Difficult life events can provide new insight and wisdom

After a traumatic or difficult life event such as the loss of a loved one, it can be difficult to cope and process everything.

Many people have a hard time finding meaning or even a sense of self, but a new study has revealed how these kind of life-changing events can provide crucial learning opportunities.

Researchers from Oregon State University found that most people gained wisdom and new insight from a difficult time. The research was published in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

“The adage used to be ‘with age comes wisdom,’ but that’s not really true,” said Carolyn Aldwin, an author of the study and an expert on psychosocial factors that influence aging. “Generally, the people who had to work to sort things out after a difficult life event are the ones who arrived at new meaning.”

The researchers wanted to examine the effects that adversity and trauma had on the development of wisdom. Their work could help with future studies that delve into healthy aging and how to incorporate better coping and management techniques.

For the study, 50 adults ages 56 to 91 were interviewed. During the interviews, participants were asked to discuss a difficult life event, how they cope, and if their outlook was changed after.

Aldwin noted that people often define themselves based on their past traumas and so for the interviews, the participants were immediately able to identify a difficult or challenging time.

After analyzing the interviews, the researchers found that 13 of the participants were not affected by the event as far questioning their purpose or meaning.

A large majority of the participants, however, reported that the event was so disrupting that it presented an opportunity to reflect and assess their beliefs and understanding of the world around them, ultimately gaining new wisdom and insight.

The results also showed that social interactions such as receiving unsolicited emotional support played an important role in how people coped and managed after the event in questions and also added wisdom.

“It mattered whether a participant was expected to adjust to the event quickly and ‘get back to life,’ or whether they were encouraged to grow and change as a result of the event,” said Heidi Igarashi, the study’s lead author. “The quality of the social interactions really make a difference.”

The results show how important social support is during a difficult event and that the kind of support we receive helps shape the way we look for new understanding and meaning.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

When did humans first begin using words?

Homo erectus may have had a more refined language than was previously believed, according to a controversial new theory.

Until now, it had always been thought that language first developed with Homo sapiens. This is because analysis of Homo erectus shows that species lacked the hyoid bone, which is an anchoring structure for the tongue and a key player in speech.

Unlike Homo sapien, the lack of hyoid bone would have only enabled Homo erectus to make primitive sounds such as grunting or howling.

However, Daniel Everett, a professor at Bentley University, boldly claims that this is not the case. He argues that if Homo Erectus lacked language, boat travel would have been impossible.

“What is the greatest technology we have ever had as a species, the answer is language. Who invented it? Homo Erectus, about one million years ago or more,” Everett said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Austin. “Those are controversial claims. Everybody talks about Homo Erectus as a stupid ape-like creature, which of course describes us just as well, and yet what I want to emphasize is that Erectus was the smartest creature that had ever walked the Earth.”

Everett suggests that Homo erectus traveled by boat and landed on different islands and shores across the oceans.

Building and navigating these boats would not have been possible given the currents and the conditions of sea travel without some language with symbols.

“They needed to be able to paddle. And if they paddled they needed to be able to say ‘paddle there’ or ‘don’t paddle,’” said Everett. “You need communication with symbols not just grunts. They accomplished too much for this to simply be the sort of communication that we see in other species without symbols.”

Everett’s claims are controversial, and the scientific community does not completely agree that Homo erectus was a cabal sea-farer or that they had a more evolved language.

“Tsunamis could have moved early humans on rafts of vegetation.,” Chris Stringer, Head of Human Origins at the Natural History Museum in London told The Guardian.

But if Everett’s theories are correct, it reconstructs our understanding of early man and how language truly first developed.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Self-compassion found to be crucial in combating perfectionism

If you call yourself a perfectionist, it’s likely you are constantly striving to be the best at everything and avoid making mistakes at all costs.

While this tenacity may help you become and stay successful, it can often be an exhausting and difficult way to live. Perfectionists can be overly self-critical and get down on themselves for making minor mistakes. When a perfectionist fails, they can often experience depression and burnout.

In a recent study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, researchers from Australian Catholic University found that relating to oneself in a healthy way can help disrupt the link between perfectionism and depression. In the study, led by Madeleine Ferrari, the researchers assessed whether self-compassion – a way to positively relate to oneself – might help weaken the association between depression and perfectionist tendencies.

