Dogs can sense fear – and seek release

What makes some people more susceptible to being bitten by dogs? A recent study suggests that dogs, with a sense of smell keener than humans, can sense fear in us. And this suggests that perhaps the sense of fear trips or triggers the dog into a fright or flight response that results in the human being bitten.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the best form of prevention against a bite from a dog could be to adopt a slight self-confident front, almost seemingly like a swagger, in order to convince the dog of a sense of confidence to override the inner sense of fear. However, this approach does not address how the dog might deal with the presentation of a confident person yet sense the underlying fear. It is like you meeting a person who you know is lying, yet smiling at you. What do you know? You revert to what psychologists might call the memory bank, the “type 2” kind of thinking which is more analytical, and less immediately responsive – but do dogs have that kind of ability to think and fall back on?

The research was carried out by researchers from the University of Liverpool in the form of a survey in a bit to understand why the likelihood of people being bitten by dogs seemed to be in a higher case of incidence for certain individiuals.

The results from the survey said that the likelihood of taking a nip from a four legged friend was almost 2.5 times more common than the current official figure, which estimates that 7.4 in 1,000 people get bitten by a dog every year in the UK. The figure is likely to be higher, because dog owners who get bitten by their own dogs are unlikely to report them for fear of getting their own dogs put down. Dog bites which also happen within the family – where the dog belongs to a family member – are unlikely to be reported for the same reason.

The results also showed that people who are nervous, men and owners of several dogs were more likely to be bitten.

This study was dependent on the date from questionnaires. This sort of information collection is a good way to obtain responses quickly. However, the limitations of this study include the fact that in this particular instance an assessment of behaviour is difficult, both in a recollection situation – having to do it in hindsight. Also there was the earlier reported case of perhaps dog owners not wanting to get their dogs taken in, and amending their queries.

The current guidelins for dog bit preventions suggest the following:

Never leave a young child unsupervised with a dog – regardless of the type of dog and its previous behaviour.

This is of course a good point, especially with attack dogs or more aggresive breeds. Even if the child is known to the dog, there have been many cases where dogs left alone with toddlers have seized the chance and attacked them. It is almost as if the removal of an adult boldens the dog into an attack it would not normally make, and being left alone with a young child heightens the fright or fight syndrome within a dog.

Another guideline is to treat dogs with respect – don’t pet them when they’re eating or sleeping. Dogs dislike being disturbed when they are meeting their basic needs, and the disturbance awakes and breeds aggressive responses that may evolve later.

A third guideline is to avoid stroking or petting unfamiliar dogs – when greeting a dog for the first time, let it sniff you before petting it. A good idea is to actually converse with the owner first so that the dog has already established you are friendly.

This study was carried out by researchers from the University of Liverpool and was funded by the Medical Research Council Population Health Scientist Fellowship. While the media reporting of the study was fairly accurate, The Guardian pointed out that people’s emotional stability was self-rated. In other words, if respondents were asked to rate their feelings, this may not be an accurate assessment – one person’s level of anxiety may not be the same as another’s.

So can dogs actually sense fear and anxiety? How does this explain the incidence of people being bitten by dogs? The answer to these questions can be answered best perhaps in two parts.

The first is the level of aggression in the dog. This depends of course on the genetic makeup, but also how it is treated. If its needs are met then it is likely that the level of aggression is typically lower than what it would be than if it were harrassed or disturbed persistently, which can build up latent aggression.

The second is the dog’s sense of fear. If a dog is often emotionally angered and there is opportunity to release this tension, even in a moment of madness, then this may result in biting as an emotional release.

So can dogs sense fear? Possibly. Does this explain their tendency to bite? Well, dogs that are treated well and genetically not prone to attacking will be less prone to nipping. Dogs that are not attack dogs but mistreated, or dogs that habitually have their attack responses nurtured, are more prone to biting, when the opportunity presents itself in the form of a less defensive target.

Why health articles in newspapers should be retired

What is it that people look forward to? Most want time to pursue their interests and doing things they love. Some people have managed to combine all this by the traditional interest-led approach, doing things they love, starting up a blog, gaining readership, and then selling advertising space on their blog, or affiliate marketing and other things associated with making money from a website. For others, this lure for things they like is compromised by the need of having to make a living, and hence this is shelved while having to earn a living and put off until retirement.

For most people, retirement would be when they would be able to have the time and money to indulge in things they put off earlier. Some people have combined the starting of a blog and retirement, and made a living by blogging (and gaining a readership) about how they have or intend to retire early.

Retirement. Out of the rat race. All the time in the world. For most people, retirement is the time to look forward to.

A recent study however suggests that retirement is not all that wonderful. Despite it being seen as the time of the life where financial freedom has been achieved and time is flexible, it has been suggested that the onset of mental decline starts with retirement.

The Daily Telegraph reported that retirement caused brain function to rapidly decline, and this information had been provided by scientists. It further cautions that those workers who anticipate leisurely post-work years may need to consider their options again because of this decline. Would you choose to stop work, if this meant your mental faculties would suffer and you would have all the free time in the world but not the mental acuity?

