Here's how long-distance runners are different from the rest of us

Ultrarunners scored significantly higher on the resilience questionnaire than non-runners.

Long-distance runners are psychologically different from the rest of us
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For many, running a marathon is seen as the ultimate amateur athletic achievement; for others, it's just the start. Ultramarathon runners often take on courses of incredibly impressive length, running 50 or 100 kilometres at one time or over several days.


Clearly this is physically demanding, and only those in seriously good shape will be able to take on such challenges — ultramarathon running involves stress on muscles and bones, blisters, dehydration, sleep deprivation and mental and physical fatigue, so it's really not for the faint of heart.

But what about the psychological traits that make someone suitable for long-distance running? What kind of person can withstand this kind of physical stress, and how? A new study in the Australian Journal of Psychology takes a look.

Gregory Roebuck from Monash University and colleagues recruited 20 ultrarunners and 20 control participants aged between 18 and 70; runners were matched with non-runners by gender and age. Participants were asked about their exercise behaviours and running experiences before completing a number of questionnaires. These included a 25-item scale designed to measure resilience (with participants rating how much they agreed with statements such as "I am able to adapt when changes occur"), and two questionnaires that looked at emotion regulation — the ways a person moderates or expresses their emotion. Finally, a 155-item questionnaire looked at a range of personality traits across domains like well-being, achievement, stress reaction, and, aggression.

Next, participants took part in an emotion regulation task, viewing 36 neutral images (e.g. a sofa or chair) and 36 negative images (e.g. a bloody medical scene). Before viewing each image, participants were asked to either respond naturally to it (a "look" trial) or attempt to not have a negative reaction to it (a "decrease" trial), before rating the strength of their emotional response. Heart rate and skin conductance were measured during this section of the experiment.

Ultrarunners scored significantly higher on the resilience questionnaire than non-runners, and were more likely to indicate they used positive reappraisal when regulating their emotions — in other words, they were better able to reframe a situation with a positive angle. This may be down to the need to maintain high levels of motivation during races, attaching positive meaning to negative events in order to keep running.

There was also a physiological difference between ultrarunners and non-runners in the emotion regulation task, with ultrarunners showing reduced skin conductance and heart rate even when viewing unpleasant images. However, they didn't show any differences in their ability to decrease their response to negative images.

There was one measure on which ultrarunners scored lower, however — affiliative extraversion, which measures how socially warm people are, which the team puts down to the high levels of solitude involved in long-distance running. There was no significant difference in any of the other measures.

The results suggest that ultrarunners are pretty similar to the rest of us — with some important differences. While it's clear that ultrarunners are indeed more resilient than non-runners, and use different emotion regulation strategies, the direction of those relationships is not yet clear. It could be that training for ultramarathons makes people more resilient, or, on the other hand, it could be that people with higher levels of resilience are more likely to be attracted to the pastime.

It would be interesting to further explore how ultrarunners motivate themselves through many hours of pain and effort. Because even though most of us will never run 100 kilometres in one go (and may have no desire to, either), understanding how to tolerate pain, and cope with physical and mental fatigue, is a lesson we all could benefit from.

Psychological characteristics associated with ultra‐marathon running: An exploratory self‐report and psychophysiological study

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

Reprinted with permission of The British Psychological Society. Read the original article.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Study helps explain why motivation to learn declines with age

Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.

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Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?

The contiguous U.S., horizontally divided into deciles (ten bands of equal population).

Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
Strange Maps
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