Gorilla Resilience Training

“Resilience”–generally defined as the ability to respond and adapt to challenging situations and to keep going in the face of trauma and adversity–is a prized commodity these days. Many businesses seek to encourage the development of enhanced resilience skills in their employees and offer training to help them become more resilient. Indeed, in many jobs where performance often has to occur in times of stress or under trying circumstances, resilience is a quality that may prove to be the difference between success and failure.

A recent study indicates that your next resilience training session might be taught by a gorilla, or at least draw some tips from their approach to life.

The study, undertaken by the University of Michigan, shows that gorillas are amazingly resilient–more so than humans and other animal species. The study focused on examining gorillas who had experienced trauma, such as the death of their mother, at an early age. In many species, such early life adversity is associated with shorter life spans and additional problems later in life. Gorillas apparently are different. The U of M research revealed that the more adversity gorillas experienced, the more likely they were to die young–but if they survived to the age of six, their lifespans were not shortened. In fact, gorillas who survived three or more early childhood traumas were more likely to live longer than other gorillas.

Why are gorillas more resilient than other species? The researchers who undertook the study believe that one reason is the tight-knit social structure of gorilla communities, where a young gorilla whose mother has died is not left alone, but instead is adopted and supported by the whole clan. They also suspect that the resource-rich environment in which gorillas live helps, by not adding additional stresses, like the need to constantly search for sufficient food, on top of the trauma. And, in some respects, the ability of certain gorillas to overcome devastating life-reversals may simply be an example of “survival of the fittest.”

We can learn from gorillas, and anyone who has worked under stressful circumstances will likely agree on one lesson: adversity and stress are more easily borne if they are shared, and it is a lot easier to be resolute and carry on if you are part of a good team.

Prescription: Sleep

It’s hard to believe that doctors and scientists are discovering new things about the therapeutic benefits of sleep. After all, humans, like all mammals, have been sleeping since well before the dawn of recorded history, and undoubtedly back as far as the time the first human ancestor decided to venture out of Africa. How is it possible to learn anything new about something that is such a fundamental, inescapable part of the human condition?

The Japan Times recently ran an interesting article on how scientists are developing a new “understanding” of sleep. Basically, the new “understanding” is this: sleep is really, really good for you. You want to make sure not only that you get the right amount of sleep, but that you also get that sleep at the right time, when the circadian clock that is built into every human being is telling you that it is time to hit the sack. People who align their sleep patterns with their personal biological clocks, scientists have concluded, “are less fatigued, have better moods, maintain healthier weights, gain more benefit from their medications, think more clearly, and have improved long-term health outcomes,”

On the other hand, if you don’t get enough sleep and at the right time, the human body compensates by doing things like releasing hormones that increase stress, injecting more sugar into the blood stream, and increasing blood pressure. If you consistently fight your circadian clock and that need to sleep over the long term, these bodily responses to the lack of regular sleep will produce adverse health effects.

None of this should come as a surprise, to scientists or anyone else. It makes you wonder if scientists and researchers have lost sight of the forest for the trees, by focusing on minutiae rather than the basics. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if humans have been doing something forever and in fact are driven by basic biological impulses to do it, it’s probably in your best interests to yield to those impulses and give in to what your body is telling you. And the nice thing about sleep is that it is something you can actually exercise some control over. Taking steps to plan your days to allow for regulated sleep patterns will pay dividends.

Into Bond Villain Territory

The villains in the James Bond movies of the ’60s and ’70s all had spectacular lairs. Be they extensive island fortresses, undersea citadels, or private space stations, pretty much every Bond bad guy had somehow secretly constructed an elaborate, impossible feat of engineering–one that would inevitably be blown to smithereens by Bond as he miraculously escaped with the female lead at the end of the movie.

I thought about Bond villains when I read about the announcement of plans to build an “underwater space station of the ocean” and saw a depiction of the proposed structure, above. You can almost see an evil guy with an eyepatch bent on world domination surveying his domain from one of those windows, can’t you?

