The Science of Gratitude (or Why It’s So Healthy to Say Thanks)

When I was a kid, my parents taught me what they call “magic words.” This includes saying please, I’m sorry, and most importantly, thank you. Vague memories of preschool also have a similar lesson; I remember my playmates and I practicing that habit as encouraged by our awesome teacher Mrs. Silverstone. When Nick lets you borrow his toy truck, say thank you. When Amy shares her fruit bites, say thank you. When Karl and Jessica make you join in their game involving color blocks, say thank you.

I myself don’t have a kid yet, but I’m pretty sure I’ll definitely teach my son or daughter the same thing. Especially after reading stuff here and there proving that something like it really exists — the science of gratitude.

In a research study involving around 300 adults who sought psychological counselling services at a university, it has been found that feelings of gratitude do not only help well-adjusted individuals, but also those who had mental health concerns. The participants — most of whom reported clinically low levels of mental health, and struggled with depression and anxiety — were divided into three groups. Although all three groups received counselling services, Group 1 was additionally asked to write one letter of gratitude every week. Group 2 was asked to write about their deepest negative thoughts and feelings. Group 3 didn’t do any writing.

Those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after the writing exercise ended. The researchers then decided to delve into the more physical science of gratitude  and found out that their gratitude exercise had actual lasting effects on the brain. Using an fMRI scanner to analyze how the participants’ brains were processing information, the researchers asked Group 1 (gratitude letter writers) and Group 3 (people who didn’t write) to do “pay-it-forward” tasks. They were to be given money by a benefactor, and they can decide how much of it they were going to give back to a cause of their choice.

The researchers found out that across participants, the brain activity of people who felt grateful and the brain activity of people who felt mostly guilty and obligated to do the task were very distinct. When grateful people donated more, their medial prefrontal cortex became more sensitive. This is a part of the brain associated with learning and decision-making. Interestingly, this higher sensitivity was also more identified in the group who were gratitude letter writers in the previous experiment.

Other studies involving the science of gratitude also yielded fascinating results. It has been linked to better quality of sleep, as well as decreased blood pressure. And in seeming accordance with the neurological findings of the study I described a while ago, gratitude has been linked to a boost in willpower and impulse control, helping people make better decisions like avoiding overeating, exercising more and attending regular checkups.

So don’t be afraid to need help. What’s important is to remember to feel grateful and to express it to the people who are there for you.

If you want to read more about the science of gratitude, here’s a link to various research projects. If you want to participate in a cause that encourages people to get help and feel grateful, check out the BeepBeep Nation App. It provides a platform for people to request for the help they need (called requestors) and for other people to respond (called helpers).

Once the task is done, requestors may give a gratitude tip to their helpers. However, it’s not mandatory, because as we have seen scientifically, gratitude is so much more real if it’s willingly felt and reciprocated. Of course, requestors themselves may also want to be helpers to somebody else if they want to pay it forward. Visit this article to know more about BeepBeep Nation’s take on motivation and gratitude.

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The Science of Compassion (or Why It’s Really Human to Help Out)

Everyday, a plethora of stories arise on the Internet. A huge part of the content is probably fun, entertaining, and/or informational. Some, however, tell the tragedy of the world we live in. And if you read the news, you know that it’s so real. Other stories tell how people address that tragedy and do their share in alleviating the suffering of their fellow human beings. In our blog, we frequently showcase this kind of content — stories of people with exemplary acts of devotion and compassion or even people who do random little acts of kindness in their everyday lives.

Some people who enjoy helping out tend to do so for religious or spiritual reasons. And whether it’s Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or others, the religions of the world do have discourses of compassion. Though I myself have always been curious about a different but equally important aspect of this human tendency: is there a science behind this?

I’m glad to report: yep, there is. A study done by experimental social psychologists tested how the experience of compassion affected people’s behavior. First, participants were told that they were supposedly part of an experiment about mathematical ability and taste perception. Ostensibly, these were the instructions: participants were supposed to solve as much as they can of 20 math problems, in which they would receive 50 cents for each problem they solved correctly. After being checked and getting paid, they would proceed to the taste perception phase. Here, participants were asked to prepare taste samples for each other by pouring extra-hot hot sauce.

It seems absurd, but here’s the catch. The experimenters hired confederates to pretend to be fake participants. Let’s call the first one Dan and the second Hannah. In one version of the experiment, Dan was asked to cheat badly and very obviously on the math problems, so that the real participants would see. Afterwards, in the taste perception phase, the experimenters noticed that the real participants poured bigger servings of hot sauce to Dan the Cheater. But doesn’t this show revenge instead of compassion?

