Need a creativity boost? Try listening to happy background music

First published in the New Scientist, 06.09.17

Need inspiration? Happy background music can help get the creative juices flowing.

Simone Ritter, at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and Sam Ferguson, at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, have been studying the effect of silence and different types of music on how we think.

“People in lots of contexts use music to help them work,” says Ferguson. A better understanding of how different types of music affect creativity is likely to be useful for many people, he says.

They put 155 volunteers into five groups. Four of these were each given a type of music to listen to while undergoing a series of tests, while the fifth group did the tests in silence.

The tests were designed to gauge two types of thinking: divergent thinking, which describes the process of generating new ideas, and convergent thinking, which is how we find the best solutions for a problem.

Ritter and Ferguson found that people were more creative when listening to music they thought was positive, coming up with more unique ideas than the people who worked in silence.

“We also tested other musical excerpts that were sad, anxious and calm, and didn’t see this effect,” says Ferguson.  “It seems that the type of music present is important, rather than just any music.”

However, happy music – in this instance, Antonio Vivaldi’s Spring – only boosted divergent thinking. No type of music helped convergent thinking, suggesting that it’s better to solve problems in silence.

Dose of dopamine?

Ritter and Ferguson write that their findings could be used to enhance creative thinking in places like educational institutions or laboratories. They think that happy music may work because it is more stimulating, so boosts divergent thinking by arousing the brain.

But Irma Järvelä, at the University of Helsinki in Finland, says happy music may boost creativity by triggering the release of dopamine, a brain chemical involved in pleasure and satisfaction. “Dopamine also increases creative thinking and goal-directed working,” says Järvelä.

The researchers think happy music may not have helped convergent thinking because this kind of thinking relies more on logic and less on arousal. But the experiment was organised so that everyone did the divergent tests before the convergent tests, meaning it could simply be that Vivaldi’s piece has less of an effect the second time you hear it.

Living near noisy roads could make it harder to get pregnant

This article first appeared in New Scientist, 26.06.2017

Living near noisy roads could make it harder to get pregnant

Living near a noisy road seems to affect couples who are trying get pregnant, increasing the likelihood that it will take them between six to 12 months.

That’s according to an analysis of 65,000 women living in Denmark. Jeppe Schultz Christensen of the Danish Cancer Society Research Center in Copenhagen and his team made this discovery by analysing data from the Danish National Birth Cohort, a project that ran from 1996 to 2002. They selected women who had tried to get pregnant during the project if traffic noise data was available for where they lived.

Previous research has suggested that 80 per cent of women who are actively trying to get pregnant usually do so within six menstrual cycles. But Christensen’s team found that for every 10 decibels of extra traffic noise around a woman’s home, there was a 5 to 8 per cent increased chance of it taking six months or longer.

This link persisted even when factors like poverty levels and nitrogen oxide pollution were taken into account. However, their statistical analysis showed that this association did not hold for women who took more than 12 months – perhaps because these couples may have had other factors affecting their fertility. “Road traffic noise may affect reproductive health,” says Christensen.

Him or her?

It is unclear whether traffic noise may be affecting women or their partners. Previous research has found a link between sleep disturbance and decreased fertility in women, as well as lower quality of semen in men. A 2013 study showed that consistent exposure to aircraft traffic noise activates a system in the brain that is known to disrupt the rhythm of ovulation.

Rachel Smith of Imperial College London says the link between traffic noise and health is worrying. Because traffic noise is common, even a small effect on health could feasibly have a large impact across a population, she says.

Europe’s roads are getting noisier. In the UK alone, an extra 2 million cars hit the road between 2011 and 2015. Christensen says traffic noise and fertility need to be investigated further before drawing up any recommendations for couples hoping to get pregnant, but Smith suggests that anyone who is worried could try to choose bedrooms away from the road, and close windows at night.

Marie Pedersen at the University of Copenhagen says traffic issues should be tackled by society as a whole, through better town planning and alternative transport. “It is a matter for urban planners and politicians,” she says.

Journal reference: Environment International, DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2017.05.011

Read more: Dying for some quiet: The truth about noise pollution; Noise kills and blights lives in Europe

Romania’s science reforms prompt boycott

This story was first publised in Nature on 6 June, 2017

Researchers in Romania are stepping up protests against controversial government science reforms. Hundreds of scientists at leading research institutions say they will refuse to sit on national panels that assess and award grants, after the Romanian researchers’ association Ad Astra called for the boycott on 30 May. But not all scientists in the country support the move.

