TIME space

The Search for Extraterrestrial Air Pollution

A burned-out star, called a white dwarf.
A burned-out star, called a white dwarf. Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images

Alien factories could be a sign of life outside our solar system

Astrobiologists have come up with two basic ideas for how to find life on planets outside the solar system. The first is to look for telltale gases in exoplanets’ atmospheres, such as oxygen and methane, that would suggest the presence of some rudimentary life form, like bacteria. The second involves searching for radio or laser signals from some advanced alien civilizations—a longer shot, since the signals would have to be beamed in our direction — and who knows if aliens use lasers or radio?

But now a team of Harvard astronomers has come up with a third way: look for atmospheric gases generated not by biological processes, but by alien factories.

“I was very surprised,” says Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard’s astrophysics department and a co-author of a paper describing the technique, “that nobody has thought before about searching for industrial air pollution.”

It’s probably less surprising to others: Loeb is something of a master at asking nutty-sounding questions, then demonstrating that they’re not nearly as nutty as you might think. He co-authored one paper, for example, on how to look for cities on Pluto, and another on why it makes sense to look for habitable planets orbiting dead stars.

This latest effort is no exception. “It’s not crazy, at least as far as I can tell,” says Heather Knutson, a Caltech astronomer who specializes in looking at exoplanetary atmospheres, and who wasn’t involved in this research. “Avi in particular is willing to speculate on some pretty far-out topics, but no one doubts his ability to calculate the relevant physical models correctly.”

In this case, the relevant models involve chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s, the chemicals used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Unlike oxygen and methane, which occur naturally, CFC’s are almost entirely artificial. If an Earth-size planet had just ten times the atmospheric concentration of CFC’s that Earth does, Loeb and his co-authors, Harvard freshman Henry Lin and Smithsonian Observatory scientist Gonzalo Gonzalez Abad found, the gases could be detected with the powerful James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2018.

There are, Loeb admits, a couple of catches. First, the Webb can only pull this off if a planet in question orbits a white dwarf star—the tiny, white-hot ember left behind when a star like the Sun dies. That’s because the CFCs’ signature would appear as a distortion of starlight passing through the planet’s atmosphere. If the star is much bigger than the planet, most of the light hitting the telescope would bypass the planet entirely, and the distortion would be lost in the glare.

Another issue is that high concentrations of CFC’s might signal a civilization that has already managed to destroy itself. Some of these gases attack and destroy a planet’s protective ozone layer, which is why, here on Earth, the worst offenders were banned in 1987.

But it’s also possible that an alien civilization would have pumped its atmosphere full of CFC’s on purpose, says Loeb. “They act as greenhouse gases,” he says, “so if a planet were at the colder edge of its habitable zone, you could imagine using CFC’s to warm things up.” As for the ozone problem, he says, “they could in principle produce extra ozone as well, or design CFC’s that were less harmful.”

As with many of Loeb’s more speculative ideas, he’s not predicting that we’ll actually find CFC-laced exoplanets—just that we could if they happen to exist, and happen to orbit white-dwarf stars.

The odds of discovery via this method are probably very long. But as physicists Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi once said of the search for alien radio signals, “The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.”



TIME space

So Where the Heck IS Voyager 1, Anyway?

Adios? Not so fast
Adios? Not so fast NASA/JPL

The first human built object to exit the solar system may not be gone after all

For a space probe that’s at least two decades beyond its sell-by date, Voyager 1 has a pretty impressive record of keeping itself in the news. Even more impressive is the fact that the topic is always the same. Either the aging craft, launched in 1977 to explore first Jupiter, then Saturn, has left the Solar System, en route to an eternal journey into deep space, or it hasn’t.

In 2003, for example, the reports were that Voyager had indeed left. But in 2010, it was merely getting ready to leave. Same thing in 2012. Then, last year, it definitely departed—but it didn’t leave the Solar System exactly. What it did do was depart the heliosphere, the region where the charged particles of the solar wind stream freely outward from the Sun before slamming into the particle clouds of interstellar space to form a shock wave known as the heliopause.

