This Is Why You’re So Tired Around This Time Of Day

The next time you’re yawning at your desk around midafternoon, take comfort in the fact that the reward center of your brain is yawning, too.

A small study out of Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology found that the region of our brain associated with rewards — the left putamen — slumps in the afternoon, especially when compared to the left putamen’s activity in the morning or in the evening.

To come to this conclusion, researchers had 16 healthy men who hadn’t engaged in any long-haul travel — wouldn’t want jet lag messing with the results — engage in a card-guessing activity at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. The participants received a financial bonus for their best guesses in each round.

The men were hooked up to a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine during the test so their brain activity could be monitored.

“We found that activations in the left putamen, the reward centre located at the base of the forebrain, were consistently lowest at the 2 p.m. measurement compared to the start and end of the day,” Jamie Byrne, Ph.D. candidate and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

“Our best bet is that the brain is ‘expecting’ rewards at some times of day more than others, because it is adaptively primed by the body clock.”

Basically, the brain’s reward expectations are governed by the body’s circadian rhythms, the same way wakefulness hormones are. It doesn’t expect a reward of some kind in the morning or the evening, because of the time of day it is, but it does expect it during the day.

Byrne likened the brain’s responses to how you’d respond to two different sorts of birthday celebrations. A surprise party means your brain is working a bit more to contextualize the event — it surprised you, after all — while a planned birthday dinner is an expected activity. You’re likely to enjoy both, but your brain has to do more to understand the surprise party.

So if someone surprises you at the office with cake at 2 p.m., you brain may just think, “Well, yeah, it’s 2 p.m. That’s cake time. Whatever. Try me at 10 a.m. I won’t be expecting cake during bagel time.”

Beyond being helpful when it comes to planning office events, Byrne and her colleagues think that their findings could have mental health implications, too. Given that the left putamen is more active at certain times of the day, treatments for depression and bipolar disorder may need to be adjusted to complement those active periods.

Don’t Feel Bad For ‘Netflix Spring Bingeing’

Call it Netflix’s spring binge.

At the end of March, Netflix released the critically acclaimed “13 Reasons Why.” April featured new shows “Girl Boss” and “Bill Nye Saves the World,” while May’s lineup includes the second season of Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None,” along with the return of binge favorite “House of Cards,” back for its fifth season.

Many will relish getting lost for hours on end in these shows. But others might feel guilty about their extended screen time, seeing it as sign of laziness. Or maybe they’ve seen an article about one of those studies linking binge watching to depression.

As a professor of communication studies, I’m interested in understanding the ways people use TV, video games and social media to improve their well-being. And I’ve learned that even though watching TV gets a bad rap as the “junk food” of media diets, it can be good for you — as long as you give yourself permission to indulge.

Why TV gets the shaft

My colleagues and I collected some data suggesting that there is, in fact, a double standard for how we think about different media bingeing experiences. We administered a survey that recorded participants’ thoughts about reading or watching TV for certain amounts of time.

Respondents associated more attributes like laziness and impulsivity with people who consume several hours of a television show in one sitting, compared to those who do the same with novels.

This finding probably comes as no surprise.

Although reading a novel for several hours at a time for entertainment can arguably be just as sedentary and addictive as watching TV, no derogatory term like “bingeing” exists for the act of devouring an entire Harry Potter novel in one night. We simply call it “reading.”

Just think about the pejorative term “binge,” which conjures images of excess and abuse (as with binge eating or binge drinking). Contrast this with “marathon viewing,” which connotes accomplishment, and has traditionally been used to describe the experience of consuming multiple installments of film – not TV series – in rapid succession.

Why is it that we “binge” when we watch a lot of TV, but it’s a “marathon” when we watch a bunch of movies?

Perhaps this double standard is rooted in television’s lower status as a source of entertainment. Historically, TV viewing has been considered a mindless activity, capable of dulling the intellect with “a vast wasteland” of shallow, lowbrow content. Watching TV has also been regarded as a lazy activity that displaces time spent on more active, productive pursuits. Avid viewers of the “boob tube” or “idiot box” will get stereotyped as “lazy couch potatoes.”

Meanwhile, headline-grabbing research linking TV viewing to depression and loneliness hasn’t helped binge viewing’s reputation. These correlational studies may give the misleading impression that only depressed or lonely people engage in binge watching —– or worse, that binge viewing can make people depressed and lonely.

In truth, it’s just as likely that people who are depressed or lonely due to unrelated life circumstances (say, unemployment or a break-up) simply choose to spend their time binge watching. There’s no evidence to suggest that binge watching actually makes people depressed or lonely.

