Big Think Edge


PURPOSE: Set Goals, with John Amaechi

In this lesson from Big Think Edge, NBA basketball player John Amaechi shares with you the plan he created as a child to help him accomplish his dreams.

INNOVATION: Engage Your Team Through Gaming, with Jane McGonigal

In this lesson from Big Think Edge, game designer Jane McGonigal walks you through the ways in which gaming can lead to positive outcomes in the workplace.

LEADERSHIP: Overcome Obstacles, with Edward Norton

In this lesson from Big Think Edge, Oscar-nominated actor Edward Norton offers a mental strategy for pushing past anxiety and fear when taking on a new venture.

TALENT: Master Your Craft, with Malcolm Gladwell

If your goal is to become masterful at what you do, the formula is simple: stay focused and do your time. In this lesson from Big Think Edge, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell teaches you how.

Understand and Address Unconscious Bias, with Jennifer Brown

In this lesson from Big Think Edge, management expert Jennifer Brown, a diversity training consultant who works with leading companies, explores pitfalls and strategies for dealing with unconscious bias.

RISK MITIGATION: Risk Management Fundamentals, with Timothy Geithner

In this lesson from Big Think Edge, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner teaches the fundamentals of risk management, based on lessons learned during the 2008 Financial Crisis.

MILLENNIALS: Embrace Millennials' Values, with Jon Iwata

In this lesson from Big Think Edge, Jon Iwata, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications at IBM, explores key millennial values and what every company can do to embrace them.

MASTERCLASS: What Does A Leader Do?, with Robert Kaplan

In this lesson from Big Think Edge, Harvard professor and former Goldman Sachs executive Robert S. Kaplan explores three strategic key questions that leaders need to ask themselves.

Introducing Big Think Edge

Big Think's Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by thought leaders at the top of their game.

More playlists
  • A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
  • Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
  • Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.


The beard is an ever contentious subject in the domain of male grooming practices. Love them or hate them, new research on heterosexual mating preferences offers clues about why some women fawn over facial hair.

Research by Tessa R. Clarkson et al. at the University of Queensland measured women's judgement of the attractiveness of men with varying levels of facial masculinity and beardedness. What they found was that women do indeed perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant. Particularly, women with high levels of moral disgust.

Beards and perceptions of masculinity

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.

Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey baby, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine who will certainly provide for you and a future offspring."

It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.

What does disgust have to do with beard preference?

Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life.

According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.

Additional findings

Giphy

The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.

It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.

  • Dogs have been man's best friend for at least the past 15,000 years.
  • Science now shows that this symbiotic relationship has been as beneficial for humans as their canine companions.
  • Benefits of dog ownership include familial ties, a reduce risk of schizophrenia, and improved cardiovascular health.


Under cover of darkness, a pack of ancient wolves slowly stalk the camps of our nomadic ancestors. But they are not on the prowl. These timid, congenial Canidaes have discovered they can scavenge human kills and midden piles for more reward, and far less risk, than the hunt.

Over successive generations, their offspring grow more docile and more dependent on their human benefactors. In time humans adopt these four-legged moochers, taking them into their service with the tacit agreement of better food and companionship. And so, the human-dog relationship was born.

That's one possibility at least. All that's generally agreed upon is that dogs became man's best friend as early as 15,000 years ago — though some fossil evidence suggests domestication as far back as 30,000 years. As science writer James Gorman points out, this means we loved our tail-wagging besties before inventing agriculture, language, or permanent homes and even before we domesticated cows, goats, and, of course, cats.

"As we became friends with them, they became friends with us, and we have a dependency that's charming," Bill Nye, science guy and lover of all good dogs, told us in a 2015 interview. "It's enriched both the dog lives and the human lives."

For humans, the perks of the dog-human relationship run much deeper than games of fetch or a handy excuse to go for a nice, long walk.

Dogs see us as family

Dogs see their people as family, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

(Photo: PxHere)

It's not our imaginations or a poetic attempt to explain behavior through personification. Dogs do view their people as family.

