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Laughing Helps You Learn, Babies (and Scientists) Say

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Laughter may be good for the soul, but it may also be great for the brain. A new study published in the journal Cognition and Emotion suggests laughter helps children learn new tasks. 

Researchers in Paris wanted to test how well babies learn a new task, and whether or not their learning capabilities improve when there's laughter involved. They worked with 53 babies, all around 18 months old, which is roughly the age children develop a sense of humor. 

The research team attempted to teach the babies to retrieve a toy duck using a cardboard rake—while also making the babies laugh in the process.

In the control group, a researcher retrieved the duck with a straight face. Rake, duck, done. But in the test group, a researcher grabbed the toy and then threw it on the ground, creating incongruity, “a key component of humor perception,” the researchers write. We laugh at things that are unexpected, odd, or a little bit absurd—like an adult throwing a toy duck on the ground, if you're a toddler. 

The tots proved to be a tough crowd: only about half the kids in the test group cracked a smile. But of those who laughed, 94 percent successfully mimicked the task and used the rake to grab the duck. That’s a vast improvement compared to 19 percent of the kids who didn’t laugh at the joke, and 25 percent of the kids in the control group. 

This isn’t the first time laughter has been linked to learning. Another study found that college students are better at memorizing a lecture if the professor inserts jokes. "Well-planned, appropriate, contextual humor can help students ingrain information," explains psychologist Randy Garner, a professor of behavioral sciences at Sam Houston State University.

But why laughter helps us learn is up for debate. “I think that learning is probably facilitated by being in a playful environment,” says Robert Provine, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. He says the “haha” sound we make when we laugh evolved from the panting sounds our great ape ancestors made during rough play. “Laughter is literally the sound of play.”

One possibility is that laughter gets our learning juices flowing by altering the chemicals in the brain. “That act of laughter—or simply enjoying some humor—increases the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain, which provides a sense of pleasure and reward,” says Lee Berk, a preventive care specialist and psychoneuroimmunologist at Loma Linda University in California. Dopamine seems to plays a role in which memories are formed "to support future adaptive behavior," according to one study. So by opening the dopamine floodgates, laughter may pave the way for memory formation.

Humor also decreases our stress hormone levels, which makes it easier to recall memories. “Humor reduces detrimental stress hormones like cortisol that decrease memory hippocampal neurons.” Berk explains. “It’s simple: the less stress you have, the better your memory.”

The new study's lead researcher, Rana Esseily, who studies emotion, developmental psychology, and cognitive psychology at Paris West University Nanterre La Défense, says more research is needed to fully understand the connection between laughter and learning. But, she says, “these results show, in my opinion, that humor (laughter) may promote learning and should be used in classrooms from early on.”

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Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help
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Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
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GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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