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The researchers say their findings support the idea that low biodiversity in modern living environments could lead to "uneducated" immune systems.
Making outdoor play areas greener and more biodiverse could improve children's immune systems in one month, a new study suggests.
Scientists in Finland covered the playgrounds of city preschools with forest undergrowth, lawn turf and planter boxes.
After 28 days, the experimental study found the children (aged three to five) in the modified playgrounds appeared to have a greater diversity of microbes on their skin and in their guts than those children in playgrounds surfaced with paving, tiles and gravel. It says this could improve the regulation of their immune systems.
Although the Finnish experiment was small – involving only 75 children at 10 venues – Aki Sinkkonen, research scientist at the Natural Resources Institute Finland, who led the work, says the results are strong and that further studies are now underway.
"The yard areas of all daycare centres should be transformed into green areas," Sinkkonen says, "because this will improve the regulation of children's immune systems in only a month."
The diversity and richness of bacteria was markedly greater in the playgrounds with forest turf.
Image: Science Advances
The 'biodiversity hypothesis'
When we are in contact with nature, we expose ourselves to a broad range of microbes, activating different parts of our defensive system, the study explains. Reduced contact with natural environments and biodiversity, however, may adversely affect the immune system – this is known as the 'biodiversity hypothesis'.
The Finnish researchers say their findings support the idea that low biodiversity in modern living environments could lead to "uneducated" immune systems and an increased prevalence of immune-mediated diseases.
Previous studies have found that children who live in rural areas and who are in contact with nature have a lower probability of catching an illness resulting from disorders in the immune system, says Sinkkonen.
The number of autoimmune diseases – where the immune system attacks the body – is on the rise in developed nations. The conditions include type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and coeliac disease.
While the underlying cause of autoimmune disease is still unknown, the most common theory, according to Harvard Medical School, is that a particular genetic background makes certain people prone to immune-system "misfiring". So when they encounter an environmental trigger – such as an infection or toxin – this sets off autoimmune disease.
The health benefits of being in nature have long been promoted around the world. For example, "forest bathing" – essentially, being in the presence of trees – has been part of the public health programme in Japan since the 1980s.
Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and well-being, according to research led by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health in the UK.
Writing in the journal Nature, the report's authors say: "A growing body of epidemiological evidence indicates that greater exposure to, or 'contact with', natural environments (such as parks, woodlands and beaches) is associated with better health and wellbeing, at least among populations in high income, largely urbanized, societies.
"Writing in the journal Nature, the report's authors say "a growing body of epidemiological evidence" suggests greater exposure to places such as parks, woodlands and beaches increases health and well-being – "at least among populations in high income, largely urbanized, societies".
In adults, living in greener urban areas is associated with lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalization, mental distress and, ultimately, mortality, the report says. In children, the associated outcomes are lower risks of obesity and myopia (short-sightedness).
A study looks at the ingredients of a good scare.
There's been a fair amount of research into why people enjoy being scared by movies, haunted houses, and so on. A recent study looked at a good fright's capacity for creating a sort of arousal, a euphoria that lowers our brain's stress levels. Of course, being genuinely frightened by actual danger isn't so much of a rush.
So, what's too frightening and what's just frightening enough to be enjoyable? A new study accepted for publication though not yet published in the journal Psychological Science from researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark attempts to scare up an answer. It comes from the school's Recreational Fear Lab.
"By investigating how humans derive pleasure from fear," lead author Marc Malmdorf Andersen of the school's Interacting Minds Center tells Newswise, "we find that there seems to be a 'sweet spot' where enjoyment is maximized."
Catching fear in a bottle
Credit: Photo Boards/Unsplash
Previous studies have tracked physiological signs of fear arousal, but none have established a one-to-one correlation between that arousal and specific, actual fear events.
Andersen says that much of the research has been conducted in lab settings with weak fear stimuli, observing subjects as they experience things like scary videos. Scares in these situations tend to be weak and difficult to measure. Even harder to track in these situations is the link between enjoyment and fear.
Andersen and his colleagues conducted their experiments at Dystopia Haunted House, a commercial attraction in Vejle, Denmark constructed in an old, run-down factory. The Recreational Fear Lab has a long-standing partnership with the spook shack.