Cognition scientists at Emory University placed dogs in an MRI machine and scanned their brains while presenting them with different odors. Some aromas were of food. Others were from other dogs. And some were from the dogs' human companions. The dogs' brains' reward centers lit up most when presented with the human scents, showing they prioritized human relationships.

These results bolstered other research that shows dogs act similarly to human sounds and that they are the only non-primates to run toward humans for protection and comfort.

Dogs reduce the risk of schizophrenia

A little girl meets Lothair and Molly, two certified therapy dogs, at U.S. Air Force Base Hospital Langley.

(Photo: Brittany Paerschke-O'Brain/U.S. Air Force)

Dogs may be able to curb the risk of some mental diseases. That's the conclusion of research published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, which found a link between dog ownership and a reduced risk of schizophrenia.

The researchers looked at 1,371 men and women across the socioeconomic spectrum. Roughly 400 participants suffered from schizophrenia, another 400 from bipolar disorder, and about 600 were controls. After a survey in which the participants were asked about pets, the researchers compared ownership with rates of mental illness.

They discovered that dog ownership before the age of 13 correlated with a 25 percent reduced risk of schizophrenia. Participants who owned dogs in the first years of life showed the largest protective effect.

"There are several plausible explanations for this possible 'protective' effect from contact with dogs," lead author Robert Yolken said in a statement. "Perhaps something in the canine microbiome that gets passed to humans and bolsters the immune system against or subdues a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia."

Sorry, ailurophiles. Cats did not show a similar link between ownership and a reduced risk of mental diseases.

Dogs are your heart's best friend, too

Regular walks with your dog is great exercise and boosts cardiovascular health.

(Photo: PxHere)

The health benefits aren't just in the mind. Preliminary research published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes suggests that pet ownership boosts heart health, especially if that pet is a dog.

Researchers evaluated roughly 1,800 participants using the American Heart Association's Life's Simple 7, seven life factors that people can improve to help achieve cardiovascular well-being. They then compared the health of pet owners with those who did not own pets and found a correlation between dog ownership and heart health. The researchers associated this salubrious effect with increased engagement and physical activity.

"In general, people who owned any pet were more likely to report more physical activity, better diet and blood sugar at an ideal level," Andrea Maugeri, a researcher with the International Clinical Research Center at St. Anne's University Hospital in Brno, said in a statement. "The greatest benefits from having a pet were for those who owned a dog, independent of their age, sex and education level."

Follow-up evaluations are scheduled until 2030.

Dogs make life better (and longer)

An older gentleman sits with his canine companion.

(Photo: Pxfuel)

Better heart health means a better chance to live longer. That's according to a recent study and meta-analysis published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

The research found that dog owners who survived a heart attack were at a 33 percent reduced risk of early death compared to non-dog survivors. The same held true for stroke survivors (27 percent). Better still, dog ownership correlated with a 24 percent reduced risk of all-cause mortality, likely explained by an increase in physical activity and a decrease in depression and loneliness.

A study published in Scientific Reports corroborates a canine's life-giving, heart-healthy impact. The researchers reviewed the national registries for more than 3.4 million Swedes with no cardiovascular disease before 2001. Looking at the association between dog ownership and cardiovascular health, they found that single dog owners had a lowered risk of death, either due to cardiovascular disease (11 percent) or other causes (33 percent).

In a statement, lead junior author Mwenya Mubanga noted, "A very interesting finding in our study was that dog ownership was especially prominent as a protective factor in persons living alone, which is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death than those living in a multi-person household. Perhaps a dog may stand in as an important family member in the single households."

Dogs teach us ways to learn

Put simply, dogs are better at ignoring bad advice than their human peers. Research out of Yale University's Canine Cognition Center tasked dogs with retrieving treats from a puzzle. The researchers presented the steps to solve the puzzle but included many extraneous steps in the demonstration. When it was the dogs' turn, they nimbly skipped the unnecessary steps, thereby showing their ability to filter information effectively.

How did human children perform? Not so great. The children settled on pure imitation, regardless of whether a step proved useful in solving the puzzle.

