Factoid Friday: Int'l Happiness Day, How to Spot Phony Laughter, Too Sad for Chocolate, The 5-second Rule, How Emotion Changes Your Eyesight, and More.

Fake laughter doesn't fool the brain, research reveals

As the world celebrates International Day of Happiness (Thursday, 20 March), can we tell whether people are truly happy just from their laugh? "During our study, when participants heard a laugh that was posed, they activated regions of the brain associated with "mentalizing" in an attempt to understand the other person's emotional and mental state," the authors state.

A researcher from Royal Holloway, University of London, has found that there are clear differences between how our brains respond to genuine and fake laughter.

A study led by Dr Carolyn McGettigan, from the Department of Psychology, recorded the brain responses of participants as they listened to the same people produce genuine laughter, caused by watching funny YouTube videos, and forced laughter. The participants, who were unaware the study was about laughter perception, demonstrated different neurological responses when they heard false laughter. This suggested that our brains not only distinguish between the two types of laughter, but attempt to work out why the fake laughter is not genuine.  This suggests that as listeners, 'trying out' how a laugh would feel if we produced it ourselves might be a useful mechanism for understanding its meaning."

  • I often laugh to avoid crying.  How does this fit in?

Some characteristics increase the likelihood of getting married and living together

Health economists have investigated the personal traits that influence a person's likelihood of entering into a marriage or cohabitating relationship. When it comes to romantic relationships, attributes such as health, kindness, and social status have been shown to be important qualities in choosing a partner. It may be surprising to learn, however, that certain personal traits predispose a person towards either getting married or forming a cohabitating relationship. Scoring high on attractiveness, personality, and grooming is associated with a greater probability of entering into a marital relationship for both men and women, but it does not collectively have a significant influence on entering a romantic cohabitating relationship.

The results show that 52 percent of married respondents and 51.7 percent of those in cohabiting relationships ending in marriage were rated as above average in physical attractiveness, whereas 45.9 percent of those in a cohabitating relationship without subsequent marriage and 43.6 percent in neither marriage nor cohabitation scored above average on the attractiveness scale. Similar results were found for personality and grooming.

Other interesting findings from the study include the following:

  • Women with above average grooming are less likely to cohabit without subsequent marriage.
  • For men, having an above average personality has the strongest association with the likelihood of getting married.
  • Men with above average physical attractiveness have a greater chance of cohabitation without subsequent marriage.

"Thus, we have the somewhat curious finding that men with above average looks tend to be more likely to cohabit, while men with above average personalities tend to be more likely to marry (but less likely to cohabit)," the study explains.

  • I can live with this.  Which probably explains why I live alone.


Good News Gourmands!
The Five-second Food Rule Exists.

Food picked up just a few seconds after being dropped is less likely to contain bacteria than if it is left for longer periods of time, according to new research. The findings suggest there may be some scientific basis to the '5 second rule' -- the urban myth about it being fine to eat food that has only had contact with the floor for five seconds or less. The study, undertaken by final year biology students monitored the transfer of the common bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Staphylococcus aureus from a variety of indoor floor types (carpet, laminate and tiled surfaces) to toast, pasta, biscuit and a sticky sweet when contact was made from 3 to 30 seconds.

  • As the dominant scavenger on the plains the Africa for over three million years, humans can and will eat anything, no matter where we find it, nor how long it has been on the ground or if it makes a vulture gag.


Can the blind 'hear' colors, shapes? 
Yes, show researchers

What if you could “hear” colors? Or shapes? These features are normally perceived visually, but using sensory substitution devices (SSDs) they can now be conveyed to the brain noninvasively through other senses. SSDs are non-invasive sensory aids that provide visual information to the blind via their existing senses. For example, using a visual-to-auditory SSD in a clinical or everyday setting, users wear a miniature camera connected to a small computer (or smart phone) and stereo headphones. The images are converted into "soundscapes," using a predictable algorithm, allowing the user to listen to and then interpret the visual information coming from the camera.


Face matching for passports incredibly fallible

New research finds face matching, as when customs agents check passports, to be incredibly fallible, with error rates between 10 and 20 percent under ideal, laboratory-induced conditions, and much worse in more realistic settings.

"Because society relies on face perception and ID verification for many tasks, people are often under the impression that we are experts in this domain," said LSU Assistant Professor of Psychology Megan Papesh. "Our research shows the precise opposite."

