Upbeat music can sweeten tough exercise

New research coming out of UBC’s Okanagan campus demonstrates that upbeat music can make a rigorous workout seem less tough. Even for people who are insufficiently active.

Matthew Stork is a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences. He recently published a study examining how the right music can help less-active people get more out of their workout — and enjoy it more.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) — brief, repeated bouts of intense exercise separated by periods of rest — has been shown to improve physical health over several weeks of training. But, cautions Stork, it can be perceived as gruelling for many people, especially those who are less active.

“While HIIT is time-efficient and can elicit meaningful health benefits among adults who are insufficiently active, one major drawback is that people may find it to be unpleasant. As a result, this has the potential to discourage continued participation,” he says.

Previous research led by Stork and UBC Okanagan’s Kathleen Martin Ginis has examined the effects of music during HIIT with recreationally-active people. Their latest study tested the effects of music with participants who were insufficiently-active, used a more rigorous music selection process and implemented a HIIT regimen that is more practical for less-active adults.

The study took place at Brunel University London and Stork worked with Professor Costas Karageorghis, a researcher who studies the effects music has on sport and exercise. First, Stork gathered a panel of British adults to rate the motivational qualities of 16 fast-tempo songs. The three songs with the highest motivational ratings were used for the study.

“Music is typically used as a dissociative strategy. This means that it can draw your attention away from the body’s physiological responses to exercise such as increased heart rate or sore muscles,” says Stork. “But with high-intensity exercise, it seems that music is most effective when it has a fast tempo and is highly motivational.”

Next, a separate group of 24 participants completed what has been referred to as the ‘one-minute workout’ — three 20-second all-out sprints, totaling 60 seconds of hard work. A short rest separated the sprints, for a total exercise period of 10 minutes including a warm-up and cool-down. Participants completed these HIIT sessions under three different conditions — with motivational music, no audio or a podcast that was devoid of music.

Participants reported greater enjoyment of HIIT. They also exhibited elevated heart rates and peak power in the session with music compared to the no-audio and podcast sessions.

“The more I look into this, the more I am surprised,” he says. “We believed that motivational music would help people enjoy the exercise more, but we were surprised about the elevated heart rate. That was a novel finding.”

Stork believes the elevated heart rates may be explained by a phenomenon called ‘entrainment.’

“Humans have an innate tendency to alter the frequency of their biological rhythms toward that of musical rhythms. In this case, the fast-tempo music may have increased people’s heart rate during the exercise. It’s incredible how powerful music can be.”

Stork’s research indicates that for people who are deemed insufficiently active, music can not only help them work harder physically during HIIT but it can also help them enjoy HIIT more. And because motivational music has the power to enhance people’s HIIT workouts, it may ultimately give people an extra boost to try HIIT again in the future.

“Music can be a practical strategy to help insufficiently active people get more out of their HIIT workouts and may even encourage continued participation.”

The study was published this week in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Stork received financial support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research over the course of this project.

Lifelong obesity linked to physical difficulties aged 50

People who are obese from childhood through to middle age are more than twice as likely to have difficulty with daily tasks such as lifting, climbing stairs and carrying shopping by the time they are 50, a new UCL study has found.

The study, published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology, found that those who became obese in early life had more than double the risk of difficulties with such tasks than those who were never obese.

Longer duration of obesity had the most impact on risk, the study found, with those becoming obese in middle age having a smaller increase in risk. For example, men who became obese between the ages of 45 and 50 faced an increase in risk of about 50%, while for women the risk increase was 78%. The authors suggested this was likely because people who were obese for longer were also more likely to have a higher BMI by the age of 50.

Dr Nina Rogers (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health), lead author of the study, said: “The prevalence of obesity at younger ages is increasing. Since obesity in childhood often tracks into adulthood, it is likely that more people will spend increasing periods of their life living with obesity.

“Our study therefore emphasises the importance of preventing and delaying the onset of obesity in order to mitigate the risk of poor physical functioning in middle age.”

The researchers analysed data from 8,674 participants from the 1958 National Child Development Study, a birth cohort study that has followed thousands of people from when they were born in 1958 through to midlife.

The study found that obesity at any age in adulthood was associated with greater risk of poor physical functioning at age 50. For example, compared to a woman of average height (1.62cm) and weight at 23 years, an 8kg higher weight was associated with a 32% elevated risk of poor physical functioning at the age of 50.

Physical functioning was assessed with a validated questionnaire that asked participants how able they were to do the physical tasks of daily living such as carrying shopping, bending, kneeling, climbing up stairs and walking moderate distances. The most limited 10 per cent of respondents in each gender were classed as having poor physical functioning.

Half of the participants classified as having poor physical functioning reported that they had trouble bending, kneeling or stooping and just over a quarter had difficulty bathing or dressing.

The authors said that being able to carry out everyday physical tasks, such as those examined, was important as it enabled people to live independently, work or volunteer for longer, and engage more with friends, family and the community around them.

