Ghost in the Lab

Ghost Hall

Ghost in the hall. Photo by Rodney Steadman

This is the first in a series of four blog posts on science and the ‘paranormal.’ Happy Halloween!

The lab was haunted. Workers in the lab experienced cold shivers, feelings of being watched, and an overall feeling of depression. On one occasion a cleaner saw something upsetting. Discomfort in the lab was growing.

The lab was constructed out of two corrugated iron garages placed back to back. The width and length in feet was 10 by 30 with a door at one end and a window at the other. On the other side of the window was a cleaning bay. Three employees worked in the lab and they designed life support equipment.

Vic Tandy, an engineer in the lab, didn’t believe that the lab was haunted. He attributed the spooky experiences to wild animals or noises made by lab equipment. Hard-nosed engineers know better than to succumb to irrational fears.

You can pretty much guess what happened next. It’s a textbook ghost story: working alone at night; cold sweat; a feeling of depression and a sense that someone else was in the room. Tandy checked out the equipment to ensure that he wasn’t being exposed to some of the gases used in the lab. Nothing was left on. He returned to his work and then it happened. Tandy saw a grey figure slowly appear in his peripheral vision to his left. It was silent and moved like a person. When he turned to look at the figure, it disappeared. “It would not be unreasonable to suggest I was terrified,” said Tandy. He couldn’t explain what he had just seen, so he went home.

The following day Tandy returned to the lab to work on his fencing foil for a competition. He had all the equipment at home to work on his foil, but the vice at the engineer’s bench made his work easier. He put one end of the foil in the vice and then went searching for some oil. Tandy returned to a foil blade noticeably oscillating up and down. The previous night’s specter had returned. Not quite. The ghost had entered into Tandy’s field of expertise and the game was afoot.

Tandy knew that the foil required energy to vibrate and that energy was sound. In a rudimentary experiment to discover the characteristics of the wave, he slid the foil along the floor in a drill vice. He found that the foil’s peak oscillations were in the middle of the lab, at the location of his desk. Tandy did some quick calculations and discovered that a low frequency (19Hz), or infrasound, standing wave was the source of his foil’s movement. He also found that the long tubular shape of the lab contributed to the wave’s characteristics.

Tandy’s next questions were where was the standing wave coming from and what does it do to the human body? The first part was easy. He discovered that a new air extraction fan was slightly misaligned when it was installed in the cleaning bay. The ghost and the standing wave left when the alignment was corrected.

Tandy’s research into the effects of infrasound on the human body was consistent with what was reported in the lab including “smearing” of vision. According to research conducted by Birgitta Berglund and her team, infrasound has been linked to cardiovascular problems, sleep disturbance, annoyance and it can potentially exacerbate preexisting mental health issues. Tandy published his ghostly experience with co-author Tony Lawrence in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Their advice to paranormal researchers “is to be very wary of ghosts reported to haunt long, windy corridors!”

In 2000, Tandy tested his infrasound hypothesis in a reportedly haunted 14th Century cellar beneath the Tourist Information Centre in Coventry. The cellar was constructed of locally derived red sandstone and it would have originally been used to store trade items such as cloth and wool. Staff and visitors had reported feeling a presence, cold chills, and seeing apparitions in the cellar. Tandy placed sensitive sound equipment in the centre of the cellar in hopes that he would find a standing low frequency wave due to the tubular design of the cellar. Surprisingly, he found a 19Hz standing wave – the same frequency that vibrated his foil back in the lab – where witnesses reported their strongest feelings of a presence. Tandy repeated the experiment several times to confirm his findings and the 19Hz standing wave was still present. However, he was unable to determine the source of the wave. Tandy published his findings in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.

Vic Tandy died in 2005, but his work has inspired researchers to apply his findings to a variety of locations around the world. More recently, archaeologists have been investigating the acoustic properties of ancient sacred sites to determine if infrasound was associated with the sites’ selection and mystical properties. Researchers Paolo Debertolis and Niccolò Bisconti investigated the acoustic properties of two ancient sites: the Abbey of San Salvatore in Italy and Visoćica Hill in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both locations were shown to have naturally occurring infrasound or ultrasound signals. “This reaffirms the aura of legends that pervades these places, and modern technology is now able to give greater clarity to the origin of many interesting phenomena,” concluded the authors. Their research was published in the 1st International Virtual Conference on Advanced Scientific Results.

When it comes to hauntings and ghosts, I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe any of it. I believe that the people who have these supernatural experiences have had an experience, but I don’t believe it was supernatural. As infrasound has shown, we are susceptible to forces of nature that are sometimes beyond our control. Does infrasound explain everything? No, but it does show the power of the scientific method in providing a far more reasonable explanation than defaulting to Bronze Age thinking when experiencing what is perceived as an unexplainable event.

Rodney Steadman 14 October 2014

Tandy V, & Lawrence TR (1998). The Ghost in the Machine. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62 (851).

Berglund B, Hassmén P, & Job R (1996). Sources and effects of low-frequency noise. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 99 (5), 2985-3002. DOI: 10.1121/1.414863

Tandy V (2000). Something in the Cellar. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64.3 (860).

Debertolis P, & Bisconti N (2013). Archaeoacoustics in ancient sites: A new way to analyzing archaeological locations. 1st International Virtual Conference on Advanced Scientific Results, 306-310.

The Playing Ground Part Two

Red Bars.

