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 astronomy

Photos: It’s Always the Fourth of July in Space

Some of the universe's most stunning galaxies, nebulas and stars are colored like the American flag—and have been for billions of years

See the best red, white and blue photos from space to celebrate the Fourth of July.

TIME Research

Study: Plants Can ‘Hear’ Their Attackers’ Approach

caterpillar eating a leaf
Close up of a monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus, feeding on a milkweed leaf. Darlyne A. Murawski—Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

Some plants can hear and react to enemy caterpillars

Some plants can hear caterpillars eating leaves and respond by emitting caterpillar-repelling chemicals, according to a new study published in the journal Oecologia.

Scientists have known that certain plants respond to sound vibrations—corn roots, for example, lean toward vibrations of a specific frequency—but until now it hasn’t been clear why they’re able to do so. In this experiment, researchers from University of Missouri exposed one set of plants to a recording of caterpillars eating plants and found they emitted more of the anti-caterpillar chemical and did it more quickly than the plants that weren’t exposed to the sound.

The researchers also found that background noise like wind or insects had no impact on the plants, indicating that the plants could distinguish the sound of their attackers.

Now the researchers are looking for the “ears” of the plants that allow them to hear, though they suspect they take the form of proteins known as “mechanoreceptors” found in plants and animals that respond to pressure.

TIME China

African-Elephant Poaching Soars as Ivory Prices Triple in China

Officials and guests including Hong Kong's Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing are shown seized ivory displayed in Hong Kong
Officials and guests, including Hong Kong's Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing, are shown seized ivory in Hong Kong on May 15, 2014 Reuters

Nigeria and Angola sell the greatest amount of ivory products in Africa

The price African ivory fetches in China has tripled in the past four years, causing the dissident militias and organized-crime groups that monopolize the trade to ramp up illicit poaching, according to a report released on Thursday.

Increased demand spurred by Beijing’s lax ivory laws has seen ivory prices rocket from $750 in 2010 to $2,100 in 2014, meaning the widespread slaughter of African elephants “shows little sign of abating,” according to Save the Elephants. The campaign group estimates 33,000 elephants were slaughtered annually between 2010 and 2012.

China has long had a fascination with ivory that harks back hundreds of years to traditional ivory carvings. In modern times, wealthy Chinese value ivory as a status symbol or to use as gifts to sweeten potential business deals, reports the BBC.

Conservationists say communities in Nigeria and Angola sell the greatest amount of ivory products in Africa. “Without concerted international action to reduce the demand for ivory, measures to reduce the killing of elephants for ivory will fail,” Save the Elephants founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton tells AFP.

TIME Science

New Technique Creates Corneas in Mice Using Adult Human Stem Cells

Injured Cornea
Wounded Cornea Getty Images

The discovery is one of the first known examples of tissues being created from adult human stem cells

Scientists may have discovered a way to regrow human corneas by implanting stem cells into mice, providing hope to those with degenerative eye diseases and victims of chemical or thermal burns.

The degradation of limbal stem cells — cells that help repair corneal tissue — is the most common cause of blindness. According to the study released in the journal Nature, researchers used antibodies to target a molecule called ABCB5, which had never been found on limbal stem cells until now.

Scientists used the tracing molecule to detect the elusive limbal stem cells deep inside the limbus, which is an area between the white portion of the eye and the cornea. Researchers then successfully transplanted the limbal stem cells from deceased donors into mice to create fully formed human corneas.

“The mouse model allowed us for the first time to understand the role of ABCB5 in normal development, and should be very important to the stem cell field in general,” said Dr. Natasha Frank, of the VA Boston Healthcare System and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Although the study has rather broad implications, co-lead author Dr. Bruce Ksander, of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, admitted that it didn’t guarantee sight for all blind patients. “Limbal stem cells are very rare, and successful transplants are dependent on these rare cells,” he said.

TIME weather

WATCH: Lightning Strike in NYC Caught on Video

You may not be able to capture lightning in a bottle, but you can certainly post it on YouTube

TIME astronomy

The Ocean on Saturn’s Moon Is as Salty as the Dead Sea

Titan's ice shell is believed to cover a very salty ocean. NASA/JPL/SSI/Univ. of Arizona/G. Mitri/University of Nantes

The level of salt in Titan's ocean may mean we have to rethink the chance of present-day life on Saturn's largest moon.

Scientists say the ocean within Saturn’s largest moon may be as salty as the Dead Sea.

