Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Believe What You Want. You’ll Never Be Right

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    It’s been some time now since I stopped eating meat.

    I stumbled upon a little information on how we eat too much, how an industry is thriving from it and how animals end up becoming disturbing and distorted versions of what they used to be. I believe these things and I talk a lot to other vegetarians about it. Early on, I had to constantly remind myself to avoid meat whenever I bought food. Nowadays, I don’t think about it anymore. It has just become a way of life.

    Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg claims that it’s not by coincidence a habit or ritual can become a way of life. The neurons we use often will develop very strong connections. And since your brain is in control of your beliefs you will continue to believe the things you often think. From school, we know that the only way to learn is to repeat, repeat and repeat again. Our experience since leaving school also tells us that things we stop thinking about will fade away. The only way to rid an incorrect fact is to replace it with one that you think about more.

    Your brain is responsible for taking all the information you are bombarded with in a day and make sense of it. The brain has to filter it in a way that you can comprehend. But the brain is a believing-machine. It does not like to leave things unexplained; it needs to create a coherent belief system. At its worst, it tries to fill in the gaps for you.

    This is also the reason why two people who believe in fundamentally different things can look at the same object, each apply their belief systems and end up with two different interpretations. It happens in the world of science everyday. The same data can actually support two different schools of thought because there are two individuals interpreting it.

    So, everything has been made up by your brain. It has manipulated you into thinking you were leading a normal life. That you were a rational human being, believing in facts before fiction. Life as you know it, is not the full story.

    And that is probably the only thing you will ever know for sure.

  4. Who Are You And What Do You Do

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    When I was a studying chemistry as part of my degree in Molecular Biology, my friends and I would grab a cup of coffee at record speed. We had a secret. We kept our goggles and lab coat on as we ran through the corridors to the café. Apparently, people always give way for someone looking stressed and running in lab attire.

    We often define ourselves by what we do. One profession that struggles with others and their own perception are doctors. Their identities have been studies as they develop through medical school. Medical school is where you’re not only under pressure to study, but you also have to deal with existential questions regarding your future role in the life and death of others.

    This research has found six traditional and two modern narratives that medical students use to describe their lives by as they try to make a professional identity for themselves:

    In the (1) ‘gratitude narrative’, students speak of being healthy and the (2) ‘privilege narrative’ means that students feel privileged to gain patients trust and to know their secrets. The (3) ‘good doctor narrative’ is based on the idea that doctors need to embody only good qualities. Student using the (4) ‘healing doctor narrative’ to describe their studies expressed frustration of not being able to help all the patients. The (5) ‘certainty of medicine narrative’ the students believe in knowledge and refer to patients by their condition. The (6) ‘detached doctor narrative’ takes the previous idea one step further and make students think that need to leave their personality at home.

    A modern way of looking at medicine have generated two additional narratives:

    In the (7) ‘informed servant narrative’ students describe themselves as expert resources rather than expert professionals, contrasting with the ‘healing doctor narrative’. And finally students use the (8)‘uncertainty medicine’ narrative that considers skills other than knowledge useful and is the opposite of the ‘certainty of medicine narrative’.

    The narratives only offer an angle to how you perceive yourself and one sentence can have different narratives. Overall medical student seem to perceive doctors as all knowing, only embodying good positive feelings and able to heal anyone, However, during their time in medical school these ideas a luckily replaced. Students have to accept that being a doctor is also about managing disease and death.

    I guess that we all have ideas of who we want to be and how we want to be perceived. But maybe we can also, just like the students in medical school, broaden our horizons and extend the idea of our identities beyond what they used to be.

  5. To Convince The World That You Are Successful, You Have To First Convince Yourself

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    Some believe that you were put on this earth to reproduce and to carry the species onwards into new millennia. Forget about your ‘dreams and desires’, your job as a human is to reproduce goddamnit! I don’t know if they realize, but for these people status or rank is very important.

    In most species there is a direct link between high social status and high reproductive success. And in species that have an ever-changing hierarchy, the highest reproduction stem from the individuals that spent most time on top. They are not necessarily more attractive or anything, high-status-people reproduce more because they tend to not starve when food is scarce.

    Status is most often considered ‘priority of access to resources in competitive situations’. It is dependent on your ability to survive, to reproduce, and to take care of yourself, your offspring, and your kin.

    But this is only half of the story. Status is developed and maintained by hormones in your body.

    When your position is challenged your body produces stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, which make your heart race and burn fat to fuel a possible fight. Stress hormones make you alert, but if you produce them for too long they become harmful and start to ware you down. People with low social status have high levels of stress hormone. Looking closer though, it seems like the perceived status is what stresses us. It is where you think you rank that affects your body.

