TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Here’s Why Email Puts You in a Nasty Mood

Four hands using smart phones
James Boast / Getty Images—Ikon Images Work has become a 24/7 job, thanks to technology.

A combination of anxiety for work during non-work hours and emails make for stressed out workers.

Your alarm goes off, you roll over, grab your phone, and flicker your eyes open. You squint in the glow of the blue and it begins: You’re scrolling through notifications, emails, texts.

It’s already been shown that emailing after business hours can be psychologically damaging, but new research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology confirms what you probably know in your gut to be true: workers who are expected to be available even when they aren’t at work experience an elevated stress response.

Psychologists from the University of Hamburg asked 132 people from 13 workplaces to complete a daily survey over a period of eight days—four on which they were expected to be available for work, four on which they were not. They were all surveyed, and half the participants also provided saliva samples that were measured for cortisol. (Cortisol is the hormone released in response to stressful situations.)

The results showed that during times when a person was expected to be reachable, people had elevated cortisol levels and reported being stressed. While that might be expected, what is interesting is that when a person is not required to be physically available at the office, there’s still a significant uptick in cortisol.

The culprit? A combination of your smartphone and a culture that increasingly blurs the lines between work and leisure. In today’s workforce, “job contacts and work availability outside regular business hours are associated with impaired wellbeing,” the authors write.

So why do we do it?

Americans are famously workaholics. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, American workers log about 1,788 hours of work per year, above the next longest-working group, the Japanese, at 1,735. Many Europeans work far less. The French clock in 1,489 hours while the Germans work 1,388 per year.

This isn’t the future the economist John Maynard Keynes imagined for us. He prophesied that we’d attain a level of industrialization that would make leisure more valuable, to the point where humans would work only 15 hours per week. Instead, our idea of relaxation is keeping an eye on the TV while watching multiple feeds on our smartphone including, yes, email.

Marcus Butts, a professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, and his colleague, Wendy Boswell from Texas A & M University, released a study in June focusing on the emotional effect of emails received during non-work hours on Monday through Friday.

“We looked at the tone of the email and the time it took you to respond to the email,” says Butts. “When it comes to emails that are negative in tone, it makes you angry. Being angry takes a lot of focus and our resources and it keeps us from being engaged with other things.” In other words, an email—particularly a negative one—has the power to destroy your evening.

But there are two types of people in the world, Butts noted. There are segmentors, who keep their work and nonwork lives separate. They don’t answer emails after hours. And then there are integrators, people who mesh their work and personal lives by combining their work lives with their social lives and tend to answer emails at all hours. It’s the integrators who get more stressed when an email pops up.

Regardless, the anxiety of email is “not good,” Butts says. “Email doesn’t let you pay attention or engage in non-work life.”

 

TIME human behavior

Are There Really Benefits to Writing Things By Hand?

Writing by hand on chalkboard
Jeffrey Coolidge / Getty Images Is writing by hand really psychologically beneficial?

A new Bic commercial claims four benefits to writing by hand.

Most office-working adults in America spend their days hunched over a computer, tapping at keys to form words on a screen. Very few use a notebook or spend time writing. Even those of us whose professional occupation is “writer” tend to spend far less time writing with a pen in hand than they do typing.

Of course, as with so many things that are perceived as old-timey, writing by hand has become if not a modern necessity, then a trend. Cursive lessons have become all the vogue in some circles and is credited with helping dyslexic students. J. K. Rowling famously wrote the Harry Potter series on napkins. Handwriting has been elevated to the highest levels of art, be it the digitally collected ecriture infinie or Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit on artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s notebooks.

Jumping on the bandwagon too is Bic, the pen company, which has launched a campaign to get kids to write. Called “Fight for the Write,” the campaign boasts a video featuring a boy inspiring a classroom of kids through a series of “interesting facts” that show the benefits of writing: increased creativity, better critical thinking, boosted self confidence, and a correlated improvement in reading capability with writing prowess.

But are these benefits real? The short answer: Mostly not. “There’s lot of caveats in handwriting research,” says Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University who studies early childhood brain development at Indiana University and has looked at how writing by hand affects pre-literate brains.

The creativity claim is most likely a stretch because measuring creativity is nearly impossible. “How are you defining creativity?” James says. “There’s all kinds of ways to: across individuals, ages, contexts—social, academic. It’s really hard to study, so that [claim] is a stretch.”

Intuitively, the idea that handwriting can improve critical thinking makes sense: Writing more would seem to entail thinking more thoroughly about topics and journaling, we know, has been shown to be excellent for introspection. But while writing by hand has been shown to be a good exercise for introspection, the evidence of writing out homework assignments remains very muddled.

