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by Diana Kwon
Last Sunday’s Oscars, like other similar award ceremonies, reeled in some hundred million viewers. Between Ellen DeGeneres’ selfies and John Travolta’s major mishap, viewers around the world watched as celebrities hoisted high their Oscars, the film industry’s highest honour.
Why do we care so much about watching others win? The benefits of “living vicariously through someone else” – receiving pleasure from the other’s achievements – may be opaque on the surface, but as a social species, our evolutionary success depends on others. Interacting socially can provide access to a wider range of resources and psychological benefits, and our brains have developed mechanisms that allow us to receive joy from vicarious rewards.
Reward processing largely happens in the striatum, a structure located deep inside the brain that got its name from its striped appearance. The striatum is responsible for a number of functions, including voluntary motor control (planning and executing movements), cognition, and reward processing. It also responds to rewards in social situations.
In particular, scientists have identified the ventral striatum as the “reward-center” of the brain. Single-neuron recordings in live monkeys during a rewarded task revealed that striatal neurons responded to the monkey’s own actions and the actions of its counterpart. Some of activation disappeared when a computer completed the task, pointing to the likelihood that these neurons were coding for social actions. Seeing others’ success can create a strong positive response in our reward systems. This likely provided an evolutionary advantage for humans in early societies where survival depended on group members finding food and defeating enemies. Rooting for others can also provide beneficial in today’s society – having a strong social network can contribute to one’s success in most situations. Today, game shows, award ceremonies, and other widely publicized competitions provide alternative outlets to receiving vicarious rewards.
Interestingly, we don’t feel joy for just anyone. There are specific factors that lead to a greater positive response to vicarious rewards.
One factor is similarity. In a 2009 paper published in Science, researchers had participants watch a film of two groups of contestants – “the cool kids” and the “uncool kids” – playing a game. (Social, personal, and ethical questions were used to establish social desirability – “cool” versus “uncool”.)
People rated contestants in the ”cool” group to be more similar to them, and found it more rewarding to see the “cool kids” win. Activity in the ventral striatum mirrored this increased response to other’s success. The authors of the paper suggest that game shows capitalize on this type of similarity bias by recruiting individuals who are similar to their viewers. Advertisers may also use this to their advantage (think about P&G’s “Thank you, Mom” campaign for the 2014 Winter Olympics). The “Raising an Olympian” videos frame the athletes in a relatable way to the audience, portraying them as an average person who makes their way to the top through various trials and tribulations. (If you haven’t seen one of these yet, you can start by watching the Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue video – but I’ll warn you, these ads are addictive.)
Familiarity also leads to greater responses to vicarious rewards. The authors of a 2012 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience had participants conduct a task where they had to share rewards with different types of partners – a computer, a stranger, or a friend. Subjects found sharing rewards with friends the most enjoyable, and had the greatest ventral striatum activation in this condition (there was no difference between the computer and the stranger). The magnitude of this brain activity also depended on the relation to the friend – higher closeness ratings led to greater activity. We are more likely to root for those who are closest to us (including the celebrities or athletes we know and love).
Your current state of mind can also play a role in how much joy you’ll receive from seeing someone else gain a reward. A study published this February in Neuroimage looked at the effect of self-construal (perception of your connectedness with others) on neural responses to personal or vicarious rewards.
As expected, the rewards for yourself or a friend activated the ventral striatum – but the magnitude of this response depended on the participant’s self-construal. When the participant considered themselves as independent agents (not reliant on others for success), neural activity was greater to their own reward than their friend’s. On the other hand, when they focused on their interconnectedness and dependence on others, there was no difference between their own and their friend’s rewards.
Overall, the appeal of watching others win may not be so strange after all. We’re most likely to root for people who are similar and familiar – especially when we focus on our dependence on others for survival. Perhaps the Oscars, Olympics, and any other event that celebrates winners, have the ventral striatum – and evolution – to thank for their success.