The good news about binge watching

But binge viewing TV has become popular for a good reason: Despite its negative reputation, television has never been better. We are in the midst of a golden age of television, with a variety of shows that provide a steady diet of novel premises, long-running, elaborate plots and morally complicated characters. Far from dulling the intellect, these shows create more suspense, interest and opportunities for critical engagement.

According to journalist and media theorist Steven Johnson, watching these shows may even make you smarter. He argues that because television narratives have become increasingly complex, they require viewers to follow more storyline threads and juggle more characters and relationships. All of this makes the audience more cognitively sophisticated.

Gorging on stories is pleasurable, too. When individuals binge watch, they are thought to have what’s called a “flow experience.” Flow is an intrinsically pleasurable feeling of being completely immersed in a show’s storyline. In a flow state of mind, viewers intently focus on following the story and it’s easier for them to lose awareness of other things, including time, while they’re wrapped up in viewing. One study found that viewers will continue viewing additional episodes in order to maintain this positive flow state, so there is an addictive quality to binge viewing. Interruptions like advertising can break the continuous viewing cycle by disrupting the flow state and drawing viewers out of the story. Luckily, for TV bingers, Netflix and Hulu are ad-free.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits binge watching can offer is psychological escape from daily stresses. What better way to decompress than watching four (or seven) straight episodes of “House of Cards”? A 2014 study found that people who were particularly drained after stressful work or school experiences watched TV to recharge and recuperate.

Unfortunately, this study also found that TV watching didn’t help everybody. Individuals who bought into the “lazy couch potato” stereotype enjoyed fewer benefits from watching TV. Instead of feeling revitalized after watching TV, they felt guilty.

The researchers believe that the shame associated with TV watching can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making it hard for viewers to reap psychological benefits.

For this reason, we need to shake the notion that bingeing on stories we engage with on TV is somehow less worthy leisure pursuit than bingeing on stories that we consume other ways, like novels. Immersing ourselves in narratives on TV can be good for us, even in heavy doses, but only if we truly appreciate it for what it is: a pleasure. Not a guilty pleasure, simply a pleasure.

It’s National Pet Day! Here Are Some Studies That Prove Pets Are Good For Your Health

If you have pets you already know the joy and love they bring to your life. Now science is confirming just how good they really are for you — both mentally and physically.

How do they help? One theory is that pets boost our oxytocin levels. Also known as the “bonding hormone” or “cuddle chemical,” oxytocin enhances social skills, decreases blood pressure and heart rate, boosts immune function and raises tolerance for pain. It also lowers stress, anger and depression.

No surprise then that keeping regular company with a dog or cat (or another beloved beast) appears to offer all these same benefits and more. Read on to discover the many impressive ways a pet can make you healthier, happier and more resilient.

1. Pets alleviate allergies and boost immune function

One of your immune system’s jobs is to identify potentially harmful substances and unleash antibodies to ward off the threat. But sometimes it overreacts and misidentifies harmless stuff as dangerous, causing an allergic reaction. Think red eyes, itchy skin, runny nose and wheezing. You’d think that having pets might trigger allergies by kicking up sneeze-and-wheeze-inducing dander and fur. But it turns out that living with a dog or cat during the first year of life not only cuts your chances of having pet allergies in childhood and later on but also revs up your immune system and lowers your risk of eczema and asthma. In fact, just a brief pet encounter can invigorate your disease-defense system. In one study, petting a dog for only 18 minutes raised immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels in college students’ saliva, a sign of robust immune function.

2. Pets up your fitness quotient

This one applies more to dog owners. If you like walking with your favorite canine, chances are you’re fitter and trimmer than your non-dog-walking counterparts and come closer to meeting recommended physical activity levels. One study of more than 2,000 adults found that regular dog walkers got more exercise and were less likely to be obese than those who didn’t walk a dog. In another study, older dog walkers (ages 71-82) walked faster and longer than non-pooch-walkers, plus they were more mobile at home.

3. Pets dial down stress

When stress comes your way, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, releasing hormones like cortisol to crank out more energy-boosting blood sugar and epinephrine to get your heart and blood pumping. All well and good for our ancestors who needed quick bursts of speed to dodge predatory saber-toothed tigers and stampeding mastodons. But when we live in a constant state of fight-or-flight from ongoing stress at work and the frenetic pace of modern life, these physical changes take their toll on our bodies, including raising our risk of heart disease and other dangerous conditions. Contact with pets seem to counteract this stress response by lowering stress hormones and heart rate. They also lower anxiety and fear levels (psychological responses to stress) and elevate feelings of calmness.

