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Habitually barefoot kids have better motor skills
A quarter-million years of evolution can't be wrong.
Are things getting better or worse? That’s the topic of a recent New Yorker article, in which Joshua Rothman investigates divergent theories on the state of the world. Technology, the breakthrough that’s perpetually supposed to make life more unified and easier, consistently appears to do the opposite. As Rothman writes, when the news is on the television in the other room, you have to make effort to listen; when it vibrates in your pocket you’re on high alert for the next tragedy every moment.
Yet things are getting better, in many ways, from healthcare and lifespan to finance and housing. Still, a small majority of Americans believe the country was better in 1967 than in 2017. Romanticizing history is a survival mechanism of sorts; our memories exploit circumstances to tilt in our favor. (In cases of depression and anxiety, we remember things as worse.) When favoring the past, people often think of it as simpler, purer in some regard, even though we’re (relatively) richer and healthier today.
There are certain facets of the past worth investigating, however. For 15 years I’ve been a minimalist shoe advocate. I spend my days barefoot, while all my footwear is zero-drop. I never understood how a quarter-million years of development as bipeds would lead to stuffing our appendages into what biomechanist Katy Bowman calls “foot coffins.”
While heels and other accessories are centuries old, the padded heel so popular for sport is less than 50. As the journalist and avid runner Christopher McDougall points out, the heeled sports shoe was the result of a marketing initiative by Nike to sell more shoes.
Boy from the Himba tribe walking barefoot on the harsh ground of the Kunene region. (Photo by Jorge Fernández/LightRocket via Getty Images)
As a fitness instructor, I meet many people with foot problems. Their problems are often exacerbated when barefoot. Yet they also spend no time barefoot. Instead of addressing their mechanical problems, podiatrists are content with creating further barriers between feet and earth: more cushioning, more restriction, “lifts”—I wore one under my right heel for seven years following a femur break and two ankle breaks on the same leg. Leaving that behind led to my fascination with minimalism, given the havoc that the lift waged on my lower back and neck.
I’m not the only one fascinated by how footwear changes mechanics. A new study, published in the journal, Frontiers in Pediatrics, discovered that being barefoot as a child positively impacts motor movements. Children that always wear shoes (are shod) displayed worse jumping and balancing skills compared to those who are perpetually barefoot.
The study included 810 school children from 22 primary and secondary schools in two countries. The shod children were from urban regions in Northern Germany, while the barefoot kids live across rural Western Cape South Africa. As they write regarding previous studies:
Evidence exists that compared to shod conditions, barefoot situations directly change gait biomechanics, postural control and jumping movements in children and adults.
Interestingly, the one skill shod children displayed was in sprinting. But, as the researchers comment, the conditions, such as weather and surface area, could not be controlled for. It is certainly easier to sprint across a track than on a dirt road, regardless of footwear. The German children were all tested indoors, which likely influenced the results. As they write:
More than the balance or jumping tests, the sprinting test can be influenced by environmental factors such as the running surface, temperature or wind situations. All children were tested where their physical education lessons were held. Thus, habitually shod children were tested indoor in local sports halls whereas the habitually barefoot children were tested in sports halls, in school assembly halls or outdoors on different surfaces.
Professor Astrid Zech, who led the study from her post at the University of Jena, Germany, notes that this revelation should be considered by physical education teachers—and parents—around the world:
Physical education classes, exercise and sport programs, and reactional activities that aim to improve basic motor skills could benefit from including barefoot activities. Parents could also encourage regular barefoot time at home.
(Source: Pixabay Commons)
In her book, Movement Matters, Katy Bowman compares our use of movement to our ingestion of supplements: we ingest small bits of nutrients believing they'll give us cover from a horrible diet. The same holds for our movement diet. We think of shoes as necessary because that’s how they’ve been marketed. (There are socio-economic reasons as well.) While there are benefits to covering our feet, wearing heeled and padded shoes is akin to foot binding: a crippling ritual for an aesthetic result that does not honor the evolution of our motor patterns. She continues, "Natural movements are only perceived as archaic by the group of people who have outsourced them."
Our connection to our environment is of primary importance. As the New Yorker article implies, the constant attentional deficit we experience due to always staring at our devices does great damage to our nervous systems. We believe things are worse because we’re always being told it is. Instead of staring at the world around us, we're hooked into the screen in our palms.
The same can be said for our relationship to the physical earth beneath our feet. Sever that connection and we suffer the consequences. The necessity of shoes is a social convention, not a biomechanical reality. Children are suffering from that perception. Perceive differently, and everything changes.
All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
- If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
- A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
- But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word gets around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.