Diana is neuroscience graduate student at McGill University and the current Science and Technology editor for The McGill Daily. Find more of her work at www.dianakwon.com.
by Meredith Hanel
Humans require preparation to brave -10oC and colder temperatures, especially young children. But the longer it takes for my children to get ready for a winter walk, the more exited our dog, Abby gets. She has no qualms about heading outside and into a freezer.
As most parents know, you cannot rush four-year-olds, who want to put on all their clothing, all by themselves. Abby adds to the delay by stealing mittens and bounding around joyfully with her prize. Still, she was ready to go, from the moment she heard “walk.” Sure her coat becomes thick and luxurious in winter but I’ve been wondering how her bare paws can stand it. Cold circulation, apparently, is better than no circulation.
Birds and mammals that live in Arctic regions keep their feet at 0oC while maintaining complete sensory and motor control, even at -35˚C and colder. For humans, a drop in hand temperature to below +15oC hands causes us to feel pain and lose motor function, and we get clumsy and drop stuff, like our keys when we try unlocking our cars and houses. Tolerance to cold in domestic dogs depends on how well they are acclimated to the cold, but the paws or our loyal friends are equipped with the same specialized circulation system for protecting their paws from freezing, as their wild cousins, wolves and artic foxes. These cold tolerant features are not found in the paws of cats, which were domesticated from a wildcat in warm Libya.
In cold weather, humans constrict blood vessels in fingers and toes. Not a bad way to prevent heat loss to the environment in a short-term situation. The lack of oxygen to our tissues, however, makes us lose feeling and dexterity, and without warm blood circulating tissues can freeze. Wolves do the opposite, increasing blood flow to their footpads so the paws get a decent supply of oxygen. Excessive heat is not lost through the feet because of the way their footpad circulation works. A countercurrent heat exchange system in their paws is set up where arteries carrying warm blood to the feet are close to veins, which carry cool blood in the opposite direction back towards the heart. Heat from blood flowing to the footpad is transferred to the veins so that by the time it gets near the bottom of the paw it is much cooler. Cooler feet lose less heat to the environment than warm feet and they have an added benefit: ice doesn’t stick.
Other animals make use of countercurrent heat exchange typically for tissues that are not well insulated, like duck legs, whale tongues and seal fins. Mammals have even adapted this system to keep testes cool. Human made countercurrent heat recovery systems allow fresh air to ventilate houses and buildings without increasing energy costs.
Canine feet walk a fine line, where maintenance at -1oC is cold enough to prevent heat loss, yet just warm enough to prevent tissue freezing. Keeping temperature in this zone while the paw is standing on a -35oC surface involves fine nervous control of blood flow. In wolves both hind paws are controlled simultaneously, since when only one hind paw is placed at -35˚C, both hind paws drop their temperature to around -1oC.
When my dog walks around at -20oC she is as happy as she is on a balmy spring day. Yet when I take my mitten off for that 20 seconds to open that poop bag, I feel the pain. Bare feet? I would not even attempt it. Not to mention I would need a pedicure before showing my feet as spending too much time in dry indoor heat has left my feet cracked and chalky.
Meredith earned her PhD in medical genetics and spent many years in the lab doing research in molecular and developmental biology related to medicine. Meredith works in science outreach with Scientists in School. She enjoys writing about science and loves to find out the biology behind just about anything in nature. You can read her blog at http://biologybizarre.blogspot.ca
DEADLINE EXTENDED TO MARCH 15, 2014
The Canadian Science Writers’ Association offers Science In Society awards annually to honour outstanding contributions to journalism and science communication in Canada. This year the CSWA is offering three awards in broad categories to honour excellence in science journalism and science communication presented to the general public during the 2013 calendar year.