Red monkey bars. Photo by Rodney Steadman

“Come back daddy…DADDY!” But daddy was too busy talking on his phone while lounging on a park bench to play with her on the monkey bars. Annoying. As I stated in my last post, The Playing Ground Part One, I frequently use the playground for my workouts: pull-ups and laps on the monkey bars; dips on the handrails at the top of some slides; knee-tuck push-ups on a swing; and running drills in the field. Playgrounds, to me, are the ideal place for both parents and children to enjoy physical activity together. It provides an opportunity for parents to show, help, and encourage their kids to be physically active. Sadly, I rarely see this interaction. Parents are usually sitting on a bench talking with other parents or on the phone. Even if there are a number of kids engaged in unstructured play, who don’t need constant surveillance, parents could use this time to get in some physical activity and be role models to their children.

Researchers from the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota had also noticed this lack of parental physical activity and child engagement during playground visits. The research team, led by James Roemmich, wanted to see if removal of park benches from a playground would passively increase physical activity in parents and children. The team conducted two studies over the summers of 2012 and 2013.

Study 1 investigated changes in physical activity of adults and children at a playground in a 17.5 acre park in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Roemmich and his team used an A1-B-A2 study design over seven day periods to assess the impact of manipulating eight picnic tables around the playground. During A1 (79 adults and 91 children), researchers observed how the standard positioning of the benches influenced physical activity. The team then removed the benches for seven days (B: 22 adults and 27 children) and then returned the benches to their original position for a final seven days of observation (A2: 55 adults and 57 children). Data was collected using the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities, which measures number of people, their demographics, and level of physical activity. The researchers omitted teenagers from 13 to 18 years of age because some acted as children or caregivers. The ‘child’ category consisted of children from 0 to 12 years of age and ‘adult’ was 19 years of age or older. The team combined moderate and vigorous physical activity (MVPA) categories because they didn’t observe many park users in the separate categories.

The results of Study 1 showed that children were, overall, more intensely active than adults and their level of physical activity exceeded 3 METs. The odds of adults standing were 9.4 times greater than the odds of them sitting during B than A1 and 4.7 times greater than A2. The odds of adults engaged in MVPA were 4.1 times greater than the odds of them sitting during B than A1 and 22.7 times greater than A2. Overall, both children and adults increased their MET intensity when seating was removed.

Study 2, conducted in the same park a year later, consisted of the same study design as Study 1 except that the number of observed individuals was different (A1: 130 adults and 115 children; B: 48 adults and 69 children; and A2: 49 adults and 73 children). Roemmich and his team added a two-hour observation period to assess the activity level of adults and the children that accompanied them to the playground. In Study 1 these groups were not assessed together.

The results of Study 2 were similar to Study 1: children were, overall, more intensely active than adults, exceeding 3 METs, and their intensity was the highest when the benches were removed. The odds of adults standing versus sitting were the same as Study 1. The odds of adults engaged in MVPA were 4.5 times greater than the odds of them sitting during B than A1 and 4.3 times greater than A2. In both children and adults MET levels were higher in B than A1 and A2. There was no association between adult MET intensity and the MET intensity of the children they brought to the playground. However, families with a greater number of children had children who were more intensely active. The researchers also found that bench removal did not impact duration of stay, but the number of visitors to the park declined when the benches were removed. This was also observed in Study 1. Roemmich his team believes that the reduced visits may have been related to cooler temperatures during the period of observation.

Overall, “Adults were more active when seating was not accessible. Removal of seating did not shorten the time that adults were willing to allow children to play,” concluded the authors. However, Roemmich and his team suggest that, “instead of the removal of the comfort of seating, adults’ physical activity could be increased by adding positive reinforcements such as fitness stations or prompts to encourage being active.”

In my personal opinion, I would like to see playgrounds designed for multigenerational use and become meaningful focal points for our communities. They should be works of usable art that spark our imagination and inspire us to climb, jump, run, and play. Sometimes my dreams are two sizes too big.

Rodney Steadman 05 October 2014

Roemmich J, Beeler J, & Johnson L (2014). A microenvironment approach to reducing sedentary time and increasing physical activity of children and adults at a playground. Preventive Medicine, 62, 108-112 DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.01.018

The Playing Ground Part One

Yellow Rings

Playground rings. Photo by Rodney Steadman

I love playgrounds. There is nothing like finding a well-built playground that can accommodate the needs of both adults and children: monkey bars, slides, swings, and a nearby field. My basic playground workout consists of pull-ups and laps on the monkey bars; dips on the handrails at the top of some slides; knee-tuck push-ups on a swing; and running drills in the field. It’s a great place for both parents and children to get some exercise and have a bit of fun. Sadly, I rarely see parents using playground equipment with their children or while their children are playing elsewhere. They’re usually sitting on a bench talking with other parents or on the phone. On one occasion, while I was in-between laps on the monkey bars, a young girl would play on the bars – I wouldn’t rush her when she wanted to play on the bars, so I would do something else until she went to another piece of playground equipment. While she was on the monkey bars she would call out to her dad to watch her and play with her. He would lumber over to her – how such a small man could lumber was beyond me – and half-heartedly support her on the bars while continuing to yammer on his phone. After this exhaustive effort, he lumbered and yammered his way back to a nearby bench while his daughter shouted, “Come back daddy…DADDY!” Maybe he had a bad day. Maybe it was an important call – it wasn’t. Maybe he had crap parenting skills. Whatever it was – probably the latter – it annoyed me. Engaging in a few minutes of quality leisure time activity with his daughter could do wonders for her.

Researchers from the UK and US looked at the effects of changes in physical activity (PA) support from parents and peers in girls from nine to 15 years of age. Kirsten Davison and Russell Jago wanted to see if the support the girls received influenced their PA during adolescence. Participants for the study were part of a longitudinal study examining girls’ health and development across the ages of five to 15 years. One hundred and seventy-four Caucasian girls from Pennsylvania were assessed at nine, 11, 13, and 15 years of age. Both families and girls received financial compensation for their participation.