Dr Pinto Pereira (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health), senior author of the study, said: “Adults need to be able to perform the physical tasks of daily living in order to live independently and this is particularly important in the context of an ageing population. Examining physical functioning in middle age is crucial because there may be scope to intervene to delay or possibly reverse poor physical functioning before older ages when problems may be harder to alter.”

The work was supported by the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health Policy Research Programme through the Public Health Research Consortium (PHRC).

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How information is like snacks, money, and drugs — to your brain

Can’t stop checking your phone, even when you’re not expecting any important messages? Blame your brain.

A new study by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business has found that information acts on the brain’s dopamine-producing reward system in the same way as money or food.

“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” said Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu, a neuroeconomist whose research employs functional magnetic imaging (fMRI), psychological theory, economic modeling, and machine learning. “And just as our brains like empty calories from junk food, they can overvalue information that makes us feel good but may not be useful — what some may call idle curiosity.”

The paper, “Common neural code for reward and information value,” was published this month by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Authored by Hsu and graduate student Kenji Kobayashi, now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, it demonstrates that the brain converts information into same common scale as it does for money. It also lays the groundwork for unraveling the neuroscience behind how we consume information — and perhaps even digital addiction.

“We were able to demonstrate for the first time the existence of a common neural code for information and money, which opens the door to a number of exciting questions about how people consume, and sometimes over-consume, information,” Hsu said.

The paper is rooted in the study of curiosity and what it looks like inside the brain. While economists have tended to view curiosity as a means to an end, valuable when it can help us get information to gain an edge in making decisions, psychologists have long seen curiosity as an innate motivation that can spur actions by itself. For example, sports fans might check the odds on a game even if they have no intention of ever betting.

Sometimes, we want to know something, just to know.

“Our study tried to answer two questions. First, can we reconcile the economic and psychological views of curiosity, or why do people seek information? Second, what does curiosity look like inside the brain?” Hsu said.

To understand more about the neuroscience of curiosity, the researchers scanned the brains of people while they played a gambling game. Each participant was presented with a series of lotteries and needed to decide how much they were willing to pay to find out more about the odds of winning. In some lotteries, the information was valuable — for example, when what seemed like a longshot was revealed to be a sure thing. In other cases, the information wasn’t worth much, such as when little was at stake.

For the most part, the study subjects made rational choices based on the economic value of the information (i.e., how much money it could help them win). But that didn’t explain all their choices: People tended to over-value information in general, and particularly in higher-valued lotteries. It appeared that the higher stakes increased people’s curiosity in the information, even when the information had no effect on their decisions.

The researchers determined that this behavior could only be explained by a model that captured both economic and psychological motives for seeking information. People acquired information based not only on its actual benefit, but also on the anticipation of its benefit, whether or not it had use.

Hsu said that’s akin to wanting to know whether we received a great job offer, even if we have no intention of taking it. “Anticipation serves to amplify how good or bad something seems, and the anticipation of a more pleasurable reward makes the information appear even more valuable,” he said.

How does the brain respond to information? Analyzing the fMRI scans, the researchers found that the information about the games’ odds activated the regions of the brain specifically known to be involved in valuation (the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex or VMPFC), which are the same dopamine-producing reward areas of the brain activated by food, money, and many drugs. This was the case whether the information was useful, and changed the person’s original decision, or not.

Next, the researchers were able to determine that the brain uses the same neural code for information about the lottery odds as it does for valuation or money by using a machine learning technique (called support vector regression). That allowed them to look at the neural code for how the brain responds to varying amounts of money, and then ask if the same code can be used to predict how much a person will pay for information. It can.

In other words, just as we can convert such disparate things as a painting, a steak dinner, and a vacation into a dollar value, the brain converts curiosity about information into the same common code it uses for money and other concrete rewards, Hsu said.

“We can look into the brain and tell how much someone wants a piece of information, and then translate that brain activity into monetary amounts,” he said.

While the research does not directly address overconsumption of digital information, the fact that information engages the brain’s reward system is a necessary condition for the addiction cycle, he said. And it explains why we find those alerts saying we’ve been tagged in a photo so irresistible.

“The way our brains respond to the anticipation of a pleasurable reward is an important reason why people are susceptible to clickbait,” he said. “Just like junk food, this might be a situation where previously adaptive mechanisms get exploited now that we have unprecedented access to novel curiosities.”

Helping Children Cope: Tips for Talking About Tragedy

When a tragedy—such as a natural disaster, mass shooting, or terrorist attack—occurs, it can be hard to talk to your child about what happened. How do you explain it? How much will he or she understand? Find out how to start the conversation and what you can do to help your child cope.

Do I need to talk to my child about a tragedy?

Talking to your child about a tragedy can help him or her understand what’s happened, feel safe, and begin to cope. If you don’t speak to your child about a tragedy, there’s a chance that he or she might hear about it elsewhere.

How do I start a conversation with my child about a tragedy?

Take time to think about what you want to say. If possible, choose a time when your child is most likely to want to talk, such as before dinner. Ask your child what he or she already knows about the tragedy—and what questions or concerns he or she might have. Let your child’s answers guide your discussion.

How do I explain the tragedy to my child?