They outfitted 100 volunteers with heart monitors and sent them on their terrifying way through the 50-room horror mansion. The facility incorporates a number of fright mechanisms including frequent jump scares in which a sudden threat takes a visitor by surprise.
Researchers surreptitiously observed their participants on closed-circuit video as they made their way through the attraction. They tracked each individual's scares, scoring them for intensity according to their visible reactions. After exiting the attraction, individuals self-reported their experiences in the haunted house.
Combining these self-reports with observer notes and each participant's heart-rate data gave the researchers subjective, behavioral, and physiological insights into the ways in which fear is experienced, and when it's a good thing or not.
A pair of inverted U-shapes
In analyzing their data, the researchers saw two separate inverted u-shape curves. One depicted participants' enjoyment based on their self-reports and observed behavior. A similar u-curve was detected in their heart rates showing that just the right amount of heartbeat acceleration is associated with fun, but too much is too much. It's the terror Goldilocks zone.
Says Andersen, "If people are not very scared, they do not enjoy the attraction as much, and the same happens if they are too scared. Instead, it seems to be the case that a 'just-right' amount of fear is central for maximizing enjoyment."
The research suggests that being scared is enjoyable when it represents just a quick minor physiological deviation from one's normal state. When it goes on too long, however, or triggers too severe a physiological change, it becomes disturbing. Game over.
Andersen notes that this is not dissimilar to the factors known to make interpersonal play enjoyable: just the right amount of uncertainty and surprise. These are, maybe not coincidentally, also the ingredients of a successful joke.
While the benefits of music therapy are well known, more in-depth research explores how music benefits children with autism.
- Music is used in many different therapies. Used in conjunction with traditional therapies, music therapy benefits us in a variety of different ways.
- According to a 2004 study, music intervention used with children and teens with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) can improve their social behaviors, increase focus and attention, and reduce their anxiety and improve body awareness.
- Various music therapy activities and tools can be used to help improve the quality of life of children with autism.
Music has quickly become a tool used in various therapies because it can stimulate both hemispheres of the brain.
Credit: HTU on Shutterstock
Music has quickly become a tool used in various therapies because it can stimulate both hemispheres of our brain rather than just one. Theoretically, a therapist could use a song or instrument to support cognitive activity that helps children with autism build self-awareness and improve their relationships with others.
Music encourages communicative and social behaviors.
According to Nurse Journal, "...if we look closely at the way that a band works, it is obvious that the instruments must all interact with one another, but the player only needs to interact with the instrument at first."
This can be particularly difficult for children dealing with autism, but by introducing an instrument to their therapy, they may first bond with the object itself and then open up to interacting with others through the use of their instrument.
Music also encourages a better understanding of words and actions.
For children with autism, listening to a song about brushing their teeth could help them learn how to do this activity. Autism can create barriers for children in social settings, but small groups of children listening to music together may help the child feel comfortable singing or expressing themselves in front of others. According to research, dancing exercises in songs also help stimulate the sensory systems, allowing the children to enhance their fine motor skills.
The positive impact of music goes beyond social interactions, helping children develop better motor skills and body awareness.
According to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Music Therapy, music intervention used with children and teens with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) can improve their social behaviors, increase focus and attention, increase communication attempts (vocalizations/verbalizations/gestures), reduce their anxiety, and improve body awareness. A more recent 2018 study showed similar results.
How music therapy works
"All people, regardless of pathology, illness, disability, or trauma all have the ability to make music."
Credit: Photographee.eu on Shutterstock
Music is used in many different therapies. Used in conjunction with traditional therapies, music therapy benefits us in a variety of different ways.
According to Positive Psychology, some of the major health benefits of music therapy include:
- Reduces anxiety and physical symptoms of stress
- Helps to manage Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease
- Reduces depression and other symptoms (in the elderly population)
- Reduces symptoms of psychological disorders
- Improves self-expression and communication
The Nordoff-Robbins approach to music therapy.
This approach to music therapy interventions was developed through the 1950s-1970s by Paul Nordoff (an American composer and pianist) and Clive Robins (a teacher of children with special needs). According to Positive Psychology, this is an approach designed to harness every person's potential for engagement through active, communicative, and expressive music-making.
