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New and diverse experiences linked to enhanced happiness, study shows

When people had more variability in their physical location–visiting more locations in a day and spending proportionately equitable time across these locations–they reported feeling more positive.

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New and diverse experiences are linked to enhanced happiness, and this relationship is associated with greater correlation of brain activity, new research has found. The results, which appear in the journal Nature Neuroscience, reveal a previously unknown connection between our daily physical environments and our sense of well-being.

“Our results suggest that people feel happier when they have more variety in their daily routines–when they go to novel places and have a wider array of experiences,” explains Catherine Hartley, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and one of the paper’s co-authors. “The opposite is also likely true: positive feelings may drive people to seek out these rewarding experiences more frequently.”

Previous studies using animal subjects had shown similar results.

“Collectively, these findings show the beneficial consequences of environmental enrichment across species, demonstrating a connection between real-world exposure to fresh and varied experiences and increases in positive emotions,” adds co-author Aaron Heller, an assistant professor in the University of Miami’s Department of Psychology.

The researchers, who conducted the study prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, recognize that current public-health guidelines and restrictions pose limits on movement. However, they note that even small changes that introduce greater variability into the physical or mental routine–such as exercising at home, going on a walk around the block, and taking a different route to the grocery store or pharmacy–may potentially yield similar beneficial effects.

In the Nature Neuroscience paper, the researchers investigated the following question: Is diversity in humans’ daily experiences associated with more positive emotional states?

To do so, they conducted GPS tracking of participants in New York and Miami for three to four months, asking subjects by text message to report about their positive and negative emotional state during this period.

The results showed that on days when people had more variability in their physical location–visiting more locations in a day and spending proportionately equitable time across these locations–they reported feeling more positive: “happy,” “excited,” “strong,” “relaxed,” and/or “attentive.”

The scientists then sought to determine if this link between exploration and positive emotion had a connection to brain activity.

To do this, about half of the subjects returned to a laboratory and underwent MRI scans.

The MRI results showed that people for whom this effect was the strongest–those whose exposure to diverse experiences was more strongly associated with positive feeling (“affect”)–exhibited greater correlation between brain activity in the hippocampus and the striatum. These are brain regions that are associated, respectively, with the processing of novelty and reward– beneficial or subjectively positive experiences.

“These results suggest a reciprocal link between the novel and diverse experiences we have during our daily exploration of our physical environments and our subjective sense of well-being,” observes Hartley, who also has appointments at NYU’s Center for Neural Science and NYU Langone Health Neuroscience Institute.

The paper’s other authors were: Tracey Shi, a researcher in Hartley’s lab at the time of the study and now a doctoral candidate and medical student Columbia University; C.E. Chiemeka Ezie, a researcher at the University of Miami at the time of the study and now an MD candidate at NYU Grossman School of Medicine; Travis Reneau and Lara Baez, researchers at the University of Miami; and Conor Gibbons, an undergraduate at the University of Miami.

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Allergy season starts earlier each year due to climate change and pollen transport

Allergy sufferers are no strangers to problems with pollen. But now – due to climate change – the pollen season is lasting longer and starting earlier than ever before, meaning more days of itchy eyes and runny noses. Warmer temperatures cause flowers to bloom earlier, while higher CO2 levels cause more pollen to be produced.

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Allergy sufferers are no strangers to problems with pollen. But now – due to climate change – the pollen season is lasting longer and starting earlier than ever before, meaning more days of itchy eyes and runny noses. Warmer temperatures cause flowers to bloom earlier, while higher CO2 levels cause more pollen to be produced.

The effects of climate change on the pollen season have been studied at-length, and according to some scientists, has grown by as much as 20 days in the past 30 years, at least in the US and Canada. But one important element is often overlooked – “Pollen is meant to fly,” says Dr Annette Menzel, Professor of ecoclimatology at the Technical University of Munich. “Transport phenomena have to be taken into account.”

Along with her colleagues, she studied the transport of pollen in Bavaria, Germany, in order to better understand how the pollen season has changed over time. “The transport of pollen has important implications for the length, timing, and severity of the allergenic pollen season,” says Dr Ye Yuan, a coauthor on the study.

Menzel and her team focused on Bavaria – a state in southeast Germany – and used six pollen monitoring stations scattered around the region to analyze data. Their results were recently published in Frontiers in Allergy. They found that certain species of pollen, such as from hazel shrubs and alder trees, advanced the start of their seasons by up to 2 days per year, over a period of 30 years (between 1987 and 2017). Other species, which tend to bloom later in the year, such as birch and ash trees, moved their seasons 0.5 days earlier on average each year, across that same time period.

Pollen can travel hundreds of kilometers and, with changing weather patterns and altered species distributions, it’s possible that people are becoming exposed to “new” pollen species – meaning pollen that our bodies are unaccustomed to encountering each year.

While it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between local and transported pollen, the researchers focused on pre-season transports. So, for example, if pollen from birch trees was present at the monitoring station, but local birch trees would not flower for at least another 10 days, that pollen was considered to be transported from far away.

“We were surprised that pre-season pollen transport is a quite common phenomenon being observed in two-thirds of the cases,” says Menzel. As for why it’s important to understand how much pollen is from far away, Yuan says that: “Especially for light-weight allergenic [pollen], long distance transport could seriously influence local human health.”

By examining another element besides simple pollen concentration, scientists can delve deeper into how exactly the pollen season is being affected by climate change. For example, Menzel says that the pollen season may be even longer than estimated based on flowering observations by “taking into account pollen transport, as it has been done in our current study.”

