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Relaxation Day and the world’s most relaxing room

Feeling a bit rushed and stressed out? Modern life getting the better of you? Then today is especially for you – August 15th is Relaxation Day.

Chilling out on Relaxation Day.
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Some years ago, researchers at the University of Hertfordshire’s Health and Human Sciences Research Institute, led by Professor Richard Wiseman, did a study examining walking speeds around the world, and found that people’s lives are becoming ever more stressful and hurried. I am sure that comes as no surprise to anyone – we are all way too familiar with the stresses of modern life, with its ever increasing responsibilities, information overload, and the like. Less and less time for sauntering, it seems.

Anyway, what is interesting about this story is what Professor Wiseman and his team did next – they went on to develop what they consider to be, scientifically speaking, the world’s most relaxing room.

Opened to the public at a 2008 Showcase held by the University of Hertfordshire, the room consisted of soft matting on which you could lie back, with your head resting on a lavender-scented pillow. The room was furthermore bathed in ‘calming glade-like green light’, with a ‘completely clear artificial blue sky’ overhead. A specifically composed soundtrack was played – ‘music with a slow and distinct rhythm, low frequency notes, and no sudden changes in tempo’, also featuring a solo soprano voice, ‘chosen for the soothing properties of the human voice’, a ‘Tibetan singing bowl, used in meditation’ and a string ensemble.

All the features in the room were specifically selected based on scientific knowledge related to stress and relaxation. A subdued green light, for example, is supposed to enhance the production of dopamine in the brain, which has a calming effect, and the completely clear blue sky creates a ‘mild sense of sensory deprivation’ that helps you turn your attention inward and away from daily stresses.

Interesting concept, but to be honest, my idea of the ultimate relaxation space would rather be a grassy hill in the mountains, where I can lie back, out of cellphone contact, with cloudy skies overhead and no sounds other than a stream trickling in the background and the occasional bird chirping. And if this moment can happen after a day of hard walking or running in the mountains, even better. I bet it will beat the world’s most relaxing room any day…

Bliss… And very necessary!  I think I need to start planning that getaway weekend pronto.

I am curious – what would your ‘ultimate relaxation space’ look like?

Viva la difference – celebrating Left-Handers Day

So, today it’s a shout out to you if you’re one of those people who cannot help doing things a little differently – it’s Left-Handers Day!

Being left-handed is not always easy in a world designed for right-handers. Lefties, who make up about 10% of the world population, are continuously having to either contort themselves or get really innovative, being forced to use all sorts of right-handed gadgets and tools. But then again, that is what makes them feel just that little bit extra special, like being part of an exclusive, secret club.

Getting emotional about left-handedness.
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So why are some people left-handed, some right-handed, and a very small group fully ambidextrous? No one knows for sure, but there are many theories on the matter, including that it may be genetic – a team of researchers from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, believe that they have discovered a gene that influences the chance of being left handed. The gene, called LRRTM1, seems to modify the development of asymmetry in the brain. According to the researchers, the ‘normal’ brain pattern, where the left-hand side of the brain controls speech and language, while the right-hand side controls emotion, is often reversed in left-handers, and LRRTM1 seems to control this development.

The LRRTM1 gene also seems to be associated with a slight increase in certain mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, but that’s another story.

Being a minority group that is said to be, statistically speaking, more intelligent than average, it’s not surprising that left-handers should enjoy collecting theories, statistics and research related to their lefthandedness. No wonder then, that a plethora of websites exist, dedicated to interesting leftie stats and theories.

One of the more interesting theories I’ve come across is that lefties appear to be more easy to scare than the rest of us. Researchers from the Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh exposed a group of volunteers to an eight minute clip from a scary movie (Silence of the Lambs), and then tested them for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to study leader, Dr Carolyn Cloudhary, “The prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder is almost double in left handers compared to right handers (…) It is apparent the two sides of the brain have different roles in PTSD and the right hand-side of the brain seems to be involved in fear. In people who are left handed, the right hand side of their brain is dominant, so it may have something to do with that.”

Hmm, definitely something to remember that the next time you want to play a practical joke on your favourite leftie friend!

To all the left-handers out there – the innovators, the scaredy-cats, the smarty-pants, the insomniacs, the dyslexics, the alcoholics, the multi-taskers, the creatives, the politicians, the magicians – have a great Left-Handers Day!

Today is SCUD Day! What day!? Read on…

According to numerous holiday and celebration sources, today is the day to ‘SCUD’, that is, to Savour the Comic and Unplug the Drama. Still a bit confused? So was I.