Parental support of their daughter’s PA was measured using the Activity Support Scale (ACTS). The ACTS measures logistic support (e.g. providing the girls with transportation to and enrollment in PAs) and modeling (e.g. teaching the girls how to be active and joining in activities with them). Peer support for the girls was measured using a modified version of the ACTS; however, it was not administered at age 15 to reduce research burden and facilitate participant retention.

Before age 13, the girls’ PA was measured using the Children’s Physical Activity scale, body mass index (BMI), a 24-item activity checklist, and the Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run. At 13 and 15 years of age, PA was measured using an accelerometer. Data were included for analysis if the girls wore the accelerometer for four days or more and for 10 hours or more per day over seven days. Girls “maintained PA” if they recorded 30 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA). If they recorded less than 30 minutes, they “did not maintain PA.” The authors could not use the recommended 60 minutes of MVPA per day as a cut-off because less than five percent of participants reported this level of daily physical activity. Furthermore, only 24 girls at ages 13 and 15 were able to maintain their PA over the seven days while 72 did not. These figures are very telling and, according to the authors, “The small percentage of girls who met current recommendations for PA in this study is consistent with data from a large national longitudinal sample of youth.” This paints a pretty bleak picture, but there is hope.

Results from Davison and Jago’s research showed that girls who maintained their PA across all ages had parents who reported higher modeling of PA than girls who did not maintain PA. Furthermore, girls with parents who sustained their level of logistic support across all ages maintained their PA. Conversely, significant declines in logistic support were associated with girls who did not maintain PA. The authors also found that there was not a significant effect of peer support on girls who maintained PA, but it did increase as the girls aged.

Davison and Jago identified parental logistic support as an important factor in maintaining PA. The researchers found that the greatest rate of peer support occurred between nine and 11 years of age and that peer support and logistic support were related over time. Davison and Jago speculated that logistic support might expose the girls to new PA behaviours, maintain PA by providing transportation to practices and events, and introduce girls to new peer groups who support PA.

“Parental modeling of PA before adolescence and logistic support during adolescence could help girls establish early patterns of PA and social networks that facilitate maintained PA during adolescence,” concluded the researchers.

So to my friend in the park with his little girl, get off your damn phone, and ass, and engage with your daughter. Show her, help her, and encourage her in her monkey bar endeavours.

Part two of “The Playing Ground” will focus on getting parents more active while at the playground with their kids.

Rodney Steadman 30 September 2014

Davison K, & Jago R (2009). Change in Parent and Peer Support across Ages 9 to 15 yr and Adolescent Girls’ Physical Activity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41 (9), 1816-1825 DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181a278e2

Nader P, Bradley R, Houts R, McRitchie S, & O’Brien M (2008). Moderate-to-Vigorous Physical Activity From Ages 9 to 15 Years. JAMA, 300 (3), 295-305 DOI: 10.1001/jama.300.3.295

Sound Aggression

Not a Christmas tree. Just a tree with lights. Photo by Rodney Steadman

For tomorrow, he knew, all the Who girls and boys, would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys! And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! That’s one thing he hated! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!
–Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

It’s bad enough that the Grinch had to share a valley with religious zealots, but did they have to make so much noise? Could it have been all the noise that caused the Grinch to build up so much aggression towards the Whos? Could the noise have been of such a duration and type that the Grinch’s psychological wellbeing became compromised? Recent research suggests that noise pollution could contribute to displaced aggression.

A pilot study conducted by Angel Dzhambov and Donka Dimitrova from the University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, investigated the effects of noise on displaced aggression (DA) in residents from a neighbourhood in Plovdiv city. According to the authors, DA occurs when an individual is provoked, but is unable to confront the source of provocation and takes out his or her aggression on an innocent party. To determine at what point sound becomes annoying, Dzhambov and Dimitrova looked at past research and discovered that sound annoyance occurs between 57 and 67 dB. Therefore, the authors chose a neighbourhood with continuous noise levels between 60 dB and 80 dB. The research team used the Displaced Aggression Questionnaire (DAQ) to determine their participant’s level of DA, and a series of interview questions to determine noise sensitivity and annoyance.

Dzhambov and Dimitrova collected data from 182 residents with an average age of 37 (45 percent were female). The research team first looked at participant responses to the DAQ alone. The results showed that women, older adults, long-term residents, retirees, the highly educated, and those suffering from poor health had high DA scores. The authors then looked at correlations between answers to their noise interviews and DA scores. They discovered that high DA scores were significantly associated with “noises above the perceived normal threshold, higher noise sensitivity, and continuous noises.” High DA scores were also associated with low frequency and high intensity noises. However, age – specifically older adults – was the only demographic data that positively correlated with noise sensitivity and aggression. Dzhambov and Dimitrova recognized that this correlation is contrary to past research. They attributed this result to limitations in the Bulgarian healthcare system to provide care for the elderly and the increase in poverty in this population over the past decade. “Therefore, social climate might be modifying the way people perceive and react to environmental noise,” concluded the authors. Furthermore, the authors suggested that an interdisciplinary public health approach would be helpful in counteracting the psychological distress and conflict created by noise pollution.

Maybe the reason why the Grinch hated Christmas so much wasn’t because his “head wasn’t screwed on just right” or “his shoes were too tight” or “his heart was two sizes too small.” Maybe it was all the Who noise. But we’ll never know the truth because the Grinch succumbed to Who indoctrination and all is well in the valley of Who.

Rodney Steadman 14 September 2014

Works Cited

Dzhambov A, & Dimitrova D (2014). Neighborhood noise pollution as a determinant of displaced aggression: A pilot study Noise and Health, 16 (69), 95-101 DOI: 10.4103/1463-1741.132090

What is Nature?