Tell the truth. Focus on the basics, and avoid sharing unnecessary details. Don’t exaggerate or speculate about what might happen. Avoid dwelling on the scale or scope of the tragedy.

Listen closely to your child for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears. Provide accurate information. Share your own thoughts and remind your child that you’re there for him or her. Reassure your child that what happened isn’t his or her fault.

Your child’s age will affect how he or she processes information about a tragedy. Consider these tips:

  • Preschool children. Get down to your child’s eye level. Speak in a calm and gentle voice using words your child understands. Explain what happened and how it might affect your child. For example, after a severe storm, you might say that a tree fell on electrical wires and now the lights don’t work. Share steps that are being taken to keep your child safe and give hugs.
  • Elementary and early middle school children. Children in this age range might have more questions about whether they’re truly safe. They might need help separating fantasy from reality.
  • Upper middle school and high school children. Older children will want more information about the tragedy and recovery efforts. They’re more likely to have strong opinions about the causes, as well as suggestions about how to prevent future tragedies, and a desire to help those affected.

How might my child react?

After a tragic event, your child might experience a range of emotions, including fear, shock, anger, anxiety, and grief. Your child’s age will affect how he or she handles the stress of a tragedy. For example:

  • Preschool children. Children in this age range might have trouble adjusting to change or loss. They might become clingy or mimic your emotions. Some children might also revert to wetting the bed or sucking their thumbs. Avoid criticizing your child for this behavior.
  • Elementary and early middle school children. Children in elementary and early middle school might have nightmares or other sleep problems. They might fear going to school, have trouble paying attention in school, or become aggressive for no clear reason.
  • Upper middle school and high school children. Older children might deny that they’re upset. Some children might complain of physical aches and pains because they’re unable to identify what’s really bothering them. Others might start arguments or resist authority.

These reactions are normal. However, if your child continues to display these behaviors for more than two to four weeks, he or she might need more help coping. If your child has experienced previous trauma, remember that he or she might be at greater risk of a severe reaction. If you’re concerned about your child’s reaction, talk to a mental health provider.

What can I do to help my child cope?

You can take steps to help your child process what happened. For example:

  • Remain calm. Your child will look to you for cues about how to react. It’s OK for children to see adults sad or crying, but consider excusing yourself if you’re experiencing intense emotions.
  • Reassure your child of his or her safety. Point out factors that ensure your child’s immediate safety and the safety of the community. Consider reviewing your family’s plans for responding to a crisis.
  • Limit media exposure. Don’t allow young children to repeatedly see or hear coverage of a tragedy. Even if your young child is engrossed in play, he or she is likely aware of what you’re watching—and might become confused or upset. Older children might want to learn more about a tragedy by reading or watching TV. However, avoid repetitive loops of news information once you have the facts. Constant exposure to coverage of a tragedy can heighten anxiety.
  • Avoid placing blame. If the tragedy was caused by human violence or error, be careful not to blame a cultural, racial or ethnic group, or people who have mental illnesses.
  • Maintain the routine. To give your child a sense of normalcy, keep up your family’s usual dinner, homework, and bedtime routine.
  • Spend extra time together. Special attention can foster your child’s sense of security. Spend a little more time reading to your child or tucking him or her in at night. If your child is having trouble sleeping, allow him or her to sleep with a light on or to sleep in your room for a short time. Extra cuddles might help, too.
  • Encourage the expression of feelings. Explain that it’s OK to be upset or cry. Let your child write about or draw what he or she is feeling. Physical activity might serve as an outlet for feelings or frustration. If your child is acting out, explain that there are other ways of coping.
  • Seek out school resources. If your child’s school offers counseling after a tragedy, take advantage of the opportunity to meet with a counselor.
  • Do something for those affected by the tragedy. Consider ways that you and your child can help victims and their families. You might take your child to your place of worship or write thank-you notes to first responders.

What else can I do?

It might be the last thing on your mind, but caring for yourself after a tragedy is important. Pay attention to your own feelings of grief, anger, or anxiety. Lean on loved ones for support or talk to a mental health provider. Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and stay active. Taking care of yourself will enable you to care for your child and serve as a role model for how to cope.

Updated: 2015-10-27

Publication Date: 2012-12-27

Not Great, Bob! The Case for Actually Being Honest When People Ask How You Are

Rachel Wilkerson Miller

In the Season 6 finale of Mad Men, Pete Campbell learns that his mother has fallen off a cruise ship and is most likely dead. Moments later, he steps into the elevator to find his coworker, Bob Benson. Bob—the office glad hander who is never not chipper to the point of being annoying (and who introduced Pete’s mother to her now-suspect cruise companion)—brightly asks, “How are you?” Pete looks at him, astonished, and says, “NOT GREAT, BOB.”

I have thought about this moment a lot since the episode first aired in 2013. I think about it every time someone asks me how I am and I say “good” even though I’m extremely not good. In the months following the 2016 election, it popped into my head nearly every day. (I also regularly think about the two runners-up in this genre of amazing honest reactions: Ilana Glazer’s “How ‘am’ I?” and Dorinda Medley’s “Not well, bitch!”) And though I wouldn’t call noted sleazeball Pete Campbell my inspiration, I can say that I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can now answer the question of how I’m doing somewhat honestly. And that honesty has been so beneficial: it’s made my relationships better, and has made a world of difference in how I feel.