4. Pets boost heart health

Pets shower us with love so it’s not surprising they have a big impact on our love organ: the heart. Turns out time spent with a cherished critter is linked to better cardiovascular health, possibly due to the stress-busting effect mentioned above. Studies show that dog owners have a lower risk of heart disease, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Dogs also benefit patients who already have cardiovascular disease. They’re not only four time more likely to be alive after a year if they own a dog, but they’re also more likely to survive a heart attack. And don’t worry, cat owners — feline affection confers a similar effect. One 10-year study found that current and former cat owners were 40 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack and 30 percent less likely to die of other cardiovascular diseases.

5. Make you a social — and date — magnet

Four-legged companions (particularly the canine variety that pull us out of the house for daily walks) help us make more friends and appear more approachable, trustworthy and date-worthy. In one study, people in wheelchairs who had a dog received more smiles and had more conversations with passersby than those without a dog. In another study, college students who were asked to watch videos of two psychotherapists (depicted once with a dog and once without) said they felt more positively toward them when they had a dog and more likely to disclose personal information. And good news for guys: research shows that women are more willing to give out their number to men with a canine buddy.

6. Provides a social salve for Alzheimer’s patients

Just as non-human pals strengthen our social skills and connection, cats and dogs also offer furry, friendly comfort and social bonding to people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of brain-destroying dementia. Several canine caregiver programs now exist to assist at-home dementia patients with day-to-day tasks, such as fetching medication, reminding them to eat and guiding them home if they’ve wandered off course. Many assisted-living facilities also keep resident pets or offer therapy animal visits to support and stimulate patients. Studies show creature companions can reduce behavioral issues among dementia patients by boosting their moods and raising their nutritional intake.

7. Enhances social skills in kids with autism

One in nearly 70 American kids has autism (also known as autism spectrum disorder, or ASD), a developmental disability that makes it tough to communicate and interact socially. Not surprisingly, animals can also help these kids connect better to others. One study found that youngsters with ASD talked and laughed more, whined and cried less and were more social with peers when guinea pigs were present. A multitude of ASD animal-assisted therapy programs have sprung up in recent years, featuring everything from dogs and dolphins to alpacas, horses and even chickens.

8. Dampens depression and boosts mood

Pets keep loneliness and isolation at bay and make us smile. In other words, their creature camaraderie and ability to keep us engaged in daily life (via endearing demands for food, attention and walks) are good recipes for warding off the blues. Research is ongoing, but animal-assisted therapy is proving particularly potent in deterring depression and other mood disorders. Studies show that everyone from older men in a veterans hospital who were exposed to an aviary filled with songbirds to depressed college students who spent time with dogs reported feeling more positive.

9. Defeats PTSD

People haunted by trauma like combat, assault and natural disasters are particularly vulnerable to a mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sure enough, studies show that the unconditional love — and oxytocin boost — of a pet can help remedy the flashbacks, emotional numbness and angry outbursts linked to PTSD. Even better, there are now several programs that pair specially trained service dogs and cats with veterans suffering from PTSD.

10. Fights cancer

Animal-assisted therapy helps cancer patients heal emotionally and physically. Preliminary findings of a clinical trial by the American Humane Association shows that therapy dogs not only erase loneliness, depression and stress in kids fighting cancer, but canines can also motivate them to eat and follow treatment recommendations better — in other words participate more actively in their own healing. Likewise, new research reveals a similar lift in emotional well-being for adults undergoing the physical rigors of cancer treatment. Even more astounding, dogs (with their stellar smelling skills) are now being trained to literally sniff out cancer.

New Study Finds Atheists Are Less Fearful of Death Than Most Religious People

One of the leading theories as to why people entertain religious belief is that it helps alleviate the fear of death. But a new systematic review of religious believers and non-believers that pulled data from a wide swath of high-quality international studies on the subject from 1961 to 2014 found that being religious doesn’t always help relieve death anxiety after all. In fact, the research found that atheists were among the least fearful of death, reports

It’s a study that calls into question the whole psychology of why religion is such a prominent and sustainable cultural artifact.

The studies that the review looked at were wide-ranging in their content. Some studies looked at specific types of religious beliefs, such as belief in God or gods, or belief in an afterlife. Other studies looked more closely at religious behavior, like going to church or praying. Different studies often made different distinctions. To identify consistencies across such diverse content, researchers checked for curvilinear patterns in the data.

This allowed them to narrow down their focus to just 11 key studies that were robust enough to make generalizations. Surprisingly, the researchers found that when data from these studies was graphed, 10 out of the 11 showed a distinct upside-down U shape, with religious believers and disbelievers showing less death anxiety than people in between. In other words, only people at the extremes — devout believers or atheists — received any kind of relief from death anxiety. The vast majority of religious believers tended to fear death more.