Rocky Mountains from Nahahi Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

In my previous two blogs, “Nature Helps” and “Does Nature Influence How We Think?,” I presented research that showed the benefits of exposure to nature. At the end of “Nature Helps,” I made the observation that “Some, if not all, of the more beautiful images of nature and plants…in Zhang’s study have been manipulated or ‘made’ by humans.” Furthermore, images that were not considered as “as beautiful” appeared to be depictions of natural environments. This is counter to how nature is defined: everything in the physical world not created by humans. My concern was that the more beautiful images of nature and plants were not natural at all. Instead, they were a human idealized vision of nature that has become the accepted view. This is troubling because if we cannot distinguish between a natural environment and an environment manipulated by humans, then saving those truly natural spaces and places becomes more difficult. Surprisingly, the development of this growing rift can be observed in Disney animated films over the past 70 years.

Researchers from the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris, France, and The College of Wooster in Ohio, USA, investigated the depictions of nature in Disney (51 films) and Disney-Pixar (an additional nine films) animated films from 1937 to 2010. Anne-Caroline Prévot-Julliard and her team assessed representations of nature by looking at the amount of time each film spent in a natural setting. Specifically, the amount of time dedicated to a wild natural setting showing biodiversity as opposed to a cultivated nature with crops, gardens, and domesticated animal species. The authors called wild nature “green nature.” Prévot-Julliard and her team also assessed biodiversity and they did this by counting the number of animal species depicted and used this number as a proxy for species richness and complexity.

The results of their research showed a statistically significant decrease in depictions of green nature in the 51 Disney films. According to Prévot-Julliard and her team, this decrease could not be attributed to an increased focus on interior scenes because the duration of interior and exterior scenes relative to overall film duration have not significantly changed over time. Furthermore, this change could not be attributed to changes in Disney executive ranks over time. Additionally, the research team found that the decrease in depictions of green nature was further strengthened with the addition of the nine Disney-Pixar films.

This same trend was also seen in representations of biodiversity. Depictions of species richness and complexity have significantly decreased over time in the 51 Disney films and it was again strengthened when combined with the nine Disney-Pixar films.

Prévot-Julliard and her team observed that during the first 40 years of Disney animated films green nature was used as a backdrop in the majority of outdoor scenes. Starting around 1980, 50 percent of the Disney films assessed were situated in settings devoid of green nature. Moreover, when green nature was depicted, representations of species richness and complexity decreased and cultivated environments increased over time.

The authors concluded that the decrease in green nature in Disney films reflects a similar decrease in individual connectedness with nature over the past 70 years in Western cultures. Furthermore, the decrease in representations of biodiversity may also reflect a disconnect between Disney filmmakers and nature. According to the research team, the extent of this disconnect can be seen during the period of production under the guidance of Michael Eisner (1984-2005). During this period, environmental awareness became an explicit message in Disney animated films. Prévot-Julliard and her team observed that “even when there are explicit messages about nature and the environment, there is a trend for simplification of green nature and its inherent complexity in the settings.”

Considering the popularity of Disney and Disney-Pixar films, the results of this study are troubling. If we, Western cultures, cannot distinguish between a natural environment and an environment manipulated by humans, then saving those truly natural spaces and places becomes more difficult. In light of my recent blog posts on nature, how will this decreasing connection and understanding of nature impact future generations? How will they answer, “What is nature?”

Rodney Steadman 01 September 2014

Works Cited

Prevot-Julliard A, Julliard R, & Clayton S (2014). Historical evidence for nature disconnection in a 70-year time series of Disney animated films Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662513519042

Does Nature Influence How We Think?

Trees and Mountains

Sheep River, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

So, does nature influence how we think? According to recent research out of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, connectedness with nature may influence cognitive styles. The research team, led by Carmen Lai Yin Leong, conducted two studies with Singaporean secondary students as participants. In the first study, Leong and her team examined how connectedness with nature correlated with innovative and holistic cognitive styles. The second study explored connectedness with nature and its potential to predict cognitive styles.

The first study consisted of 138 adolescents (46 percent female) with an average age of 15 years. Participants completed an online survey consisting of questionnaires that measured connectedness to nature, nature relatedness, analytic versus holistic thinking preference, and creative style (innovative or adaptive). The results showed statistically significant correlations between connectedness with nature and innovative and holistic thinking. Innovative thinkers are open-minded, whereas, adaptive thinkers, at the opposite end of the scale, prefer a framework of systems and seek efficiency. Holistic thinkers focus on the big picture and emphasize the interconnectedness between the object of their observation and its surroundings. At the opposite end of the analysis-holism scale are the analytic thinkers who prefer to analyze an object in a linear fashion and apart from its surroundings.

Study 2 was designed to replicate the findings of Study 1 using pen and paper and investigate if connectedness with nature predicts cognitive styles while controlling for well-being and demographics. The researchers collected data from 185 adolescents (47 percent female) with a mean age of 13 years. The results of Study 1 were replicated in Study 2. Furthermore, the connectedness to nature scale was a statistically significant predictor of cognitive styles after controlling for well-being and demographics. Specifically, Leong and her team found that high connectedness to nature scale scores were significantly associated with higher tendencies for holistic and innovative thinking.

The authors argue that activities in nature such as hiking can be physically demanding and involve various forms of risk as well as experiences of natural beauty. Therefore, individuals who venture into nature have to be open-minded to navigate challenges posed by the natural environment. It is this open-mindedness that can also produce innovative ideas. Furthermore, activities in a natural environment expose enthusiasts to various ecosystems and the interconnectedness of the natural world. The authors argue that understanding the complexity of nature requires holistic thinking.

Leong and her team recommend “repeated interactions with nature” at both school and home. These interactions “are crucial in developing a sense of connectedness to nature” and enhancing cognitive styles.

