Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

  1. Addicted To Behaviour

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    It is the Christmas holidays – a time for eating and doing nothing. You go to bed way too late, mainly due to late-night TV, slipping back into your old ways at your parents’ house and being inactive. One of the days you break the pattern. One of the days you set an alarm for 7:30. The Christmas sales will start tomorrow and an early start is essential.

    This could be an early sign of a shopping-addiction. Maybe not. But shopping has together with eating, exercising, sex, and gambling been described as behavioural addictions. These activate parts of the brain that greatly overlap with those activated by addictive substances.

    A behavior becomes an addiction when you show compulsive tendencies. People who are addicted to behaviour show the same symptoms as drug addicts. They crave it. They have poor control over it. They build up tolerance and need bigger thrills to satisfy their need. They suffer when they have to stop. They also have high rates of relapse.

    Society has been blamed for certain excessive behaviours, such as over-eating, shopping or even tanning. However as humans, a majority of us are estimated to suffer from some sort of addiction at some point in time (especially when broadening the list of addictions to caffeine and religion). Leading to the conclusion that maybe addiction is just a part of human nature. Some claim that the behaviours that can turn into addictions have been beneficial to our survival in the past and that we therefore are forced by evolution to become obsessed with them. Additionally, some people might be more prone to become addicts.

    It is hard to know when your behaviour is normal and when you enter the realm of addiction. All I know is that I bought a really cute jacket today.

  2. The Science Of Unwanted Gifts

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    This Christmas I have been absolutely worthless at telling my family what I want. Not sure I want anything really. I don’t want stuff, since storage and living space is the most expensive part of living in London. I would also have to travel from Stockholm back to London with anything I receive over the Christmas holidays; so yeah, heavy glassware would not be convenient. I have agreed to get two pairs of jeans in London. Like it was any other week.

    According to the anthropologist Dr. Gary Chapman there are five expressions of love. Words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, receiving gifts and physical touch are all cornerstones to loving someone. Christmas is an opportunity to cover them all, but none is as difficult as the gifts.

    On the other hand, maybe it is best to disregard any anxiety concerning what gifts you should get. It is worth preparing to just smile and accept whatever gifts you get. Maybe it does not matter what you get in the end. In fact, as you grow older you will become better at showing a positive response to any gift. Even to gifts you don’t want. Also, if your mother is present you will show a better response to gifts, even those that should be disappointing.

    So. Conclusion? Being close to 30 years old and in the presence of my family, I should be able to appreciate most things.

    Merry Christmas!

  3. Life Beyond Death

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    Loss is universal and can be the most stressful event you will ever experience. The grieving process is highly individual and often connected to culture. It also depends on degree of attachment and age of the deceased and whether the death is sudden or if there has been some time for acceptance.

    When dealing with an unexpected death the normal process can be divided into four phases:

    • For the first few days we are in shock
    • Over the following days or even months we slip into numbness hopelessness and pining
    • After a couple of months we reach acceptance
    • Followed by resolution. (6 months and onwards we enter a chronic residual phase, when some symptoms of grief can still be experienced)

    Following a group of Indian mourners for a year showed that the only sign of grief that did not decline was idealising and looking at old photos of the deceased. The increase can be explained by an anniversary held in honor of the deceased.

    Photos, idealisation and anniversaries are, quite frankly, not too very bad scars to carry with you for the rest of your life.

  4. The Curse Of Having Siblings

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    It was Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychologist, who proposed that your personality is shaped by where in a sequence of siblings you are born.  He, himself a second child, had spent his childhood looking up to his older brother.

    According to his theory, most love and attention is directed at the first-born child. In turn, the child will grow up achievement-oriented, conforming and neurotic. A support for this theory is that many practicing doctors were found to be first-born children. If more children follow, the first child will go to great lengths to bring the focus back to him or her and ‘dethrone’ the new child. These techniques can result in bad behaviour and could come reappear to haunt you in adult life.

    Children born after the first make great counsellors. They are able to take learn from the mistakes made by their older sibling and learn empathy from not being the one that gets attention. To reduce competition, these children will venture into new subjects and areas, ignoring anything that the older child has mastered. Following children will also grow up to become adventurous, sociable and rebellious.

    In later years, the theory has lost weight. One reason being, that as more data has been collected the results have become less consistent. Another problem seems to be the complexity of how our personalities are formed. Finally, it seems like our cultural expectations of what roles children have in families can influence our actual goals and life-decision. As more insight into the real-life data is gained and the reality of our personalities become more complex, it still seems match our expectations of how different sibling turn out. For instance, in one study first-borns were thought have higher IQ than later-born siblings and children born in the middle were thought to be envious. These characteristics are not necessarily true, but might have made first-borns turn to high-profile jobs and children born in the middle act out in jealousy.

    Regardless, of whether or not you can predict someone’s personality based on the interaction with their siblings, I think we can all agree that siblings do have some sort of influence on us. Throughout life, however, we do experience many other things that end up shaping who we are. As Alfred Adler stressed himself: Everything can be different.

  5. What Is In A Face?

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    When you were a baby, adults were able to hide from you by covering their eyes. Just by covering part of their face they would disappear before your eyes and reappear in an instant. It was never magic. It was your brain.