If you’re not confused enough already, you will be. It turns out that nobody actually knows whether Voyager really is outside the heliosphere at all, since all of the tests to date have been indirect, looking for charged particles and other clues that suggest but don’t prove anything. So now a pair of Voyager team scientists have proposed what they insist is a definitive test, in a paper accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

If the spacecraft is still inside the heliosphere, they say, it should encounter something called the “current sheet,” a place where the Sun’s magnetic field flips from north to south. Even Voyager’s aging instruments could detect that event directly. “If that happens, I think if anyone still believes Voyager 1 is in the interstellar medium, they will really have something to explain,” said co-author George Gloeckler, a space scientist at the University of Michigan, in a press release.The moment of truth, Gloeckler believes, should come sometime in 2016.

Unless it doesn’t, of course. That will mean Voyager left last year after all. But even if the field reversal does happen, it could mean that the heliosphere itself is temporarily expanding, and has briefly caught up with Voyager. So Voyager left, but that, as Michael Corleone famously said in The Godfather, Part III, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

Whether Voyager is inside or outside the heliosphere, there’s no dispute about one thing: it has not left the Solar System, which is the collection of objects that orbit the Sun. The probe is currently about three times as distant as Pluto—but the orbiting Oort Cloud of proto-comets is far more distant than that. Voyager won’t cross that line for many thousands of years.

And at that point, if anyone’s still interested, you can expect a brand new flurry of “is it or isn’t it” stories.


TIME animal behavior

Hey, Did I See You Petting Another Dog?

Who were you seeing last night? And do NOT lie to me.
Who were you seeing last night? And do NOT lie to me. Stefanie Timmermann—Vetta/Getty Images

Man's best friend takes that BFF thing seriously. Pay too much attention to a dog other than your own and you'd better be prepared to explain yourself when you get home.

If the science of animal behavior had an official curse word, it would be “anthropomorphism.” That’s just a fancy term for the sin of assigning human qualities to animals. Your dog might look happy and your cat might seem disdainful, but since you most likely think of your pet as a little person already, your judgements are automatically suspect. You see what you want to see, and that is the opposite of scientific.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always wrong. It turns out that one rigorous scientific experiment after another has shown that some animals do have mental states that are surprisingly similar to ours. They exhibit altruism, empathy, and a sense of justice, for example. They can plan and execute deliberate deception. They may experience true grief as well.

And now, says a new report in the journal PLOS ONE, we can add jealousy to the mix too. That’s a surprising conclusion for one very big reason. Lead author Christine Harris, of the University of California, San Diego, is a psychologist who usually studies human behavior, and among humans, the conventional wisdom has been that jealousy requires a sense of self-esteem that can be damaged. That’s something animals are unlikely to have.

But it’s also possible, Harris suspected, that all jealousy, human and otherwise, is a more fundamental emotion like fear or lust. If so, it’s presumably a product of evolution, and should exist in some form in species other than our own.

She and her co-author, Caroline Prouvost, set out to test that proposition, and they had some existing data to build on. Several studies, they note, have suggested that infants as young as six months old show evidence of jealousy even though they presumably haven’t developed a sense of self-esteem. In those studies, the babies got upset when their mothers fussed over a realistic-looking doll, but not when the moms ignored them to read a book.

What’s true in barely-developed humans, they suspected, might also be true in highly social animals like dogs—so they replicated the human experiments with canines. They had 36 owners play affectionately with realistic-looking toy dogs while ignoring their own pets. They also had the owners play with Jack-o-Lantern shaped plastic pails, and, finally, had the owners ignore the dogs while reading books.

Sure enough, 78% of the dogs went into a sort of canine snit when their owners played with faux fido: they pushed and tried to squeeze in between owner and interloper, and in some cases even snapped at the phony dog. When the owners played with the pails, by contrast, jealous reactions were triggered in only 42% of the dogs (no word, by the way, on whether the animals thought their owners had lost their minds). And when the owners chose a book over their beloved pets, only 22% of the dogs got upset.