Rodney Steadman 25 August 2014

Works Cited

Leong L, Fischer R, & McClure J (2014). Are nature lovers more innovative? The relationship between connectedness with nature and cognitive styles Journal of Environmental Psychology, 40, 57-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.03.007

Nature Helps

Meadow on approach to Little Arethusa, Kananaskis, Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

Meadow on approach to Little Arethusa, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

About a month ago I started to rejuvenate a horribly conceived garden at the front of a property I own with my sister. It was a project we wanted to tackle since we purchased the property, but we had other priorities that needed our attention before we could shift our focus to the garden. Once we started working on the garden, neighbours we had never met dropped by to show their support and offer advice and help. They were excited to see some natural beauty being added to the neighbourhood. There is recent research suggesting that our neighbours’ willingness to help may be a result of their exposure to natural beauty.

Researchers at the Universities of California and Southern California found that exposure to scenes of natural beauty increased prosocial behaviours (behaviours that benefit society such as volunteering). Jia Wei Zhang led the team that conducted four studies investigating how exposure to beautiful nature affected their participants’ prosocial tendencies.

Study 1 consisted of 846 participants with an average age 40 (42 percent were female and 75 percent Caucasian). The study examined if differences in prosociality were linked to an individual’s tendency to perceive natural beauty (PNB). The researchers measured their participants’ PNB, agreeableness, empathy, and connectedness to nature. The results showed that participants with high PNB also reported more prosocial behaviours.

Study 2 had two parts: a pilot study to determine more and less beautiful images of nature, and a study that used the images to assess if natural beauty influenced prosociality in the dictator game¹. The pilot study consisted of 28 participants (58 percent female with an average age of 41) who were shown 10 randomly selected slides of more and less beautiful image for six seconds each. The participants then rated the slides. The slides were then sorted into two one-minute slide presentations of either more or less beautiful images of nature. One hundred twenty eight individuals with an average age of 34 (53 percent were women and 75 percent Caucasian) were randomly assigned to view either the more or less beautiful images of nature slide presentations. Participants rated the images after viewing and then completed a questionnaire on positive emotions, the dictator game, and PNB. The results showed that participants who were assigned to the more beautiful images of nature group were more generous in the dictator game and more positive overall. Furthermore, participants who had high PNB were more generous after viewing beautiful images of nature than participants with lower PNB. The authors conclude that viewing images of beautiful nature creates positive emotions, which in turn facilitates greater prosocial behaviour. This effect was more pronounced in participants apt to perceive natural beauty in their daily lives.

In Study 3 the researchers changed the slide presentations to see if different images elicited different responses. Similar to Study 2, a pilot study of 28 participants with an average age of 41 (46 percent were women and 79 percent Caucasian) aided in creating two one-minute slide presentations. The researchers used a different measure than Study 2 to assess prosocial behaviour: the Trust Game². As in Study 2, the authors examined the mediating effects of positive emotions and PNB on prosocial behaviour after viewing beautiful nature. The researchers recruited 112 participants with an average age of 31 (27 percent were female and 72 percent Caucasian). The authors concluded that the results of Study 3 replicated their findings in Study 2: the more beautiful images of nature group exhibited more prosocial behaviour and more positive emotions than the less beautiful images of nature group, and participants with high PNB and in the more beautiful images of nature group had the greatest prosocial behaviour.

Study 4 was also a two-part study where a pilot study of 30 participants with an average age of 39 (63 percent were female and 77 percent Caucasian) assessed more or less beautiful images of plants. The chosen plants were then placed in a lab where 45 participants with an average age of 21 (64 percent were female and 77 percent Caucasian) were randomly assigned to either the more or less beautiful plants group. The participants then completed a positive emotion questionnaire followed by a request to assist in creating origami cranes to show support for those who had suffered in the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in 2011. The results of Study 4 showed that participants in the more beautiful plant group exhibited more prosocial behaviours – i.e. they folded more cranes than participants in the less beautiful plant group. Similar to the results of the other three studies, the authors found that natural beauty elicited more positive emotions and participants with high PNB, and in the more beautiful plant group, exhibited the greatest prosocial behaviour.

Taken as a whole, all four studies show that the positive emotions created by more beautiful images, and an individual’s tendency to perceive natural beauty, contribute dramatically to that individual’s prosociality. It’s as simple as hanging a picture of a beautiful image of nature, placing a beautiful plant in a room, or maybe even creating a beautiful garden.

On a personal note, I question what the participants in this study perceive as “nature.” I hate when articles use dictionary definitions, but I believe it is apropos. Merriam-Webster defines nature as “the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people.” Some, if not all, of the more beautiful images of nature and plants – the authors did not supply images of the plants they used so I’m speculating here – in Zhang’s study have been manipulated or “made” by humans; for example, manicured lawns, genetically modified plants, and suppressed forces of nature such as fire. It’s interesting how the samples provided in the study of more beautiful images of nature were of what looked like nature controlled by humans and the less beautiful images of nature were of nature that looked overgrown and wild. What do these studies say about humans and how we perceive our place in nature?

Rodney Steadman 04 August 2014

Footnotes

¹In this game, participants were informed that they had been paired with an anonymous partner who was also completing the study. Participants were told that they had been randomly assigned to the role of the “Sender.” Each participant was told that they had been given 10 points, each of which would equal an additional 5 cents in their final payout. Participants were then informed that they could give any amount (including zero) to their partner, and that their final compensation would depend on how many points they had remaining. Partici- pants were further told that their partner would have no strategic input into the game’s outcome and that their responses in the game would remain anonymous (all participants received the full compensation in the end). Higher allocation reflected higher levels of generosity (Zhang, 2014, p.66).