As a fairly private and generally upbeat person, I spent most of my life staying silent whenever I was going through a difficult time. I actively avoided telling people—particularly my coworkers and casual friends, but even close friends, too—that I wasn’t doing well. But there are two big reasons I’ve started doing it more regularly these days.

First, being honest is a relief. Going through a difficult time can feel a lot like carrying a stack of delicate china while tiptoeing across an iced-over pond. What you don’t need at that moment is to have to hide how much you are struggling to keep everything from falling out of your arms or worse, pretend it’s a breeze. You may not be able to set down the china or step off the icy pond right now, but you can at least admit that what you’re doing is hard.

Second, being honest gives other people an opportunity to show up for you. When you’re in the midst of a crisis or low period, it can be hard to remember how much people care about you, or to believe that their support will actually make you feel better. And hey, maybe sometimes it won’t help! But don’t underestimate the power of a supportive friend or community; even just a heartfelt “I’m so sorry to hear that” or “that sounds really tough, and I’m here for you” can make you feel a lot less alone and less afraid. And, sure, there might not be anything they can do to change or fix the situation, but your candor still opens the door for other forms of support, e.g., hugs, cute kitten videos, a few freezer meals, or just extra kindness and grace.

If you struggle with receiving care, consider that letting people show up for you isn’t just good for you; it’s good for them, too, and in turn could be great for your friendship. As friendship expert Shasta Nelson writes in her excellent book Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness, “There are downsides to pretending we don’t have needs: It denies that we’re human, and it robs our friends of the joy of giving. We’re not fun as fun to play with if we only sit at the bottom of the teeter-totter, never giving our friend a chance to push us up.”

And by the way, you don’t have to share your private business with everyone you encounter in order to feel that relief and support; in my experience, it comes from simply telling one or two people a little bit about what’s going on (especially if they are people you see or talk to fairly regularly).

A lot of people take it as indisputable fact that no one who asks “How are you?” wants a real answer. But…is that really always the case? Why have we all decided that this is true? I ask people how they are doing every day, and even if I’m saying it out of habit sometimes, it doesn’t mean I don’t want the truth. And I’m not unusual in this regard; while there are certainly exceptions to this, it’s likely that the people in your everyday life do actually care on some level. But even if the asker isn’t consciously looking for a more honest answer, they likely won’t recoil in horror when you offer it. In fact, they might even feel relieved that someone is giving them permission to be similarly honest when they need to be.

If you’re worried about burdening someone who just wanted to exchange pleasantries, that can be mitigated by what you share and how you share it (more on this in a moment). But in the age of perfectly curated Instagram stories and relentlessly positive Facebook statuses, a lot of people welcome a conversation with someone who is willing to be vulnerable. If we were all a little more honest in the moments that we’re not doing well, maybe we’d all feel a little better.

How to actually do it

Figure out what and how much to share

When you’re thinking about whether and how to be more honest, consider two things: what you’re comfortable with sharing, and your relationship with the other person. Ideally, what you say should match the level of intimacy you currently have.

Nelson frames opening up in the context of what she calls the “frientimacy triangle.” I found the framework (and the book!) to be a really helpful tool, so I reached her to talk more about it. The three sides of the triangle are positivity (which in this context means genuine interest, joy, amusement, humor, and pleasantness); consistency (i.e. spending time together, which establishes confidence and trust in the relationship), and vulnerability (sharing more personal details, being willing to be exposed and honest).

Positivity, because it’s a baseline requirement, forms the base of the triangle. But in this context positivity is not about being intractably upbeat. “Positivity does not refer to what we’re talking about,” Nelson tells SELF. Instead positivity means refers to the joy, interest, humor, gratitude, and warmth that is present in each conversation, and the relationship as a whole. “Even when we’re hurting, we can be grateful, we can be curious, we can affirm other people. It’s still our job to make sure people leave the conversation feeling valued.”

Once a baseline of positivity is established, Nelson says, consistency and vulnerability (the two “arms” of the triangle) can move upwards at roughly the same pace. So if the consistency (the amount of time you’ve spent together, the length of the relationship, etc.) is relatively low (think of a 2 on a 1-10 scale) the vulnerability you share will probably be relatively low, too. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the realities of your life with people you have met fairly recently; it’s more about recognizing that a new friend likely isn’t the best audience for every messy detail of your life.

She says you can practice positivity even when you’re down by thanking the other person for listening, giving them permission to be happy about whatever is going on in their own life, being willing to laugh when you can, and remembering to say, “But enough about me; what’s new with you?”

Let’s say you’re going through a divorce. With the friends who are at level 1-2 on both consistency and vulnerability, Nelson says, you might say, “I’m going through a divorce and not gonna lie, it’s pretty rough. But I am looking forward to making new friends and keeping busy and trying to remind myself that there is plenty of love and fun to be had in the world.” With a level 9 or 10 person—like, say, a sibling you’re really tight with or your best friend since age 5—you might share the ways it’s affecting your children, your fears about dating again, and the fact that you cry yourself to sleep every night. As for everyone in the middle? Aim to share in a way that gives the other person the information and context you feel is most important (whether that’s “I feel sad” or “I need to take a few days off”), while still making clear that you don’t expect this person to react like a lifelong friend (or a therapist) would. “Share a little and see how the person responds,” Nelson says. “Pay attention to social cues. Are they asking questions? Is it only one-way sharing?”

“It’s always appropriate to share what’s going on in your life,” Nelson says. “But we shouldn’t be processing with the people at the bottom of the triangle.”

If you’re worried that being honest about your feelings will make you seem like a Debbie Downer, I get it. I’ve been there too. But Nelson’s tips have helped me think about my relationships as a whole instead of focusing on every individual interaction. When I zoom out to get that perspective, I can see that it’s perfectly OK for me to be a little more vulnerable and authentic with my friends—in part, because we’re all doing our best to bring that genuine positivity, even when things are shit.

What to say

If you’re that thinking being more open would make you feel better, but simply have no idea how to respond to “How are you?,” below are some scripts similar to the ones I’ve used in my own life that you can use as a jumping off point. (Of course, you should feel free to tweak/change them to match your situation, needs, and the person you’re talking to, or to just ignore them entirely!)

Extremely vague approach: “Eh, I’ve been better, honestly! I’d rather not get into it, but I’d appreciate any good vibes you want to send my way right now.”

A little less vague: “Honestly, it’s been a rough few [days/weeks]. I’m dealing with some [fill in this blank or just say “stuff”] and could use some good vibes right now.”

Then fill in that blank with something like:

  • stressful stuff in my personal life
  • family drama
  • family stuff
  • health problems

And try not to overthink the phrase you choose to fill in the blank here! “Some stressful stuff in my personal life” can cover pretty much everything, and you don’t owe anyone a full explanation on exactly what’s going on with, say, your latest round of IVF and how it’s affecting your body and your marriage. The point is to convey “I’m not OK and I don’t really want to get into why.” There are no vulnerability police who are going to throw you in jail for not choosing the exact “correct” phrasing for your specific issue.

A little more forthcoming: “Honestly, it’s been a rough few weeks; my mom is having some health problems. But I’m hanging in there!”

Even more forthcoming; can be specific or vague; doesn’t even require being asked “How are you?:” “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that my mom was recently diagnosed with cancer. No need to worry—she has great doctors and I have a good support system in place. I don’t really want to talk about it now, but I wanted you to know in case I seem a little distracted or start taking more PTO than usual.”

(Of course, feel free to skip the “I don’t really want to talk about it” if you’re actually comfortable talking about it!)

Bonus: a more forthcoming version to use when shit is really bad/traumatic: “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that my mom was recently diagnosed with cancer, and her prognosis isn’t good. She’ll be moving into hospice care later this week. I’m doing my best to keep it together, but I’m devastated. I don’t really want to talk about it right now, but I wanted you to know in case I seem [distracted/tired/weepy/out of it/down] or start taking more PTO than usual.”

Ultimately, what you choose to share, who you share that information with, and how you communicate it is super personal, and completely up to you. Figuring out what level of vulnerability you’re comfortable with in different relationships takes some experimentation and practice—and might change over time, or depending on what exactly you’re dealing with. Sometimes, being honest can feel like self-care; other times, it might feel like a burden. But when I’m struggling, I find it helpful to simply remember that I have a choice—that I’m allowed to give a candid answer to “How are you?;” that being vulnerable isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition—and that being a little more honest can actually make me feel a lot better.

Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of Dot Journaling: A Practical Guide and a former senior editor at BuzzFeed. She is currently working on her second book, The Art of Showing Up: A Guide to Taking Care of Yourself and Other People (The Experiment, Spring 2020). You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and read her blog here.

The content of each A Little Better column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.

Motherhood can deliver body image boost

New research indicates that perfectionism is related to breast size dissatisfaction, but only in non-mothers — suggesting that mothers are more comfortable with their bodies.

The study, carried out by Professor Viren Swami of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and academics from Sapienza University of Rome, has been published in the journal Body Image.

Of the 484 Italian women surveyed, 69% reported breast size dissatisfaction with 44% wanting larger breasts. These findings are similar to a previous study carried out by Professor Swami focusing on women in the UK.

Perfectionistic self-presentation — the desire to create an image of flawlessness in the eyes of other people — is known to contribute towards negative body image.

The study found that breast size dissatisfaction was associated with higher levels of two of the three factors behind perfectionistic self-presentation (non-display of imperfection and perfectionistic self-promotion).

However, this association was not found among the 54% of women surveyed who were mothers. This was particularly the case among women who had more than one child.

Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, said: “Our findings suggest that motherhood may help to decouple the link between perfectionistic self-presentation and breast size dissatisfaction.

“There are a number of potential reasons why the association between perfectionistic self-presentation and breast size dissatisfaction was significant only amongst non-mothers. There is the fact that becoming a mother naturally results in changes to the appearance of the breasts, particularly in terms of their size.

“But perhaps the most relevant is that becoming a mother — and particularly the experience of breastfeeding — may focus women’s attention on breast functionality as opposed to focusing on the aesthetics of breasts and the body.”

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If You’re Asking If Astrology Is ‘Real,’ You’re Missing the Point

I’m a professional astrologer, which means I spend my days observing the positions of the stars and planets, studying ancient mythology, and counseling clients on living life to their fullest potential. I use the clients’ natal charts to unlock the mysteries of their realities, identifying blindspots and superpowers as we move through transitions, traumas, and self-awareness. The process is transformative, and the results are palpable—even if not always quantifiable.

But if you want me to prove that astrology is “real,” well, I won’t. Because I can’t. And, frankly, it doesn’t matter.

Skeptics are obsessed with “disproving” astrology, which I’ve always found so odd. We know that people find value in introspective practices like this, even if it can be hard to measure exactly what that value is. Plus, when it comes to astrology, its true significance is embedded in what it symbolizes to each individual.

When I was born, my uncle hand-calculated my natal chart. Using the date, time, and location of my birth, he carefully divided a perfect circle into twelve sections, each containing precisely thirty degrees. Armed with an ephemeris and protractor, he filled each of the sections (known as “Houses”) with delicate details, meticulously drawing the glyphs of the planets, zodiac signs, and aspects. Fusing geometry and abstraction, my uncle created an illuminated starmap. But this illustration is more than just a pretty sky guide; it’s a mystical roadmap of my past, present, and future.

My uncle passed when I was three, so unfortunately, I don’t know how he interpreted my chart. The document disappeared into my family archives, and for decades, I didn’t even know it existed. I continued living my life as the chart—in its own orbit, buried among paperwork and photographs—quietly unfolded.

After college, I moved to Los Angeles. Disillusioned by my career in the art world (and beyond frustrated by my dating life), my best friend and I co-founded Align, an astrology dating app. At first, we had a very rudimentary understanding of astrology, but were interested in exploring the intersection of spirituality and technology.

And then everything changed.

Slowly but surely, I began immersing myself within astrology. I soon became a student of Annabel Gat, bought dozens of vintage astrology books, and began studying the stars on a nightly basis. Responding to my new passion, my mother unearthed the hand-drawn natal chart, revealing its existence all along. I examined it obsessively. Tracing the outline of my gentle Pisces Moon, the harsh angle of my Capricorn Ascendant, and the cluster of symbols embedded in my Eighth House, suddenly, everything made sense.

My uncle plotted my sky, and now, decades later, everything checked out. Suddenly, all of my realities—the joy, pain, hopes, fears—had purpose. I had never felt so validated. I no longer needed to compartmentalize: Through astrology, I became the amalgamation of the harmony and discord, the epicenter of all my truths. I was finally seen, and I was whole.

As humans, we tell stories to understand our realities. According to famed scholar, Joseph Campbell, stories help “you see relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective…” Accordingly, we share myths, fairy tales, and folklore to create shared language—explaining the unexplainable. By slightly shifting our perspective, we can identify patterns, habits, and dynamics that are otherwise too close to truly understand. For me, astrology offers the backbone of a narrative that I can tell myself—and a way to guide my clients.

During a typical session with a client, we first find an entry point into their chart. Does the client want to learn more about their personality, the ways in which they move through the world? Or do they want to tackle a particular issue: A complicated relationship dynamic, prospective career change, or major life-changing circumstance? From there, we reverse engineer their chart to explore not just what that issue is, but also why it might be happening. Within astrology, even the most minute details are significant. After a 60-minute session, we make sure not a single stone is left unturned.

Do eclipses really trigger unexpected events? Does Neptune really guide your subconscious? The truth is, I don’t know. And I don’t care. As a professional astrologer, I can say with full confidence that it doesn’t matter whether Saturn is actually propelling change or if it’s the act of studying the planet that perpetuates reflection. What matters is that astrology is a tool for self-empowerment and empathy.

Through astrology, we can explore the multifaceted nature of our existence, our unique personalities, and those around us. It enables us to find forgiveness for our frustrating attributes and difficult circumstances (exploring why, for instance, we struggle with patience, or feel stifled by familial obligations). And kindness for self fuels compassion for others. When we look at our lives through an astrological lens, we discover this incredible interconnectivity: Everyone is on a different orbit, but we’re all going through the same cycles.

Within each person is a unique cosmology—a symbiotic bond between the universe and self. When we work with this understanding, we build bridges between our past and our future. Ultimately, astrology is not about destiny; it’s about direction. Studying the stars is simply a practice of self-reflection, and in a world filled with projection, there’s nothing more valuable than looking for truth within.

Aliza Kelly is a New York City-based astrologer, writer, and host of the podcast Stars Like Us. Aliza is the author of two books, The Mixology of Astrology: Cosmic Cocktail Recipes for Every Sign and Starring You: A Guided Journey Through Astrology. You can find her on Instagram at @alizakelly.


Memories form ‘barrier’ to letting go of objects for people who hoard

New research conducted at the University of Bath has demonstrated important differences in how people with and without hoarding problems discard objects and the role their memories play.

It was already known that hoarding behaviour is driven by a strong emotional connection with objects. But the new experimental findings, published online in the journal Behavior Therapy, show that for people who hoard this connection may be in part attributable to the vivid, positive memories associated with those objects.

In essence, for those with hoarding problems, individual items become an extension of a given memory, becoming a barrier to decluttering and hence exacerbating an individual’s problems. Drawing on the new findings, the team behind the study hope that cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) for hoarding might be enhanced by training individuals to respond differently to those memories.

Hoarding describes a problem where individuals have considerable difficulty letting go of possessions. Consequently, rooms can become so cluttered over time that living spaces becomes no longer usable for their intended purpose.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, hoarding can be a mental health problem in its own right (known as ‘hoarding disorder’). The clutter associated with hoarding can have profound negative effects on the lives of people living with the problem and those around them, particularly with respect to emotional and physical well-being, health and safety, and finances. The fire risks associated with clutter are also be of particular concern.

Lead researcher Dr Nick Stewart, who now works as a Clinical Psychologist at Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust, explains: “People who hoard are often offered CBT to help them understand the thoughts and feelings associated with their saving and acquiring behaviours. This approach is very beneficial for some people, but not all. Our aim is to understand better the psychological factors that drive hoarding behaviour, to give us clues for how therapy for hoarding might be improved.”

The researchers conducted structured interviews with 27 people with clinically-significant hoarding problems, and 28 without such difficulties (the ‘control’ group).

Participants were asked to recall the memories that came to mind the last time they discarded, or tried to discard, items at home.

Both groups reported positive memories while discarding possessions that they valued (which may describe most possessions in the case of people who hoard). These memories included recollections of acquiring the object, or memories of an event or person associated with the object. Crucially, the control participants (those without a hoarding problem) reported attempts to avoid this positive imagery, while the hoarding participants did not.

Dr Stewart explains: “We can all relate to the experience of being flooded with positive memories when we hold valued possessions in our hands. However, our findings suggest that it’s the way in which we respond to these object-related memories that dictates whether we hold onto an object or let it go. The typical population appears to be able to set aside these memories, presumably to ease the task of discarding the objects, and so manage to avoid the accumulation of clutter. The hoarding participants enjoyed the positive memories but reported that they got in the way of their attempts to discard objects.”

In the paper, the researchers have suggested ways in which this new insight could be used to enhance CBT for hoarding.

Dr James Gregory, Clinical Research Tutor and Clinical Psychologist at the University of Bath, who supervised the research, said: “Where positive memories, and the mental images associated with them, are getting in the way of discarding objects, therapists could work with people to develop an alternative image to ‘compete’ with the one that’s causing difficulty. This competing image could capture the positive consequences of discarding items, for example, eating a meal with loved ones at a dinner table once it is clear of possessions.”

The next step is a follow-on experimental study to see if helping people to ‘rescript’ memories in this way is helpful for enabling people to let go of objects more easily.

Dr Gregory added: “While memories associated with objects can afford a sense of comfort and security to people who hoard, the resulting clutter can rob people of their quality of life.

“This study is part of a wider effort at Bath to to better understand the special relationship that people have with their possessions. Ultimately we hope to use this knowledge to improve psychological support available and to enhance the wellbeing of people who hoard.”

Notes on hoarding:

  • Up to 1.3 million people in the UK may have a significant hoarding problem (or develop one in the future);
  • People with hoarding problems may keep items for sentimental reasons or because they find objects beautiful or useful. Most people with hoarding problems have a very strong emotional attachment to objects;
  • Hoarding can become problematic for several reasons. It can take over a person’s life, making it very difficult for them to get around their house. It can also affect work performance, personal hygiene and cause relationships to suffer;
  • Household clutter can also pose a health risk to the person and anyone who lives in or visits their house. For example, it can become a fire risk and block exits in the event of a fire, or cause trips and falls;
  • The main treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The therapist will help the person to understand what makes it difficult to throw things away and the reasons why the clutter has built up. This will be combined with practical tasks and a plan to work on.

On hoarding research at Bath:

  • The Bath team is currently leading work to explore the potential of immersive VR technologies in modelling treasured items, giving those with hoarding tendencies a form of exposure therapy and the opportunity to discard items in a virtual world.

How arousal impacts physiological synchrony in relationships

A team of researchers led by a member of the Colorado School of Public Health faculty at the Anschutz Medical Campus examined what type of social interaction is required for people to display physiological synchrony — mutual changes in autonomic nervous system activity. The study also looked at whether the levels of autonomic arousal people share predicts affiliation and friendship interest between people.

The findings are published in Nature Scientific Reports.

“In a variety of situations, people appear more social with one another when their autonomic nervous systems are in sync. However, this is the first study to show that, although people display physiological synchrony across social contexts, how much arousal people share can vary, differentially impacting social outcomes like perceived similarity and friendship interest,” said Chad Danyluck, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Danyluck adds, “Physiological synchrony has been found in a variety of relationships and environments, from married couples arguing to military units and sports teams coordinating their behaviors. Understanding whether and how shared arousal brings people together may help us hone the development of programs targeting team leadership and social cohesion in work environments. I am particularly interested in the role of physiological synchrony in fostering friendship interest across ethnic and racial divides.”

Consistent with prior work, this study observed physiological synchrony in both branches of the autonomic nervous system and across cooperative and competitive social contexts. The authors general interest in physiological synchrony is in how synchrony during social interactions relates to social processes that ultimately lead to friendship.

The study found that different social contexts caused different levels of physiological arousal, meaning that the branches of the autonomic nervous system became either more or less reactive in response to the experimental task. However, in every condition, strangers quickly went “in sync” and did so in each branch of the autonomic nervous system whether they were high or low in arousal. Whether the social or physiological context of synchrony contributed to social outcomes, however, depended on which branch of the autonomic nervous system displayed synchrony.

The findings show that sharing similar amounts of sympathetic arousal was sufficient to increase perceptions of similarity — a precursor to friendship — regardless of social context and no matter the arousal levels partners shared. One possible explanation for this finding is that patterns of sympathetic arousal may correlate with observable body movements (and by extension a lack of arousal may correlate with a lack of body movement) that might predict perceived similarity if shared among partners. By comparison, people for whom parasympathetic synchrony and parasympathetic reactivity was high generally reported more friendship interest when the social context permitted conversation than when it did not. In other words, when parasympathetic activity increased during a social interaction, parasympathetic synchrony only mattered for the development of friendship between strangers who could converse.

Using data from 134 strangers interacting in pairs, the researchers manipulated two features of social context to test their impact on synchrony in sympathetic and parasympathetic reactivity. Participants completed a knot-tying task within a collective reward (“cooperation”) or individual reward (“competition”) framework while conversing or not (“talking” condition). Autonomic reactivity varied by features of social context. Synchrony occurred across social contexts in both autonomic branches. The researchers then examined how synchrony predicted affiliation.

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Your nose knows when it comes to stronger memories

Memories are stronger when the original experiences are accompanied by unpleasant odors, a team of researchers has found. The study broadens our understanding of what can drive Pavlovian responses and points to how negative experiences influence our ability to recall past events.

“These results demonstrate that bad smells are capable of producing memory enhancements in both adolescents and adults, pointing to new ways to study how we learn from and remember positive and negative experiences,” explains Catherine Hartley, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and the senior author of the paper, which appears in the journal Learning and Memory.

“Because our findings spanned different age groups, this study suggests that aversive odors might be used in the future to examine emotional learning and memory processes across development,” adds Alexandra Cohen, an NYU postdoctoral fellow and the paper’s lead author.

The impact of negative experiences on memory has long been shown — and is familiar to us. For example, if you are bitten by a dog, you may develop a negative memory of the dog that bit you, and your negative association may also go on to generalize to all dogs. Moreover, because of the trauma surrounding the bite, you are likely to have a better recollection of it than you would other past experiences with dogs.

“The generalization and persistence in memory of learned negative associations are core features of anxiety disorders, which often emerge during adolescence,” notes Hartley.

In order to better understand how learned negative associations influence memory during this stage of development, the researchers designed and administered a Pavlovian learning task to individuals aged 13 to 25. Mild electrical shocks are often used in this type of learning task. In this study, the researchers used bad smells because they can be ethically administered in studying children.

The task included the viewing of a series of images belonging to one of two conceptual categories: objects (e.g., a chair) and scenes (e.g., a snow-capped mountain). As the study’s participants viewed the images, they wore a nasal mask connected to an olfactometer. While participants viewed images from one category, unpleasant smells were sometimes circulated through the device to the mask; while viewing images from the other category, unscented air was used. This allowed the researchers to examine memory for images associated with a bad smell as well as for generalization to related images. In other words, if the image of a chair was associated with a bad smell, would memory be enhanced only for the chair or for objects in general?

What constitutes a “bad” odor is somewhat subjective. In order to determine which odors the participants found unlikable, the researchers had the subjects — prior to the start of the experiment — breathe in a variety of odors and indicate which ones they thought were unpleasant. The odors were blends of chemical compounds provided by a local perfumer and included scents such as rotting fish and manure.

As the subjects viewed the images, the scientists measured perspiration from the palm of the subjects’ hands as an index of arousal — a common research technique used to confirm the creation of a negative association (in this case, of a bad smell). A day later, researchers tested participants’ memory for the images.

Their findings showed that both adolescents and adults showed better memory specifically for images paired with the bad smell 24 hours after they saw these images. They also found that individuals with larger arousal responses at the point when they might experience either a bad smell or clean air while viewing the image, regardless of whether or not a smell was actually delivered, had better memory 24 hours later. This suggests that unpredictability or surprise associated with the outcome leads to better memory.

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