“It’s clearly not just the loss of attention that triggered aggressive behavior,” says Harris. “It’s that the owners were paying attention to another doglike object.”

The finding has impressed some of the most notable figures in the animal behavior field. “This is a landmark study,” wrote Marc Bekoff—professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the author of the new book Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed—in an e-mail to Time. “It’s not a matter of if emotions have evolved in animals, but why they evolved as they have.” That question will take a lot more study in multiple species—and Harris plans to do just that. “Horse owners claim their horses display jealousy,” she says, “and the question is open for cats as well.”

What’s more, jealousy is just the beginning of the possible range of emotions animals may experience. “This study reminded me of claims, absent data, that dogs cannot feel guilt or shame,” says Bekoff. “But there’s no reason why they cannot.”

Animal behavior’s official curse word, it turns out, may be on the way out. The more scientists look, the more “anthopomorphism” seems not to be a self-delusional fallacy, but a useful guide to understanding what’s really going on in your pet’s mind.

TIME space

United Arab Emirates Says It Will Go To Mars By 2021

Mars Digital Vision/Getty Images

A bold announcement by the United Arab Emirates is more than just an idle boast

The big news out of the Middle East this week is mostly about war and other kinds of tribulation, as it was last week and probably will for weeks to come. War and tribulation, that is, plus a mission to Mars.

According to a report by Reuters, the United Arab Emirates announced it would be creating a space agency by 2021 and sending an umanned probe to the Red Planet—something only the U.S., the USSR/Russian Federation and the European Space Agency have done with any success, while the British, Japanese and Chinese have tried and failed. The jury is still out on an Indian probe, which is currently en route.

So can they do it, or is this just some crazy stunt the UAE hopes nobody will remember when the time comes? The answer: it’s not necessarily crazy. True, the country has no aerospace industry, but a government-backed group based in the Persian Gulf country bought nearly a third of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a private space tourism company. Moreover, says John Logsdon, a space policy expert and professor emeritus at George Washington University, “The UAE has already been active in space with communications satellites and Earth observation satellites.”

They’ve done this, he says, by purchasing both satellites and launch services from other countries, and they’d almost certainly put together a Mars probe the same way. “Most of the technical work and the launch would be contracted out,” he speculates, “but some of the components could be developed internally.” If that happened, and if UAE space agency engineers were in charge of mission control, he says, “they could appropriately claim that this mission was their own.”

Given the UAE’s deep pockets, it’s certainly possible that the country could pull off such a project, which would bring a new kind of prestige to the region. The Arab world did invent algebra and enjoyed a golden age of science for centuries leading up to the Medieval period and many Arabs dream of the return to that kind of scientific ascendancy. Recent, eye-catching projects—including the successful construction of the world’s tallest building and the world’s largest indoor ski resort—hint at inventive potential.

A Mars mission would obviously be a bit more ambitious, but in the end, it’s really just rocket science, which isn’t as complicated as we sometimes tend to think. Still, it’s one thing to say you’re going to do something like this and quite another to do it. After all, in 1969, NASA was similarly talking about our own manned mission to Mars—with astronauts aboard—in what was then the near future. It could be done, said Wernher von Braun, the rocket engineer behind that year’s successful Moon landing, by 1982.

But it never happened, and who knows if it ever will? The UAE, aided by expertise from other countries, can certainly get a probe to Mars by 2021, in theory.

Whether they’ll actually do it is whole different story.

TIME Exercise/Fitness

Athletes Should Not Play With Head Injuries, Say Doctors

Christoph Kramer of Germany receives a medical treatment during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Final match between Germany and Argentina on July 13, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro.
Christoph Kramer of Germany receives a medical treatment during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Final match between Germany and Argentina on July 13, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro. Shaun Botterill—FIFA/Getty Images

Germany’s decision to let midfield Christof Kramer keep playing in the World Cup final yesterday after being slammed in the head was understandable—if this were 1962, anyway. Back then, a little concussion wasn’t seen as much of a big deal.

