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Why You Shouldn't Focus Too Much
Humans are a distractible bunch. We’re easily seduced by ads and offers, memes and tweets. When we’re not focused on useless gimmicks and irrelevant social chatter our minds drift into the clouds. According to a recent study, people let their mind wander about forty-seven percent of the time they are awake. The Internet, where we’re bombarded with hyperlinks, might be to blame. In fact, while writing this post I’ll check Facebook and maybe watch cat videos on YouTube. If I could only focus better…
So says culture. We’re obsessed with relentless focus. We assume that if we encounter a difficult problem the best strategy is to chug red bull or drink coffee. Drugs including Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to millions to improve focus. Taking a break is a faux pas, mind wandering even worse.
Yet, recent studies paint a different picture: distractions and mind wandering might be a key part in the creative process. Consider a forthcoming paper by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler to appear in Psychological Science. The scientists gathered forty-five undergraduate students and gave them an Alternative Uses Task, in which they had two minutes to list as many possible uses for common everyday objects. The students then took a twelve-minute break after being randomly divided into three conditions: sitting in a quiet room, performing a difficult short-term memory test, or partaking in a boring task intended to elicit mind wandering. Next, the undergrads returned to more creativity tests, including Alternative Uses Tasks they worked on previously.
How did the break affect the students’ creativity? Which groups came up with more possible uses? Jonah Lehrer reports:
Those students assigned to the boring task performed far better when asked to come up with additional uses for everyday items to which they had already been exposed. Given new items, all the groups did the same. Given repeated items, the daydreamers came up with forty-one percent more possibilities than students in the other conditions.
What does this mean? Schooler argues that it’s clear evidence that those twelve minutes of daydreaming allowed the subjects to invent additional possibilities, as their unconscious minds pondered new ways to make use of [common everyday objects].This is why the effect was limited to those items that the subjects had previously been asked about—the question needed to marinate in the mind, “incubating” in those subterranean parts of the brain we can barely control.
This brings me to a brand new study published in the Creativity Research Journal by a team of researchers from Sydney, Australia, led by Jason Gallate.
For the experiment, Gallate and his team gathered eighty first-year psychology students and, like Schooler and Baird, asked them to perform an Alternative Uses Task (in this case the students had to list as many uses for a piece of paper). The students had two minutes to complete the task. Once they finished, they had five minutes to solve 40 “conceptually simple but taxing arithmetic problems” as quickly and as accurately as possible. The purpose of this distractor task was to simulate an “incubation period,” or to test if their unconscious minds would generate more and novel solutions. Next, the students returned to Alternative Uses Task for two more minutes. In an added twist - and this key feature distinguished Gallate's study from Schooler's - participants were randomly allocated into two groups: the aware group was told that they would return to the Alternative Uses Task following the arithmetic task whereas the unaware group was not. Did this make a difference? And how much did the distractor task spur the student’s creativity?
The first thing Gallate et al found was that the distractor task did indeed improve performance on the Alternative Uses Task. This finding, according to Gallate, supports the “incubation effect,” or the idea that more and novel solutions are generated by the unconscious mind after the conscious mind has had a break. The English psychologist and sociologist Graham Wallas first outlined incubation periods as part of a larger theory of creativity nearly one hundred years ago. Famous anecdotal evidence throughout history from Archimedes to Arthur Fry suggests that incubation effects are universal and real. And according to Gallate, they are now being verified empirically: “Of the approximately 50 studies that focus on incubation effects, more than 75% have shown evidence of solutions occurring in at least one of the experimental conditions.”
The question is what causes incubation effects. Some deny incubation effects pointing to functional fixedness, which states that when we focus on a problem we tend to inhibit access to successful solutions. Another theory is known as neural fatigue, or the idea that the brain is exhaustible and during problem solving it runs out of energy; a break, therefore, replenishes its resources.
This returns us to Gallate’s twist. The purpose behind the aware and unaware groups was to see if incubation effects can be attributed to nonconscious process. Gallate hypothesized that, “participants in the aware condition [would] have higher postbreak creativity scores than those in the unaware condition, as a result of differential activation of nonconscious processing.”
This is precisely what he found:
Participants in the aware condition produced significantly higher postbreak creativity scores than those in the unaware condition… Both aware and unaware participants performed identical tasks, so should have performed equivalently if recovery from specific neural fatigue was the cause of the incubation effect. That performance was better in the aware group supports nonconscious processing as a better explanation. Although the aware group was not consciously working on the problem, it is argued that their knowledge that they would return to the task activated nonconscious incubation of further solutions.
In addition, Gallate found that this effect was pronounced with people who scored higher on an initial test of creativity. This, he argues, helps explain why prodigiously creative people have a knack for spontaneously generating solutions to complex problems. This spontaneity is not the result of an innate talent or a gift from the muses, Gallate says, “but actually the result of the prodigiously creative person working on outstanding problems consistently at a level below consciousness awareness.”
Yet, when I’m stuck on an idea or experiencing a bout of writers block I immediately reach for my coffee mug and try to get in the “zone.” Why? Those Red Bull commercials might be to blame; or maybe it’s our deadline driven society in general. Whatever the reasons, the research outlined here suggests that daydreaming and distractions might contribute to the creative process by giving our unconscious minds a chance to mull over and “incubate” the problems our conscious mind can’t seem to crack.
I’m tempted to use these conclusions to rationalize my meme addiction, but let’s remember that daydreams and distractions per se never helped anyone - there’s a fine line between taking a break and being lazy (or maybe not). The more reasonable conclusion is that when you’re stuck don’t fear distraction and despite what your boss might think, let the mind wander. This, it turns out, is something creative people do really well. Thoreau might summarize it best: “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”
• A special thank you to Jason for letting me interview him and pick his brain about his research. Thanks Jason!
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."