The study involved 541 adolescents and 515 adults answering questions in an anonymous survey that assessed perfectionism, depression, and self-compassion. Detailed analysis of these questionnaires determined that self-compassion might help perfectionists avoid falling into the trap of depression when they experience failure. This finding was consistent across both groups of differently-aged people, suggesting that self-compassion could help moderate the link between perfectionism and depression across a wide range of ages.

“Self-compassion, the practice of self-kindness, consistently reduces the strength of the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression for both adolescents and adults,” says Ferrari. The authors believe that self-compassion interventions may help moderate the negative effects of perfectionism, but further research is needed to determine if this is the case.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Could humans be evolving a gene to protect against alcoholism

Evolution is a constant, albeit slow process, and there is no finish line when it comes to how evolved a species can be.

According to a new study, humans may now be evolving a gene that protects against alcoholism and malaria.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania identified positive gene variants across populations to show how some regions are evolving certain traits.

Their findings were published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The study focused on sweeping genetic events across different populations in order to find gene variants that overlapped. The variants were either a specific response to a region’s geographic location or shared evolutionary background.

The researchers collected and analyzed data from 2,500 people from the 1,000 Genomes Project. The Genomes Project is the largest public catalog of human variation and ran from 2008 to 2015.

Emerging gene variants were examined in relation to their different populations, and there were five genomic hotspots that the researcher identified.

One of the variants could potentially prevent alcoholism in the future, and this variant was seen in areas where alcoholism is particularly problematic.

Benjamin Voight, a co-author of the study, told the Daily Mail that these gene variants may occur in areas “where people who drank heavily would die, whereas those who didn’t drink much alcohol survived and passed on their genes to their children.”

The researchers discovered variants of the ADH gene which helps break down alcohol in both Africa and Asia. This variant works by making alcohol intolerable thereby avoiding potential addiction.

Other variants could aid in building resistance to malaria in Asia and Africa and help with heart health in Europe.

The research is noteworthy because it identifies gene variants in different populations and shows how evolution has exceeded the bounds of common ancestry with gene variant events, overlapping in some areas and not others.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Autonomous vehicles can help reduce traffic jams and fuel costs

A study from Rutgers University has shown that the presence of autonomous vehicles can improve traffic flow and lower fuel consumption in heavy traffic, even when only a few of the vehicles are on the road.

A multidisciplinary team of experts in the fields of traffic flow theory, control theory, robotics, cyber-physical systems, and transportation engineering presented their research in an exhibit at the Washington Auto Show.

The study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), demonstrates how autonomous vehicles can help to prevent and clear up traffic jams.

Humans naturally oscillate while driving and this often disrupts the smooth flow of traffic. When a driver changes lanes or merges, this can create stop-and-go traffic.

During field experiments, the researchers controlled the pace of the autonomous vehicle. The self-driven car helped to manage the traffic flow by eliminating the stop-and-go waves. As a result, the traffic was not fluctuating as it does when the vehicles are all driven by humans.

The experts discovered that a percentage of autonomous vehicles as small as 5 percent could have a significant influence on traffic. In addition, the smoother flow of traffic generated by the self-driven cars was found to reduce overall fuel consumption by up to 40 percent and braking events by up to 99 percent.

“Most of the policymakers, car manufacturers, car dealers, and others we talked with were very impressed with the research results and got a positive feeling about autonomous vehicles,” said lead author Benedetto Piccoli. “They all agreed that the impact on real traffic economy and environmental impact could be of great importance.”

The NSF invited the team to discuss their work with auto industry leaders and lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

“The experience was great since we had to interact with a new audience,” said Piccoli.

The research was presented at the auto show as part of the NSF-funded Cyber-Physical Systems research project on Control of Vehicular Traffic Flow via Low Density Autonomous Vehicles.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Climate models show future extreme weather for European cities

In an unprecedented study, researchers at Newcastle University have projected changes in heat waves, droughts, and flooding for every European city using all available climate models.

The experts are reporting that heat waves will become worse in all 571 cities and drought conditions will increase as well, particularly in southern Europe.

River flooding will become more frequent and severe, with the worst projections in northwestern European cities. In the best case scenario, 85 percent of cities in the UK with a river will still face increased flooding.

The team developed three possible future cases which they referred to as the low, medium, and high impact scenarios. Even for the lowest impact scenario, the number of heat wave days and maximum temperatures will rise for every city in Europe.

The high impact scenario predicts that 98 percent of European cities will experience more intense droughts in the future, and cities in southern Europe may face droughts that are 14 times worse than today.