Retired civil servants were found to have a decline in their verbal memory function, the ability to recall spoken information such as words and names. It was found that verbal memory function deteriorated 38% faster after an individual had retired than before. Nevertheless, other areas of cognitive function such as the ability to think and formulate patterns were unaffected.

Even though the decline of verbal memory function had some meaningful relevance, it must be made clear that the study does not suggest anything about dementia or the likelihood of that happening. There were no links drawn with dementia. Just because someone retires does not mean they are more likely to develop dementia.

The study involved over 3000 adults, and they were asked to recall from a list of twenty words after two minutes, and the percentages were drawn from there. The small sample size, not of the adults, but of the word list, meant the percentage decline of post-retirement adults may have been exaggerated.

Look at this mathematically. From a list of twenty words, a non-retiree may recall ten. A retiree may recall six. That difference of four words is a percentage decline of 40%.

Ask yourself – if you were given a list of twenty words, how many would you remember?

It is not unsurprising if retirees exhibit lower abilities at verbal memory recall because the need for these is not really exercised post-retirement. What you don’t use, you lose. We should not be worried about the decline, because it is not a permanent mental state, but it is reversible; in any case the figure is bloated by the nature of the test. If a non-retiree remembers ten words, and a retiree makes one-mistake and remembers it, that would be promoted as a 10% reduction in mental ability already.

Furthermore, decline is not necessarily due to the lack of work. There are many contributing factors as well, such as diet, alcohol and lifestyle. Retirement is not necessarily the impetus behind mental decline. Other factors may confound the analyses.

The research did not involve people who had retired early. For example, hedge fund managers might have retired in their forties. But you would struggle to think that someone in their forties would lose 38% of verbal memory recall.

Would a loss of 38% of verbal memory have an impact on quality of life? It is hard to tell if there is the evidence to support this. But the results point to a simple fact. If you want to get better at verbal memory, then practice your verbal memory skills. If you want to get better at anything, then practice doing it.

Was this piece of news yet another attempt by mainstream media to clog paper space with information – arguably useless? You decide.

A smart person thought up the mental improvement products

The trail of human evolution is littered with gadgetry that have outlived their usefulness. We can add devices such as the fax machine, walkman, mini-disc and tape recorder to the list of machines which seemed clever at the time but have now before obsolete. Those of us of a certain age will remember newer additions such as the PocketPC, a palm sized screen which was used with a stylus that tapped out letters on screen, and the HP Jornada, a slightly bigger tablet sized keyboard and phone. And who could forget the Nintendo Brain Training programmes for the DS and Fitness Programmes for the Wii?

Launched in 2005, Nintendo’s Brain Training programmes claimed to increase mental functioning. Nintendo’s premise was that the concentration required in solving a variety of puzzles, involving language, mathematical and reasoning, increased blood flow to the frontal cortex of the brain, which at least maintained brain functioning or helped improve it. After all, since the brain is a muscle, exercising it by bombarding it with mental exercises would keep it active and healthy, right?

It is the idea of keeping the brain active that leads many to attempt their daily crossword or Sudoku. The latter in particular has seen an surge in interest over the past decade and is now a feature in newspaper back pages and magazines. There are even publications exclusively filled with Sudoku puzzles, and even more complex versions where each traditional puzzle forms a square in a bigger and complex three by three grid. If you thought doing a Sudoku puzzle was hard, imagine having to work on it in relation to eight others. It would be absolutely mind-boggling!

Is there any truth about the positive enhancements to the human life that these objects or activities bring? Nintendo’s claims about the Brain Training programmes were doubted by leading neuroscientists, who doubted the tenuous links between the increased blood flow to the brain and the vaguely described positive effects to life. It is akin to making a blanket statement saying chess grand masters or academics are the happiest people around. Unfortunately it is yet another case of a company creating a product and then engineering the science around it.

Manufacturers of beauty products do it all the time. Whether it is skin care or facial products being flogged, you will find an aspirational theme within the first five seconds of the advertisement (“Look beautiful! Stay young!”) which is then followed by a pseudo-scientific claim, preferably involving percentages (sounds more authoritative) and a small sample size (easier to corroborate, or disclaim, depending on the need).

“Live young forever. XX skin lotion is carefully formulated to retain your natural moisture, so you look and feel twenty years younger. 86% of 173 women noticed a change in skin density after using it for three months.”

There you have it. The secret of beauty product advertising.

Unfortunately, if there was any display of mental acuity, it was by the marketing team of Nintendo. In pitching a product to adults, using the retention and improvement of mental agility as a plus point, they not only convinced adults to buy what was essentially a toy, but to buy one for their children as well. The DS alone has since sold over 90 million units worldwide, and when you take into account the cost of games and all that, you will have to concede that someone at Nintendo had the smarts to produce a tidy little earner.

(For those who were more concerned with retaining their physical functioning, the Nintendo Wii Fit programmes performed that function and filled in the gap in that market.)

