1. Study suggests cultural values can be a strong predictor of alcohol consumption

    November 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Countries with populations that value autonomy and harmony tend to have higher average levels of alcohol consumption than countries with more traditional values, such as hierarchy and being part of a collective. This new research finding, published today in open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, may have important implications for international public health organizations aiming to tackle problems associated with alcohol consumption.

    Understanding why people drink alcohol excessively is of enormous importance to health authorities around the globe. According to the World Health organization, harmful alcohol consumption caused more than 3.3 million deaths in 2012, 6% of all deaths in that year. It is strongly associated with high blood pressure, liver cirrhosis and chronic pancreatitis, and has a huge social and economic burden.

    Many previous studies focused on why, at an individual level, people drink excessively. For the first time, researchers in Portugal and the UK attempted to pinpoint broader societal and cultural predictors of alcohol consumption.

    Using alcohol consumption and cultural value orientation data for 74 countries, the researchers modeled whether a country’s average level of alcohol consumption could be associated with various societal values such as autonomy, hierarchy, harmony and collectivism.

    Although the results were slightly different between men and women, the research found that values of autonomy and harmony are positively associated with alcohol consumption while hierarchy and embeddedness are negatively associated.

    One of the study’s authors, Dr Richard Inman, at the University of Lusíada in Porto, hopes that the findings may help to inform policy. “Our results suggest that bodies like World Health Organization should prioritize tackling alcohol consumption in countries that are more autonomous and less traditional, and future research should be directed at further understanding the relationship between cultural values and alcohol,” he says.

    Co-author, Bath University’s Dr Paul Hanel says that there is also an obvious next step: “Researchers could create similar profiles and models to help understand the cultural underpinnings for other risky behaviors such as smoking and drug taking, or health issues such as obesity.”

    Smoking, inactivity and diet, along with excessive alcohol consumption, are the noncommunicable diseases that cause 70% of deaths worldwide.


  2. Study suggests dog walkers motivated by happiness, not health

    September 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Liverpool press release:

    It appears to be a case of ‘do what makes you happy’ for people who regularly walk their dogs.

    According to new University of Liverpool research, owners are motivated to go dog walking because it makes them feel happy, not because of other health and social benefits.

    In the most in-depth study of dog owner’s perceptions of dog walking to date, 26 interviews were combined with personal written reflections of dog walking experiences.

    The researchers found that while owners may say the reason they go walking is to benefit the dog, the importance of their own improved happiness and wellbeing is clear.

    These feelings of happiness, however, are contingent on the owner believing that their dog is enjoying the walk too. Anything that threatens this, such as behaviour problems, a perception that they have a ‘lazy’ dog, or their dog is too old, reduces their motivation to walk.

    Increased physical activity and social interactions with other dog owners were found to be secondary bonuses but were rarely motivating.

    Study lead Dr Carri Westgarth, a research fellow at the University of Liverpool, said: “The factors that motivate dog walking are extremely complex, yet we know they can strongly motivate human health behaviour.”

    “It is crucial to understand why owners walk their dogs if we are to be able to effectively promote owners to walk their dogs more.”

    With more than eight million dogs in households across the UK, dog walking is a popular everyday activity. Dog owners are generally more physically active than non-owners, yet some rarely walk with their dog at all.

    An owner briskly walking their dog for at least 30 minutes each day easily exceeds the 150 minutes recommended minimum physical activity per week. If all dog owners did this it would dramatically boost population levels of physical activity.

    Dr Westgarth added: “It’s clear from our findings that dog walking is used to meet the emotional needs of the owner as well as the needs of the dog. This may explain why pilot dog walking interventions with messages focused on health or social benefits have not been particularly successful.

    Possible key points for future interventions to increase dog walking are to promote how it may increase the dogs, and thus the owner’s, happiness.”


  3. Dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain

    September 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    As we grow older we suffer a decline in mental and physical fitness, which can be made worse by conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. A new study, published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, shows that older people who routinely partake in physical exercise can reverse the signs of aging in the brain, and dancing has the most profound effect.

    “Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity,” says Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the study, based at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, Germany. “In this study, we show that two different types of physical exercise (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age. In comparison, it was only dancing that lead to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance.”

    Elderly volunteers, with an average age of 68, were recruited to the study and assigned either an eighteen-month weekly course of learning dance routines, or endurance and flexibility training. Both groups showed an increase in the hippocampus region of the brain. This is important because this area can be prone to age-related decline and is affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s. It also plays a key role in memory and learning, as well as keeping one’s balance.