²In this game, participants read a cover story in which they were told that they had 30 points (with each point equaling one cent) to play a game with a randomly selected partner who was also completing the survey at the same time. Participants were instructed that they could choose to give a portion of their points to their partner and that their compensation at the end of the study would depend on how many points they had remaining. However many points they allocated to their partner would then be tripled, and their partner would have the opportunity to give back as many points as they would like to the participant (Berg et al., 1995; Piff et al., 2010; Saslow et al., 2013). In actuality, participants were not paired with a partner and thus only completed the allocation portion of the trust game (all participants received the full compensation in the end) (Zhang, 2014, p. 68).

Works Cited

Zhang J, Piff P, Iyer R, Koleva S, & Keltner D (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality Journal of Environmental Psychology, 37, 61-72 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.11.008

Absurd, but True?

Absurd, but True? Photo by Rodney Steadman

Absurd, but True? Photo by Rodney Steadman

Have you heard about “the obesity paradox?” Like all paradoxes, the obesity paradox suggests that something absurd might be true such as obese adults might have a greater chance of surviving some diseases than normal weight adults. According to a 2011 review by Paul McAuley and Steven Blair, a 1982 study by a research team lead by Patrice Degoulet was one of the earliest studies to discover the association between obesity and greater survival in their research on dialysis patients. McAuley and Blair go onto suggest that Luis Gruberg and his research team created the term “obesity paradox” in 2002. Gruberg and his team were looking into short-term and long-term outcomes after percutaneous coronary intervention in patients with coronary artery disease. The researchers discovered, to their surprise, that obese patients had a reduced risk of complications, cardiac death, and one-year mortality. Furthermore, according to a 2014 review by a group of researchers lead by Carl Lavie on obesity and cardiovascular (CV) diseases, a couple of long-term studies suggest that weight loss increases mortality in overweight and obese individuals. Therefore, weight loss may be more of a detriment than a benefit in obese patients with CV diseases. Lavie and his team point to a recent meta-analysis of 97 studies, consisting of approximately 2.9 million participants. The authors of the meta-analysis found that overweight patients with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 30 kg/m2 had six percent lower mortality than patients with a normal BMI (18.5 to 25 kg/m2). The authors also found that when all levels of obesity are taken into consideration, patients with a BMI of ≥ 30 kg/m2 had a significant increase in mortality risk when compared with normal BMI patients. Additionally, Lavie and his team cite research suggesting that higher BMI in younger patients increased their risk of mortality, whereas higher BMI in older patients decreased their risk.

What? This is counter to what we have been told in the media and from health and fitness “experts” about the dangers of being overweight or obese. Could it be that, as I have previously written about in It’s Simple, but it’s Not, obesity is complex? It’s not only complex at the cultural level, but also at the physiological level. Lavie and his team point out that recent research into obesity, fitness, and weight loss is beginning to provide some insight into the obesity paradox.

According to Lavie and his team, there are several potential causes for the obesity paradox in patients with CV diseases, such as undesired weight loss, a lower prevalence of smoking, age, and the BMI (a measure of body fat using height and weight). Lavie and his team point to research demonstrating that the BMI “has a poor diagnostic performance to identify obesity in the general population and also in cohorts with CHD [coronary heart disease].” The authors suggest that this poor performance may account for some of the obesity paradoxes they discuss in their review.

The BMI has become a big problem for some researchers. In 2011, Richard Bergman and his research team set out to develop a more accurate and efficient measure of percent body fat than the BMI. The authors argue that BMI does not accurately measure body fat in individuals with a high level of lean body mass (body weight minus the fat) and some ethnic groups. Furthermore, the BMI can be difficult to calculate in field settings when body weight cannot be accurately measured. Bergman and his team used two large studies to develop and test a new measure of adiposity: the BetaGen study that looked at gestational diabetes mellitus in 1,733 Mexican American participants and the Triglyceride and Cardiovascular Risk in African-Americans (TARA) study with 223 participants. The authors used dual-energy X-ray absorption (DXA), one of the most accurate measures of body fat, to measure the relationship between subject characteristics and adiposity in the groups. The authors found that in the BetaGen group “hip size divided by height to the power of 1.5 [-18], yielded the strongest correlation with DXA-derived %fat estimates.” The team then took their newly developed measure, the body adiposity index or BAI, and applied it to the TARA group and validated their results using DXA analysis. They found that the BAI had similar diagnostic accuracy in the TARA group as in the BetaGen group. Therefore, it accounted for ethnic differences. Bergman and his team also discovered that the relationship between BAI and percent adiposity was the same for men and women, so separate cutoffs were not needed. Furthermore, percent adiposity could be accurately estimated in the field without the use of costly and cumbersome measures of body weight. All that is needed is a simple tape measure. The authors warn that more research is needed to determine if the BAI is a more useful measure than the BMI, and other measures, in predicting health outcomes.

Lavie and his team also looked at research that used other methods of measuring obesity such as waist circumference and body fat to better understand the obesity paradox. In a 2012 study, Lavie and his team were able to show that CHD patients with both low body fat and low lean mass had the poorest survival outcomes, whereas patients with both high lean mass and body fat had the best. Due to these and other studies, the authors suggest that there may be an “overweight paradox,” rather than an obesity paradox.