The plans for the underwater space station are actually pretty cool. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Proteus Group, working together in a joint venture, propose to build it near the Caribbean island of Curacao. The habitat, which will be called PROTEUS, will allow scientists and researchers to live underwater for extended periods of time and study the ocean in a way that has never been possible before. The inhabitants will eat plants grown in hydroponic pods–although presumably fish will be part of the diet, too–as they perform their work.

The plans also contemplate that private citizens will be able to spend time at PROTEUS. That sounds like an interesting trip, but if you’re considering it I suggest minding your own business and staying away from any live shark tanks or piranha pools.

The Month Of The Evening Star

The last few nights we’ve been enjoying sitting outside, reveling in the clear desert skies, the cooling temperatures, the colorful sunsets, and the emergence of the stars after the glow on the western horizon fades. But the undisputed leader of the nighttime light show is Venus, also known this time of year as the Evening Star.

The past few days, Venus hasn’t even waited for the Sun to completely set before emerging, bright and gleaming and just above the western horizon. When the curtain of darkness finally falls, Venus is seen in its full brilliance. Other than the gibbous Moon, Venus is easily the brightest object in the night sky, far brighter than Polaris or any of the constellations. It’s as if Earth’s neighboring planet has its bright lights on for safety.

We’ve just emerged from the point in the year when Venus is at its brightest, and if you’ve got clear skies and a telescope you can get a good look at the planet. Even without a telescope, Venus is a visual treat for the nighttime sky watcher. We’ve enjoyed spending some time with the Evening Star.

The Good, The Bad, And The Super-Prickly

Desert plants are tough hombres. Virtually every plant not only has a rugged outer skin, the better to retain scarce water, but also a strong defensive system consisting primarily of thorns and needles. The prickliness of desert plants not only sends obvious danger signals to animals that might otherwise be tempted to take a bite, but also discourages picking blooms or taking desert selfies. I know from first-hand experience that thoughtlessly blundering into the needles on the plant above is a painful experience.

Of all of the deserts plants I’ve seen on my walks, however, the most impressive needle array is found on the plant pictured below. Its arsenal is so thick there would be no way to get to the plant itself without making agonizing contact with dozens of needles. It makes you wonder what evolutionary impulse and hungry animal led this particular plant to develop such a dense and bristling protective coating of needles.

If you see one of these bad boys on the desert trail, you automatically give it wide berth.

Graying Out

Scientists believe they have now identified a key cause of gray hair. And, contrary to what your mother told you long ago, the key cause isn’t the misbehavior of children, or worrying about who they might be out with late at night. Instead, it’s primarily caused by cells that have gotten stuck in what used to be their natural cycle.

The scientific study, described in a paper in Nature, focused on melanocytes, a kind of stem cell that produces melanin, which controls hair color as well as eye and skin color. These cells are found in your hair follicles, where they await a protein signal telling them to become mature cells and produce the pigment that is your natural hair color. The melanocytes move around in there, and in different locations they get different protein signals. The study found that over time, however, more and more of the stems cells get stuck in an area called the “hair follicle bulge,” where they aren’t getting the signal to fully mature and produce color. As a result of this and other causes, you get gray hair–that is, hair without color. (Incidentally, other causes of gray hair can include stress, so maybe your mother was right after all.)

The study gives some insight into how science works, because it required the researchers to repeatedly pluck hairs from mice to artificially speed up the “stuck in the hair follicle bulge” status. Presumably, some hapless lab assistant was at work with a magnifying glass and tweezers every day for two years, to perform the minute mouse hair plucking. But their sacrifice in miniature barbering was worth it, because this discovery may allow scientists to figure out how to get the melanocytes out of the bulge and back into their normal rotation, allowing people to recover their natural hair color without resort to Grecian Formula 16.

Based on the condition of my head, I’ve got lots of melanocytes stuck in hair follicle bulges throughout the scalp territory. I hope they are enjoying themselves in there.

