Siberian Hamster Testicles are Growing, Which Means the Vernal Equinox is Here

Standing before the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico, a woman embraces spring on the vernal equinox. Image Credit: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

 
Today you, I, and everyone in the world have something in common. Regardless of whether you live in Australia or Austria or Austin, day and night are approximately the same length the whole world over. Today is the vernal equinox—the first day of spring. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, your days will be getting longer, your trees greener, and your animals friskier. We think it all happens because billions of years ago, a proto-planet collided with an embryonic Earth. Here's what's going on.

TILT-O-WHIRL

Winter and summer have nothing to do with the distance of the Earth from the Sun. Rather, seasons are the product of axial tilt and orbital dynamics. The Earth is tilted slightly at 23.5 degrees relative to its orbital plane. (That tilt is thought related to the aforementioned collision.) The orientation of the tilt never changes, and as Earth revolves around the Sun over the course of a year, different latitudes are thus in direct sunlight. When the Northern Hemisphere is in direct sun, it is summertime there and wintertime down under, and vice versa when the Southern Hemisphere is in direct sunlight.

If this is hard to visualize, take your cell phone and hold it upright next to the left side of your computer screen, tilted slightly toward the computer. The top-right corner should be closest to the screen. It is summertime in that corner (the screen being the Sun in this demonstration). Now keep everything the same, but bring your phone to the right side of your screen. Now the bottom-left of your phone is closer. It is summertime there. If your phone were a spinning sphere, those two corners would be the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, respectively. Over a full orbit of the Earth around the Sun, this means the center of the Earth—the Equator—is in direct sunlight twice.

Today is one of those times, marking the transition from winter to spring in the Northern Hemisphere. (The other, autumnal equinox, transitions fall to winter.)

ANIMALS KNOW

Humans today have it pretty easy. We have coats and fires during the winter, and shorts, air conditioning, and Disney vacations in the summer. For many in the developed world, seasons are in some ways a neat way of marking time, but they don’t necessarily dictate the course of our lives. For plants and animals, though, the seasons are serious business. The availability of food and warmth are vital for reproduction and rearing young animals. During the fall and short winter days, for example, the testicles of Siberian hamsters change dramatically in size (and under no circumstances should you google that). That’s a pretty granular-level effect of the axial tilt of an entire planet.

The same goes for birds flying south for the winter. Studies suggest that the migration is in large measure simply birds following the food. (Starvation winters in the north can be summer feasts in the south. Go where the worms are.) There is some evidence that the migratory patterns are also wired into the DNA of some birds. We’ve discussed this previously at mental_floss:

Captive birds have been observed getting pretty fidgety and changing their sleep patterns right before their natural migration time. Ethologists—those who study animal behavior—call the birds' behavior zugunruhe ("migratory restlessness"). Captive birds display zugunruhe even if they're not exposed to natural light or to seasonal temperature changes.

It goes far beyond that, though. Even plants know what’s up. “Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men,” says the Chinese proverb. Plants produce phytochromes, which are compounds sensitive to the light spectrum and used to regulate flowering and budding. In some regions, the vernal equinox and the longer days of direct sunlight it brings lead to an increased production of red phytochromes. (In the winter, the Sun’s position in the sky, and the sunlight often shining indirectly, leads to the increased production of far-red phytochromes.) As the ratios shift, you get flowering. No tilt, no bouquets.

So while today is an interesting day to mark for social reasons—a rare point of global harmony and equality imposed by the natural world, even if only concerning light and dark—it’s also a day marking a shift in the behaviors of the natural world itself. Today we are all equal, and for the next few months, the Northern Hemisphere begins anew.

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Bad Moods Might Make You More Productive
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Being in a bad mood at work might not be such a bad thing. New research shows that foul moods can lead to better executive function—the mental processing that handles skills like focus, self-control, creative thinking, mental flexibility, and working memory. But the benefit might hinge on how you go through emotions.

As part of the study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, a pair of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada subjected more than 90 undergraduate students to a battery of tests designed to measure their working memory and inhibition control, two areas of executive function. They also gave the students several questionnaires designed to measure their emotional reactivity and mood over the previous week.

They found that some people who were in slightly bad moods performed significantly better on the working memory and inhibition tasks, but the benefit depended on how the person experienced emotion. Specifically, being in a bit of a bad mood seemed to boost the performance of participants with high emotional reactivity, meaning that they’re sensitive, have intense reactions to situations, and hold on to their feelings for a long time. People with low emotional reactivity performed worse on the tasks when in a bad mood, though.