Since Romania’s current government took power in January, it has replaced formerly independent research councils with state-controlled bodies and has thrown international scientists off review panels. Panels can now only use international scientists to help select grants if no Romanian expert can be found — and even then, only if government officials approve it.

The government has told Romanian media that the changes are to help “capitalize on Romania’s national potential”. But researchers say that they are the latest in a series of policy backslides, whereby Romania — which this year celebrates a decade in the European Union — is retreating from international scrutiny of its research funding, and reintroducing political interference into the grant process.

“It is inconceivable for an EU country to intentionally forbid European expert evaluators to participate in national competitions for funding research,” says Daniel David, vice-rector for competitiveness at Romania’s Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. “Just by this decision, researcher competition gets under political influence,” he says.

Papers please

Last month, Romania’s government said that scientists had to provide certificates showing that they have their university’s permission to participate in the evaluation process. Officially, this is to provide confirmation of a researcher’s work status at their organization — but Ad Astra sees the paperwork as a government ploy to approve only researchers who won’t be too critical of grant applications. Its boycott asks researchers not to provide the certificates. “The degradation of research management in Romania has reached a worrisome level,” says Ad Astra member Lucian Ancu, who adds that he has received many messages of support for the boycott. The Romanian research ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

After Romania joined the EU in 2007, its government hoped to encourage local scientists to apply for excellence-based European research funds. In 2010, the government introduced laws to increase domestic merit-based research assessments and reduce political interference in grants. Those policies were popular with the most capable scientists at top universities, says Daniel Funeriu, Romania’s research and education minister from 2009 to 2012. But others resented them, he says.

In 2012, some of the reforms were rolled back, and the latest moves to exclude overseas experts effectively complete the reversal of these policies, says Funeriu. The government can now decide who gets grants according to its own set of priorities, he says, adding that the risk is that money is distributed to a political clientele and not to excellent science.

The European University Association (EUA) in Brussels says that it deplores the research changes. On 30 May, it issued a statement calling them a “worrying development”. The number of nationally funded projects has dropped, and researchers say that calls for excellence-based grants have been shelved, adds Lesley Wilson, the EUA’s secretary-general. She notes that the reforms are part of a long chain of policy changes, which together “do not allow universities to develop long-term strategies”.

But not all scientists in Romania support the boycott. “A lot of people were really hurt by the meritocratic system, so they like the status quo,” says Costin Raiciu, a computer scientist at the University Politehnica of Bucharest. The boycotting scientists pledge that they will rejoin the approval process only when international experts are re-admitted. But the reforms might not be reversed, owing to the split between academics inside Romania, Ancu and Raiciu say. If they are not rolled back, Raiciu worries that many of the country’s experienced researchers, tempted back to Romania by the merit-based grant system, will leave again. “Without [merit-based] funding, people would either give up research altogether or move out of the country,” he says.

Eyes show that stress reduces climate concern

This article was first published on Climate News Network, 14.05.17.

LONDON, 14 May, 2017   People who are stressed pay less attention to climate change images and struggle to be receptive to messages about its impact, a study has found.

Researchers from Switzerland used eye tracking to measure how much attention a group of test subjects paid to images illustrating climate change. The goal of the study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, was to find out how everyday stress affects the attention that people pay to global warming, even when generally they  have a pro-environment stance.

“The results of our study suggest that individuals might be more receptive if they are in a relaxed and unpreoccupied state,” says Silja Sollberger, a researcher at the University of Zurich’s department of psychology.

Based on their answers to a questionnaire, 71 men were split into two groups with either high or low environmental interest. They were then randomly put into stressful or control conditions and shown images related to climate change, alongside other negative images.

Eye movements

By measuring the eye movements of the test subjects, the scientists, from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, found that all the men, regardless of their environmental stance, paid less attention to negative imagery when stressed. This was true even for those men who were interested in climate change and considered themselves pro-environment.

The behaviour of the test subjects suggests that governments and non-profit organisations running climate change awareness campaigns should think carefully about where and when they broadcast their message.

“It might be more successful to place climate change posters in recreational places rather than targeting commuters at a busy train station”

“Climate campaigns might benefit from considering the mental state of target individuals at the time they are being approached,” says Sollberger.

“For example, it might be more successful to place climate change posters or to ask people for donations in recreational places – like parks, zoos and cinemas – and on weekends, rather than targeting commuters at a busy train station or employees during their lunch break.”

Climate change education

These findings are important, as budgets to raise awareness of climate change and educate people about its consequences are notoriously low.

Unesco, the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, has just $2 million a year to spend on climate change education, while the EU has a €63 million budget for climate action between 2014 and 2020. This compares with around $115 million a year spent by the fossil fuel industry on lobbying against climate change initiatives.