“Although southern European regions are adapted to cope with droughts, this level of change could be beyond breaking point,” said lead author Dr. Selma Guerreiro.

“Furthermore, most cities have considerable changes in more than one hazard which highlights the substantial challenge cities face in managing climate risks.”

Study co-author Professor Richard Dawson says that the study has far-reaching suggestions in terms of how Europe adapts to climate change.

“The research highlights the urgent need to design and adapt our cities to cope with these future conditions,” said Professor Dawson.

“We are already seeing at first hand the implications of extreme weather events in our capital cities. In Paris the Seine rose more than 4 metres above its normal water level. And as Cape Town prepares for its taps to run dry, this analysis highlights that such climate events are feasible in European cities too.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will hold its first Cities and Climate Change Science Conference next month to emphasize the major roles that cities must play in climate change mitigation.

“A key objective for this conference is to bring together and catalyze action from researchers, policy makers and industry to address the urgent issue of preparing our cities, their population, buildings and infrastructure for climate change.”

The research is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Hitting rock bottom can present fresh opportunities, study finds

Research from the University of Notre Dame has revealed that hitting rock bottom can be a good thing, particularly after losing a job. The experts found that bottoming out can be a catalyst for personal transformation, and may lead to a new work identity.

“On the way down, we frantically do all sorts of things to try and repair the situation, and suffer as they fail,” said lead author Dean Shepherd.

“Bottoming out frees us from the misconception that the problems can be fixed, and in the process, frees us from other constraints and negative emotions and provides the conditions necessary to find a viable solution.”

When an individual hits rock bottom, they eventually become aware that their identity has been lost. This realization leads to one of two paths – a path toward recovery or a path toward dysfunction.

A fairly recent concept has been introduced in the context of organizational change management called “identity play,” which is defined as “people’s engagement in provisional but active trial of possible future selves.”

“Using ‘identity play’ provides a safe environment to escape the situation and try new things, discarding bad ideas or finding and refining a new identity and returning stronger than before,” said Shepard.

This activity allows a person to creatively explore new work identities and try them out without having to make a commitment. If not for hitting rock bottom, the individual would have remained stuck in the past without the freedom to consider different alternatives for the future.

“A failed corporate executive might consider a variety of other potential roles,” said Shepherd. “For example, sitting on the board of a nonprofit organization that is desperate for experienced managerial guidance, exploring government positions or running for office, working with startups, and so forth.”

“Similarly, a failed entrepreneur might explore how skills learned in starting a business could be applied in a corporate setting, take standardized exams to be considered for law school or engage in other low risk exploration activities. In these cases, hitting rock bottom opens up myriad new opportunities.”

Individuals who choose the less desirable path use fantasy as a means of escape and often turn to drug and alcohol use. Studies have shown that people who are fixated on the loss of a former identity often become self-destructive.

Shepard explained that on this path, “people will oscillate between no emotion and severe negative emotion and make no progress toward building a new identity, which can eventually lead to even worse outcomes like suicide.”

Shepherd hopes that this research will help people realize that hitting rock bottom can be an opportunity to let go and begin a new life, and may prevent them from trying to escape reality.

“Hitting Rock Bottom After Job Loss: Bouncing Back to Create a New Positive Work Identity,” was published this month in Academy of Management Review.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Good news for weirdos: There is no normal brain

You may have heard the saying “normal is just a setting on a washing machine” as a justification for behavior that might be considered out of the ordinary or even weird.

Now, new research shows that this adage might hold more merit as some variability in our brain’s thoughts and behaviors, even those that don’t line up with idealized notions of mental health, showcase our adaptability and could even be considered healthy.

A study conducted by researchers from Yale University reviewed widely challenged traditional psychological methods of categorizing and diagnosing disorders.

Their findings, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, focus on a new “dimensional perspective” of mental health disorders that account for variability across a wide spectrum.

“I would argue that there is no fixed normal,” said Avram Holmes, the senior author of the study. “There’s a level of variability in every one of our behaviors. Any behavior is neither solely negative or solely positive. There are potential benefits for both, depending on the context you’re placed in.”

Variability is a fundamental cornerstone of natural selection and evolution, and the researchers argue that this must be taken into consideration when working towards a diagnosis.

Some behaviors that may be out of sync with what we might consider normal could be an adaptive measure.

Holmes uses an example of impulsive, risk-taking behavior to show how any behavior may be beneficial depending on the environment. Thrill seekers and risk takers are usually associated with an increased likelihood of substance abuse or physical injury.