As for self-confidence: writing and reading comprehension are neurally connected, and better readers often have more academic self-confidence. “If a kindergartner is reading at a first grade level, they do better academically, which means they have more confidence in their ability to perform,” James says. “The more children write, the easier it is for them to recognize a letter. Letter recognition is the highest predictor to reading later on.”

So there is merit in this claim. But on its own, writing probably does little to boost self-confidence. More likely, James says, is that increased creativity and self-confidence are secondary, correlated effects.

In 2012, James published a study along with her co-author, Laura Engelhardt, that began: “In an age of increasing technology, the possibility that typing on a keyboard will replace handwriting raises questions about the future usefulness of handwriting skills.”

James and Engelhardt found that writing is particularly instrumental in the cognitive development of pre-literate 5 year olds. The kids, who were learning the alphabet, wrote, traced, and typed letters. MRI scans found that the kids who had written letters were able to perceive the letters better, helping them to read at better rates compared to the typers and tracers.

Still, since control groups are impossible in reading and writing studies—you can’t decide to not teach some kids to read or write—“It’s tricky,” James says.

The parts of the brain activated when children learn to write—the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex—are the same that are active in older children and adults when they are reading. James wanted to know whether reading affected writing or the other way around. “That’s why we looked at [pre-literate] kids,” she said. “We didn’t know if reading came first and activated this network for handwriting of if it was vice versa. We found that reading networks are activated when reading happens, and writing uses that network.”

So while the idea of writing by hand and its memory-enhancing capabilities have been covered—and studied—ad nauseum, the effects of writing on other mental indicators are less understood. Research is correlational. “We don’t really have facts, we have evidence,” says James. “But it’s highly suggestive evidence.”

TIME Exercise/Fitness

How Exercise Helps Curb Alzheimer’s Symptoms

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Pamplemousse—Getty Images/OJO Images RF

Most studies so far have focused on the importance of physical activity before you develop Alzheimer’s. But can it treat the disease once you are diagnosed? Two studies hint that may be the case

At the annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in July 2015, scientists report some encouraging news about the benefits of exercise. In the first studies to look at physical activity among people already diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, moderate to high intensity workouts may not only slow down the biological symptoms of Alzheimer’s—but may lead to improvements in cognitive functions as well.

In one study involving 200 people with mild or moderate disease, Dr. Steen Hasselbalch from the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues randomly assigned some participants to an hour of exercise three times a week for 16 weeks, while allowing the remainder to continue without a regular activity regimen. After a phase-in period, the exercisers were working at a moderate to intense level, achieving 70% to 80% of their maximum heart rate for at least half of each session.

MORE: Your School Grades Affect Your Risk of Dementia

That level of intensity is important, says Hasselbalch, to achieve results. Compared to the control group, the exercisers showed fewer symptoms such as anxiety, changes in mood and depression that are common among Alzheimer’s patients. Overall, those who were more active did not show any changes in cognitive functions, but when Hasselbalch looked at the results more carefully, he found that participants with milder disease who exercised actually did perform better on intellectual skills after the 16 weeks. They were tested on memory, language, mental speed and other executive functions.

“It’s been shown with other diseases that exercise can have beneficial effects,” he says. “Now we have shown it’s also important for dementia. So if you now have this alternative treatment, it sends a message that you can do something even after diagnosis to treat dementia.”

MORE: Two New Alzheimer’s Drugs Offer Hope—With Caveats

Because the people exercised in a group setting, he says that simply being part of that social situation and getting out of the house and interacting with others appears to reduce the mood-related symptoms of Alzheimer’s. “But if you really want an effect on cognition, then you have to exercise hard.”

He admits that his study did not delve into how the exercise might be contributing to the improved cognitive changes, but he will be analyzing the blood and cerebral spinal fluid collected from the participants to study that further.

MORE: Alzheimer’s May Show Up in Saliva

Such changes are what Laura Baker, from Wake Forest School of Medicine, and her team did with another group of early stage Alzheimer’s patients. They wanted to see what biological changes exercise might have on the Alzheimer’s process, and focused on 70 patients with mild cognitive impairment and diabetes, both of which significantly increase the risk for Alzheimer’s. Some were randomly assigned to simple stretching exercises, while others were told to exercise four times a week and, like those in Hasselbalch’s study, had to work hard enough to raise their heart rate to 70% to 80% of its maximum for 30 of the 45 minutes of each session. Baker then studied their cognitive function tests, brain imaging and levels of Alzheimer’s proteins in their cerebral spinal fluid.

She found that those who exercise rigorously increased the blood flow in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and higher level processing. The result was a dramatically increased score, by 80%, on average on the cognitive tests than those who just stretched, even after accounting for age-related changes in thinking. More intriguing, the exercisers also showed on average a 14% lower level of the protein tau, which is a good indicator that brain neurons are dying and Alzheimer’s processes are well underway, at the end of the study compared to before they began the exercise regimen.