Another potential source of confounding (an unaccounted for variable that can influence research results) identified by Lavie and his team was fitness. The authors found that body fatness and fitness could reliably predict CV disease risk factors including CV morbidity and mortality. Health related physical fitness, as defined in ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, is “a set of attributes or characteristics that people have or achieve that relates to the ability to perform physical activity.” These characteristics are separated into health- or skill-related components. Lavie and his team focused on the health-related components: cardiovascular endurance, body composition, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility. Although the authors acknowledge that the associations between fitness, fatness, and health remain controversial, they provide research examples that suggest that fitness is not only extremely predictive of CV disease, it “largely negates the adverse effects of body fatness, as well as other traditional CV risk factors, including overweight/obesity, metabolic syndrome/type II diabetes mellitus, and hypertension.” Lavie and his team conclude that fitness may be more important than preventing weight gain when considering long-term health outcomes.

As stated at the beginning of this blog post, weight loss may be more of a detriment than a benefit in obese patients with CV diseases. According to Lavie and his team, using weight loss to improve health outcomes in obese patients is controversial. The controversy is marked by conflicting research. For example, Lavie and his team cite three studies that show that diet, exercise training, and limited weight loss reduce the prevalence of metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes mellitus. However, the authors also cite a recent large study that did not show survival benefits for minimal weight loss in diabetic patients. Additionally, Lavie and his team looked at data from 12 studies that showed purposeful weight reduction improved outcomes or prognosis in obese patients with CV diseases, especially severely obese patients. The authors do recognize that more large-scale weight loss studies are needed to accurately assess the benefits of weight reduction in obese patients. Furthermore, Lavie and his team emphasize that the obesity paradox is usually not associated with morbidly obese (BMI ≥40 kg/m2) patients, which is a major risk factor for the development of CV diseases and is associated with poor prognosis if a patient develops CV diseases.

How the mighty have fallen: the BMI is an unreliable measure of body fat, being overweight with high lean body mass might be more healthy than normal weight with low mean body mass, and being overweight and fit might provide a person with the best health outcomes. How the health and fitness world will shudder to its core.

Rodney Steadman 15 July 2014

Works Cited

American College of Sports Medicine. (2013). ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Bergman R, Stefanovski D, Buchanan T, Sumner A, Reynolds J, Sebring N, Xiang A, & Watanabe R (2011). A Better Index of Body Adiposity Obesity, 19 (5), 1083-1089 DOI: 10.1038/oby.2011.38

Degoulet P, Legrain M, Réach I, Aimé F, Devriés C, Rojas P, & Jacobs C (1982). Mortality risk factors in patients treated by chronic hemodialysis. Report of the Diaphane collaborative study. Nephron, 31 (2), 103-10 PMID: 7121651

Gruberg L, Weissman N, Waksman R, Fuchs S, Deible R, Pinnow E, Ahmed L, Kent K, Pichard A, Suddath W, Satler L, & Lindsay J (2002). The impact of obesity on the short-term andlong-term outcomes after percutaneous coronary intervention: the obesity paradox? Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 39 (4), 578-584 DOI: 10.1016/S0735-1097(01)01802-2

Lavie C, McAuley P, Church T, Milani R, & Blair S (2014). Obesity and Cardiovascular Diseases Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 63 (14), 1345-1354 DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2014.01.022

Lavie C, De Schutter A, Patel D, Romero-Corral A, Artham S, & Milani R (2012). Body Composition and Survival in Stable Coronary Heart Disease Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 60 (15), 1374-1380 DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2012.05.037

McAuley P, & Blair S (2011). Obesity paradoxes Journal of Sports Sciences, 29 (8), 773-782 DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2011.553965

Active Aging: Hiking, Health, and Healing

Powderface Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

Powderface Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

The following is an excerpt from an article I published in Anthropology & Aging Quarterly (2013) on the illness and recovery experiences and perceptions of physically active middle aged and older adults participating in hiking groups.

 Chloé’s Story

In early October of 2010, R (lead author) arrived in a parking lot at 6:30 am to meet the group of middle-aged and older adult hiking enthusiasts he had been hiking with once a week since August. All the hikes were located in provincial or national parks in the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Canada. On this outing, R was introduced to a new hiking group member, Chloé[1]. Her story touched on common themes identified in this ethnographic study and is illustrative of a collective experience. The following is R’s journal entry from that day:

It was a very large group today with 26 people. The large number of people, according to one of the hikers, was due to an optimistic forecast of sunny and warm weather, in contrast to the rain and snow we’ve had for the past couple of weeks. Also, the hike did not have much in the way of elevation gain or distance; therefore, it was not excessively strenuous for the physically compromised and promised contrasting views of the mountains to the west and open prairie to the east.

Chloé was a 58-year-old retired teacher and cancer survivor. A few years ago, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to be as proactive as possible and discovered research suggesting that exercise, specifically heavy aerobic exercise, could prevent cancer from returning. She acted quickly and started to walk every morning for at least one hour, searching out challenging, hilly terrain.

Chloé believed that her active lifestyle contributed to her healing process; the walks eased some of the negative side effects of chemotherapy and improved her overall sense of wellbeing. It also aided in maintaining a healthy body weight vital, she believed, to her recovery from six cancer related surgeries. She did take painkillers after her first surgery – her nurse was a former student and she followed her advice – but suffered “terrible side effects.” She decided not to take the painkillers after her next and consecutive surgeries and discovered that she did not experience a lot of pain and healed quickly. Chloé had met other cancer patients who were inactive and overweight and found that they had difficulties healing. She attributed her lack of pain and quick healing to her vigorous morning walks.

Chloé felt lucky:

“[I]t came at a nice time, if you can have a nice time for cancer [laughs]. My son was in grade 12…. So that six months that I was off, happened to be his last semester at school. He’d be finished at two. He would come home every day and we would cook supper together. So, that was five months of extra time that I’d never ever would’ve had otherwise. He also went for walks with me [laughs].”

Chloé’s story is thick with emotion. She was unwilling to allow her sickness to provide the narrative for her treatment and healing. Chloé discovered that the simple act of walking in a natural setting helped her manage her cancer, bond with her family, and opened her up to future adventures and experiences.

