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Want to Feel More Optimistic? Wash Your Hands

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The toughest tasks can often seem far from completion, even after days of working on them—causing stress and anxiety to build. If you're facing a problem like this, consider washing your hands: Researchers have found that people feel more optimistic after doing so.

Kai Kaspar of the University of Osnabrück in Germany asked people to complete an “impossible task.” As expected, everyone bombed the exercise. Half of the subjects were asked to wash their hands, while the other half were not, and each group reported how they felt. While both cohorts admitted to feeling optimistic, those who washed their hands experienced more optimistism.

But all this positive thinking did not lead to more motivation. The subjects who didn’t wash performed better when they attempted the task a second time than those who did. This indicates that cleansing equals some sort of closure—those who had washed felt as if their work was complete.

Kaspar isn’t the first to examine hand washing and mood. Researchers know that when people feel guilty and wash their hands, their guilt lessens—what’s known at the Macbeth effect, named for the Shakespearian murderess who tries easing her conscience with a thorough scrubbing. Experts also found that cleanliness is next to godliness—a nice scrubbing makes people feel more moral.

"I wanted to enlarge this scope to actual cognitive performance because previous literature suggests that washing can remove traces of the past—undesirable or desirable," Kaspar told National Geographic. "Consequently, I asked whether washing can also reboot our optimism after failure and what consequences this would have on subsequent performance." If you want to try it, just make sure to wash for at least 20 seconds. A shorter rinsing doesn’t have the same impact.

But why does hand washing influence mood? A theory known as embodied cognition explains why a motor activity impacts a high order function such as emotions. This theory says that just as the brain controls the body, the body influences the brain. Leaning forward, for example, makes people think of the future, while leaning back causes people to reflect on the past. These physical movements take root in literary symbolism. The ideas attached to cleansing—washing away guilt, bolstering physical and mental health, and improving looks—work their way into how hand washing makes us feel.

Kaspar’s study appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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science
Why Are Glaciers Blue?
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iStock

The bright azure blue sported by many glaciers is one of nature's most stunning hues. But how does it happen, when the snow we see is usually white? As Joe Hanson of It's Okay to Be Smart explains in the video below, the snow and ice we see mostly looks white, cloudy, or clear because all of the visible light striking its surface is reflected back to us. But glaciers have a totally different structure—their many layers of tightly compressed snow means light has to travel much further, and is scattered many times throughout the depths. As the light bounces around, the light at the red and yellow end of the spectrum gets absorbed thanks to the vibrations of the water molecules inside the ice, leaving only blue and green light behind. For the details of exactly why that happens, check out Hanson's trip to Alaska's beautiful (and endangered) Mendenhall Glacier below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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