Well, in another version, Dan the Cheater was asked to do the same thing but now Hannah was gonna play a role. Before the taste perception phase, Hannah would cry and the experimenters would ask why. She’d say she recently found out about her brother’s terminal illness. Increasingly emotional, Hannah asked to be excused from the experiment. In this version, even though the participants still witnessed Dan cheating, they did not pour bigger amounts of hot sauce in the taste perception phase.

What does this show? First, the compassion that the participants felt predicted how much hot sauce they were going to give to another person. And second, more importantly, the compassion that people feel towards one person can predict how they will act towards others.

This experiment is only one of many studies that are now delving into the idea and reality of compassion. Recently, a conference has even been held to discuss it, joined by representatives from different fields such as evolutionary psychologists, clinical psychologists who deal with children suffering from trauma, charity owners who conduct social and emotional skills workshops for the youth, and others.

Using brain scans, one doctor even explained how different parts of the brain are activated when people are in a “compassionate state” or “non-compassionate state.” So interestingly enough, compassion actually seems to have physiological, neurological effects.

But now here’s the thing. My personal epiphany, if you will. We can participate in all these discussions, conduct our own experiments if we’re in the field, compile all these data, but maybe it’ll be a bit more exciting to see for ourselves. There’s all this science about compassion, we know that. But somehow I think the reality of compassion can’t be proven by numbers. Tall order but maybe here’s what we can do: go out there, help people out, and prove it for ourselves.

If you are interested in reading more scientific information about kindness or compassion, here’s a list of various quantitative and qualitative studies about the topic. Then again, if you are more keen to join the action, check out the BeepBeep Nation app and this fun video on how to get started. You might be surprised at the many ways you’ll see how compassion exists.

 

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Organic Matter Found on Mars — Two NASA Studies

For many decades, the idea of life outside Earth has intrigued many of us, but most especially scientists, astronomers, and well, sci-fi writers. For them and other Mars enthusiasts (a.k.a. people who eagerly believe that Mars can harbor life), the recent year has shown us great updates. Snow has been discovered in the planet. Soil made to simulate the planet’s conditions has grown earthworms.

Due to updates like these, some organizations are being inspired to plan ahead for life on Mars. MIT designed dome forests that will adapt to the environment there. The UAE is building a Mars-like metropolis as well, in preparation for a future in that planet. And it looks like they are bound to be more inspired as NASA releases the results of two new major studies about the Red Planet in the journal Science.

The first study centers on methane, a simple organic molecule that forms the basis for natural gas. Biological sources produce most of the methane on Earth, so researchers suspected that methane on Mars could point them towards biological sources — life! — on Mars.

Astronomers were already detecting methane in Mars as far back as 2003, but they first confirmed its presence there in 2015. After analyzing years worth of data, they realized that the methane was probably coming from pockets of ice. When these ice pockets melt during “summer” in Mars, methane slips out and methane levels go higher. Scientists say the seasonal presence of methane might clue us in on how there used to be life in the Red Planet, though the current study is still inconclusive about that.

The next study, however, also implies the idea of ancient life, as scientists find evidence of organic matter in soil that came from Mars.

In the second study, [NASA’s Curiosity rover] collected soil samples from two spots in Gale crater estimated to be about three billion years old. When Curiosity heated them up, the researchers recognized several organic molecules commonly found in Earth’s organic-rich sedimentary rock.

The discovery of methane in the Martian atmosphere and organic matter on Martian soil suggests interesting similarities between that planet and ours. Thus, it further spurs the question of life on Mars. And since the Curiosity rover is still roving around and looking for signs, one can only hope its next breakthrough will finally answer that question.

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Newfound Ocean Zone Home to 100 Species

Just a while ago, a previously unexplored region of the Indian Ocean gave us more than 11 new species to look forward to reading about, including crustaceans with fascinating appearances and others. This is an amazing breakthrough for marine biology. But accomplishments in the field just seem to keep coming, as scientists from Oxford University travel Bermudian waters to discover a new area.

But that’s not yet the amazing part — the newfound ocean zone they call Rariphotic Zone (or rare light zone) seems to be home to 100 previously unknown species as well.