    Infants recognise face-like patterns and by covering part of your face the pattern and recognition is lost. Autistic adults tend to see a face in a reddish blob with four lines and non-autistic adults will only recognise patters very similar to faces. The exact mechanisms that enable face detection are debated.

    One of the things we react to, when analysing a real-life scenario, are faces. We tend to continually shift our gaze to scan small bits of our surroundings in sequence and might focus on a few objects. When looking around, we firstly confirm that we are looking at a human face and not an animal or object, that we assess the familiarity of the face and finally name the person if we do know his or her name. Since people who struggle to identify individuals are able to tell that they are looking at a face, the process is thought to happen in a hierarchical or sequential order.

    Once spotted, we need about 190 milliseconds to figure out if we recognize the face and know person. And identifying a man from a woman is also relatively fast (280 milliseconds). As expected we are quicker at identifying a famous face compared to unknown people.

    Without thinking about it you are constantly looking for faces. It is your biological nature to be able to spot a face and also assess if this face is familiar or not. Once, your survival depended on it and to some extent it is still crucial today, since social relationships will always be important to humans. But just like face-recognition software mistake blobs for a person, our brains will make the same mistakes from time to time. Which is why some people have been known to find their old pal Jesus lurking on their toast in the morning.

  6. Labour Of Love And Love Of Labour

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    You don’t have to love DYI to love your own creations. In fact you don’t even have to be good at creating to love the things you make. You will prefer your crap to professionally made things any day.

    This has been named the ‘IKEA effect’ (No, seriously. It is). This, of course, refers to the fact that you assemble your own IKEA furniture from a flat packs containing all, or at least most, necessary pieces. Being Swedish, I can very much vouch for this feeling. I feel like I have been analysing those instruction pages my entire life. I’ll gladly drag flat packs on London buses across the city to be able to continue the fun at home. I love putting the stuff together and usually I am proud of the end result. The harder you work to create, the more you will like the end result. But completion is crucial. If you make something knowing that you have to destroy it or if you fail to complete the task, you will not feel this emotional attachment.

    This is all just a cognitive bias, a bias that your brain is hardwired to follow. The phenomenon has been seen in many species and has been assumed to be a basic characteristic. You actually want to work. Even though people rate their work among the least pleasurable activities, they also rate it among the most rewarding. Successfully completing a task at work (or at home) lets us reach goals, feel competent and long term projects can also evoke emotions of ownership.

    If you ever feel unhappy with what you do, maybe you could try approaching every task like a flat pack and focus on looking forward to the rewarding feeling after you finish.

  7. Distraction Makes Life At Work Better

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    I find myself updating Facebook on my phone at work. Usually it’s just for a split second. Long enough to refresh the news feed. As soon as it updated I don’t get very surprised that nothing new has happened. I was just there updating it a few minutes ago. Actually, I am not too interested in the posts I just need to do something else. I just need a short break from work.

    For a highly repetitive task, taking short pauses improves performance. It was fist thought of when workers in factories complained of the same type pain. The repetitiveness of working at an assembly line and preforming the same motion for an entire shift was wearing people out. By just introducing very short breaks at regular interval, the workers felt less pain and more confortable throughout the working day

    Office workers do not perform repetitive physical motion, but can many times preform other types of repetitive tasks. When left to their own devices, one study found that office workers completing a repetitive data-entry task took micro pauses lasting on average 24.7 seconds. But people that took much longer pauses than that felt bored and actually did a bad job.

    This year it was revealed that apart from sparing our bodies and keeping our minds alert, micro pauses might also be able to save lives. Surgeons operating for at least 2 hours were asked to take a 20 second pause every 20 minutes. During these pauses, they had to stop operating, remove themselves from the work situation, and stretch their neck and shoulders for 20 seconds. Doing this resulted in less pain, less fatigue and in a higher technical accuracy.

    Don’t feel ashamed for stepping away from your work from time to time during the day. We need breaks. But there seems to be a narrow window for what makes a successful break and what makes an unsuccessful one. Keeping your breaks short and removing yourself from your place of work seems to be successful strategies. Which actually makes briefly diving into your social life via Facebook make sense.

    It is a micro pause and it makes me better.

  8. Why Immediate Reward Might Be The Way To Go

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    Self-control is a desired trait.

    Many times, if you want things done you need self-control or discipline. Some difficult things in life can be achieved by just hanging in there. Staying on a diet, finishing an education and living within your means all require self-control.

    To help us, we often use social pressure as motivation. We sign up for things or announce that we are engaging in a challenging activity that will make our life better in the long run.

    Behavioral economists try to assess how much of an effort it really is for us to keep your eyes on the prize and not give up along the way. Apparently, for some of us the brain likes to act on short-term benefits rather than long-term ones, even if the reward will be greater if you wait. This is known as hyperbolic discounting, or more simply near-term bias. This is a bias that influences certain individuals every time they make a decision.

    A link between two competing systems in the brain is thought to cause this bias. The part of the brain that values immediate rewards clashes with the part that values delayed rewards. These two systems are associated with specific regions in the brain and have been seen on brain scanning images. Choosing the immediate reward is slightly more connected with the emotional regions of the brain compared to choosing a delayed reward. The fact that your memories are also connected with emotion could mean that immediate rearward is remembered and driving this bias.

    I guess this means that opting for an immediate reward leads to having a better time. Or at least a time you will remember.