Science And Sports

If, like me, you love football, you can’t help but wonder about the future of the game. With players continuing to get bigger, and faster, and harder-hitting, the game has become increasingly dangerous, and brutal hits and season-ending injuries are common. To cite just one example of the injury plague, the NFL saw an 18 percent increase in concussions, league-wide, in the 2022 season.

Concussions that can have devastating long-term consequences are an especially serious concern, and quarterbacks–the keystone player around whom the offense revolves–often bear the brunt of the injuries. As a result, you need to have a unique kind of mental toughness to play quarterback in the NFL, or in any major college football program.

The NFL has tried to deal with this problem by tinkering with the rules and penalties, but also by turning to science and technology. Yesterday the League announced that it and the NFL Players’ Association had approved the first quarterback-specific helmet, which is designed to provide better protection against the concussions that can occur when a quarterback’s head makes contact with the ground. Laboratory testing showed that the new helmet design performed 7 percent better in reducing impact severity in comparison to other helmets.

The key development, according to an executive for the company that designed the helmet, “is that it has a deformal outer shell, which means when you take an impact in any location on that helmet, it will deform or basically dent in that location to absorb the impact.” This development is just the latest sign of how quickly the science and technology of helmets is changing. The ESPN article linked above notes, for example, that due to the latest round of testing seven helmets that were highly recommended in 2020 have been downgraded to prohibited for 2023.

It will be interesting to see how fans will react to a dented helmet as a visible sign of just how hard a quarterback was walloped. We can also expect continuing changes in the protective gear players wear to protect their knees, ankles, shoulders, and various fragile ligaments and tendons. The reality, however, is that there is only so much you can do, because the human body isn’t designed to repeatedly endure hard hits from 320-pound players moving at top speed. Football is just a dangerous game.

A Horse Tale

In our popular culture perceptions, Native Americans of the American West are closely associated with horses. But the story of horses in the Americas is a complicated one. The fossil record suggests that horses originated on the American continent and migrated to Asia over the former Bering land bridge that connected what is now Alaska to the Asian continent. The horse was then domesticated by humans in Asia and Europe, even as horses became extinct in the Americas, thousands of years ago. Horses were reintroduced to the Americas by Europeans, and when those horses began to interact with the indigenous peoples of the American West, they revolutionized the lives of tribal members in countless ways.

But when, exactly, were the indigenous peoples in the American West first introduced to horses? For years, scholars believed that the key point was the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when some of the Native Americans in what is now New Mexico staged an uprising against the Spanish. The theory postulated that the revolt caused horses to be released into the countryside, where they quickly spread into the Mountain West and the Great Plains, to be adopted and used by the tribes that lived in those areas.

New research that combines genetic analysis, radiocarbon dating, and the oral traditions of the indigenous peoples challenges that theory, and indicates that horses had been integrated into the lives of the tribes well before the Pueblo Revolt. Researchers found horse remains across the American West and used genetic testing techniques to confirm that the horses were of Iberian ancestry, as well as radiocarbon dating to show that horses were part of the indigenous communities across the region by the early 1600s–decades before the Pueblo Revolt occurred.

The research indicates that while the Spanish reintroduced the horse when they landed in the New World, the horse quickly spread north into the American West and the Great Plains in advance of any contact by Spanish adventurers with the indigenous peoples of those areas. Some of the Spanish horses may have escaped and headed north well before the Pueblo Revolt, but as one of the researchers in the study notes, the results also suggest a dynamic in which Native Americans quickly recognized the value of horses and traded for them with the Spanish, and then traded horses with other tribes. This allowed the horse to quickly spread north and become assimilated into the cultures of indigenous peoples, consistent with their oral traditions.

One of the more interesting aspects of this study is how it demonstrates that oral traditions and modern scientific techniques can work well together–and can help to develop the fascinating story of horses and humans.