    I guess another way of putting it is: It’s all in your head. If you think you are on top of the world, you will at least act that way, and most likely you will reap the same benefits of those who actually are there.

  6. The Present And Future of Your Password

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    So, you’re a modern person.

    You are available on email and social networks. You store files in the cloud and do your banking online. In fact, most of the purchases you do are done online. Life is great. There is only one problem. Every single one of these services requires a password. My friend, you must have a lot of passwords.

    Apparently, we have been recommended to not have more than five unique passwords for all of our internet needs. More than that, and you are at great risk of mixing them up or forgetting them. This risk is the same regardless of whether you are old or young.

    One trend that comes with being young is having a longer passwords than older people. Most likely because longer passwords are safer (and that was confirmed in the 2000s). It turns out that when people don’t have restrictions, like an indicator of password strength, when setting a 5-character password 75% of them can be cracked. By just making the password 8-chacarters long the ability to crack them goes down to 17%. To make them even safer companies usually have restrictions (which increases the safety a lot for shorter passwords, but does not make much difference for longer).

    Some people have jobs where they handle others personal information and send that back and forth across cyberspace (I love that word!). They need strong passwords. Last year a study reviled that 13 of 14 password-protected files sent between researches for a study were possible to crack.

    But last year was also an exciting year for passwords. An innovative password strategy was proposed based on people with impaired memory. If your memory is damaged you might have a hard time remembering passwords, but you can still learn new skills. Many tests have been done when people with bad memory have preformed tasks without knowing that there is an underlying structure to their actions. Not even after being presented with the structure after the test can they recognise it. This means that we can enter passwords based on skill and therefore remove any knowledge of a password.

    This idea was initially developed to prevent people form being kidnapped and tortured for password information, but I see a great future for it among us slightly absentminded everyday people.

  7. How To Survive When Boredom Strikes

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    Some days you don’t want to go to work. If you are lucky, you only feel this on days you know you don’t have much to do. In periods of little work you get in, talk to people and make many cups of tea. You are bored! All day. And at the end of it, when you finally get to leave, you have another full day of boredom ahead.

    Boredom is hard to define. It is almost philosophical. It is something so deeply rooted in us that we have a problem actually noticing it. In general, boredom revolves around such profound things as ‘our perceived meaning of life’ and ‘the meaningfulness of our actions’. When our lives and actions lack meaning or purpose we get bored, but boredom also often motivates us to escape it.

    Since boredom is so hard to define most research has been done on the likelihood of specific individuals getting bored (measured by the Boredom Proneness Scale). From this we have learned that boredom comes with a lot of negative feelings.

    Of course, boredom has been studied in both school and office settings. It has found ‘monotonous environment’ and ‘constraint’ to be the main reasons for office boredom. These two factors are thought to make individuals lose focus and therefore fall into boredom. Some research shows that ‘mindfulness’ (focusing on the present) can help put the focus back on work and escape boredom.

    But until all office employees practice the art of mindfulness, we can learn some boredom coping strategies from school kids (because they are the experts at fighting boredom, right). You can act in one of three ways when faced with a very long day with nothing to do: either you use the dead time to doing something more valuable (why not start a blog!) or you will loudly express frustration over your current situation in hope of changing it. Finally, you can also choose to just passively spend your time talking to others or making tea.

    Who knew that was actually a valid coping strategy!

  8. Love Thy Pet

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    I grew up with a cat. Actually. From the day she had kittens, I had two cats. Despite being one year apart in age they both lived to be 16 years old. First the one, then the other.

    I have lived longer with those cats than without them, which means that my family and I can describe their personalities. We can reminisce about things they did and what they thought about things. Just as if they were human.

    And you could argue that pets border on human, if you get stressed a pet can have the same calming impact as a friend or a loved one. Keeping a pet does not only keep the heart rate down in times of stress. They also help people in nursing homes keep their mental stamina and help people in correction facilities to reconnect and respect authority. They can add a sense of normalcy to people who have lost out on social skills and ended up in correction facilities and people with disabilities are also approached more if they are accompanied by a pet (shame on the rest of us, I guess).

    Of course a pet can also make you become more popular (which is what we all strive for right. I know you do). The greeting rituals of a pet can cure loneliness and feelings of isolation. Where as the affection, we perceive as unconditional love promotes self-esteem and make us more confident. When people walk their dogs they are more likely to engage in conversation than if they were walking without the dog. In fact the dog is the most advantageous of all pets since it brings daily exercise as well.

    And even though it has been statistically proven that young Labradors are the best social lubricant, you should never underestimate the importance of any of your pets.