"This tells us something really important about how humans learn relative to other animals," Big Think author Arpan Bhattacharyya wrote on the study. "We're really trusting of the information that we get from other individuals – even more trusting than dogs are.

"And what this means is we have to be really careful about the kinds of information we present ourselves with. We're not going to have the right filter for bad information, so we should stick to looking at information that's going to be positive, information that's going to be good."

Dogs teach us about ourselves

Dogs really do resemble their owners.

(Photo: PxHere)

Dogs resemble their owners in more ways than floppy jowls or a perky gait. Dogs mirror their owners' personalities, and owners can use this information to better understand themselves.

Research published in the Journal of Research in Personality surveyed more than 1,600 dog owners, representing about 50 different breeds. They found that dog owners shaped their dogs' personalities. Extroverted owners rated their dogs as more active and playful, while the owners of more fearful dogs tended to exhibit more negative emotions. Similarly, more agreeable owners were guardians of less aggressive pets.

"We expected the dogs' personalities to be fairly stable because they don't have wild lifestyle changes humans do, but they actually change a lot. We uncovered similarities to their owners, the optimal time for training and even a time in their lives that they can get more aggressive toward other animals," lead author William Chopik said in a release.

Another study in Scientific Reports showed similar findings regarding stress. The researchers took hair and fur samples from owners and their dogs to measure both for the stress hormone cortisol. They found a correlation in long-term stress between the two.

More than simply good dogs

These are six ways that science has discovered dogs aid their interspecies partner. As genetic research advances, dogs may prove they are man's best friends in unforeseen ways. Scientists studying the canine genome have found a number of canine disorders that closely resemble those found in humans, including some cancers. Further study may provide a wealth of information that could help us solve our own genetic mysteries.

  • Pharmacology professor Richard J. Miller is hopeful for the resurgence in clinical studies of psychedelics.
  • Ibogaine, used in France for decades, is making a comeback in potentially helping curb addiction and treat pain.
  • Psychedelics were deemed illegal for political and not medical reasons, an error we are reinvestigating.

With all the hype regarding the potential for psychedelics to help treat anxiety and depression, with the potential to replace or coexist with SSRIs, there are yet more realms hallucinogenic substances could aid in. Whereas psilocybin and MDMA are showing positive results in sufferers of mental pain, a formerly sanctioned drug, ibogaine, is making a comeback in pain management and addiction circles.

As with other psychedelics, ibogaine was swept up in Richard Nixon's crusade against minority and freethinking populations in the late sixties and deemed a Schedule 1 drug in 1971. Yet from 1939 to 1970, ibogaine was used in French psychotherapy under the trade name Lambarene, writes Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine pharmacology professor Richard J. Miller.

As with the entire class of substances, the scheduling of ibogaine was a political, not medical, decision. As Miller recently told me from his office in Chicago,

"The drugs, at the federal level, are Schedule 1 drugs, which means that they have absolutely no medical utility whatsoever and are incredibly dangerous. People think that the reason that they're in that schedule is based on some kind of reasonable science or other understanding of what they do rather than just some complete bullshit, which is what it is."

I reached out to Miller after reading his excellent history on pharmacology, Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs (the full transcript is here). While he's spent decades clinically studying drugs, the narrative shines when Miller discusses the cultural stories about how and why we seek to alter our consciousness, be it through caffeine or magic mushrooms.

There is no greater substance for the treatment of pain—Miller's clinical speciality—than opiates. Drugs like morphine reduce the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, causing smaller muscle contractions. The inhibition of these neurotransmitters, combined with opiate receptors in our midbrain implicated in our reward center, help to make us feel better—and get us addicted.

Which is the rub: the greatest pain reliever yet discovered is highly addictive. The novelist Amitav Ghosh wrote an entire trilogy about the political and cultural effects of the opium trade; Thomas de Quincy famously defined a genre when penning a book about his addiction to laudanum. Today, in America, we have our own opium war in the form of fentanyl. The side effects are, as we are collectively experiencing, disastrous.

Just as the mental health industry needs a better solution than SSRIs, which are remarkably effective in the short-term but also deadly over the span of years and decades, physical pain management needs a revolution. The hallucinogenic shrub, Tabernanthe iboga, might provide relief.