    While previous research has shown that physical exercise can combat age-related brain decline, it is not known if one type of exercise can be better than another. To assess this, the exercise routines given to the volunteers differed. The traditional fitness training program conducted mainly repetitive exercises, such as cycling or Nordic walking, but the dance group were challenged with something new each week.

    Dr Rehfeld explains, “We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres (Jazz, Square, Latin-American and Line Dance). Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process. The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor.”

    These extra challenges are thought to account for the noticeable difference in balance displayed by those participants in dancing group. Dr Rehfeld and her colleagues are building on this research to trial new fitness programs that have the potential of maximizing anti-aging effects on the brain.

    “Right now, we are evaluating a new system called “Jymmin” (jamming and gymnastic). This is a sensor-based system which generates sounds (melodies, rhythm) based on physical activity. We know that dementia patients react strongly when listening to music. We want to combine the promising aspects of physical activity and active music making in a feasibility study with dementia patients.”

    Dr Rehfeld concludes with advice that could get us up out of our seats and dancing to our favorite beat.

    “I believe that everybody would like to live an independent and healthy life, for as long as possible. Physical activity is one of the lifestyle factors that can contribute to this, counteracting several risk factors and slowing down age-related decline. I think dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age.”

    This study falls into a broader collection of research investigating the cognitive and neural effects of physical and cognitive activity across the lifespan.


  4. Consumers more likely to spend money on guilty pleasures with touchscreen technology

    August 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus press release:

    You are more likely to indulge in guilty pleasures when shopping online with a touchscreen versus a desktop computer, according to research from UBC’s Okanagan campus.

    Studies conducted by Faculty of Management assistant professor Ying Zhu are shedding new light into consumer behaviour when it comes to touchscreen technology, a rapidly increasing sales technology.

    “Touchscreen technology has rapidly penetrated the consumer market and embedded itself into our daily lives. Given its fast growth and popularity, we know surprisingly little about its effect on consumers,” explains Zhu. “With more than two billion smartphone users, the use of tactile technologies for online shopping alone is set to represent nearly half of all e-commerce by next year.”

    To extend our knowledge on the touchscreen, Zhu and her co-author, Jeffrey Meyer, conducted a series of experiments with university students to measure thinking styles and purchase intentions using devices like touchscreens and desktop computers.

    The study aimed to investigate whether online purchase intentions change when it comes to two different types of products: hedonic, or those that give the consumer pleasure like chocolate or massages; and utilitarian, products that are practical, like bread or printers.

    “The playful and fun nature of the touchscreen enhances consumers’ favour of hedonic products; while the logical and functional nature of a desktop endorses the consumers’ preference for utilitarian products,” explains Zhu.

    Zhu’s study also found that participants using touchscreen technology scored significantly higher on experiential thinking than those using desktop computers. However, those on desktops scored significantly higher on rational thinking.

    “Overall, what we learned is that using a touchscreen evokes consumers’ experiential thinking, which resonates with the playful nature of hedonic products. These results may well be a game-changer for sectors like the retail industry,” says Zhu. “But my advice for consumers who want to save a bit of money is to put away the smartphone when you have urge to spend on a guilty pleasure.”


  5. What does music mean? Sign language may offer an answer

    August 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the New York University press release:

    How do we detect the meaning of music? We may gain some insights by looking at an unlikely source, sign language, a newly released linguistic analysis concludes.

    “Musicians and music lovers intuitively know that music can convey information about an extra-musical reality,” explains author Philippe Schlenker, a senior researcher at Institut Jean-Nicod within France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. “Music does so by way of abstract musical animations that are reminiscent of iconic, or pictorial-like, components of meaning that are common in sign language, but rare in spoken language.”

    The analysis, “Outline of Music Semantics,” appears in the journal Music Perception; it is available, with sound examples, here: http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/002942. A longer piece that discusses the connection with iconic semantics is forthcoming in the Review of Philosophy & Psychology (“Prolegomena to Music Semantics”).

    Schlenker acknowledges that spoken language also deploys iconic meanings–for example, saying that a lecture was ‘loooong’ gives a very different impression from just saying that it was ‘long.’ However, these meanings are relatively marginal in the spoken word; by contrast, he observes, they are pervasive in sign languages, which have the same general grammatical and logical rules as do spoken languages, but also far richer iconic rules.

