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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

While physical distancing and masks are crucial, social interaction could calm the immune system and turn down inflammation

Like other apes, humans are social animals. We evolved to live in codependent communities, and we do poorly if deprived of interpersonal contact.

Everyone has a different threshold for social interaction. But nearly all of us tend to become distressed when cut off from others, and our immune system responds to this distress by ramping up its defenses. A new study in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews finds that social isolation is associated with a rise in inflammation-promoting molecules, including some that are implicated in severe Covid-19. …


Hangovers take a toll — and not just on your Sunday mornings

A collection of empty wine bottles
A collection of empty wine bottles
Photo: Marina Herrmann/Moment/Getty Images

A 2015 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that heavy drinking costs the American economy roughly $250 billion a year. The majority of those losses — 72 percent — was due to “lost productivity,” which is more or less a euphemism for “too hungover to get anything done.”

Despite all the havoc hangovers cause, science still has a crude understanding of how hangovers work and why they seem to vary so much from person to person. It’s true that the amount of pure alcohol (ethanol) a person swallows tends to correlate with the severity of the resulting hangover. …


The Nuance

Teaching an anxious brain to picture happier scenes or scenarios helps against the inner dialogues that fuel daily anxieties

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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The most frightening movie monsters are the ones you never see. That’s according to a 2020 study of horror films that appeared in the journal NeuroImage.

For that study, researchers in Finland scanned the brains of 37 people as they watched a lineup of scary movies that included The Exorcist, Insidious, and eight others. The study authors found that people were much more frightened by unseen or implied threats than by ones that actually appeared on screen.

That finding isn’t too surprising: “Don’t show the monster” is a timeworn rule in film and television horror, and the great terror writer H.P. Lovecraft famously said that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The common wisdom here is that, left to its own devices, the human brain will usually come up with something more disturbing than anything a writer or director could dream up. …


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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

The way we live now discourages patience. It’s time to reprioritize this lost virtue.

Two days before the Associated Press declared him the winner of the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden tried to settle his nation’s rattled nerves. “[Democracy] sometimes requires a little patience,” he remarked. “Stay calm . . . the process is working.”

For many, it wasn’t working fast enough. Every hour that passed seemed to turn up the tension and frustration of the U.S. electorate. Protests and counterprotests broke out. After just a few days of waiting, America seemed poised to lose its collective shit. Contrast this state of affairs with the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which remained in limbo for five weeks following Election Day. …


Different forms of relief — from pain, or from the fretful anticipation wrapped up in a political election — look quite similar in the brain.

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Illustration: Sophi Gullbrants

The Greek philosopher Epicurus famously described pleasure as the absence of pain. And, according to some scholars, Epicurus believed that the greatest form of pleasure comes from the abatement of pain — that is, from relief of some form of torment.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to talk about relief right now,” says Jack Nitschke, PhD, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. …


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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Aspirin may turn out to be a cheap and effective way to save lives and prevent lasting damage

Back in April, when the first wave of Covid-19 was crashing across the U.S., Michael Mazzeffi received an email from one of his colleagues at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

“One of our surgeons said that when he was drawing blood out of a patient, it literally clotted within five seconds,” says Mazzeffi, who is chief of the division of critical care anesthesiology. “It was pretty clear early on that patients with severe Covid had clotting disorders and that their blood was super coagulable.”

Clinicians around the world noticed this same clotting phenomenon. By mid-summer, autopsies of people who had died from Covid-19 revealed that their vasculature and organs were often suffused with clots and coagulated blood. “What we saw in the Covid ICU is that a lot of the patients would start developing a lot of clotting, and this high burden would lead to multi-organ failure and eventually death,” says Jonathan Chow, MD, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. …


Uncertainty can hijack our planning machinery and weaponize it against us

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Illustration: Sophi Gullbrants

Election Day 2020 is here, finally. And now, after all the waiting, it’s time to wait some more. Who will win? What will that win look like? When will we know for sure? Hard to say. Throw in all the open questions about the coronavirus, and the current moment’s level of unpredictability feels off the charts.

For many, all this uncertainty is likely to be distressing — if not downright destabilizing.

“Some people have the ability to sit with uncertainty and to let go of it — to not fret about it,” says Michelle Newman, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Anxiety and Depression Research at the Pennsylvania State University. “But others respond to uncertainty with worrying. And if the thing you’re worried about is out of your control, then the worrying doesn’t help anything. …


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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Experts say the immune system’s reaction to SARS-CoV-2 could shift brain activity in ways that disrupt sleep-wake cycles

Corey McPherson knows that he contracted SARS-CoV-2 back in March. He also knows that by late April, when he turned 36, he’d mostly recovered from his acute symptoms — his fever and pain and breathing problems.

But if you ask him now to recall that time, he says that there’s not a lot he could tell you. It’s as if a page has been ripped out of his memory’s notebook. “I don’t remember much about when I was actually sick with it,” he says. “There are one or two blips, but I have almost zero recollection of that time. …


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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Americans are cleaning more than ever — and all those scented products are worrying consumer-health researchers

Even before the pandemic, Americans were among the world’s most enthusiastic users of scented home-cleaning products. Market research from the industry-tracking firm Statista shows that the United States ranks first in the world in spending on household cleaners; the U.S. spends more on these products than the next three countries on the list, combined.

The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 has only intensified the country’s zeal for scented wipes, sprays, detergents, soaps, and sanitizers. According to a recent study in Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, the pandemic has initiated a “sweeping and surging use” of such products both in the U.S. …


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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

In an effort to save energy and cognitive resources, the stressed brain prioritizes old habits and routines over purposeful, deliberative action

Distressed dogs tend to repeatedly lick their forelegs and paws. Happy and healthy dogs also do this, but stressed dogs do it more. In severe cases, they lick so frequently that they develop bald patches and skin ulcers.

Researchers have noticed similar anxiety-related behaviors in other animals — including humans. Many nervous or stressed-out people chew their nails, pick at their skin, or engage in other so-called body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) to the point of self-injury.

What explains BFRBs? The answer may be wrapped up in the way stress biases brain activity toward habitual thoughts and behaviors.

How stress encourages old habits

For a 2019 study in the journal Brain and Cognition, a team of Dutch researchers examined the brain’s response to stress. They found that as levels of the stress hormone cortisol increased following a threat or challenge, the activity in flexible, goal-directed brain systems tended to diminish. Meanwhile, activity in habit-related systems surged. …

About

Markham Heid

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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