Read the full article >> Active Aging: Hiking, Health, and Healing

[1] This is a pseudonym, as will be the case with all names of individuals and places referenced in this article.

Rodney Steadman, Candace IJ Nykiforuk, and Helen Vallianatos (2013). Active Aging: Hiking, Health, and Healing Anthropology & Aging Quarterly, 34 (2), 87-99

Hominin

Hominin. Photo by Rodney Steadman

Hominin. Photo by Rodney Steadman

How does hominin evolution impact our daily lives – what the hell is a hominin? We are hominins. Hominoids are the branch of primates that includes all the past and present species of lesser and great apes. Hominins are all the species in the Homo sapiens’ lineage after the split with a common chimpanzee and bonobo ancestor between 6 and 7 million years ago (mya). For a summary of hominin evolution, see Overview of Hominin Evolution by The Nature Education Knowledge Project.

So, how does hominin evolution impact our daily lives – what the hell makes Homo sapiens so different from other primates? The number of people who don’t know what separates Homo sapiens (modern humans) from chimpanzees and bonobos (our closest relatives) always shocks me. Here are some hints: teeth, brain, and walking upright. There are a lot of physiological differences between chimpanzees and humans, but the big differences are skull shape and size for protecting the brain and chewing, and the musculoskeletal features associated with bipedal locomotion (walking upright on two legs). Over time, parts of the skull became smaller to support smaller teeth due to changes in diet; parts of the skull became bigger to support a bigger brain; and the musculoskeletal system changed to support bipedal locomotion instead of quadrupedal (walking on all fours). These are the major anatomical changes that paleoanthropologists look for when classifying species in the hominin lineage. It’s difficult work because the remains of some species are extremely sparse like the partial femur of Orrorin tugenensis. However, this femur fragment provided enough information to suggest that this hominin relative from approximately 6 mya was walking upright.

Back in 2002, a research team led by Martin Pickford took a very close look at the Orrorin tugenensis’ femur. Pickford’s team discovered that the femur had the shape, density, and wear patterns associated with walking upright. Before this discovery, upright walking was thought to have occurred around 4 mya. Pickford’s discovery pushed that date back to 6 mya; there is speculation that upright walking might even be older. We’ve been walking for a very long time.

So, without interruption, how does hominin evolution impact our daily lives? It impacts our daily lives by setting us up for success or failure, in the Darwinian sense. A recent hypothesis by David Raichlen and Gene Alexander from the University of Arizona suggest that the long human lifespan, when compared to other primates, is a result of aerobic physical activity in response to the apolipoprotein E (APOE) ε4 allele. The researchers gathered evidence from neuroscience, anthropology, and brain-imaging research to develop their hypothesis. The APOE ε4 allele, found in 15 percent of the population, has been linked to increased cholesterol levels, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and mortality. The APOE protein is found in plasma and the central nervous system and aids in regulating cholesterol, lipid metabolism, and repairing cells. According to Raichlen and Alexander, recent research suggests that physical activity mediates the ε4 allele’s potentially harmful effects.

Raichlen and Alexander propose that an increase in physical activity around 1.8 mya also increased our ancestors’ chances of survival. This time period coincides with the emergence of Homo erectus. The authors suggest that H. erectus invested heavily in hunting and gathering for survival, which requires a high level of aerobic endurance. Raichlen and Alexander point to paleoanthropological reconstructions of earlier hominin species to show that their behaviour was more ape-like and sedentary before H. erectus. Therefore, a high level of aerobic endurance was a major contributing factor to hunting and gathering success, which, in turn, became a desirable trait for genetic success and also reduced the potentially harmful effects of the APOE ε4 allele. Furthermore, by reducing the potentially harmful effects of the APOE ε4 allele, Raichlen and Alexander suggest that the increase in aerobic endurance also contributed to an increase in lifespan. The authors looked at research that found that H. erectus had an estimated lifespan of 60 years. This is 20 to 30 years longer than earlier species. However, the authors recommend caution when estimating age from the fossil record due to the processes acting on hominin remains of this antiquity.

Around 200 kya APOE ε2 and ε3 alleles appear in the human genome. Carriers of these alleles have lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and mortality. In modern humans, these alleles are found in six percent (ε2 allele) and 78 percent (ε3 allele) of the population. Raichlen and Alexander argue that this recent change in the human genome would have contributed to further lifespan increases seen in Upper Paleolithic and modern human populations. The authors conclude that, “Without a continued lifestyle of high physical activity, regions of the world where the ε4 allele remains highly prevalent (e.g., equatorial Africa with ε4 frequencies approaching 50%) may experience a substantial increase in CAD [coronary artery disease], AD [Alzheimer’s disease], and dementia with the increasing globalization of sedentary lifestyles.”

Hominin evolution impacts our daily lives by setting us up for success or failure. Our bodies are a direct result of natural selection and adaptation: bipeds who favour aerobic endurance. We have adapted to live healthy long lives as long as we are active on a daily basis. When we go against millions of years of successful adaptations by adopting sedentary lifestyles, we increase our susceptibility to a wide range of diseases. So, show some respect for your hominin ancestors and move your body.

Rodney Steadman 11 June 2014

Works Cited

Pickford M, Senut B, Gommery D, & Treil J (2002). Bipedalism in Orrorin tugenensis revealed by its femora Comptes Rendus Palevol, 1 (4), 191-203 DOI: 10.1016/S1631-0683(02)00028-3

Raichlen D, & Alexander G (2014). Exercise, APOE genotype, and the evolution of the human lifespan Trends in Neurosciences, 37 (5), 247-255 DOI: 10.1016/j.tins.2014.03.001