“Our results show that there are some people for whom a bad mood may actually hone the kind of thinking skills that are important for everyday life,” one of the study’s co-authors, psychology professor Tara McAuley, said in a press statement. Why people with bigger emotional responses experience this boost but people with less-intense emotions don’t is an open question. One hypothesis is that people who have high emotional reactivity are already used to experiencing intense emotions, so they aren’t as fazed by their bad moods. However, more research is necessary to tease out those factors.

[h/t Big Think]

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7 Reasons Why You Should Let Your Kid Get Bored This Summer
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No matter how excited kids are for summer break, after a few weeks without school, they can start to feel a little bored. But as a parent, you shouldn't drive yourself crazy scheduling playdates, lessons, and other organized activities for your restless progeny. Instead, turn off the iPad, put down the camp brochure, and let them sit around the house moaning “I'm bored”—it can be good for them.

1. BOREDOM PROMOTES CREATIVITY ...

Research suggests the experience of boredom can lead to greater creativity because it allows minds to wander. In one 2014 study, researchers asked a group of participants to undertake boring activities like copying down telephone numbers from a directory. Then, they were tested for creativity—they had to come up with as many uses for a pair of foam cups as they could think of. The participants who had endured the boring tasks ended up thinking up more uses for the cups than those who hadn't. Boredom, the researchers wrote, "can sometimes be a force for good."

This isn't an entirely new idea. Another study conducted in Canada in the 1980s provides further evidence that boredom isn't always a bad thing: It found that kids who lived in towns with no televisions scored higher on imagination-related tests than kids who had TVs. Imagine what disconnecting from all of the screens available now could do for a kid's creativity.

2. ... AND MAKES THEM MORE INDEPENDENT.

Boredom can force kids to generate their own ideas about what they'd like to do—and what's feasible—then direct their own activities independently. "If parents spend all their time filling up their child's spare time, then the child's never going to learn to do this for themselves," Lyn Fry, a child psychologist, told Quartz in 2016. "Being bored is a way to make children self-reliant."

3. BOREDOM FOSTERS PROBLEM SOLVING.

In The Boredom Solution: Understanding and Dealing with Boredom, teacher and author Linda Deal advises that it's important to let kids learn to deal with their boredom themselves because it helps them learn to make decisions about how to use their free time. They need to learn to "see the problem of boredom as one within their control," she writes, which can help them come up with constructive ways to solve it rather than simply getting hopeless or angry about it, as kids sometimes do in situations they don't have control over. Kids learn that boredom isn't an insurmountable obstacle.

4. IT MOTIVATES THEM TO SEEK NEW EXPERIENCES.

In a 2012 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers sought to define what, exactly, boredom is. "At the heart of it is our desire to engage with the world or some other mental activity, and that takes attention," co-author Mark Fenske, an associate professor at the University of Guelph, explained at the time. "When we cannot do this—that seems to be what leads to frustration and the aversive state we call 'boredom.'" When kids (and adults) are bored, especially with activities that were once engaging, they're motivated to try new things.

5. BOREDOM CAN HELP THEM MAKE FRIENDS ...

According to a pair of psychologists from Texas A&M University, boredom might have a social role. They argue that it "expresses to others that a person is seeking change and stimulation, potentially prompting others to respond by assisting in this pursuit." Being bored can push kids to go out and be more social, and have fun through activities. When there's not much to do, hanging out with the new kid down the block (or even your little brother) suddenly seems a lot more appealing.

6. ... AND FIGURE OUT THEIR INTERESTS.

Both at school and at home, kids are often required to participate in a range of activities. Having the time and space to do nothing can help kids figure out what they actually like to do. "Children need to sit in their own boredom for the world to become quiet enough that they can hear themselves," psychologist Vanessa Lapointe writes at the Huffington Post. This downtime allows kids to direct their own activities without adult input. Pressed to come up with their own entertainment, they might discover a love of writing plays, baking cookies, biking, crafting, or perfecting their jump shot.

7. IT CAN HELP THEM FIND MEANING IN THEIR LIVES.

According to one 2011 study, boredom forced people to reflect on meaning in their lives, prompting them to seek out meaningful activities like donating blood. While the study only examined adults, who may be more inclined to search for purpose, boredom can nonetheless push kids to undertake activities they might otherwise find unappealing—whether that means helping out with the dishes or agreeing to go volunteer for the day—or could even inspire them to make the world a better place.

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