The basic idea behind the day is to remind people to focus on the bright side of life, and to stop being such drama queens and kings. Have some fun, take life a little less seriously, laugh more. And given the health benefits such a turn of attitude can bring, it’s certainly a day (and a sentiment) worth celebrating.

Don’t worry, be happy!
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It has long been suggested that, just like we tend to smile when we’re in a good mood, the arrow also points the other way – our mood may improve when we smile (the “facial feedback” hypothesis). This is nothing new – Charles Darwin already suggested in 1872 that “the free expression of outward signs of an emotion intensifies it”.

The problem is that scientifically proving this relationship is quite difficult, with various factors potentially affecting the results. it is possible that, aside from the action of smiling, the instruction to smile may also create an emotional response (positive or negative – try telling a teenager to smile and watch the reaction!). Furthermore, sitting in a room full of smiling people is likely to raise your mood, whether you’re smiling or not.

Various research projects have been reported where these problems have been innovatively addressed, for example, by asking recipients to hold a pencil either between their teeth (which mimicks a smiling action) or between their lips (which does not), or by using more neutral smiling instructions, such as “Move your lips to expose your teeth while keeping your mouth closed, and pull the corners of your lips outward”.

Once participants were made to simulate a smiling expression, their responses to various positive and negative stimuli were measured, and compared to non-smiling control groups. In general it has been found that the smiling action intensified the participants’ reaction to positive stimuli, but seems to have less impact in response to negative stimuli.

For example, looking at a funny cartoon will lift your mood more when you’re smiling than when you’re not. On the other hand, reading a list of your monthly debts is depressing, and smiling while reading it is unlikely to leave you notably less depressed.

[Strack (1988), Soussignan (2002)]

So, your assignment on SCUD Day is to think happy thoughts and to expose yourself to positive stimuli. At the same time, pack out a big smile, and you will double the positive impact. Oh, and while you’re at it, surround yourself by others doing the same thing – the positive reinforcement of seeing others happily smiling back at you will lift your mood even more.

Come on, Savour the Comic, Unplug the Drama!

Hitting the high notes on the Birthday of the Saxophone

On this day 166 years ago, the saxophone, darling instrument in much of jazz and blues music, was patented by its Belgian inventor, Adolphe Sax. The saxophone combines the single reed and mouthpiece used in a clarinet, with the wider bore of the oboe. Despite usually being made from brass, it is classified as a woodwind instrument, because the sound of a saxophone is created by an oscillating reed rather than the vibration of the player’s lips against a brass mouthpiece.

The combination of features from the woodwind and brass families make it quite unique – while it has the volume capacity of a brass instrument, it possesses the timbre and dexterity of a woodwind. The shape of the saxophone also results in a complex wave packet compared to other woodwind instruments.

Science shows its about the musician, not the instrument.
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It seems the saxophone not only fascinates music lovers, but scientists as well. A group of acoustics researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, set about trying to determine exactly how jazz masters like John Coltrane achieve the piercing high notes they are famous for. More specifically, they studied how the shape of the saxophonist’s vocal tract influences the notes he can achieve.

There has long been debate about the role that the acoustics of the vocal tract has on the notes saxophonists and other reed instrumentalists can play. The assumption under investigation in the research was that professional saxophonists achieve “impossible” notes by shaping their vocal tracts in different ways to amplify the high-pitched notes. Of course the challenge lay in the methodology – how do you directly measure the acoustics of a vocal tract in mid-note without interfering with the player’s sound?

What acoustician Jer Ming Chen and his colleagues did, was to modify the mouthpiece of a saxophone by adding a device that emits different tones into the vocal tract of the player, and then records the intensities of the tones bouncing back into the mouthpiece. From this information, they could calculate acoustic resonances in the vocal tract.

The reseach showed that, when playing “normal” notes, the acoustics of the vocal tract seemed to have only modest effects on how notes sounded, but the moment professional players broke into the altissimo, a clear result emerged – the resonance in the vocal track aligned with the note being played, thus serving to amplify and strengthen the note.

What is interesting is that many expert players were unaware of the ways in which they “tuned” their vocal tracts while playing. They knew they “did something” to their throats, but weren’t able to explain exactly how it happened. It does, however, seem to be a skill that can be learnt, and not something certain players are simply born with.

However they do it, it seems blowing that sax not only gives your lungs a workout, it exercises your mind as well.

(Source: Scientific American)