“What’s encouraging to us is that we don’t have treatments now; there’s nothing for Alzheimer’s patients,” says Baker. “The possibility that a non-medicine intervention could actually change the disease — we’re just very encouraged by these results,.”

While the exercise regimen wasn’t an easy one — it qualifies as moderately intense physical activity, which for a group of older adults who are likely sedentary to begin with is certainly a challenge, both Hasselbalch and Baker say that with the right execution — by working with participants and by gradually increasing their exercise level — achieving the amounts of activity needed to help their brains is possible. Baker also points out that it’s time to start studying the combined effects of new medications that are being tested for Alzheimer’s and increased physical activity. Together, she says, they may hold the key to actually slowing down and possibly even reversing progression of the disease.

TIME neuroscience

Diabetes Drugs May Offer Hope for Parkinson’s Disease Treatment

actos glitazone
Levin/Papantonio

Diabetes patients who took these medications had a 28% lower chance of developing Parkinson's

Two forms of diabetes medication may reduce risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, according to a new study.

Researchers analyzed data on more than 160,000 diabetes patients in the U.K. and found that patients who took rosiglitazone or pioglitazone had a 28% lower chance of developing Parkinson’s than their counterparts who took other diabetes medication, according to the study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine. The drugs were originally developed by GlaxoSmithKline and Takeda, respectively, but they are now off patent.

The research does not suggest that people with Parkinson’s take the diabetes drugs directly. Rather, the findings offer hope for future Parkinson’s research.

“We often hear about negative side effects associated with medications, but sometimes there can also be unintended beneficial effects,” senior researcher Ian Douglas from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine told Reuters.

TIME neuroscience

Green Spaces at School May Help Kids’ Brains

A significant increase in exposure to green spaces resulted in a 5% increase in the development of children's working memory

Exposure to green space at a young age may aid children’s cognitive development, according to a new study in the journal PNAS.

Researchers, who evaluated data on nearly 2,600 Barcelona schoolchildren between the ages of 7 and 10, found that exposure to green space was correlated with improved working memory and decreased inattentiveness. The results were most remarkable when there was more green space at school.

Part of the association can be connected to traffic pollution, which accounted for somewhere between 20% and 65% the effect of being exposed to green space. Green space at school may also increase physical activity and reduce noise, according to the study. Overall, a significant increase in green space at school could end the impairment of nearly 9% of students with impaired working memory, according to the researchers.

The researchers used satellite data to assess the greenness of both children’s homes and their schools. Overall, a significant increase in exposure to green spaces resulted in a 5% increase in the development of children’s working memory after a one-year period, as well as a 1% decrease in inattentiveness.

Previous research has shown associations between green space and mental and physical health but this is the first study to suggest that exposure to green spaces may aid cognition. The research, still in early stages, needs further work to confirm it.

TIME neuroscience

Game-Changing Discovery Links the Brain and the Immune System

New research could affect how we approach everything from Alzheimer's to autism

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have made a dazzling discovery, published this week in Nature: the brain is directly connected to the immune system by previously unknown vessels.

“The first time these guys showed me the basic result, I just said one sentence: ‘They’ll have to change the textbooks,'” Kevin Lee, chairman of the UVA Department of Neuroscience, told Science Daily. He added that the discovery “will fundamentally change the way people look at the central nervous system’s relationship with the immune system.”

The discovery of these new vessels has enormous implications for every neurological disease with an immune component, from Alzheimer’s to multiple sclerosis. It could open up entirely new avenues for research and treatment alike, all stemming from the kind of discovery that has become extraordinarily rare in the 21st century.

“I really did not believe there are structures in the body that we are not aware of. I thought the body was mapped,” said director of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia Jonathan Kipnis, who worked on the research. “I thought that these discoveries ended somewhere around the middle of the last century. But apparently they have not.”

Read more at Science Daily

TIME neuroscience

You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish

No longer can we boast about 12 seconds of coherent thought

The average attention span for the notoriously ill-focused goldfish is nine seconds, but according to a new study from Microsoft Corp., people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the affects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.

Researchers in Canada surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs). Microsoft found that since the year 2000 (or about when the mobile revolution began) the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds.

“Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” the report read.

On the positive side, the report says our ability to multitask has drastically improved in the mobile age.

Microsoft theorized that the changes were a result of the brain’s ability to adapt and change itself over time and a weaker attention span may be a side effect of evolving to a mobile Internet.