[M]ore than 100 new species were discovered including tanaids – minute crustaceans – dozens of new algae species and black wire coral that stand up to two metres high . . . The survey team spent hundreds of hours underwater, either scuba diving or using submersibles and remote operated vehicles which can reach depths of 6,500 feet (2,000m).

The team of marine biologists also found a huge algal forest on an underwater mountain about 15 miles from the Bermudian coast. Gardens of corals populated by urchins, eels, crabs, fish, and other creatures were also discovered to exist on this mountain’s slopes. For reference, the world has a total of around 100,000 underwater mountains, with only 50 that have been intimately explored by scientists.

Alex Rogers, Professor of Conservation Biology at Oxford University and scientific director of Nekton — the British charity which organized the ocean exploration trip — has a rightful opinion. The discovery of an entirely new ocean zone forwards the idea that there is far more diversity to look into. We may not have even laid eyes on so many ocean species.

“The average depth of the ocean is 4,200m. If life in the shallower regions of the deep sea is so poorly documented it undermines confidence in our existing understanding of how the patterns of life change with depth,” he added.

“[This is] evidence of how little we know and how important it is to document this unknown frontier to ensure that its future is protected”.

What he’s saying is very significant. Huge actions towards marine conservation are happening, such as Australia’s 500 million dollar pledge to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. But if we really want to protect the oceans and marine life, first we need to know in detail what we are protecting. And there is so much left to know.

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Man Builds Free Prosthetics For Kids

We all know prosthetics don’t make for an affordable buy. They start at roughly $1,500 for animals, which means devices for humans are expectedly high-priced. To ease the physical and financial burden on young amputees, Stephen Davis builds them prosthetics — for free!

“We build them in a range of colors, whatever the child needs,” Designs he’s created have included Iron Man, Lego, and Spider-Man themes. He’s even built glow-in-the-dark arms.

When Davis posted online about the lack of options for people who needed prosthetics, an e-NABLE volunteer named Drew Murray saw his frustrations and together, they ended up building Team UnLimbited. The team uses a 3D printer to create the free prosthetics.

While the loss of a limb is definitely not cool, these funky prosthetic limbs sure seem to be. Davis, born without a left hand, covers the costs of printing himself, along with donations received by Team UnLimbited. He expects nothing in return (except maybe a sobbing parent).

“Our arms are specifically designed to stand out [and] show off a child’s personality,” Stephen [said] . . . They are also made to be easily usable and lightweight.

Did I mention his prosthetic template is free to use online? He may be modest, but Davis is nothing short of a miracle worker.

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Why the Leaning Tower of Pisa is Incredibly Resilient

As travellers, we often forget to educate ourselves about the places we visit beyond the usual trivia. Our sources often include the tour guide mumbling facts every time the bus stops or last-minute Google searches before the tour starts. This is why a high-quality map detailing the origins of all the country names in the world should be interesting and helpful to all of us who are even the least bit keen to travel. Well, it should be fascinating to read up on stuff like this even before or without actually travelling, right?

Today’s wave of info has to do with romance, the pope, empires and emperors, pizza and pasta. I’m kidding. But close enough. If you were ever an 8-year-old who obsessively read about the architecture of the world in children’s encyclopedia (like me) or if you ever spent your honeymoon in Italy (unlike me, I’m single), of course you must have heard about the Leaning Tower of Pisa and its secrets — secrets that have finally been unlocked by a team of engineers.

[They] finally solved the mystery of how the seemingly unstable Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy has managed to stay standing for more than six hundred years, even in a seismically active region. A team led by Roma Tre University concluded that the tower’s height of 183 feet, the soft soil in which it stands, and the structural strength of the its marble all contribute to its remarkable resilience. This phenomenon is known as dynamic soil-structure interaction (DSSI).

The Leaning Tower of Pisa began construction in the 12th century. Even then, engineers seemed to understand how the soil mix of the area contributed to the leaning, which reportedly started when the third storey was being built. This truth has again been recently uncovered.

The Roma Tre University researchers further developed previous studies by analyzing structural and seismic data records over time, the material composition of the tower (and its physical, chemical, and mechanical properties), as well as the rock and soil itself in the area. Their findings say that frequent and powerful earthquakes in the city didn’t damage the Leaning Tower of Pisa because of the insulation caused by the DDSI.

“Ironically, the very same soil that caused the leaning instability and brought the Tower to the verge of collapse, can be credited for helping it survive these seismic events,” said University of Bristol researcher George Mylonakis in a statement.

If people are equal to buildings or structures, then I suppose this is the perfect time to say: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, eh?