Live Fast, Die Young

A Chicago writer, Willard Motley, coined the phrase “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” in his debut novel. Unfortunately, American mortality statistics are echoing that sentiment–except for the good-looking part, The U.S. is doing worse than other wealthy countries, and last year, American life expectancy dropped for the second year in a row even as the statistics in other countries rebounded from the COVID pandemic.

NPR has an interesting article on this phenomenon that is worth reading in full. Among other things it discusses the “why” question–namely, how can it be that a rich, scientifically advanced country that spends buckets of money on health care fares so poorly in comparative mortality data? The NPR article cites a study done 10 years ago by the National Academy of Sciences called Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. The study tried to identify systemic factors that contribute to the bad statistics.

A few things stand out: first, Americans are more likely to die before age 50, thanks to factors like the opioid epidemic, suicides, other drug use, criminal gun violence, teen pregnancies, and highway deaths. Second, Americans are far more likely to be obese, to smoke, to have bad diets, and to have sedentary lifestyles that contribute to poorer health. These societal elements, which together mean that Americans are far more likely to die young, account for a big chunk of the difference in average life expectancy with countries like, say, Japan.

On the bright side, the U.S. has a better record than other countries in keeping people who make it to 75 alive–but that is cold comfort to those who don’t make it to 50. And when you look at the causes identified by the NAS study, you can’t help but think that a big part of the problem is socioeconomic. Americans who are fortunate to live in comfortable suburban neighborhoods, for example, don’t face the same mortality risks as those who have been born into the south side of Chicago.

The mortality statistics are embarrassing, but in the 10 years since its release the NAS study hasn’t made much of a dent in public consciousness. Regrettably, in America “live fast, die young” isn’t just a good line from a ’40s novel, it’s a summary of reality.

That Second Shingles Shot

Our family doctor has been after me to complete the two-part shingles vaccination process. I got the first one several months ago, and it apparently doesn’t become fully effective until you get round two. Our doctor also told me that many people who receive the second shot have a reaction to it, which means you probably want to get it on the weekend, so you can have some recuperation time before the new work week starts. Some of my friends and colleagues are among those who have had reactions to the second shot; others haven’t.

Because of the warning, I’ve put off getting the second shot, so as to avoid weekends where we’ve got plans that could be wrecked by a reaction to the shot. At the same time, I wanted to get it, because getting shingles at my age sounds so horrific–I heard one ugly tale about somebody who got shingles in their eyes–that I’m willing to endure a few crappy weekend days to avoid the possibility. So I made a reservation at a local CVS and went yesterday morning to get the jab. I’ve gone to the CVS for COVID shots, and know from personal experience that the pharmacists do a solid, professional job of administering vaccines.

At first, I was fine, although my shoulder that received the shot ached. But by nightfall, I was definitely feeling a reaction. I woke up overnight with shaky chills, followed by feeling hot and feverish and a general sense of malaise and and overall soreness. But, all things considered, it’s not that bad–and definitely preferable to getting shingles in your eyes.

Life is about making these kinds of little judgment calls. I think getting the second part of the shingles vaccine was a good one.

Ludwig’s Locks

Ludwig van Beethoven was a musical genius who was almost as well known during his lifetime for his health problems as for his titanic, soaring symphonies and his beautiful piano works. Beethoven famously suffered from progressive hearing problems that eventually produced functional deafness–requiring him to produce his later compositions in his head, without actually hearing the music he was creating–but his health problems went beyond hearing loss. Beethoven experienced chronic gastric issues for years, and when he died in 1827, after having been bed-ridden for months, he was afflicted by jaundice, liver disease, swollen limbs, and breathing problems. His health problems were so great that Beethoven wrote out a testament asking that his conditions be studied and shared after his death.

Two hundred years later, scientists have heeded those wishes and tried to figure out what was wrong with Beethoven. They took an interesting approach–identifying locks of the composer’s hair that had been cut from his head in the seven years before his death and preserved ever since, and then using DNA analysis. The team started with eight samples that purported to be Beethoven’s hair, and found that two of the hair clippings weren’t his and another was too damaged to use. One of the five remaining samples had been initially provided by Beethoven himself to a pianist friend, and analysis showed that all of the hair in the samples came from the same European male of Germanic ancestry.

