Want to Keep Your Emotions From Getting the Best of You? Think Like Elmo

Getty Images
Getty Images

Elmo is on to something. The fuzzy red Muppet consistently refers to himself in the third person, a verbal tic that can—for those of us that aren't Muppets—come off as narcissistic, delusional, or just weird. While you may not want to start ditching the "I" in conversation just yet, it turns out there's a pretty compelling case for talking about yourself in the third person in your head.

Thinking about yourself in the third person can help you regulate your emotions, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University in the journal Scientific Reports. It turns out, when you—let's call you Michael—think something like "Michael is really stressed out about work" instead of "I'm really stressed out about work," you place some emotional distance between you and the situation.

In the study, the researchers asked 29 students to look at both upsetting and neutral images (from a standardized set used in other psychology research) and think about their reactions in the first and third person. Their mental reactions were captured by EEG caps. In a second test, 50 people at the University of Michigan were asked to write down eight upsetting memories, then come up with cue words to help trigger those memories later while undergoing an fMRI scan. During the scan, they were instructed to think about these memories in either the first person or while calling themselves by their own name.

When viewing the negative images, participants thinking about themselves in the third person showed a quicker recovery in their brain activity related to emotional reactions—in other words, they went from feeling disturbed to feeling more normal in a shorter amount of time. (Less than one second, in fact.) In the second trial with the fMRI scans, people who thought about their bad memories in the third person showed less activity in areas of the brain associated with processing self-reflection.

It's not a terribly new idea. In therapy, psychologists will often ask you to imagine how you would advise a friend if they were in your situation, since we tend to be harder on ourselves than on others. The third-person technique is also similar to an established meditation technique called the "observing mind" (as opposed to the "thinking mind") in which you try to view your thoughts from a distance, observing how they come and go in a detached, neutral way. That third-person talk can help get you out of your head, so to speak.

In these trials, thinking about negative experiences in the third person didn't take any more cognitive effort than using first person. The researchers note that "that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control." And who doesn't want that?

Not to mention the fact that you'll be joining the ranks of the many famous illeists, an illustrious group that includes Salvador Dalí, Julius Caesar, and George Costanza.

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
iStock.com/ananaline

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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