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Read this shopping list, and then cover it with your hand:

Peanut Butter

Now, how many of the items can you remember without peeking? Give yourself a moment to recall as many of them as you can.

(We’ll wait.)
If you left out an item (or several), chances are good it wasn’t the bread or the gum, but rather something in the middle. And if that’s the case, congratulations, you have something in common with 19th century psychologist and memory pioneer Hermann Ebbinghaus. At the time, the prevailing thought held that memory was impossible to study in any scientific fashion; it was simply too nebulous, too mysterious. Ebbinghaus disagreed. But since every single mind is different, how in the world would he eliminate confounding variables? His imperfect yet deeply elegant solution: to study only a single experimental subject—himself. To collect his data, Ebbinghaus tested his own ability to memorize “nonsense syllables”, three-letter sequences w…

The Ostrich Effect

First things first: despite any cartoons you might’ve seen, ostriches don’t try to hide from danger by burying their heads in the sand. For one thing, they don’t need to: your average ostrich can run forty miles an hour—that’s faster than Usain Bolt (28 mph)—and they don’t use that speed to win footraces. The tall, gangly creatures do sometimes stick their heads in the sand, but that’s not a fear behavior; that’s the bird using its beak to gently rearrange its eggs, tucked away safe in a dug-out nest.

Incidentally, did you know that the ostrich’s closest relative, the emu, is so fierce that in 1932, Australian farmers requested military assistance against the local emu population? And that the Australian military sent down troops, armed with machine guns, who were still unable to bring the emus to heel? It’s called the Emu War, and it is an actual thing that happened. Maybe you already knew that. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you knew it once, and then forgot, because we are all bombarded wi…

Poking at the Omega 3 Mystery

As the first week of the year draws to a close, you may find yourself reassessing those New Year’s resolutions. Is this really the year you write that novel? Will you seriously watch every Oscar nominated movie before Oscar season this time? Here, however, is one resolution that might be both doable and hugely beneficial, if you’re not doing it already: eat more fish. If you follow nutrition news at all, this will likely not be a bombshell. Scientists have long acknowledged that the particular type of fat found in some fish seems to display a number of healthy properties. To be clear, we’re not saying to load up on fish sticks; this is about the cold water seafood that’s naturally high in Omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, sardines, and herring. From decreased risk of heart disease to improved brain development in fetal infants, there’s just something about intaking those Omega-3’s. Now a new survey highlights what may be the fundamental link between fish oil and intelligence. Over at…

Beautiful Minds

Hollywood doesn’t have the best track record portraying mental illness. From the harmless, almost charmingly quirky weirdos of Benny and Joon to the axe-wielding maniacs haunting many a horror flick, mentally ill people are seemingly always either romanticized or villainized, with little middle ground. And hey, what about the ending of A Beautiful Mind, where brilliant economist John Nash manages to logic himself out of his schizophrenia-induced delusions? There’s some wild movie magic, right?
While the film certainly takes liberties with the actual John Nash’s life, painting a rosier or more exciting picture of a man without much actual resemblance to Russell Crowe, the script is careful to include a line implying that Nash achieved this stable, rational frame of mind with a little help from psychiatric drugs. And therein lies the actual Hollywood distortion: the real-life Nash spent those final decades of his life totally unmedicated.
In 1994, as part of an autobiographical piece for…

Putting the Focus on ADHD

Could you have ADHD? If you’re not, say, a hyperactive schoolboy, it’s possible that nobody has ever suggested this to you. However, between four to five percent of the U.S. adult population has the condition—roughly one in twenty. And that means there’s about an 100% chance that ADHD affects your life in some way, whether it’s present in a best friend, a coworker, a boss, or yes, you. How could it go undetected in your life for so long? Because it’s probably not quite what you think it is. ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It’s a term used to describe brain differences which affect one’s ability to focus, self-regulate, and/or sit still. That “and/or” is key, because ADHD can look extremely different in different people. For instance, not all people with ADHD exhibit that stereotypical hyperactivity. In addition to hyper behaviors (like constant fidgeting) or impulsivity (like interrupting others), ADHD can also include a cluster of symptoms related to inattent…

Why Stress Makes Gamblers of Us All

Chronic stress: it’s not just bad for your stress ball budget. Left untreated, persistent stress can create a whole host of problems in the human body and brain. Beyond the muscle aches and migraines, there’s also anxiety, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and—of course—insomnia. Given the inherent dangers of not sleeping enough, it’s easy to see how unaddressed tension (even from past sources, as with PTSD) could become a vicious cycle.

However, researchers at MIT have created a study illustrating a more surprising side effect of the high-stress life: risk-taking.
Let’s say you’re sitting in a meeting with your boss and your boss’s boss when you notice a mistake in your boss’s report. You could call it out, impressing your boss’s boss but alienating your direct superior. Or you could play it safe and say nothing, avoiding both the glory and the potential pitfall. Which way do you go? Contrary to what you might…

The Science of "Mini-brains"

What makes the human brain so, well, human?

It’s not purely a matter of size—from studying the cranial cavities of Neanderthals, we know that our bygone genetic cousins sported more gray matter than us. But seemingly that wasn’t enough to put them in the same ecological niche, or even just to keep them from extinction.

After close examination and a lot of theorizing, researchers at Oxford have suggested that the main brain difference between them and us was more a matter of function, that Neanderthal brains prioritized muscle control and eyesight while ours focused more on developing the social skills necessary to form a tight-knit group. In other words, maybe the human brain’s main asset is the ability to foster teamwork. 

It’s a nice thought, even if it is unprovable: other scientists have proposed many other theories for the disappearance of the Neanderthal, including interspecies breeding that simply blended them into humans, or even a matter of simple geography. And a number of livi…