The DNA analysis did not reveal the causes of Beethoven’s deafness or his gut issues, but did indicate that he was suffering from hepatitis B and had genetic risk factors for liver disease that may have been exacerbated by the composer’s alcohol consumption habits–which a close friend wrote included drinking at least a liter of wine with lunch every day. The genetic analysis also determined that one of Beethoven’s ancestors was the product of an extramarital affair.

I’ve ceased to be amazed by the wonders of modern DNA analysis and what it is capable of achieving. To me, the most surprising aspect of this story is that five legitimate clippings of hair from Beethoven’s head survived for two centuries. It make you wonder how many people were given locks of Beethoven’s hair in the first place. Ludwig van’s barber must have been a very popular guy.

ZZZs, If You Please

I’m a big believer in the benefits of a good night’s sleep. Humans obviously have a physical and mental need for sleep–as anyone who has pulled a college or job all-nighter can attest–and studies show that sleep increases mental sharpness, aids the functioning of the hormone system, and reduces stress, among many other values. A good night’s sleep also can provide helpful perspective on issues or problems. There’s a reason why people who are trying to make an important decision say that they “want to sleep on it.”

A recent study also shows that there is an association between sleeping well and avoiding depression. The annual Sleep in America poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (who knew there was such an organization?) found that more than 90 percent of adults who report that they sleep well also were free of depressive symptoms, whereas two thirds of adults who aren’t happy with their sleeping had significant levels of depressive symptoms.

There’s an obvious chicken-and-egg issue at play here: does a good night’s sleep help to ward off significant depression, or do people who are troubled by depression or anxiety have trouble sleeping as an essential part of the condition? Nevertheless, the correlation is worth noting. The proven, positive impact of sleep on mental acuity and stress reduction, and the fresh perspective sleep can bring, may also affect depressive thoughts.

Adults are supposed to get between seven and nine hours of sleep a day. If you’re feeling blue, you might want to examine your sleep habits and see whether a few extra hours in the Land of Nod helps you to feel better.

Mighty Forces, Ever At Work

For about 100 million years, all of the land masses of Earth combined to form one huge supercontinent that we now call Pangea (or Pangaea). When Pangea existed, the current continents fit neatly together, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, as shown in the illustration above. The east coasts of North America and South America were wedged up against Africa, and it would have been possible to take a delightful driving trip to anywhere in the world–such as heading due east from Columbus, Ohio across the northern rim of Africa and then up through Eurasia to the eastern tip of Siberia. Careful packing would have been a must for that journey!

Pangea was just one of several supercontinents that have existed–and will exist again–in the long history of Earth. Like its predecessors, Pangea broke apart thanks to the ceaseless grinding movements of the tectonic plates that comprise Earth’s mantle. Those movements caused North and South America to drift gradually westward, creating the Atlantic Ocean, and Africa and Antarctica to fall away to the south and Australia to head east.

The best current evidence of the impact of the ongoing churning of the Earth’s crust is found in Africa, which geologists have determined is slowly splitting apart. The Somalian plate in east Africa is shearing off from the Nubian plate on which the rest of Africa is situated. Each year, they move a few millimeters farther away from each other–meaning that in a few million years a considerable gap will open, a new ocean will be created that fills the gap, and there will be a new, large island off the east coast of a smaller Africa.

In an even longer period of time. the tectonic plate movements will push North America all the way west to Japan and the east coast of Asia, forming a new supercontinent that they have already dubbed “Amasia.” At that point, it will be possible to take a cool driving trip from Columbus due west to the Great Wall of China–with a stop at the Corn Palace and other attractions along the way, of course.