"In most high-risk situations (e.g., passport control), people can assume a very low rate of fake or stolen IDs," said Papesh. "Unfortunately, these conditions are also those most likely to give rise to poor detection rates. In our research, when observers infrequently encountered fake IDs, they failed to catch approximately 45 percent of them, even when given multiple opportunities to correct their errors."

  • Especially when boarding a Malaysian airline, or so it appears.


Natural selection has altered the appearance of Europeans over the past 5,000 years
There has been much research into the factors that have influenced the human genome since the end of the last Ice Age. Anthropologists, geneticists and archaeologists have analyzed ancient DNA from skeletons and found that selection has had a significant effect on the human genome even in the past 5,000 years, resulting in sustained changes to the appearance of people.

"In Europe we find a particularly wide range of genetic variation in terms of pigmentation," adds co-author Dr. Karola Kirsanow, who is also a member of the Palaeogenetics Group at Mainz University. "However, we did not expect to find that natural selection had been favoring lighter pigmentation over the past few thousand years." 

"Perhaps the most obvious is that this is the result of adaptation to the reduced level of sunlight in northern latitudes," says Professor Mark Thomas of UCL, corresponding author of the study. "Most people of the world make most of their vitamin D in their skin as a result UV exposure. But at northern latitudes and with dark skin, this would have been less efficient. If people weren't getting much vitamin D in their diet, then having lighter skin may have been the best option."

"But this vitamin D explanation seems less convincing when it comes to hair and eye color," Wilde continues. "Instead, it may be that lighter hair and eye color functioned as a signal indicating group affiliation, which in turn played a role in the selection of a partner." Sexual selection of this kind is common in animals and may also have been one of the driving forces behind human evolution over the past few millennia.

  • Other research shows that blue eyes evolved many thousands of years before white skin, whereas black eyes have existed since humans first swung clubs or fists.


What's the upside of feeling too sad for chocolate?

The instant gratification and the pleasure derived from consuming excessive chocolate and deep-fried foods can lead way to a double-edged sword of negative consequences ranging from weight gain to feelings of low self-esteem. According to a new study, combating this type of self-destructive behavior may be achieved simply by making a person feel sad.

We found that when people who are sad are exposed to pictures of indulgent food or indulgent words, their sadness highlights the negative consequences of indulging and encourages them to indulge less," write the authors.

  • I'm sorry, try as I might, I cannot understand being too sad for chocolate.  That's like saying too sad for beer or two sad for sex or too sad for American football - unless you're a Cleveland Browns fan.  Then you could be too sad for much of anything. 


Eyes are windows to the soul -- and evolution

Why do we become saucer-eyed from fear and squint from disgust? These near-opposite facial expressions are rooted in emotional responses that exploit how our eyes gather and focus light to detect an unknown threat, according to a study by a Cornell University neuroscientist.

Our eyes widen in fear, boosting sensitivity and expanding our field of vision to locate surrounding danger. When repulsed, our eyes narrow, blocking light to sharpen focus and pinpoint the source of our disgust.

The findings by Adam Anderson, professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, suggest that human facial expressions arose from universal, adaptive reactions to environmental stimuli and not originally as social communication signals, lending support to Charles Darwin's 19th century theories on the evolution of emotion.

"These opposing functions of eye widening and narrowing, which mirror that of pupil dilation and constriction, might be the primitive origins for the expressive capacity of the face," said Anderson. "And these actions are not likely restricted to disgust and fear, as we know that these movements play a large part in how perhaps all expressions differ, including surprise, anger and even happiness."

  • Looks of disgust result in the greatest visual acuity -- less light and better focus; 
  • fearful expressions induce maximum sensitivity -- more light and a broader visual field. 
"These emotions trigger facial expressions that are very far apart structurally, one with eyes wide open and the other with eyes pinched," said Anderson, the paper's senior author. "The reason for that is to allow the eye to harness the properties of light that are most useful in these situations."  What's more, emotions filter our reality, shaping what we see before light ever reaches the inner eye.

  • Okay.  So where does the eye-rolling look of disbelief come from?  We all know what it means.  And how to get someone to do it.  And if you're a married woman, you know how frequently the man in your life earns a good, serious eye roll, often with an annoyed-amazed "oy vey" thrown in for good measure followed by a head shake and a muttered expletive or three.


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