“But if you flip it on its head and look at potential positive outcomes, those same individuals may also thrive in complex and bustling environments where it’s appropriate for them to take risks and seek thrills,” said Holmes.

The problem is that if you factor in variability, it complicates methods for diagnosing mental disorders.

This is why more and more effort is being made to restructure the way health experts identify biomarkers for psychological illness.

“What we want to try to do is build multivariate approaches that consider multiple domains of human behavior simultaneously, to see if we can boost our power in predicting eventual outcomes for folks,” said Holmes.

Collaborations are already underway with different institutions in order to achieve this goal, and Holmes notes that accounting for some variability is important in many aspects of our lives, not just mental health.

“This is a broader issue with our society, but we’re all striving towards some artificial, archetypal ideal, whether it’s physical appearance or youthfulness or intelligence or personality,” said Holmes. “But we need to recognize the importance of variability, both in ourselves and in the people around us. Because it does serve an adaptive purpose in our lives.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Our affiliation to political parties makes fake news believable

This past year has been a contentious one politically for citizens of the United States, and has affected citizens of other nations around the world. It seems like America’s two biggest political parties – Democrats and Republicans – are further apart ideologically than they have been in quite some time. New neuroeconomics research published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences seeks to shed light on how these differences are influenced in the believe systems of party members, and what some potential solutions may be to bring us all closer together.

Jay Van Bavel, a psychologist at New York University and senior author of the paper, believes that the issue lies with valuing our identity more than our accuracy. This mindset allows us to accept “fake news” that aligns with our political party’s beliefs, and may explain why high-quality news sources are no longer trusted by a large portion of the public.

“Neuroeconomics has started to converge on this understanding of how we calculate value. We’re choosing what matters to us and how to engage with the world, whether that’s which newspaper we pick up in the morning or what we have for breakfast,” explains Van Bavel. “And so we started to think, it’s when our goals to fit in with certain groups are stronger than the goal we have to be accurate that we are more likely to be led astray.”

Van Bavel calls this his identity-base model of belief. Essentially, we assign values to different ideas based on what matters to us most, and then compare those values to decide on what idea we believe to be true. Furthermore, the sense of belonging and self-defining labels that political parties provide can provide us with that much-needed sense of belonging. This all has the potential to matter more to us than accuracy about an issue, which leads us to align more with our party’s views, even if they may be incorrect.

As a consequence, the sources of the information we receive actually have less of an impact. “Having a really high-quality news source doesn’t matter that much if we think the people producing it belong to a different group than us,” says Van Bavel.

The solution for these issues is to try to increase the value of accurate beliefs while also reducing the effects of identity. One of the more simple solutions for increasing the value of truth is to ask people to put money on the line. “When you are in a disagreement, ask your opponent, ‘You wanna bet?’ And then their accuracy motives are increased, and you can see right away whether they were engaging in motivated reasoning. Suddenly $20 is on the line, and they don’t want to be proven wrong,” says Van Bavel.

To reduce the effects of identity, one solution would be to get people to think of themselves as citizens of a nation or the world, rather than as members of a political party. However, we must also be careful about how we engage with people who align with a different political party. “It turns out that if you insult them and publicly criticize them, their identity needs increase, and they become threatened and less concerned about accuracy. You actually need to affirm their identity before you present information that might be contradictory to what they believe,” Van Bavel explains.

Van Bavel is also working on empirical studies that will reaffirm the generalization of these findings to our beliefs. Overall, it’s clear that the political divide in the United States is a complex and delicate issue. While belonging to a political party may help us feel validated and part of a team, it’s much better to think of ourselves as citizens of our country first, and members of a political party second.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Could jellyfish chips be a crunchy new snack?

Jellyfish are considered a delicacy in Asian cuisine and have been a staple for centuries.

Unlike other marine species, jellyfish have been thriving despite the effects of climate change, and because of their rich nutrients, are being considered as a possible viable food source for the global population.

Though they are certainly less common and even considered an oddity in western cuisine, many people might be surprised to find that jellyfish have a crunchy, crispy texture despite their notoriously slimy exterior.

This is because the bell of the fish is cured in a solution of sodium chloride and alum for a month, which turns the soft, gelatinous body into something more akin to a pickled cucumber.

Danish researcher Mathias Clausen from the University of Southern Denmark was curious about the molecular processes that created the crunchy texture when the original texture is so different.