In their paper, the researchers admit that their selection of participant groups had an unintentional consequence. Men assigned to the unstressful conditions had on average higher incomes than those who were assigned to the stressed group. They wrote that low incomes contribute to chronic stress, which might exacerbate the effects of artificial stress placed on the candidates.

However, the researchers explain that the effects of stress on climate change interest observed in the study apply only to individuals. They say it is not possible to draw conclusions from their work about climate change attention in societies plagued by stress factors such as war or poverty.

Sollberger says that previous research has shown little difference between poor and rich countries in people’s attention to climate change. In fact, people living in poorer countries experience the impact of climate change much more strongly than those living elsewhere, which has a positive influence on their interest in the topic.

“Residents of poorer countries generally tend to be just as concerned about the environment, or more so, than residents of wealthier countries,” says Sollberger. – Climate News Network

Hawaii seeks to ban ‘reef-unfriendly’ sunscreen

A proposed Hawaiian bill aims to stop the sale of lotions containing certain UV-filters, but their effects on coral are disputed.

Nature, 03.02.2017

Legislators in Hawaii are trying to ban the sale of sunscreens that contain two UV-filtering chemicals, after studies suggested that they harm coral reefs.

On 20 January, Hawaii state senator Will Espero introduced a bill which would ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in Hawaii (except under medical prescription) to the state Congress. Espero argues that a ban is important to preserve the state’s tourism industry, because Hawaii relies heavily on tourists attracted by its coral reefs.

The bill is already attracting attention from other regions with economies reliant on reefs, including Palau and the British Virgin Islands, Espero says. But manufacturers argue that more evidence is needed to warrant a ban.

A bar in the state of Hawaii would be the strongest political measure yet taken against the chemicals – although some manufacturers already sell “reef-friendly” sunscreens without them, produced in response to scientific and consumer concerns. “Since there are eco-friendly sunscreens on the market now, a total ban hurts no one,” Espero argues.

In November 2015, a group of European Parliament members proposed a motion to ban oxybenzone in cosmetic products throughout the European Union, but that legislation has stalled.

Sunscreen research

Espero’s bill draws largely upon research done by US scientists led by Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Clifford, Virginia. In 2016, his team reported that oxybenzone and octinoxate could stunt the growth of baby corals, and that oxybenzone was toxic to seven coral species in lab tests1.

A 2008 study from a different group had found that oxybenzone is likely to cause coral bleaching both in the lab and in the wild in several tropical regions2. Other studies have suggested that oxybenzone also acts as an endocrine disruptor among marine creatures such as shrimps and clams3.

In ongoing follow-up work – which has not yet been published – Downs’ team detected oxybenzone contamination of up to 4,000 parts per trillion (ppt) in the waters off the most popular beaches of the Hawaiian island of Maui. An oxybenzone concentration of around 400 ppt over several days is enough to induce coral bleaching in warm waters, they say. The team suggests that when people snorkel or swim, sunscreen washes off their skin and out into the reefs.

“In many geographic locations, oxybenzone and sunscreen pollution poses a serious environmental hazard,” says Downs.

But other reef scientists are more circumspect about the role of sun-screen chemicals in coral-reef destruction. Many factors damage coral reefs, says Jörg Wiedenmann, head of the Coral Reef Laboratory at the University of Southampton, UK, but he agrees that sunscreen pollution might be detrimental in areas with lots of tourists.

“Banning sunscreen will not solve other problems: for example, temperature anomalies, overfishing, coral predators and the big issue of coastal runoffs that pollute and destroy reefs,” he says. “But if you have places with a high load of tourists going in, it is not unreasonable to stay cautious and say, ‘Yes, there may be additive effects.”

Disputed effects

But sunscreen manufacturers such as L’Oréal disagree that a ban is needed. “Regulatory decisions have to be made on sound scientific evidence and multiple studies,” says Marc Leonard, head of L’Oréal’s Research & Innovation, Environmental Research department in Aulnay-sous-Bois, France. “They have to be completed by different teams to provide a significant bundle of evidence. We are very far from it in this case.” Despite this, says Leonard, L’Oréal are working on making sunscreen products without oxybenzone, in anticipation of a possible ban.