    Drawing inspiration from sign language iconicity, Schlenker proposes that the diverse inferences drawn on musical sources are combined by way of abstract iconic rules. Here, music can mimic a reality, creating a “fictional source” for what is perceived to be real. As an example, he points to composer Camille Saint Saëns’s “The Carnival of the Animals” (1886), which aims to capture the physical movement of tortoises.

    “When Saint Saëns wanted to evoke tortoises in ‘The Carnival of Animals,’ he not only used a radically slowed-down version of a high-energy dance, the Can-Can,” Schlenker notes. “He also introduced a dissonance to suggest that the hapless animals were tripping, an effect obtained due to the sheer instability of the jarring chord.”

    In his work, Schlenker broadly considers how we understand music–and, in doing so, how we derive meaning through the fictional sources that it creates.

    “We draw all sorts of inferences about fictional sources of the music when we are listening,” he explains. “Lower pitch is, for instance, associated with larger sound sources, a standard biological code in nature. So, a double bass will more easily evoke an elephant than a flute would. Or, if the music slows down or becomes softer, we naturally infer that a piece’s fictional source is losing energy, just as we would in our daily, real-world experiences. Similarly, a higher pitch may signify greater energy–a physical code–or greater arousal, which is a biological code.”

    Fictional sources may be animate or inanimate, Schlenker adds, and their behavior may be indicative of emotions, which play a prominent role in musical meaning.

    “More generally, it is no accident that one often signals the end of a classical piece by simultaneously playing more slowly, more softly, and with a musical movement toward more consonant chords,” he says. “These are natural ways to indicate that the fictional source is gradually losing energy and reaching greater repose.”

    In his research, Schlenker worked with composer Arthur Bonetto to create minimal modifications of well-known music snippets to understand the source of the meaning effects they produce. This analytical method of ‘minimal pairs,’ borrowed from linguistics and experimental psychology, Schlenker posits, could be applied to larger musical excerpts in the future.


  6. Study suggests one in three cases of dementia preventable

    August 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Southern California – Health Sciences press release:

    Managing lifestyle factors such as hearing loss, smoking, hypertension and depression could prevent one-third of the world’s dementia cases, according to a report by the first Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention and Care. Presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2017 and published in The Lancet, the report also highlights the beneficial effects of nonpharmacologic interventions such as social contact and exercise for people with dementia.

    “There’s been a great deal of focus on developing medicines to prevent dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease,” says commission member and AAIC presenter Lon Schneider, MD, professor of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “But we can’t lose sight of the real major advances we’ve already made in treating dementia, including preventive approaches.”

    The commission brought together 24 international experts to systematically review existing research and provide evidence-based recommendations for treating and preventing dementia. About 47 million people have dementia worldwide and that number is expected to climb as high as 66 million by 2030 and 115 million by 2050.

    Reducing dementia risk, beginning in childhood

    The commission’s report identifies nine risk factors in early, mid- and late life that increase the likelihood of developing dementia. About 35 percent of dementia — one in three cases — is attributable to these risk factors, the report says.

    By increasing education in early life and addressing hearing loss, hypertension and obesity in midlife, the incidence of dementia could be reduced by as much as 20 percent, combined.

    In late life, stopping smoking, treating depression, increasing physical activity, increasing social contact and managing diabetes could reduce the incidence of dementia by another 15 percent.

    “The potential magnitude of the effect on dementia of reducing these risk factors is larger than we could ever imagine the effect that current, experimental medications could have,” Schneider says. “Mitigating risk factors provides us a powerful way to reduce the global burden of dementia.”

    A nonpharmacologic approach to treating dementia

    The commission also examined the effect of nonpharmacologic interventions for people with dementia and concluded that they had an important role in treatment, especially when trying to address agitation and aggression.

    “Antipsychotic drugs are commonly used to treat agitation and aggression, but there is substantial concern about these drugs because of an increased risk of death, cardiovascular adverse events and infections, not to mention excessive sedation,” Schneider says.

    The evidence showed that psychological, social and environmental interventions such as social contact and activities were superior to antipsychotic medications for treating dementia-related agitation and aggression.

    The commission also found that nonpharmacologic interventions like group cognitive stimulation therapy and exercise conferred some benefit in cognition as well.

    The commission’s full report provides detailed recommendations in the areas of prevention, treating cognitive symptoms, individualizing dementia care, caring for caregivers, planning for the future following a dementia diagnosis, managing neuropsychiatric symptoms and considering the end of life.