That’s not true anymore, and given the fact that everyone from kids’ coaches to the NFL (if grudgingly) recognize that even mild head injuries can have serious consequences, that decision looks close to insane—especially given that Kramer “looked as if he was on another planet and had to be helped off the field,” as TIME’s Bill Saporito observed.

Of course, it’s possible that the German team didn’t realize that this sort of thing can cause permanent brain damage. Or maybe they think that what applies to American football is irrelevant to real football. Except that studies have shown that soccer players are equally at risk.

Clearly, they didn’t read the editorial in The Lancet Neurology published the day before the game reminding coaches and team officials that “cerebral concussion is the most common form of sports-related traumatic brain injury (TBI), and the long-term effects of repeated concussions may include dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other neurological disorders.” The decision to let players continue in a game, wrote these learned medical experts, should be made solely by doctors.

It turns out that FIFA doesn’t have any clear rules about what to do in case a player suffers an apparent concussion. But the fact that Kramer stayed in the game, no matter how important a World Cup final match might be, was at best highly questionable. “I can’t remember very much but it doesn’t matter now,” the dazed player reportedly said after the game was over.

If the medical professionals are right about how serious concussions can be, Kramer and his teammates might well have a different take on things a few years down the road.

TIME review

Planet of the Apes: That Couldn’t Happen….Right?

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Toby Kebbell, Andy Serkis, 2014. ph: David James/TM and ©Copyright
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the eighth film in the series. Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy of Everett Collection

There's science behind the new sci-fi movie—some of it turns out to be pretty sound

Part of the job of any science reporter is to ruin your moviegoing experience. Blown away by Gravity? Here are all the ways they got the science wrong. Charmed by A Beautiful Mind? Sorry, it utterly fails to capture the essence of mathematics (and that moving fountain-pen ceremony is a total fabrication, says Princeton University, where it was supposed to have taken place, so there).

Now comes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film rich in opportunities to take scientific potshots. I mean, c’mon—super-intelligent chimps who form their own breakaway society? Which is in some ways more gentle and noble than the human one they left behind, although they’ll fight if they must? How absurd is that? Could such a thing ever happen?

Well, not next week, but while Dawn isn’t exactly reality based, the science underneath all of that dramatic speculation isn’t entirely bogus either. Take the apes’ transition from ordinary chimpiness to hyper-intelligence, as laid out in 2011′s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It comes about through an experimental virus that alters the animals genetically. In fact, deactivated viruses are how doctors attempt to inject new, healthy genes into victims of genetic disorders. The technology is still highly experimental, but there’s no reason to think it won’t be perfected someday.

Moreover, while it’s clear that there’s no single gene governing intelligence—and that intelligence itself comes in different types—it’s equally clear that smarts, however you define them, have a genetic component. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that we’ll identify the genes in question, and find ways to insert them into the brains of both people and, should we be so insane as to do so, apes as well.

Ok, so apes with enhanced intelligence, check.

As for how these simian Einsteins would actually behave, the film is at least plausible on that score as well—as long as you don’t look too closely. That’s how Frans de Waal sees it. He’s an expert on primate behavior based at Emory University, and he says there are key elements in the movie that ring true.

For one thing, he says, chimps may never be fully as intelligent as humans, gene therapy notwithstanding (“our brains are physically three times bigger—this is not a small difference”). But de Waal adds, “chimps do have many mental capacities—thinking about the future, planning ahead,” which are necessary for the sort of strategic thinking they do in the movie. “So that’s not unrealistic.”

It’s also not at all unrealistic that the primates in Dawn would band together to fight their human antagonists. “Chimps do wage war,” de Waal says. “They’re quite territorial.” As an admirer of chimps and other primates, he was worried that his cross-species friends might be stereotyped. “I was afraid they’d portray the apes as aggressive and the humans as angelic—but it’s the opposite. The apes want peace in the beginning.”