L’Oréal has not itself reported any tests on the effects of oxybenzone or octinoxate on coral reefs. In June 2016, the manufacturer presented work done with researchers at the Scientific Centre of Monaco, on a different UV filter chemical in its sunscreen, called avobenzone. The scientists reported an adverse effect on corals at the high concentrations of 5 milligrams per litre (5 parts per million) – but that has little relevance to normal levels of exposure.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a national trade association for manufacturers based in Washington DC, says that it will oppose a ban until there is more evidence. “We sympathize with the desire to preserve Hawaii’s coral reef, but there is no scientific evidence that under naturally occurring conditions, sunscreen ingredients are contributing to coral-reef declines,” says a spokeswoman for the group.

Downs says that his team has seen a clear effect in Maui – and that he feels there is already enough evidence to justify a ban there. Some Hawaiian politicians have tried to push for more funding to support research into the issue. But a bill to the US Congress, asking for funds for the University of Hawaii to further investigate the effect of sunscreens on reefs, stalled in February last year.

“We have advocates and science on our side,” Espero says. “Fishermen, boat owners, sailors, ocean-sports enthusiasts, ocean-tour operators and environmentalists rely on the ocean for recreation and jobs. Opponents will be out there, but supporters as well.”


An alternative future

Research Europe, 12.01.17

Dietmar Lampert, from Austria’s Centre for Social Innovation, hopes that digital science will create a better fit between innovation and society, Inga Vesper reports.

At November’s Web Summit in Lisbon, one innovator took to the stage to demonstrate his face-recognition glasses. “I’m scanning and filing every face in this room,” he told the audience of 15,000. Half of the crowd cheered with excitement. The other half quietly covered up their faces.

It is scenarios such as this that pose crucial questions about whether people are ready to handle the full capabilities of the latest technological inventions. And it is these questions that Dietmar Lampert from the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna is trying to answer. He wants to understand the effects digital technologies have on society, and propose ways to better prepare people for the latest inventions.

Lampert, who researches digital policy and alternative metrics, sees the issues that have arisen as a result of global digitisation as a two-headed beast.

On the one hand, neither citizens nor policymakers grasp the full extent of the phenomenon because of its intangible nature. “You would never plaster your personal information all over your car for all to see, but in the virtual world people stop being careful because it is harder to connect emotionally,” he says. Law-makers controlling the reach and impact of digital technologies continue to lag behind the technology itself as they remain unaware of how far digital and data-gathering technologies have sneaked into everyday lives, Lampert says.

The digitisation of science offers new opportunities to tackle the problems raised, through the emergence of both open and citizen science. And Lampert says he believes that these hold great scope for a big transition in the future, as combining openness of experiments and results with the involvement of citizens could prepare society better for technological change.

Scientists finally have the means to share data and results widely and immediately, rather than relying on conventional publishing—a necessity when paper documents were the only means of storing and distributing information. Open science means opening the research process up from the start to other partners, including the public and companies, to create innovation and do research that addresses society’s concerns. For researchers, the challenge is to “decide how much, and where, openness makes sense”, he says.

Sharing data will improve the quality of science due to better reproducibility and wider peer review, he claims. “Openness makes sense in science because transparency will give you instant validation and impact.”

Lampert also believes that this will help, ultimately, to shift the research process away from isolated teams working in the confines of a single laboratory, towards close involvement of citizens, policymakers and other scientists. “As researchers, we are still precious about our knowledge. We’ve never been able to break the paradigm,” he says. ”Innovation comes from different ways of looking at something, from not accepting the paradigm.

“Europe has a lot of diversity. Its people can bring something extra to science, and that creates new chances for innovation.”

Traditionally, innovators have been lauded for growing their ideas into large companies, but there has been little requirement for them to think about the social and security implications of inventions. Now, when hundreds of people are involved, scientists need to take charge of ensuring that scientific quality is upheld: for example by providing training in gathering quality data in comparable, shareable formats and thinking about the personal rights of those generating the data, Lampert says.

A truly open and citizen-led movement won’t work for all fields of science, he cautions, especially those involving sensitive data or competitive product development. He says that researchers as well as citizens will have to learn what works and does not work in the open-science process and think of alternative measurements for results.

“For example, scientists would need to change their language, so they don’t solely communicate in jargon,” he says. “It is also a question of who gets the credit. Will the citizens who provided their computing power or pattern-recognition skills be named in the paper? Will scientists be able to move away from counting citations and towards including social impact on their CV?”

He also pleads with policymakers to catch up, as bodies such as the European Commission continue to propose legislation not fit for purpose. Referring to a revision of copyright legislation that aims to protect European inventions, Lampert says that it will clamp down on data sharing and public hosting—totally failing to acknowledge the open-information movement.

“If you own something physical, you’d have a real loss of value if someone took it away,” Lampert says. “But in the world of ideas that’s not always the case. Sharing an idea is what gives it value in the first place.”

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