“Tasting jellyfish myself, I wanted to understand the transformation from a soft gel to this crunchy thing you eat,” Clausen said.

In a new study, he and his colleagues created a jellyfish “chip” of their own in order to gain a better understanding of how food preparation altered the jellyfish starting at a molecular level.

Their work could spur a whole new field of science and gastronomy that revolves around the biophysics and chemistry behind food preparation.

The research team first devised a method using ethanol that created a similar crunchy texture of jellyfish soaked in the briny mixture of sodium chloride and alum, but it only took a few days.

“Using ethanol, we have created jellyfish chips that have a crispy texture and could be of potential gastronomic interest,” Clausen said.

The researchers examined how the long fibrous filaments in the bell were altered during the ethanol process in an attempt to discover how the new textures were created.

“Little is known about the molecular anatomy of the jellyfish,” Clausen said. “We are still not completely sure which structures we are visualizing.”

Clausen and his colleagues are excited about the promising implication their study could have on gastronomy and the biophysics of food. The research team also hopes to continue their jellyfish studies to see if there are different ways the bell can be consumed and how it would taste and feel.

“As this is pioneering work, I think using tools available to us to tackle the science of good eating can open peoples’ eyes for a completely new scientific field,” Clausen said

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Mie T. Pedersen

Underprivileged kids more prone to health issues in the long run

Researchers at the University of Geneva have found that economic vulnerability in childhood can have a detrimental effect on health later in life. The findings of the study indicate that chronic stress in childhood can cause physiological changes to the body that make it less capable of maintaining good health over time.

The research team analyzed data from a 12-year population survey conducted by the European Union that documents the health and social status of older people. The experts selected over 24,000 people aged 50 to 96 living in 14 European countries for their investigation.

The study revealed that individuals who were socio-economically disadvantaged in childhood had a greater risk of low muscle strength at an older age, which is a good indicator of one’s health status.

The experts also determined that this risk is not curbed by an improvement in socioeconomic status as adults, demonstrating how critical the first years of life are to overall health.

“The results showed that people who faced poor socio-economic circumstances in childhood had on average less muscular strength than those who were better off in their early years,” explained study co-author Boris Cheval.

“Even when adjusted to take into account socioeconomic factors and health behaviours (physical activity, tobacco, alcohol, nutrition) in adulthood, associations remained very significant, especially among women, who were often less susceptible to benefit from social mobility.”

Cheval said that the research “suggests a direct, biological and lasting effect of a poor start in life.” This and other studies show that difficult circumstances in childhood can lead to detrimental physiological responses.

The team will expand upon this analysis to determine the role that socio-economic systems play in the correlation between underprivileged childhood and poor health in old age.

The study is published in the journal Age and Ageing.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: © All rights reserved

Having younger siblings helps a child develop empathy

The role that older siblings play as teachers and caretakers has a positive influence on the development of empathy in their younger siblings. A new study has found that this influence is mutual, and younger siblings can also make a positive contribution as their older brothers and sisters develop the capacity to feel care and sympathy.

Children who have warm and kind older siblings are more empathic than children who do not have the same support. A team of researchers at the University of Calgary wanted to find out if this effect is reciprocal.

The study was focused on 452 Canadian pairs of siblings and their mothers who were part of the Kids, Families, and Places project. The families chosen for the research were ethnically diverse and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

The experts set out to investigate whether levels of empathy in young siblings could be used to predict empathy levels a year and a half later.

“Although it’s assumed that older siblings and parents are the primary socializing influences on younger siblings’ development (but not vice versa), we found that both younger and older siblings positively contributed to each other’s empathy over time,” explained lead author Marc Jambon.

“These findings stayed the same, even after taking into consideration each child’s earlier levels of empathy and factors that siblings in a family share – such as parenting practices or the family’s socioeconomic status – that could explain similarities between them.”

The researchers looked into any differences in the development of empathy among siblings with gender or age gaps.

“The effects stayed the same for all children in the study with one exception: Younger brothers didn’t contribute to significant changes in older sisters’ empathy,” said Jambon.

The study also revealed that the impact from older brothers and sisters was stronger when the age difference between the siblings was greater, which indicates that they were more influential as teachers and role models.

“Our findings emphasize the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children’s development,” said study co-author Sheri Madigan.

“The influence of younger siblings has been found during adolescence, but our study indicates that this process may begin much earlier than previously thought.”

The study was published in the journal Child Development.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer