What 19th century novels got right about seasonal viruses

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Left: Jane Bennet on the rainy horseback ride that gave her a cold. Drawing by Maria Ter-Mikaelian, based on the 1995 BBC miniseries Pride & Prejudice. Right: Photo by Quality Stock Arts/Adobe Stock.

“MY DEAREST LIZZY, I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday.” So lamented a character in Jane Austen’s 200-year-old novel, Pride and Prejudice. In that story, unlucky Jane gets caught in the rain while riding on horseback and promptly comes down with a bad cold, setting off a series of important events.

Jane is not alone among Austen characters: in Sense and Sensibility, melodramatic teen Marianne goes on long walks in the wet fields and ends up with a cold so violent as to make her family fear for her life. Nor was this way of getting sick a unique invention of Austen’s. Decades later in Tsarist Russia, Tolstoy’s wife, who was having a particularly bad day, wrote in her diary, “I sat for a long time in the icy water with the idea of catching a cold and dying.”[1] …


The surprising science of spine-tingling art

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Photo: Kevin Jarrett/Flickr, source

I was folding laundry and listening to, of all things, the Bourne Supremacy soundtrack when it happened. Suddenly, my hands got damp, my heart sped up and my breath came faster, a shiver ran down my spine, and a goofy, slightly teary smile came unbidden to my face. I looked around to see whether anyone in the laundromat had noticed, but mercifully, they were all in their own worlds.

What was it, you ask? Something psychology and neuroscience researchers call an “aesthetic chill” — a peak emotional experience triggered by moving music, a powerful film scene, or an evocative verse of poetry, and often accompanied by a shiver or goosebumps. If you suspected something different, you’re not entirely off-base: one of the earliest researchers of the phenomenon, Avram Goldstein, wrote that some of his test subjects “noted a certain similarity of [aesthetic chills] to orgasm, but with many reservations concerning quality and intensity.” …


Immediate & tested help for students

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Photo: Miguel Angel/Flickr, source

It’s that time again. You’re holed up in your room, having announced to everyone that you have to study all weekend. The door is closed, and the noise of your anxious thoughts is suddenly deafening. That gnawing, uneasy feeling is growing stronger: you should have started studying long ago. In fact, when you consider how much material there actually is, you know there’s no way you’ll have time to look at everything now, let alone learn it.

Suddenly, that silly game on your phone is very interesting. You must read every tweet by that politician you can’t stand. …


A closer look at the costs and benefits to our health and performance

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“Confusing Times” by Jimmy Hilario/Flickr, source

It’s that time again! Time to set our clocks forward and lose a delicious hour of the weekend. Last fall, I wrote about the fall time change and its effects on our health and productivity. This week, I would like to revisit this issue and examine the pros and cons of Daylight Saving Time in greater depth.

You will probably agree that changing our clocks twice a year is an inconvenience, one we tolerate in the name of saving energy. But what about the costs and benefits to our well-being and performance? …


Citizen science projects where you can make a difference in as little as 30 minutes

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Photo: Or Hiltch/Flickr, source

Did you ever dream about being a scientist as a kid? Or perhaps recent movies, like Hidden Figures, have inspired you to ponder a career path you never thought possible? Well, the good news is — you don’t have to go back to school for a Ph.D. to engage in citizen science. No lab coat is needed — all you need is a subject you are passionate about and a willingness to donate your time and effort, from as little as 30 minutes to an ongoing commitment of one or more hours a week. If you are reading this post, then you are probably already passionate about wildlife conservation. …


Research provides insights into the minds of farm animals

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Photo: Tim Green/Flickr, source.

My two-year-old son is fascinated by cows. He loves to look at all the cow pictures on his milk carton, and a really special treat is watching a 5-minute YouTube video of cows grazing in a field. I bet that most of us started out with the same fascination with farm animals. What toddler didn’t love learning that a cow says “moo” and a pig says “oink” (or, if your first language was Mandarin, “hroo”)?

Somewhere along the way, though, we lose that sense of awe about farm animals. As adults, we rarely spare a thought for cows, or if we do, our opinion of them is not too flattering. Expressions like “they stared at him like cows at a passing train” show what we think of cows’ intelligence and engagement with the outside world. Other livestock don’t fare much better: a “sheep” thoughtlessly follows the crowd, and a “pig” eats too much and makes a mess.


Little-known science that could change how you see yourself

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A lark and an owl. Photos by: Left, Michele Lamberti/Flickr, source; right, Bryn Jones/Flickr, source

When I was a teenager, I used to dream about the day when scientists finally proved that some people are biologically wired to be night owls. On school mornings, I would wake up to my alarm in a murderous mood, praying I wouldn’t bump into any family members on my way to the bathroom. I would brush my teeth and imagine a future in which the whole world no longer marched to a morning person’s drum.

A good friend of mine in college had the opposite frustration: on weekends, she would be up for hours before any of her housemates stirred. She was ready to go out and have fun, if only they would finally wake up! By 10 p.m., when they were getting ready for a night out on the town, she was getting ready for bed.

Was I really just lazy, and was she just boring? Or are there two fundamentally different kinds of people in the world: morning people and night people?

As it turns out, scientists have been studying the phenomenon of “morningness” and “eveningness” in humans since the 1970s, and in the 80s, the term “chronotype” first appeared in the scientific literature. [1] A person’s chronotype is whether they are a “lark”, that is, a morning person (M-type), or an “owl” meaning a night person (E-type for evening). Some people fall somewhere in the middle and are called N-types for “neither”. …


What it means for our health and productivity

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Photo by Bjorn Lindell, source

This Sunday at 2 a.m. will mark the end of Daylight Saving Time in North America, which means we will reset our clocks to 1 a.m. and get an extra hour of sleep… unless you’re working the night shift, in which case all I can say is: I’m sorry.

We all know that the time change was instituted in an attempt to save energy. But I’ll bet you also have first-hand experience of some of the pros and cons of this practice. …


Science reveals their superpowers & how we can harness them

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Photo: Maria Ter-Mikaelian

They spread like wildfire and transmit disease. They’re ugly, appallingly fast and surprisingly hard to kill. But here are three facts that will make you appreciate cockroaches like never before.

Now, I’m probably the last person in the world who should be writing this post. My friends, family, and unlucky passersby can tell you that my reaction to a cockroach sighting is anything but dignified. And then there was that awful time I had to do a lab activity with giant cockroaches in grad school… I still have nightmares about that.

But living in today’s cities, one must make peace with the fact that cockroaches will be a part of life. As one exterminator said to me, chuckling as he placed roach poison in my cupboard, “You live in a New York apartment. You’re going to see cockroaches from time to time.”

About

Maria Ter-Mikaelian

Maria has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and writes about animal behavior, the brain, and scientific odds and ends. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTerScience

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