Also realistic is the stormy relationship between noble Caesar, the apes’ leader, and Koba, the cranky ape who was scarred both physically and psychologically by cruel humans. “They fight,” says de Waal, “but they reconcile afterward, which is something chimps really do. I’ve studied this for many years.” In real life, he explains, chimps patch up their differences by kissing on the mouth, whereas in the film they make up with a more conventionally manly hand-clasp. But still, bonus points for truthiness.

De Waal notes a few other, less defensible inaccuracies. Real apes don’t produce tears when they’re sad, but Dawn apes do; real apes don’t walk on two legs nearly as much as the Dawn apes. They don’t use spoken language, either, and while de Waal believes they could if they really wanted or needed to, it’s not clear why they would prefer speaking to signing—something apes are already physiologically equipped for. To the extent that that and other forms of ape body language are shown, they’re misrepresented. “The apes’ nonverbal communication has been humanized,” he says.

De Waal’s other complaint, albeit a minor one: “This is very much a macho movie,” he says. “It has only a few female characters. It’s mostly just males running around and shooting each other.” A true portrayal of ape society—even one based on a science-fictional premise—would include typical behaviors like feeding, grooming and sex. “It disturbed me a little,” he says. “It was just like a Schwarzenegger movie.”

With lots more body hair, of course.

TIME space

Why the Planet Mercury is So Utterly Peculiar

Mercury, the runt of the solar litter
Mercury, the runt of the solar litter MPI/Getty Images

Planets shouldn't be tiny and full of iron, but that's exactly how Mercury wound up. A very rough childhood may explain its strange state.

Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are known collectively as the rocky planets, in contrast the Solar System’s gas giants—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. (Pluto is an ice dwarf, which makes it sound like a character from either a Disney movie or Game of Thrones, but that’s another story.)

But Mercury doesn’t quite fit with the other rocky worlds, says Erik Asphaug, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University. “Most, including the Earth, have a composition that is about one-third metallic iron and two-thirds rock. Mercury is the other way around.”

That’s a problem for scientists, who don’t like anomalies—at least not ones without explanations. But in this case there may be a simple answer: Mercury is by far the smallest planet—about a third Earth’s diameter—which suggests it did once have a thick, rocky rind, but that it was stripped away somehow, during the early days of the Solar System. So where did all the rock go?

Asphaug thinks he has the answer. “We’re standing on it,” he says. That’s the conclusion he reaches in a new paper in the journal Nature Geoscience, in which he and co-author Andreas Reufer, of Switzerland’s University of Bern, present what amounts to a grand unified theory of rocky planet formation.

Their starting point is the time, about 100 million years after the solar system’s birth, when the original dusty disk of matter that circled the Sun had coalesced into pebbles, then boulders, and ultimately into about 20 objects more or less the size of Mars (which is itself about half the size of Earth)—the last step before one more major consolidation, in which the four familiar inner planets took their final shape.

All of this is pretty much agreed on in the planetary-science community. Everyone agrees further that that final step was something of an interplanetary demolition derby, with massive bodies slamming into each other, smashing apart, then re-forming into even larger objects.

What the new paper now explains, based on computer simulations, is how Mercury and Mars, whose mass adds up to less than 10 percent of the total, were left behind when the rest of the objects merged, or accreted, to form the larger Earth and Venus. “To not be accreted,” explains Asphaug, “a planet has two choices: to avoid all collisions with proto-Venus and proto-Earth, or for every collision to be a ‘hit and run’ collision that does not result in accretion.”

In other words, says Asphaug, “if Mars and Mercury are the last survivors of an original population of 20 Mars-sized planets, then you actually would expect one of them to be a soldier that missed all the action, who slept through the fight or hid.” That’s the planet we now call Mars.

As for Mercury, it saw plenty of action, but it would be the one that got hit mostly by glancing blows, with the outer layers getting stripped away and a successively smaller planet surviving. “The original Mercury,” Asphaug says, “might have been maybe three times the mass of present-day Mercury, but lost it rocky mantle when it impacted proto-Venus or proto-Earth.”