Though the cradle of civilization, Africa is relatively void of hallucinogens. One of the strongest utilized comes via the main alkaloid in T. iboga, ibogaine. Iboga communities exist in Gabon, Cameroon, and Zaire, where adherents either eat or drink the yellow root to experience visions in order to, as the Bwiti phrase it, "break open the head."

Iboga made its way to France in 1864, first appearing in the scientific literature two decades later. Ibogaine was extracted in 1901. Howard Lotsof, a heroin addict in New York City, discovered ibogaine in the sixties and self-experimented to curb his addiction. It worked. He persuaded a pharmacologist in Albany to test the substance in morphine-dependent rats, which also "appeared to work," according to Miller. The researchers also noticed positive results getting the rats off of cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine.

The Albany team then worked with a team at the University of Vermont in an attempt to synthesize an ibogaine analog. Even the ceremonial users in Africa knew that the root is toxic; swallow too much and death ensues. The team, searching for a less toxic substance, synthesized 18-methoxycoronaridine (18-MC). Ibogaine has been used in addiction treatment for decades even as it has been predominantly illegal.

After Phase 1 trials, the funding was exhausted. A new organization, MindMed, is currently planning Phase II trials this year. So far, 18-MC does not appear to have the hallucinogenic effects of ibogaine, which might prove important if it is ever developed for widespread addiction treatment or pain management. Ibogaine notably causes cardiovascular problems in some users; 18-MC might also skirt that issue.

This also solves the patent problem. Given the money required in R&D of a new drug—over $1 billion, in some cases—it's challenging for pharmaceutical companies to profit from new drugs. At the same time, as Miller assures me, "they are definitely making money." That much is obvious given the billions of dollars that the Sacklers profited from helping create the opioid epidemic, the very reason we so desperately need a better solution now.

Yet it also begs the question: why are we in so much pain? The reasons are varied: sedentary lifestyles; dramatic income gaps; social media's role promoting the constant yearning for youth; intensely laborious jobs; being overworked and underpaid. If the revolution in pharmacology last century taught us one thing, it's that humans will seek pills to cure problems instead of addressing the root cause. As Miller and I discussed, the distance between physical and emotional pain isn't necessarily as far as believed.

"When you use the word pain, which you just used in a certain way, pain could mean things like somebody's emotional pain to a clinician. However, it's usually much more involved in actual physical pain. That's the kind of thing that people are usually talking about when they're talking about trying to replace opiates for treatment of those kinds of things. On the other hand, there is emotional pain. On the third hand, there is actually a connection between physical pain and emotional pain. We know about how different parts of the brain connect with each other. So there are a lot of levels that you can attack pain."

While it's hard to find a bright side to the opioid epidemic, Miller says one positive is that governmental agencies are taking pain management more seriously. That covers mental and physical pain—there's a reason the FDA has labelled both psilocybin and MDMA as breakthrough therapies. Regardless of the type of pain, and knowing there is a meeting point between the two, psychedelics are showing efficacy in many aspects of treatment. This is a field of research whose time has come.

----

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.

  • The default "rest mode" of our brains is often taken over by a "threat mode" setting because of our stressful, "on-the-go" lifestyles. When we are chronically in threat mode, this leaves us with less capacity for compassion.
  • Showing compassion or acting kind to others can actually change your physiology, taking you out of threat mode and putting you back into your natural "rest and digest" mode.
  • Research by a well-known Stanford professor Dr. James Doty has shown that acts of kindness or compassion that put us back into our "rest mode" can have lasting positive impacts on our physical and mental health.

Kindness is a virtue that is admired and applauded, in most cases. But did you know that being kind can also be good for your health? In fact, being compassionate to others can actually reset our consistently stressed systems back into our default "rest mode", causing all kinds of positive effects to our overall health.

Our nervous system was never meant to be in "threat mode" all the time

confused brain with rough lines happy brain with smooth lines

Living in "threat mode" isn't healthy for our minds or our bodies.