  7. Healthy lifestyle may help older adults preserve their independence

    July 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wiley press release:

    In a study of men with an average age of 71 years, lifestyle factors such as never smoking, maintaining a healthy diet, and not being obese were associated with survival and high functionality over the next 16 years.

    The study included 1104 men who completed a questionnaire. High functionality was defined as preserved ability in personal activities of daily living and cognitive function.

    Additional studies are needed to investigate whether lifestyle changes after the age of 70 years may also lead to preserved independence.

    The findings are published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.


  8. Study suggests Pokémon Go may actually promote healthier lifestyle

    by Ashley

    From the Kent State University press release:

    Today marks the one year anniversary of Pokémon GO’s worldwide release that sent crowds hiking through parks, meandering into streets and walking for miles in search of Pokémon, those cute little digital characters that appear in real locations on your smartphone.

    Capturing the little monsters isn’t just fun for the players, it might be good for their health. Too often we sit at a desk all day, spend countless hours in the car, and with a smartphone glued to our hands it is too easy to spend our free time watching videos, playing games and browsing the internet. Such sedentary behaviors cause us to sit more and exercise less.

    However, Kent State University researchers found that playing a popular physically-interactive, smartphone based game, like Pokémon GO, may actually promote exercise.

    Jacob Barkley, Ph.D., Andrew Lepp, Ph.D., and Ellen Glickman, Ph.D., from Kent State’s College of Education, Health and Human Services assessed the ability of the popular, physically-interactive, smartphone based video game Pokémon GO to increase walking and decrease sedentary behavior, like sitting. Over 350 college students reported their physical activity and sedentary behavior the week before they downloaded Pokémon GO, the week immediately after downloading the game, and again several weeks later.

    Results show that, relative to the week before downloading Pokémon GO, students doubled their daily walking behavior (102 percent increase) and reduced sedentary behavior by 25 percent during the first week after downloading. When comparing behavior several weeks after downloading Pokémon GO, to the week before downloading, walking and sedentary behavior was still 68 percent greater and 18 percent lower, respectively, even though frequency of game play decreased by 58 percent.

    “While the largest increases in walking and decreases in sitting occurred during the first week after downloading, when the game was new to the user, those positive effects largely persisted weeks later,” Barkley said. “It is possible that games like Pokémon GO may help people initiate a positive health behavior change, such as more daily walking and less sitting.”

    The researchers suggest that while many smartphone functions may promote sedentary activity, they are hopeful that playing physically-interactive, smartphone based video games like Pokémon GO may help promote walking and reduce sitting in college students.

    The study is published in the Games for Health Journal.


  9. Article speculates on the beginnings of music

    July 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    How did music begin? Did our early ancestors first start by beating things together to create rhythm, or use their voices to sing? What types of instruments did they use? Has music always been important in human society, and if so, why? These are some of the questions explored in a recent Hypothesis and Theory article published in Frontiers in Sociology. The answers reveal that the story of music is, in many ways, the story of humans.

    So, what is music? This is difficult to answer, as everyone has their own idea. “Sound that conveys emotion,” is what Jeremy Montagu, of the University of Oxford and author of the article, describes as his. A mother humming or crooning to calm her baby would probably count as music, using this definition, and this simple music probably predated speech.

    But where do we draw the line between music and speech? You might think that rhythm, pattern and controlling pitch are important in music, but these things can also apply when someone recites a sonnet or speaks with heightened emotion. Montagu concludes that “each of us in our own way can say ‘Yes, this is music’, and ‘No, that is speech’.”

    So, when did our ancestors begin making music? If we take singing, then controlling pitch is important. Scientists have studied the fossilized skulls and jaws of early apes, to see if they were able to vocalize and control pitch. About a million years ago, the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans had the vocal anatomy to “sing” like us, but it’s impossible to know if they did.

    Another important component of music is rhythm. Our early ancestors may have created rhythmic music by clapping their hands. This may be linked to the earliest musical instruments, when somebody realized that smacking stones or sticks together doesn’t hurt your hands as much. Many of these instruments are likely to have been made from soft materials like wood or reeds, and so haven’t survived. What have survived are bone pipes. Some of the earliest ever found are made from swan and vulture wing bones and are between 39,000 and 43,000 years old. Other ancient instruments have been found in surprising places. For example, there is evidence that people struck stalactites or “rock gongs” in caves dating from 12,000 years ago, with the caves themselves acting as resonators for the sound.