This approach emphasizes the importance of music-making in developing skills, a sense of self, and a capacity for social interactions. Nordoff and Robins both believed that all people, regardless of pathology, illness, disability, or trauma all have the ability to make music. Due to Robins' history with teaching children, this specific approach is well known for its work with children and adults who have learning disabilities or difficulties.
Relaxation music therapy.
Research has proven music aids in muscle relaxation. This can enable you to easily release some of the tension in your body, and when you do this, your mind also relaxes. While this is particularly useful for adults, it can also be beneficial for children. Music can be used as stress relief when a child with autism begins to feel overwhelmed in a new situation. Positive Psychology also explains that music therapy for children can also aid in offering a rhythmic structure for relaxation and breathing.
Music therapy for children.
What does music therapy look like for young children? Music therapy will vary based on each individual child's needs and abilities. For some, it can mean learning to play a musical instrument and for others, it can be singing or learning new activities through songs. Various music therapy activities and tools can be used (discussed and decided upon by both parents and therapists) to help improve the quality of life of children with autism.
The improvement in personal well-being might be worth effort.
- Researchers in Germany discovered that even serious adults can become playful with training.
- Developing a playful attitude leads to better overall well-being.
- Play is a deeply embedded ancestral brain system, according to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.
The heaviness of this moment is impossible to overstate. Anxiety and depression are rising due to COVID-19. A severe economic downturn is having a toll on many Americans. Interventions like meditation, cognitive reframing, and exercise are important, but for growing numbers of people, not enough.
There isn't one method that can lift you out of depression and curb feelings of uncertainty. A multivariate approach is needed. One of the seemingly simple yet effective methods shown to lift moods is playfulness. As a new study from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg shows, playfulness can be trained.
Play is deeply embedded in many species. Young animals play in order to set boundaries and explore social conditions. This social skill causes young children to wrestle and roll down hills. The late neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp believed play to be an ancestral system in our brains. He says this instinct is necessary in children even if adults are confounded by it.
"There is no ambiguity among young children; they instinctively know what play is. Academics get confused, parents get confused — calling what their children are doing 'naughty,' 'aggressive,' 'being bad' — but kids are having fun, so we know that there is that one play system in the brain."
The Primal Power of Play
Many adults lose their sense of play as they age, though some retain it. Previous research has shown playful adults appear to experience better moods. The team in Germany wanted to know if playfulness can be taught, even in serious adults.
The naturally playful seem to experience an emotional boon. Lead author of the study, Professor René Proyer, says,
"Particularly playful people have a hard time dealing with boredom. They manage to turn almost any everyday situation into an entertaining or personally engaging experience."
Proyer's team divided 533 volunteers into three groups. One group was tasked to write down three playful situations they experienced during the course of their day for seven nights; another group was asked to reflect broadly on any playful moments throughout the day; the control group was given an assignment irrelevant to the study.
Every volunteer filled out a questionnaire before the study began. They then responded to questionnaires four times after the intervention, the last being 12 weeks after the study's conclusion. Researcher Kay Brauer, part of Proyer's group, believed people could train themselves to be more playful.
"Our assumption was that the exercises would lead people to consciously focus their attention on playfulness and use it more often. This could result in positive emotions, which in turn would affect the person's well-being."
Photo: altanaka / Shutterstock
The team was right. The group tasked with writing down playful experiences experienced an increase in well-being. Proyer feels this could be used at work and in romantic relationships, as well as in life in general. Being an intuitive, ancestral component of the human experience, any opportunity to play should be taken seriously as part of a holistic program for mental health.
While Panksepp focused his career on play in children, he admitted adults can also play. He was concerned that play-reducing medications like Ritalin stunts this ancestral need. As he says,
"We have to develop a society that understands play, and the many good things it does for children's brains and minds. We developed the concept of having 'play sanctuaries,' where children have safe environment to play and develop their own games. We have much to learn about how good play is for the brains of our children."
As this new research shows, play is healthy at any age. Perhaps we all need to create a play sanctuary. While it won't solve the world's problems, it could help the days pass with a little more levity.