The Unknown OCD Legacy

I’m reading an interesting biography of Noah Webster called The Forgotten Founding Father, by Joshua Kendall. Webster was an educator who developed a classic book on spelling that American schools used for generations, a lawyer, and a relentless champion of the need to establish a unique American identity and culture. His passion caused him to tackle the monumental project of creating an American dictionary–the American Dictionary Of The English Language, which was first published in 1828. Webster’s dictionary is one of the principal reasons why Americans and British have been called people separated by a common language; he thought English spelling rules were unnecessarily complex and was responsible, among other things, for eliminating the u in the American version of humour/humor and colour/color.

Kendall believes that Webster, an odd personality who once wrote “I am not formed for society,” suffered from what is now known as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, or “OCD.” OCD “causes an extensive preoccupation with perfectionism, organization and control” that can produce rigidity and an inability to compromise, and therefore interfere with maintaining interpersonal relationships. You can see indications of OCD in this description of what Noah Webster did to create his dictionary:

“In total it took twenty-eight years to complete. To evaluate the etymology of words, Webster learned twenty-six languages, including Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Greek, Hebrew and Latin. Webster completed his dictionary during his year abroad in 1825 in Paris, France, and at the University of Cambridge. His book contained seventy thousand words, of which twelve thousand had never appeared in a published dictionary before.”

We don’t know for sure whether Noah Webster had a diagnosable case of OCD, because the condition wasn’t generally recognized until well after this death. Webster therefore is one of those figures where historians look for clues to determine whether OCD was likely. A British history of OCD suggests that other notable people who may have had the condition include Charles Darwin, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Martin Luther; some believe that Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Sir Isaac Newton also had forms of OCD. The list of potential sufferers from the condition makes you wonder how many literary, scientific, and cultural advances occurred because an individual became fixated on a particular project or idea and engaged in a single-minded pursuit of it, to the exclusion of normal human interaction and behavior.

Interestingly, one word that was historically used to describe some of the symptoms of what we now call OCD was “scrupulosity”–and it was one of the 70,000 words Noah Webster defined in his dictionary. The 1828 edition of his dictionary defined it as follows:

1. The quality or state of being scrupulous; doubt; doubtfulness respecting some difficult point, or proceeding from the difficulty or delicacy of determining how to act; hence, the caution or tenderness arising from the fear of doing wrong or offending.

The first sacrilege is looked upon with some horror; but when they have once made the breach, their scrupulosity soon retires.

2. Nicety of doubt; or nice regard to exactness and propriety.

So careful, even to scrupulosity were they to keep their sabbath.

3.┬áNiceness; preciseness.”

I wonder if Noah Webster had a flash of self-awareness when he wrote that definition?

The Personal Cost Of Gridlock

No one–not even the most hardened California or New York City commuter–likes sitting in traffic. It’s frustrating, and annoying, and a colossal waste of time. But what does it mean for you, physically, if you are spending hours every day personally experiencing gridlock?

A recent study from the University of British Columbia suggests that sitting in traffic and breathing in diesel fumes and exhaust is bad for your brain. The study indicates that exposure to traffic pollution produces altered brain network connectivity in humans, and that signs of decreased brain function can start to appear after as little as two hours of exposure.

The UBC study exposed 25 test subjects to either diesel exhaust or filtered air, then used MRI technology to measure brain activity. The results showed that people exposed to diesel exhaust exhibited less activity in the parts of the brain that are involved with internal thoughts and memories. Fortunately, the affects were temporary, and the brains of people exposed to the diesel exhaust were temporary. What hasn’t been tested yet, however, is whether consistent, daily exposure might cause more lasting damage to brain connections.

For some years now I’ve lived close enough to work to walk, and I have been very happy to avoid a long daily commute, sitting in traffic, and the stresses those activities produce. The UBC study just provides further confirmation that prolonged daily exposure to snarled traffic isn’t a good thing. If you have a tough commute, the UBC researchers suggest keeping the windows rolled up and making sure your air filter is a good one. And if you’re a cyclist or a pedestrian, they urge finding a route that keeps you away from diesel exhaust.

We all share a common interest in maintaining our remaining brain connections, such as they are, at peak functionality.