    So, we know that music is old, and may have been with us from when humans first evolved. But why did it arise and why has it persisted? There are many possible functions for music. One is dancing. It is unknown if the first dancers created a musical accompaniment, or if music led to people moving rhythmically. Another obvious reason for music is entertainment, which can be personal or communal. Music can also be used for communication, often over large distances, using instruments such as drums or horns. Yet another reason for music is ritual, and virtually every religion uses music.

    However, the major reason that music arose and persists may be that it brings people together. “Music leads to bonding, such as bonding between mother and child or bonding between groups,” explains Montagu. “Music keeps workers happy when doing repetitive and otherwise boring work, and helps everyone to move together, increasing the force of their work. Dancing or singing together before a hunt or warfare binds participants into a cohesive group.” He concludes: “It has even been suggested that music, in causing such bonding, created not only the family but society itself, bringing individuals together who might otherwise have led solitary lives.”


  10. Unearned fun tastes just as sweet

    July 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    We may be inclined to think that a fun experience — say, watching a movie or indulging in a tasty treat — will be all the more enjoyable if we save it until we’ve finished our work or chores, but new research shows that this intuition may be misguided. The findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggest that leisure experiences tend to be pleasurable regardless of when we experience them.

    “Our research suggests that people may over-worry about waiting for a ‘right time’ to enjoy themselves, continually postponing fun rather than having it,” says Ed O’Brien of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “We find that people intuitively care a lot about saving leisure until work is finished, but it turns out that this doesn’t always do much for us. It’s easy to forget that fun activities are, after all, fun activities. Getting a massage will likely feel good regardless of what else is going on.”

    O’Brien and co-author Ellen Roney speculated that we may be disposed to save leisure for later because we believe that we’ll feel too guilty or distracted to fully enjoy it until work is out of the way. Because we have difficulty accurately predicting how we’ll feel in the future, the researchers hypothesized that we’re likely to overlook how absorbing and immersive leisure activities can be.

    Surveying members of a university community, students in an MBA program, and online research participants, O’Brien and Roney found evidence in support of their initial hypothesis: People consistently reported that pleasurable experiences would be less enjoyable if they happened before an effortful or negative experience as opposed to after it.

    To investigate whether these findings would hold up in an experimental setting, the researchers presented 181 museumgoers with descriptions and materials for two activities: the Magic Maker task and the Fixed Labor task. Some of the visitors completed both tasks in the order determined by a random card draw — after each task, they reported their reactions, rating how much they liked or disliked it, how much pleasure or displeasure it brought them, and how positive or negative it was.

    Other visitors simply imagined going through the two tasks and predicted how they would feel after each one. Their predictions tended to assert that the fun Magic Maker task would be less enjoyable if completed before the more arduous Fixed Labor task.

    But this was not borne out by the visitors who actually experienced them: Those who engaged in the Magic Maker task before the Fixed Labor task found it just as enjoyable as did those who completed the tasks in the reverse order.

    In another study, O’Brien and Roney invited 259 student participants, who were in the midst of taking midterms, to come to the lab for a spa-like experience. Some of the students spent time in a quiet room with a massage chair, foot bath, candles, and calming music, while others imagined what the experience would be like.

    Again, the students who predicted their feelings thought the spa experience would be less enjoyable if they had it before completing their midterms compared with after and they overestimated how much their looming midterms would distract them from the experience. In reality, while students who actually had the spa experience were more distracted by midterms before exams were over relative to after, this did not seem to dampen their ability to enjoy the moment of relaxation.

    Additional experimental findings suggest a strategy that could improve the accuracy of people’s predictions. O’Brien and Roney found that students were instructed to specifically reflect on the moment-to-moment sensations involved in laughing at funny videos or eating tasty treats were more accurate in predicting how enjoyable those experiences were likely to be.

    Ultimately, the usefulness of the debiasing strategy depends on your overarching goal — some tasks may be so important that putting them off really does detract from our ability to enjoy leisure time. In some cases, exploiting the intuition that rewards are more enjoyable after work is done could help us delay gratification and plow through day-to-day drudgery.

    But O’Brien and Roney note that it’s worth keeping in mind that there is almost always more work to do:

    Engaging in leisure comes with a host of benefits that people may miss out on. In many cases, we might be laboring towards an ultimate payoff that we could have enjoyed just as much at the start.”