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Science Explains Why People Are Attracted to Jerks

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Getty Images

We all know at least one: That friend who complains incessantly about his fickle girlfriend, and yet keeps going back to her, even though most of the time she doesn’t treat him well. It’s frustrating for his friends, who must wonder if their buddy, despite his irritation at his partner, actually likes to suffer. But science might have a different explanation.

Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, wrote in the New York Times in 2012 that the reason a person returns to an unpredictable partner again and again isn’t because of “an unconscious motive for suffering” but rather because of “a quirk of the brain’s reward circuit, a primitive neural network buried deep in our brains that is exquisitely sensitive to various rewards, like sex, money, and food. This kind of amorous attachment is like gambling—except that the currency is affection and sex. The key is that the reward is unanticipated, which makes it particularly powerful and alluring to our brains.”

Tainted Love

To make his point, Friedman looks at the results of a study conducted by psychiatrist Gregory Berns, who analyzed what happens in the brain when rewards are predicted and unpredicted. Berns placed his subjects in an M.R.I. and watched their brain activity as he administered the rewards—fruit juice and water—first at random intervals, and then every 10 seconds. Berns found that when the reward was unexpected, there was greater activity in the brain’s reward circuit.

Much like the juice in Berns’s experiment, love and attraction activate the brain’s reward circuit, which, when stimulated, releases dopamine—a naturally occurring chemical that causes a sense of pleasure. This part of the brain has evolved to help us recognize rewards that are critical to our survival. “Unlike predictable stimuli, unanticipated stimuli can tell us things about the world that we don’t yet know,” Friedman writes. “And because they serve as a signal that a big reward might be close by, it is advantageous that novel stimuli command our attention.” So when that emotionally distant boyfriend is suddenly doting, the reward circuit starts firing, producing feelings of pleasure that make you want to stick around. And in all likelihood, you’re not consciously aware that that’s what’s happening.

Berns’s study also found that there was almost no connection between his subjects’ stated preferences and what their brain activity showed. “This suggests that our reward pathways may not only be activated without our recognition, but perhaps even in ways that are contrary to what we think we prefer,” Friedman says.

So the next time your friend complains about his girlfriend’s behavior, try to be sympathetic—it's not that he likes to suffer. Most likely, it's his brain playing tricks on him.

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Medicine
Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Health
Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too
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There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.

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