The survey also confirmed generational differences for mobile use; for example, 77% of people aged 18 to 24 responded “yes” when asked, “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,” compared with only 10% of those over the age of 65.

And now congratulate yourself for concentrating long enough to make it through this article.

MONEY consumer psychology

This is Your Brain on Expensive Wine

150507_EM_BrainonWine
Scott Camazine—Getty Images

Here's one reason why you might get more pleasure from wines with extravagant price tags.

A new study in the Journal of Marketing Research confirms what prior research (and, in some cases, gut feeling) has told us for years: Most people can’t really taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine.

These new findings, by INSEAD marketing professor Hilke Plassmann and University of Bonn neuroscience professor Bernd Weber, go a step further than previous studies in explaining why people get more enjoyment from a wine they’re told is expensive and less pleasure from one they’re told is cheap—even if they are actually drinking the same wine.

“Expectations truly influence neurobiological responses,” write the authors.

But how much we’re swayed by that influence ranges from person to person. One key factor, the researchers found, is the structure of your brain. Everyone is somewhat suggestible to the placebo effect from being told wine is cheap or expensive, but some brains are more suggestible than others.

Specifically, people with more volume in areas of the brain controlling sensory awareness are less susceptible to marketing placebo effects. (That’s logical: They’re more likely to sense, on their own, if a wine tastes cheap.)

On the other hand, people with more volume in parts of the brain associated with reward seeking and emotional self-evaluation are more susceptible to marketing placebo effects from price tags. The authors theorize that expectations have a bigger effect on these people: As soon as they see an high price, it appears, they start anticipating a luxurious experience, whether consciously or not.

One big grain of salt? Neuroscientists don’t all agree that using brain structure to infer behavior or personality makes for sound science—and Plassmann and Weber acknowledge in their study that some researchers are skeptical of that methodology in general.

Though the authors used MRI brain scans to arrive at their conclusions, they also asked subjects to answer questions as another way of measuring how personality was correlated with susceptibility to prices. For example, they asked subjects how much they agreed with statements like “when I get something I want, I feel excited and energized” as a second way of determining how “reward-seeking” they were—and found a similar effect as in the MRI section of the study.

Previous blind tasting studies have also found that when prices are hidden, most people don’t enjoy expensive wines more than cheaper bottles. Surprisingly, they even tend to rate inexpensive bottles slightly higher.

TIME Research

Air Pollution May Make Your Brain Age Faster, Study Says

Air pollution can also increase your risk of a stroke

Long-term exposure to air pollution may cause your brain to age more quickly and put you at higher risk for a stroke, a new study suggests.

Exposure to higher levels of air pollution may be linked to lower total cerebral brain volume, according to a study published in the May issue of Stroke, which analyzed health data from nearly 1,000 men and women over 60 who did not have dementia and had not had a stroke.

Total cerebral brain volume naturally decreases as humans age, resulting in declines in ability to learn new things and retrieve information, but the researchers found that air pollution exposure may be linked to premature brain aging and higher risks for certain brain strokes.

The findings add new knowledge to the impact of air pollution on the structure of the brain, a link that has remained largely unclear in research.

Specifically, a 2 microgram per square meter increase in PM2.5 (particulate matter in the air that is less than 2.5 micrometers wide) was associated with a 0.32% lower total cerebral brain volume, the study said. To put that in context, brain volume decreases at about 0.5% per year after age 40, and PM2.5 levels can vary widely across the world. For example, the PM2.5 in Beijing is about 175 micrograms per square meter, while the PM2.5 in New York City is about 30 micrograms per square meter.

TIME neuroscience

Alzheimer’s May Be Caused by Misfiring Immune System, Study Suggests

Breakthrough may lead to innovative approaches to treatment

New research suggests that deprivation of an amino acid called arginine may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease — a finding that could help usher in new treatment strategies for patients suffering from the debilitating illness.

A team at Duke University focusing on the immune system found that cells designed to protect the brain from infection will uncharacteristically consume arginine during the early stages of Alzheimer’s, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Our approach is recognized as unique and opens new avenues to think about what causes Alzheimer’s disease and new ways to treat the disease,” senior author Dr. Carol Colton told TIME.

The team was also able to block the arginine consumption process using a drug called difluoromethylornithine, which is used to treat cancer. But according to Colton, they eventually need to find a more suitable agent.

Nevertheless, the mice that underwent the therapy performed better on memory tests.

“The response to this potential new mechanism … is favorable,” Colton said. “[We are] cautiously optimistic.”

The next step for researchers will be to test older mice that already have an advanced form of Alzheimer’s.

The study was published in the April 15 issue of Journal of Neuroscience.

In 2013, Alzheimer’s affected as many as 5 million Americans and in 2050 the number is projected to rise to 14 million people, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

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