A new analysis of data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been studying Saturn’s moon Titan for the last ten years, allowed researchers to create a model structure for Titan, including its icy shell and the ocean of water and other minerals that lies beneath.

Based on Titan’s gravity, they determined that the moon’s ocean must be relatively dense. That suggests it contains a large a portion of salts–likely composed of sulfur, sodium and potassium–on par with Earth’s saltiest bodies of waters. Sadly, no taste test was involved. The latest findings about Titan were published in this week’s edition of the journal Icarus.

“This is an extremely salty ocean by Earth standards,” the paper’s lead author, Giuseppe Mitri of the University of Nantes in France, said in a statement. “Knowing this may change the way we view this ocean as a possible abode for present-day life, but conditions might have been very different there in the past.”

 

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?”

TIME Environment

Report Sees a Glimmer of Hope for Coral Reefs

School of smallmouth grunts (Haemulon chrysargyreum) over the coral reef Curacao, Netherlands Antilles
School of smallmouth grunts (Haemulon chrysargyreum) over the coral reef, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. UIG /Getty Images

A staggering decline but also a way to reverse it

The rapid decline in Caribbean coral reefs is a result of fewer grazing species, but the right action can still reverse the decline, according to a new report.

The Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012 report was conducted in a joint effort by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The rate of coral reef decline is staggering—almost 50% of reefs have disappeared since the 1970s, the report says. Researchers attribute the loss to the decline of reef grazers like the parrotfish and sea urchin.

“But this study brings some very encouraging news: the fate of Caribbean corals is not beyond our control and there are some very concrete steps that we can take to help them recover,” Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme, said in a statement.

Countries with restricted fishing and hunting bans have the healthiest reefs, helping to encourage the rejuvenation of grazing populations. The report encourages others to follow their lead.

“This is the kind of aggressive management that needs to be replicated regionally if we are going to increase the resilience of Caribbean reefs,” said Ayana Johnson of the Waitt Institute’s Blue Halo Initiative.

TIME animals

DNA Study Proves Bigfoot Never Existed

Juuuuust in case...
Juuuuust in case... Lynn Janes, Photonica; Getty

Curse you, reliable DNA studies! Must you spoil all the fun?

In a stunning finding that set off shock waves of grieving through much of the world, University of Oxford researchers announced that the beloved bipedal cryptid known globally as Bigfoot is dead—or, more specifically, that he never existed.

Mr. Foot, who also went by the name Sasquatch, or Sásq’ets in the original Halkomelem, was 4,000 years old. Or maybe not.

The Oxford finding was the result of a three-year study that began in 2012 when researchers issued an open call for hair samples held in museums and private collections that were said to come from “an anomalous primate,” which is the kind of term scientists from a place like Oxford University often use when they’re publishing a peer-reviewed paper on, you know, Bigfoot, and don’t want to be snickered at by other Oxford University scientists in the faculty lounge. Thirty-six samples from the U.S., Russia, Indonesia, India, Bhutan and Nepal were ultimately submitted, a geographical range that suggested a) there was more than one “anomalous primate” out there, b) there is only one, but he is really, really well-traveled, c) there’s a teensy-weensy chance the hairs came from something else.

To find out, the investigators conducted DNA analyses on the samples and compared their findings to those of known species of animals. As it turned out they got some hits—a lot of them actually. The samples, the investigators found, came from animals as diverse as bears, wolves, raccoons, porcupine, deer, sheep, at least one human, and a cow. Again, that’s a cow.

The news was met with something less than universal acceptance that the long-rumored 10-ft. tall, 500-lb. creature with a two-ft. footprint, a coat of reddish brown hair, the sagittal crest of a gorilla and an unpleasant smell just might not exist. “The fact that none of these samples turned out to be [Bigfoot] doesn’t mean the next one won’t,” said no less a person than Bryan Sykes, the Oxford researcher who led the study, according to the Associated Press.

The Guardian headlined its story on the announcement “DNA analysis indicates Bigfoot may be a big fake,” begging the question of what it might take to warrant a headline that Bigfoot is a big fake.

None of that will do much to relieve the grief in the parts of Bigfoot-loving community that do, reluctantly, accept the Oxford team’s findings. As yet, Bigfoot intimates Kraken, Wendigo, Yeti and The Loch Ness Monster have issued no statement and have not returned calls or e-mails requesting comments. That could, scientific literalists suggest, indicate that they don’t exist either. But really, they’ve probably just gone into seclusion.

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