Are You a 'Pre-Crastinator'?

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You’ve no doubt heard of procrastination. You might be procrastinating right now by reading this story. But have you met procrastination’s cousin, “pre-crastination”?

The term was recently coined by researchers from Penn State University, who define it as “the inclination to complete tasks quickly just for the sake of getting things done sooner rather than later.”

Pre-crastinators are compelled to check things off their to-do list ASAP, whether or not the job is well done, according to research by psychology professor David Rosenbaum and Cory Potts, a graduate student.

The researchers came to this conclusion after studying the economics of effort. They asked participants to carry one of two buckets a certain distance. One bucket was closer to the subject, and the other closer to the finish line. They wondered whether people would naturally pick up the bucket they could carry the least—that is, the one closer to the finish line. That required the least amount of effort.

But to their surprise, that’s not what many participants did. “We got instead this strange thing where they were frequently picking up the closer of the two buckets,” Potts explains to mental_floss. Over and over, in a series of nine experiments involving 250 participants, many people chose the bucket closest to them and carried it all the way to the finish line, increasing the amount of effort they had to expend. Why?

“‘I wanted to get it done more quickly,’” Potts says these participants reported. But there was no reason for them to believe that picking up the closer bucket would get the job done faster. They had to walk the same distance regardless.

We see real-life examples of pre-crastination all the time. “People answer emails immediately rather than carefully contemplating their replies,” explains Rosenbaum in Scientific American. “And, people grab items when they first enter the grocery store, carry them to the back of the store, pick up more groceries at the back, and then return to the front of the store to pay and exit, thus toting the items farther than necessary.”

Rosenbaum and Potts speculate that our pre-crastination tendencies are rooted in evolution. (In other experiments they ran, pigeons proved to be pre-crastinators too.) One theory is that getting things done quickly frees up part of our working memory, making room for other more demanding tasks. Or perhaps it’s a remnant of our need to take whatever we can while it’s available—a sort of “low-hanging fruit” approach.

But maybe the answer is even simpler, Potts says. Checking things off a to-do list just feels good, no matter how trivial the task. How many times have you put on your to-do list something that’s easy to accomplish just so you could cross it off?

Wait, so now we have to worry about not getting things done too late or too early? Actually, Rosenbaum and Potts say these two forces can work together. “Break larger tasks into smaller ones,” Rosenbaum says. “Such smaller tasks, when completed, will promote a sense of accomplishment, will bring one closer to the final goal, and, via trial-and-error learning, may support the discovery of even more adaptive or innovative ways of behaving.”

And we admire pre-crastinators. “Finishing tasks quickly gets you a reputation as being a conscientious person,” Potts says.

This 'Time-Traveling Illusion' Is Designed to Trick Your Brain

A team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have designed an illusion that might trick your brain into seeing things that aren’t there, the New Atlas reports.

Dubbed the Illusory Rabbit, it provides instructions that are simple enough to follow. Start playing the YouTube video below and look at the cross in the middle of the screen while also watching for flashes that appear at the bottom of the screen. Most importantly, you’ll want to add up the number of flashes you see throughout the video. (And make sure your volume is up.)

We don’t want to spoil the fun, so before we explain the science of how it works, check out the video and try it for yourself.

Did you see three flashes paired with three beeps? You’re not alone. This is due to a phenomenon called postdiction, which is a little like the opposite of prediction. According to a paper outlining these findings in the journal PLOS ONE, postdiction occurs when the brain processes information retroactively [PDF]. This occurs in such a way that our perception of earlier events is altered by stimuli that come later. In this case, you might think you missed the flash paired with the second of the three beeps, so your mind goes back and tries to make sense of the missing information. That's why you may see an “illusory flash” in the middle of the screen, sandwiched between the two real flashes.

For this reason, the researchers call the mind trick a “time-traveling illusion across multiple senses” (in this case, vision and hearing). It’s successful because the beeps and flashes occur so rapidly—in less than one-fifth of a second. The senses essentially get confused, and the brain tries to fill in the gaps retroactively.

"Illusions are a really interesting window into the brain," the paper’s first author, Noelle Stiles, said in a statement. "By investigating illusions, we can study the brain's decision-making process.” Researchers wanted to find out how the brain “determines reality” when a couple of your senses (in this case, sight and hearing) are bombarded with noisy and conflicting information. When the brain isn’t sure of what’s going on, it essentially makes up information.

“The brain uses assumptions about the environment to solve this problem,” Stiles said. “When these assumptions happen to be wrong, illusions can occur as the brain tries to make the best sense of a confusing situation. We can use these illusions to unveil the underlying inferences that the brain makes."

[h/t New Atlas]

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

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It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2012.

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