Not only is that the likely explanation, it’s the all-but statistically inevitable one. Given 20 Mars-size objects to begin with, says Asphaug, “you expect to end up with a repeatedly-stripped freak, a planetary core without its mantle.” Earth and Venus would have readily gobbled up some of what Mercury lost.

The same shooting-gallery period in the solar system’s history also explains the formation of the moon, which is Mercury’s compositional opposite, with lots of rock and very little iron. Once Earth had formed from the Mars-sized protoplanets that were whizzing about the solar system, it was slammed hard by one more of them—but instead of just adding to Earth’s already formidable bulk, this collision vaporized some of the impactor and some of the Earth’s outer layers.

That debris went into orbit, then coalesced to form the Moon. And that raises an intriguing counter-theory: maybe that Mars-size impactor, which planetary scientists call Theia, is the object that became Mercury. If that’s correct, the answer to where Mercury’s rocky outer layer went might not be under our feet after all.

It could instead be hovering right above our heads.

TIME space

Rude Planet Ignores Parent

Simulation of a binary star system. (Impolite offspring not pictured.)
Simulation of a binary star system. (Impolite offspring not pictured.) Malcolm Park; Getty Images

Worlds with two suns—like Star Wars' Tatooine—do exist, but they're supposed to love both of their parents equally. A newly discovered planet breaks that rule.

The human ideal might be for every child to have two parents, but the same does not hold true for every planet. The Milky Way is full of so-called binary star systems—two stars orbiting their common center of mass. But theorists always imagined that binary stars would be a childless pair, since the constantly-changing gravity from two orbiting suns would make it hard for a planet to form in the first place, and even if it did, a stable orbit would be tough to maintain. So it was something of a surprise in 2011 when astronomers indeed began finding planets that result from—and thrive in—two-star unions.

The key was that the stars would have to be orbiting each other tightly, with the planet looping around both of them at once, in order for the entire grouping to remain viable. A planet orbiting just one member of such a pair would still be hard to envision.

But now comes a report in Science that says otherwise. Astronomers have found just such a planet, lying 3,000 light-years from Earth: it orbits about 90 million miles (145 million km) from its host star—about the same as the Earth-Sun distance, while a second star orbits at the distance of Saturn, about a billion miles (1.6 billion km) out. The planet is basically ignoring the second star entirely. “This is a kind of system we just haven’t seen before,” says Andy Gould of Ohio State University, lead author of the report.

Gould and his colleagues didn’t find the new planet with common techniques of looking for winks and wobbles—that is, dimming of the host star as a planet passes in front it or movement of the star triggered by a planet’s gravity. Instead, they used microlensing, a technique inspired by no less than Albert Einstein himself. The great physicist suggested back in the 1930′s that if one star drifted in front of another, far more distant star, the closer star’s gravity would act as a lens, briefly magnifying the image of the farther one (it’s a relativity thing).

More recently, astronomers realized that if that closer star had a binary companion, the magnification of the more distant body would be more complex—a combination of flickering and lensing that could be untangled, but only very painstakingly. Since this, unlike the more common techniques, works across vast distances, a subculture of microlens hunters has emerged to look for planets that wouldn’t be found otherwise. In this case, they hit pay-dirt, as the binary-pair-plus-planet (awkwardly known as OGLE-2013-BLG-0341), drifted in front of a background star and the distorted lensing revealed not only the presence of the planet but its single-star orbit as well.

That planet, the observations suggest, is relatively small, with a mass just twice that of Earth. Since its orbit is Earthlike as well, you might think it would be a relatively comfortable place to live—but the star it orbits is so dim that it puts out only 1/400th the energy of our Sun, producing surface temperatures on the planet that are about as frigid as those on Jupiter’s ice-moon Europa. That doesn’t rule out the possibility of life—Europa could harbor plenty of biology in its subsurface oceans—but further observations of OGLE-2013-BLG-0341 are out of the question. Microlensing discoveries are one-shot deals; once the lensing star drifts past the background star, the event will never be repeated.