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Black Butterflies Inspire More Efficient Solar Panels

When it comes to moving forward with technology, we tend to fall back on nature. After all, in most ways, science is organic. If slugs can inspire a medical glue that will ease the difficulties of surgery, other animals can do the same. To improve on solar panels, researchers are drawing ideas from black butterflies.

The rose butterfly is native to Southeast Asia. Because it is cold-blooded and needs sunlight to fly, its black wings have evolved to be very good at absorbing energy.

Normally, solar panels are made with thick solar cells. Thin film solar cells have a lot of potential, but are not as productive. The black butterflies absorb heat perfectly because their wings are covered in holes. These holes effectively scatter light.

“I think what’s interesting is the excellent approach of looking at the underlying physiological concepts and then taking these concepts and emulating them in a structure that doesn’t look quite look like how a butterfly looks but does the same physics,” says Mathias Kolle, a professor of engineering.

The research has since received proper funding and, hopefully, will flutter along seamlessly.

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Endoscope Camera Can See Through Human Body

Technology is painting a bright and promising future for the medical industry. If smart brain implants and advanced computer systems are no longer just ideas, other new discoveries could be well within our reach. This includes an endoscope camera  that can see through the human body better than an x-ray.

Thanks to thousands of integrated photon detectors inside the camera, the device can detect individual particles of light being beamed through human tissue.

By reconciling light signals that come directly to the camera with scattered photons… the device is able to determine where the light-emitting endoscope is placed inside the body.

The technique, called ballistic imaging, is highly accurate and cheaper than resorting to a conventional x-ray. The device is also low-risk and a lot less scary than it sounds.

“The ability to see a device’s location is crucial for many applications in healthcare, as we move forwards with minimally invasive approaches to treating disease.”

There isn’t yet word on when the device will be available to use commercially. However, considering the pace of current technological developments, I can’t assume it’ll take much longer.

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Concrete Can Withstand High Magnitude Earthquakes

If a bamboo building can withstand several sorts of natural disasters, surely, any other structure can. Unfortunately, it isn’t really the case — until, maybe, now. Researchers at the University of British Columbia are testing a type of concrete that can resist high magnitude earthquakes.

Researchers at . . . UBC have created a fiber-reinforced concrete called eco-friendly ductile cementitious composite (EDCC), that can withstand high seismic activity. The engineered material combines “cement with polymer-based fibers, fly ash and other industrial additives,” according to a university press release.

Simply adding a 10-millimeter layer of the material to existing walls is enough to make it practically impenetrable. But the strength to withstand high magnitude earthquakes — up to a magnitude 9.0! — isn’t the only fantastic feature of the material. It is also linked to sustainability efforts. Considering that normal concrete contributes to nearly 7% of carbon emissions, using mostly fly ash or a coal combustion byproduct definitely earns EDCC points. Hopefully, it will lessen the damages caused by the cement industry to the environment.

“This UBC-developed technology has far-reaching impact and could save the lives of not only British Columbians, but citizens throughout the world,” said Melanie Mark, the minister of advanced education, skills and training in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant. “The earthquake-resistant concrete is a great example of how applied research at our public universities is developing the next generation of agents of change.”

In the near future, EDCC will also be used for strengthening home structures and blast-resistant buildings. A proud salute to public universities making a difference!

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Lego Collection Pays Tribute To Female Space Heroes

Lego’s transition into bio-plastics is probably one of their greatest achievements to date. Having said that, the company has inspired children (and adults!) to think big for decades. Its most recent collection honors the women of NASA, validating that success doesn’t rely on gender.

“In all realms of science, engineering, and technology, pioneering women have historically been underappreciated for their often groundbreaking work,”[MIT News Deputy Editor and Lecturer Maia Weinstock who proposed the idea] said in a statement.

This is truly a big move, considering how the usual Lego collection depicts fantastical universes like Star Wars or Minecraft. Not only is the company pandering to the interests of young girls now, they are doing so with an inspirational agenda.

The set’s figures include Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel to space, and Margaret Hamilton, who developed software for the Apollo spacecraft. It will also come with miniatures of the Hubble Telescope and Space Shuttle, among other tools. Lego hopes to encourage more girls to explore various branches of science.

[Weinstock added,] “We have also seen that when girls and women are given more encouragement in the STEM fields, they become more likely to pursue careers in these areas.”

Remember, girls — science is, of course, also for you. And forget “nerdy.” Microscopes and bunsen burners are the new “cool.”

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