Image by Pogorelova Olga on Shutterstock

According to Dr. James Doty, Stanford professor and author of Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and Secrets of the Heart, the nervous system doesn't function optimally if it's in threat mode all the time. And yet, our adrenaline-fueled, "on-the-go" lifestyles have us operating mainly in threat mode, which can be one of the reasons we contract a variety of different illnesses.

Our bodies release inflammatory proteins in response to stress. Because of this release, our nervous system shows a decrease in the capabilities of our immune system, which is what responds to threats such as germs or bacteria that cause illnesses.

The constant over-stimulation of our nervous systems caused by our fast-paced way of living also makes us much more inclined to jump to (often judgmental) conclusions about other people. This kind of quick judgment dulls our own ability to act out of compassion for others. That, in turn, leaves us operating in a constant threat mode, which has negative long-term effects on our health.

Kindness and compassion reset us into "rest mode", starting in the nervous system

The ability to feel and act out of compassion for others can have a huge effect on your overall health.

Dr. Doty explains it best in this Uplift article:

"When someone acts with compassionate intentions, this has a huge, huge positive effect on their physiology. It takes them out of threat mode and puts them into the rest and digest mode. What happens when that occurs is it changes how they respond to events."

According to Dr. Doty, instead of a quick response that is often based on fear, anxiety or stress, our response time is slower and more deliberate, which tends to result in more effective, more creative and more compassionate actions. We are able to change the responses we have to events because we are allowing the executive control area of our brain to function at the highest level.

Several studies at Emory University have demonstrated this and given results that support the idea that regular compassionate acts or compassion-based meditation practices can reduce negative neuroendocrine interactions in our brains (which are the interactions between our nervous system and the endocrine system).

The sympathetic nervous system vs the parasympathetic nervous system

smiling woman light up brain illustration

The benefits from being kind can help us live healthier, happier lives.

Photo by ESB Professional on Shutterstock

When we switch to our parasympathetic nervous system (which we instinctively do when we act out of compassion), we flip out of the sympathetic nervous system that most of us live in due to our busy lifestyles.

When this switch happens, our heart rate variability increases, which causes a boost in our immune system. This immune system boost can help us fight off infections or illnesses.

Now, let's talk about telomeres. To visualize them, you can imagine small caps that protect the ends of chromosomes during cell division. Telomeres get shorter each time a chromosome copies itself during cell division, which happens constantly. Eventually, telomeres get too short to do their job of protecting the genetic information stored in the chromosomes, which causes the cells to eventually stop replicating—a process known as cell death. This is how telomeres act as an aging clock in every cell we have; the faster your telomeres shorten, the more advanced the aging process becomes.

Research by Dr. Doty has shown that one of the long-term positive effects of living in our parasympathetic nervous system (referred to as our "resting" mode) is that our telomeres actually increase in length.

In theory, over time, being kind and compassionate can actually slow down the aging process in some of the cells of our body.

Just as showing compassion can recalibrate our nervous systems out of threat mode and back into resting mode, experiencing compassion or kindness from others also has a positive impact on our systems. Research by Stony Brook University professor Stephanie Brown has proven that experiencing compassion can lead to tremendous improvements in our mental and physical well-being, as well.

Be kind. It's good for your health.

This ground-breaking research allow us to understand the benefits that kind human interactions can have on the health of our minds and bodies.

The positive ripple effect that comes from being kind doesn't just impact our health, but it can also impact our interactions with others and set off a positive chain reaction with far-reaching benefits across entire communities. Resetting our own systems into resting mode by taking ourselves out of threat mode can allow us to process things more clearly and make better choices.

In a world where you can be pretty much anything, be kind. It's good for your health.


  • While it is good to recognize societal diversity, it is difficult to argue in favor of creating cultural accommodations to preserve and protect specific groups.
  • Creating protections for people who belong to certain traditions can result in the creation of cultures that did not previously exist. The challenge would be to find a way to provide protections that are not too explicit while also being careful not to advantage one internal group and disadvantage another.
  • The classical liberal response is a principle of hyper-tolerance. Groups are free to form, members are free to dissent, and there are no acknowledgements of special protections or of the right to force conformity within cultures.