“It may be that other researchers would have found this inverse-U pattern too if they had looked for it. This definitely complicates the old view, that religious people are less afraid of death than nonreligious people,” said Dr. Jonathan Jong, team leader on the review. “It may well be that atheism also provides comfort from death, or that people who are just not afraid of death aren’t compelled to seek religion.”

If religious belief is not alleviating the fear of death for the vast majority of religious followers — and if moderate religious belief may, in fact, be correlated with increased death anxiety — then it begs the question as to why such people are drawn to religion in the first place. It might be that alleviating the fear of death has little to do with it.

There are other theories about why people choose religious belief. For instance, some philosophers have posited that religion offers a grounding for one’s moral inclinations. Meanwhile, others think in larger sociological terms, suggesting that religion gets reinforced because it performs certain organizing functions for a society. For instance, perhaps religious belief reinforces in-group, out-group psychology that acts as a cultural glue.

But if you’re looking for coping mechanisms for death anxiety, it would seem that religion offers little reprieve unless you’re fervently devout. And even in that case, extreme religiosity offers no discernible benefit over atheism or disbelief.

The review was published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior.

New Study Shows Yoga Combats Depression

As it turns out, yoga can do a lot more than just decorate your Instagram feed. Findings from Boston University School of Medicine point to yoga as an alternative to pharmaceutical treatments for depression.

Almost half of individuals using antidepressants for Major Depressive disorder (MDD) do not achieve full remission. Researchers suggest yoga-based therapy as a promising treatment to fill the gap. The study found that study participants who participated in at least two 90-minute yoga classes per week had a significant decrease in depressive symptoms.

The study looked specifically into a technique called “Iyengar yoga” that focuses on precise alignment and breathing exercises. Researchers paired Iyengar yoga positions with transitions into periods of relaxation to enhance the potential relief effects for patients with MDD.

The research, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, randomized study participants with MDD into a high-dose group (three classes a week) and a low-dose group (two classes a week) for a 12-week yoga schedule. Both groups showed improvements in their depression symptoms, with subjects in the high-dose group testing higher in clinical improvements. Researchers used the Beck Depression Inventory-II as well as the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale to track the progress of participants.

With this new information, those with Major Depressive Disorder may be able to ease their symptoms without the side effects of pharmaceutical treatments.

In a statement, the researchers concluded that the study, “supports the use of a yoga and coherent breathing intervention in major depressive disorder in people who are not on antidepressants and in those who have been on a stable dose of antidepressants and have not achieved a resolution of their symptoms.”

Climate Change May Have Substantial Effects On Mental Health

Climate change may have surprising and wide-ranging effects on mental health, experts say.

That’s because climate change is both a root cause of mental health crises and a “threat multiplier,” meaning that it makes existing mental health problems worse, said Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in private practice and an advisory board member for the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Van Susteren spoke about the connection between climate change and mental health yesterday (Feb. 16) here at the Climate & Health Meeting, a gathering of experts from public health organizations, universities and advocacy groups that focused on the health impacts of climate change.

For example, researchers have documented a link between extreme climate and weather events and higher levels of aggression, Van Susteren said. A 2013 study published in the journal Science found that increases in temperature and extreme rainfall are associated with increased levels of conflict between individuals, and between groups, she said.

One possible explanation for the link between rising temperatures and aggression is that higher temperatures increase levels of adrenaline in the body, which can contribute to aggression, Van Susteren told Live Science.

In her talk, Van Susteren also highlighted the link between rising air-pollution levels — which can be caused by rising temperatures — and a higher risk of neurological and psychiatric problems. When a person breathes in particulate matter from air pollution, that matter can enter a person’s olfactory nerve and cause neural inflammation, she said.

Neural inflammation is linked to disorders found in all age groups, including Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive disorders, she said.

One question that needs to be explored, however, is whether this neural inflammation also causes more conventional psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression, Van Susteren told Live Science.

The American Psychological Association has reported that when pregnant women are exposed to air pollutants, their children are more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression, Van Susteren said in her talk.

In addition, research has shown that the average numbers of emergency room visits for panic attacks and threats to commit suicide are higher on days with poor air quality, Van Susteren said.

But she noted that not all of climate change’s effects on health can be easily quantified in studies. “Not everything that counts can be counted,” she said. Rather, there are “insidious” effects of climate change that could cause psychological strain on a societal level that will be hard to overcome, she said.

In one case, a 17-year-old boy in Australia developed such distress over climate change that he wound up hospitalized, Van Susteren said. The doctors who treated him called his condition “climate change delusion” in their report of his case, which was published in 2009 in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. The boy had refused to drink water because he believed that it would cause millions of people in the drought-ridden country to die.

In her talk, Van Susteren stressed the need to take action on climate change; if action is not taken, she said, it will have profound effects on other children’s mental health as well.