While the Munich study did not track how far pollen was transported, and only differentiated between local and long-range transport (meaning pollen coming from outside Bavaria), it provides a crucial key in our understanding of annual pollen patterns. Yuan says that future studies should account for “climate change scenarios [and] land use/land cover changes.” He also adds that citizen scientists may be able to contribute to pollen studies, who can help collect local observations and contribute to data collection.

It doesn’t look like the pollen season will shorten any time soon, but more research on the subject can provide a better understanding of global patterns and changes so that we can better address these issues in the future.

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Women better at reading minds than men – study

Mind-reading, sometimes referred to in psychology as ‘mentalising’, is an important ability enabling us to pick-up on subtle behavioural cues that might indicate that someone we are speaking to is thinking something that they are not saying (e.g. being sarcastic or even lying).

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Psychologists at the University of Bath, Cardiff, and London have developed the first ever ‘mind-reading questionnaire’ to assess how well people understand what others are really thinking.

A new approach to ‘mind-reading’ has been developed by researchers at the University of Bath, Cardiff, and London to improve how well we understand what others are thinking. And it transpires that women are much better than men at putting themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Mind-reading, sometimes referred to in psychology as ‘mentalising’, is an important ability enabling us to pick-up on subtle behavioural cues that might indicate that someone we are speaking to is thinking something that they are not saying (e.g. being sarcastic or even lying).

The researchers say that we all have different mind-reading abilities, with some of us inherently better than others. The fact that not all of us are good at mind-reading can cause challenges – in particular for people with autism where it can lead to social struggles in building or maintaining relationships.

To identify those people who have difficulties and to provide them with appropriate support, the team at Bath designed a new mind-reading test, which draws on data from over 4,000 autistic and non-autistic people in the UK and US.

Results from their simple, four-step questionnaire were scored, ranging from 4 to 16 (with 4 indicating poor mind-reading abilities; 16 indicating excellent abilities). The average score for their questionnaire was between 12 and 13. After statistically confirming that the test was measuring the same thing in men and women, they found that females reported better mind-reading than males, whilst also confirming some of the well-reported social challenges faced by the autistic community.

Their method, which uses just four questions to assess individuals, is published in the journal Psychological Assessment.

Dr Punit Shah, senior author of the study and leading expert on social cognitive processing at the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology explained: “We will all undoubtedly have had experiences where we have felt we have not connected with other people we are talking to, where we’ve perceived that they have failed to understand us, or where things we’ve said have been taken the wrong way. Much of how we communicate relies on our understanding of what others are thinking, yet this is a surprisingly complex process that not everyone can do.

“To understand this psychological process, we needed to separate mind-reading from empathy. Mind-reading refers to understanding what other people are thinking, whereas empathy is all about understanding what others are feeling. The difference might seem subtle but is critically important and involves very different brain networks. By focussing carefully on measuring mind-reading, without confusing it with empathy, we are confident that we have just measured mind-reading. And, when doing this, we consistently find that females reported greater mind-reading abilities than their male counterparts.”

Lead researcher, Rachel Clutterbuck, emphasised the clinical importance of the questionnaire. She said: “This new test, which takes under a minute to complete, has important utility in clinical settings. It is not always obvious if someone is experiencing difficulties understanding and responding to others – and many people have learnt techniques which can reduce the appearance of social difficulties, even though these remain.

“This work has great potential to better understand the lived experience of people with mind-reading difficulties, such as those with autism, whilst producing a precise quantitative score that may be used by clinicians to identify individuals who may benefit from interventions.”

Dr Shah added: “This research has been about understanding more about our mind-reading abilities and providing solutions to those who might struggle, particularly the autistic community. We have created a freely available questionnaire which we hope can help identify people who are experiencing mental difficulties relevant to social situations.”

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Acid reflux disease may increase risk of cancers of the larynx and esophagus

Results from a large prospective study indicate that gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which also causes heartburn symptoms, is linked with higher risks of various cancers of the larynx (or voice box) and esophagus.

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Results from a large prospective study indicate that gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which also causes heartburn symptoms, is linked with higher risks of various cancers of the larynx (or voice box) and esophagus. The study is published in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.

GERD, a gastrointestinal disorder that affects approximately 20 percent of U.S. adults, occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus, where it can cause tissue damage. Research indicates that this damage may put patients at risk of developing a type of cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma.

To provide additional insights concerning this link and potential links to other types of cancer, a team led by Christian C. Abnet, PhD, of the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), examined information on 490,605 adults enrolled in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, a prospective study that mailed questionnaires in 1995-1996 to 3.5 million AARP members, aged between 50 and 71 years who were living in California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, or Pennsylvania, or in the metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Georgia, and Detroit, Michigan.

Using Medicare claims data, the investigators estimated that 24 percent of participants had a history of GERD. Over the following 16 years after participants joined the study, 931 patients developed esophageal adenocarcinoma, 876 developed laryngeal squamous cell carcinoma, and 301 developed esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. People with GERD had about a two-times higher risk of developing each of these types of cancer, and the elevated risk was similar across groups categorized by sex, smoking status, and alcohol consumption. The investigators were able to replicate the results when they restricted analyses to the Medicare data subset of 107,258 adults.

The team estimated that approximately 17 percent of these cancers in the larynx and esophagus are associated with GERD.

“This study alone is not sufficient to result in specific actions by the public. Additional research is needed to replicate these findings and establish GERD as a risk factor for cancer and other diseases,” said Dr. Abnet. “Future studies are needed to evaluate whether treatments aimed at GERD symptoms will alter the apparent risks.”

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