon and the tendency to slip into fantasy in believers and non-believers. The inconsistency could easily be explained by the many different scales used to measure the data and that these scales, like an IQ-test, do not necessarily test for ‘belief in the paranormal’.

    However, some of these tests have led to somewhat consistent results. For instance, believers do show increased tendency to fantasise and to see connection in distantly related events. They also do worse in tests that require the use of logic to pair a list of causes with an effect. So one could claim that there is support for the idea that certain characteristics make you more prone to believe in the paranormal.

    Of course, this does not shed any light onto whether or not paranormal phenomenon actually exist. Although, I am sure that scientist worldwide would want it to exist. They would be thrilled to find that they could predict the outcome of their experiments or communicate with spirits to get optimal results. After spending a mere 10 months in a lab I know that I was surely calling on higher spirits to help me through.