What’s most valuable here is simply the knowledge that such a system can exist. “Planet formation itself is very mysterious,” says Ohio State astronomer Scott Gaudi, a co-author on the report. “We have theories, but they’re notoriously bad at making predictions. This system demonstrates that yeah, you can make planets in systems like this.” And that, in turn, can only encourage astronomers to look for still more.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Would Rather Endure Electric Shocks Than Sit Alone With Your Thoughts, Study Finds

If you’re crazy busy like most of us and crave some time — just a few minutes, please! — to stop and just think, be careful what you wish for. That’s the upshot of a new study just published in the journal Science. The summary is written in such plain English (very unusual!) that you might as well read it for yourself:

In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

Yes, people would rather stick their finger in an electric socket than sit quietly and think. Or rather, men would: 67% of male participants in one study “gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period,” write University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and his co-authors. On average, the study participants who elected to self-zap gave themselves 1.47 shocks in a 15-minute interval — “not including one outlier,” the paper says, in an impressively straightforward way, “who administered 190 shocks to himself.” (O.K., they didn’t involve actual electric sockets, but it’s still kind of surprising.) Women were far less likely to shock themselves, with only a 25% participation rate.

Why is just sitting and thinking so difficult and unpleasant, you probably wonder. So do the authors, in just those words. Perhaps, they say, “when left alone with their thoughts, participants focused on their own shortcomings and got caught in ruminative thought cycles.”

Another possibility, the authors suggest, is that thinking is just too complicated. In order to do it, you have to choose a topic to think about — a trip to the beach, for example — then mentally experience the trip. Exhausting!

But no. Questioning participants after the experiments revealed that neither explanation held much water. The reason we hate sitting and thinking, despite our fond hopes to the contrary, remains a mystery.

And yet, write the authors, stating the painfully obvious: “There is no doubt that people are sometimes absorbed by interesting ideas, exciting fantasies and pleasant daydreams,” and they do have an answer of sorts.

Research has shown that minds are difficult to control, however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.

Which may not be good news — but it’s at least good to know.





TIME Research

Here’s Why Tibetans Can Live Comfortably At Crazy-High Altitudes

Tibetans Can Live at High Altitudes
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Dave Bartruff—Getty Images

Ancient mating patterns seem to have given these plateau dwellers an odd advantage

When you or I go up to high altitude, we gasp for a while, maybe faint, and then gradually adapt. The way we do it is by furiously generating more red blood cells, to increase the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen, which gets thinner the higher we go. But we pay a price: all of those extra blood cells can make the blood sticky, leading to a risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and, in pregnant women, the delivery of low-birth-weight babies.

We pay that price, that is, unless we’re natives of the Tibetan plateau, where people live more or less cheerfully at altitudes of 13,000 feet and more. The secret lies in their genes—mostly in a gene known as EPAS1, which allows them to absorb scarce oxygen without creating extra blood cells. But while genetic traits are often created by mutations within a given species, this one evidently came from outside. According to a paper just published in the current Nature, the Tibetans’ ancestors evidently mated with a now extinct human species known as the Denisovans, which went extinct somewhere around 40,000 years ago.

It’s no surprise that matings have happened between modern humans and other human species. We share a fair number of genes with the more familiar Neanderthals, for example, who were the Denisovan’s distant cousins. But it’s not clear (although it’s certainly possible) that Neanderthal genes gave our ancestors any specific evolutionary advantages.

For Tibetans, though, the high-altitude gene allowed them to colonize a region nobody else could survive (some Han Chinese, which make up more than 90% of the population of China, also have the gene, but it’s relatively rare). “We found part of the EPAS1 gene in Tibetans is almost identical to the gene in Denisovans,” said lead author Rasmus Nielsen, of the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement, ” and very different from all other humans.”

What’s perhaps even more surprising is that the scientists had Denisovan genes to work with in the first place. “The only reason we can say that this bit of DNA is Denisovan, said Nielsen, “is is because of this lucky accident of sequencing DNA from a little bone found in a cave in Siberia. We found the Denisovan species at the DNA level, but how many other species are out there that we haven’t sequenced?”

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