DEADLINE EXTENDED TO MARCH 15, 2014
CSWA Science Communication Award: $1,000
This award goes to an individual or small team, museum, university or college, whose work in 2013 explored or explained the topic of science to the public in an informative, accurate and engaging way. The work can be in any medium, and was produced for the purposes of public communications, outreach, advertising, marketing, or any similar venture. For more information and to submit, click Here
CSWA Science Journalism Award: $1,000
This award goes to an individual who has a science piece published in their name in any media during the calendar year 2013. For more information and to submit, click Here
CSWA Herb Lampert Emerging Journalist Award: $1,000
This award is goes to student or newly practicing journalist who has a science piece published in any media during 2013. For more information and to Submit Here
by Anne Steinø
As the mother of a five-year old, I constantly encounter the sugar rush (or sugar high) idea. Don’t let them have a bowl of ice-cream Saturday night or they will never go to sleep! Do not let the babysitter give them a treat or they will set the house on fire! The idea that our children become hyperactive and uncontrollable shortly after consuming sugar is ever-present in the life of a parent with young children. I have never experienced sugar highs myself, nor have I ever seen them in my child, so I decided to dig around a little to explore whether the sugar rush theory has any scientific meat to it.The idea behind the sugar rush stems from the fact that table sugar is made of a disaccharide called sucrose, which is easily and quickly broken down into glucose and fructose.
What happens when you eat a sugary cupcake? You digest it and absorb the glucose directly into your bloodstream. This immediately causes a rise in the amount of glucose in your blood (the blood glucose level). From the bloodstream the glucose heads into your cells, where it feeds directly into a process called glycolysis, a basic metabolic pathway from which cells obtain energy. So far so good: Eating sugar causes a spike in blood glucose, cells grab the glucose from the bloodstream and use it as a quickly metabolized energy source, in other words, glucose provides a hit of energy. It sounds reasonable that eating loads of sugar would result in excessive energy bursts, but is it merely truthiness playing a trick on us?
It appears so. The body is a tightly regulated piece of machinery. Nothing can go too far in any one direction or the whole system is thrown off, for example, we sweat when we’re too hot and shiver when we’re too cold (and a very out-of-whack system means we get sick). Blood glucose levels are also tightly regulated – but in this case by invisible mechanisms. If our blood glucose become too low, our brains are starved and we become confused and irritable and eventually pass out. If our blood glucose is too high for extended periods of time, it has very serious long-term effects on our hearts, eyes, kidneys, and brains. Therefore, the body has a regulatory system to ensure that our blood glucose levels remain within a certain range. This regulatory system keeps blood glucose levels stable, whether we have just consumed a mountain of marshmallows or completed a half-marathon (see FYI below for a description of blood glucose regulation). (In some cases, e.g. diabetes, the regulatory system is not working properly).
Nonetheless, many parents will swear that the sugar rush is true, and that they see it with their own eyes. Since science has not been able to come up with any proof backing this up, researchers started looking for other reasons behind this alleged behavioral change. This is where it becomes really interesting. A study by Hoover and Milich in 1994 showed that the perceived association between sugar-intake and hyperactivity in kids was based on the mother’s belief in this association.
For the experiment the researchers divided mothers and sons into two groups. All the kids were given a sweet drink, but mothers in one group were told that it contained high amounts of sugar, while mothers in the other group were told that it was an artificial sweetener. In fact, all the kids got the same zero-sugar placebo drink. After playtime, mothers in the sugar-group rated their kids as hyperactive, whereas mothers in the placebo-group did not observe a change in behavior. This study suggests that it is the expectancy of the parent and not the actual sugar intake that creates the perception of a sugar rush.
To further explore this suggestion, I looked into the sugar contents of some of the very common children’s snacks that are not associated with a sugar rush and of some of the candies that are. Here is what I found after a quick search through my own cupboards:
- 1 packet of instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal: 12.6 g of sugar
- 1 single-portion pot of raspberry yoghurt: 22 g of sugar
- 1 YOP drinking yoghurt: 24 g of sugar
- M&Ms, 10 pieces: 4.5 g of sugar
- Fun size Snickers bar: 17 g of sugar
This means that the net intake of sugar is the same in 53 pieces of M&Ms as it is in a YOP yoghurt drink. Most parents will gladly feed their child instant oatmeal for breakfast or yoghurt as a snack without thinking twice about it. But if their child eats a Snickers bar at a party and starts running around, it is immediately attributed to the sugar and labelled as “bad behaviour.” Could it be that the child is merely excited about being at a party and getting a treat?