The improvement of mental functioning is always a good basis for marketing any product. You can find a whole plethora of products huddling behind it. Multi vitamins, activity puzzles, recreational activities involving multi-tasking – all supposedly give the brain a workout, but more importantly, tap into the fears of missing out or the loss of mental function in the human psyche, that makes people buy not out of potential gain, but fear of lost opportunity and potential regret.

The loss of mental function can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is currently no cure. With 30 million people worldwide suffering from it, this presents an endless river of opportunity for people researching the disease, as well as people developing products to improve mental function in the hope that it can stave off the disease. Like the Nintendo Brain Training developers realised, it is not so much about whether these scientific products work that makes people buy them – the evidence that is produced is biased and not independent – but it is the fear of missing out and retrospective guilt that compels people to make the purchase. Buy first, examine the evidence later, is the apparent dogma.

Unfortunately we are at the stage of modern society where it is not just the product that needs scrutiny, but whether the scrutiny itself needs scrutiny for evidence of bias, either in the form of financial ties or expected research outcomes.

Mental improvement is an area that product developers – whether the products be vitamins, books or applications – will continually target because human beings will always seek to improve mental prowess, both in themselves and their children, in the hope that somewhere down the line it offers an advantage, or prevents the mental degeneration associated with the aging process. And the compelling reason to buy lies somewhere in the meeting points of being seduced by the aspirational ideals the product offers, the fear of missing out, and the assumption that the underlying evidence is empirical. The greatest mental sharpness has been displayed by the one who has understood the sales psychology of mental health improvement products and used it to his or her advantage.

Set aside time and space for your own mental health

Work places huge demands on modern living. It goes without saying that over generations work demands have increased. For example, generations ago the concept of a traditional job for most people was a five-day working working week. The song “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton more or less captured the essence of work at the time. (Unfortunately, it is still fairly often played, to the point that people in non-Western societies assume we still only work eight hour days, five times a week, and spend our free time sunning ourselves on the beach.) Nowadays people have to work longer hours, and travel further for work. The total time spent each day traveling and working each day could easily amount to twelve hours, and it is not like the commute is down time – we still have to catch up on emails, admin, and type away busily on the laptop. We could easily spend sixty hours doing work-related things.

And the weekends? Forget the weekends. These days there is no distinction between a weekday and a weekend. Work has steadily grown its talons and where an hourly-rated individual used to get 1.5 or two times the normal rate for working on a weekend, these days it is the same. Employers realise that in an economy with job shortages, they can get away with offering less rates but will not be short of takers.

The problem with all this is that we don’t really have much of a choice when it comes to establishing our work boundaries or exercise or rights when we realise we are being pushed beyond our work boundaries. We’re made to feel that in these times, we are lucky to hold down a job, and if we complain about the increasing demands of it, and how higher managers try to force more work on us without increasing our pay, we might get told to take a hike and end up in a more difficult situation of having no job, commitments to uphold and having to start out again. There are lots of people trapped in jobs where they have to take on more and more as the years go by, and have every ounce of work and free hour extracted from them for little pay. This places increasing mental demands on the individual not just in having to cope with work demands, but the possibility of being made redundant if he or she shows weakness by having to admit an inability to cope any more. It is a no win situation.

Is it a surprising statistic that mental health illness is on the rise? Hardly.

Nowadays people are working more to live and living to work more.

What can you do to preserve some semblance of mental health?

The first thing you can do for yourself is to establish boundaries within the home. Establish a space where work does not intrude. A good idea is often the bedroom, or even have a rule that you will not work on the bed. If you end up working on your laptop in the bed, it will not do you any good – keep at least a certain physical space for yourself.

Also try to set aside a time each day for yourself if possible. It is possibly unrealistic to say an hour each day in the modern life climate, but something like twenty minutes to half an hour would be a good idea. Use this time to wind down in your personal space doing something you enjoy, that is different from work. You may think you cannot really afford that time, but it is important to disassociate yourself from work for the sake of your long-term longevity. Think of it as enforced rest. If it works better for you, take your enforced in the middle part of the working day. You don’t necessarily have to be doing something, use it to rest or catch a power nap.

Every now again, such as on a weekend, do something different from work. Do a yoga class, learn an instrument like the piano, or play a game of tennis. The possibilities for leisure are endless. But don’t bring your work approach to your leisure. Don’t start charting your tennis serve percentage, or do anything that makes your leisure activity appear like work in a different form. The only thing you must do with a businesslike approach is to meet this leisure appointment so that your life does not revolve around a continuous stretch of work.

We can moan about it but the nature of work will never revert back to how it was in the past. Those of us who long for the good old days will only make our own lives miserable with wishful thinking. Those of us who insist on working five-day weeks will find it is insufficient to maintain modern living in the twenty-first century. We will all end up working longer and harder in the current economic climate, and even if times improve, employers will be unlikely to go back to pre-existing forms of remuneration if workers have already been accustomed and conditioned to work at a certain level, because it is more cost effective to hire fewer employees who do more work than have the same work done by more employees. Employees have to recognise that adapting to increasing work loads are a working life skill, and that taking steps to negate increasing pressures will also be an essential part to maintaining our own mental health and well-being.