Obviously, me rummaging through my cupboards is in no way scientific proof. So I looked through the literature and found a meta-analysis of 23 studies conducted between 1982 and 1994 comparing sugar to artificial sweetener. None of these studies found any association between sugar and behavior in healthy children.**
Parents know their own kids better than anyone, and we don’t like to be told why they act like they act. We just know! But from a scientific point of view, the sugar rush is a myth. It is based on a mixture of truthiness, a connection between times when kids might encounter sugar and exciting events, and potentially (which is my favourite theory) an anticipated behaviour from parents.
I am by no means advocating that children consume more sugar, as there are many other – scientifically proven – reasons not to do that, like obesity and diabetes. However, instead of teaching our kids to associate treats and fun times, like birthdays and Halloween, with restriction and guilt and bad behaviour, let’s take a look at what we feed our kids day in and day out. Why not swap the YOP for some carrot sticks on regular weekdays, and instead allow our children to be excited about sharing a bag of M&Ms with their friends at a party? Is it necessary to introduce guilt as an inseparable part of enjoying something sweet at special occasions, or should we take a look at the things we call food instead?
** Some studies have suggested a correlation between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and diet, in which case you might actually see a real physical behavioural change linked to increased sugar intake.
FYI: Blood glucose is primarily controlled by two hormones: insulin and glucagon. Insulin lowers blood glucose when it gets too high by ensuring that cells take up the excess glucose from the bloodstream. Glucagon, on the other hand, raises blood glucose when it gets too low, by making sure glucose is released to the blood from our body’s storage systems. Imagine blood glucose as an airplane that needs to maintain a certain altitude (the blood level). Staying at a high altitude will eventually make you sick, while flying too low will kill you in a crash. Insulin lowers the altitude, while glucagon raises it. Together they make sure that the airplane stays at a safe altitude, happily cruising along (I borrowed this excellent analogy from Scott Hanselman, and modified it a bit).
Anne Steino earned her PhD in biochemistry in Denmark in 2008. Since then she has juggled her love for science and communication through a postdoc position at the University of British Columbia, writing articles for a high school biology portal, tutoring UBC medical students and numerous science communications projects in the Vancouver area.
Here are just a few highlights from the Preliminary Programme
What makes a liveable city? We’ll be going from the private spaces and the issues of homelessness, housing and health, through the urban ecosystem and the issues of urban air quality, climate change and ecosystem function, out into the wider urban communities to explore relationships between social welfare and state militaries.
As requested, there will be professional development workshops about how the business of being a freelance journalist is more than knowing how to write an invoice. You might have to get into grant Grabbing and virtual panhandling if you want to survive.
We’ll explore One Story Three Ways, analyzing this year’s story of the human powered helicopter and how the Sikorsky prize was finally won after nearly thirty years as told from three different perspectives; the scientists, the science communicator and the journalist. Is it like that rumour game? What gets lost, and found in translation from science journal to science story?
We’ll be exposed to the latest research on human development from changes to our ideas about genes and their influence on behaviour, to the effect of nutrition on the health development of children, to the cognitive-social-cultural factors that affect the way children learn to lie, to the role that societal conditions play in shaping inequities in population health and human development, and finally to the way our attention changes as we age.
Is anybody paying attention to your tweets? The session on assessing your social media endeavours will explore social media metrics and other ways of gauging your online success and introduce proven strategies to help you meet your goals.
There will be another Canadian Polar Commission reception this year where we’ll share some snacks and consider a case study of the geology behind Canada’s Arctic United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea offshore bid along with some of the sovereignty, and other implications of that bid.
And that’s still not all. There will be Field Trips, complete with Bus Rides!
For details and information about more sessions check out the Preliminary Programme available online now. You can also make an early bird registration and find out about accommodation at the University of Toronto.