Health & Science
A depressing era for teenagers
These are hard times for teenagers. A recent study of high school and college students, built on data from psychological surveys in use since 1938, has found that anxiety, depression, and other mental-health issues are far more prevalent among youth today than during the Great Depression. A team of researchers analyzed tens of thousands responses to common psychological surveys, which asked students if they felt sad, dissatisfied, worried, isolated, or otherwise mentally troubled. On average, five times as many students in 2007 reported signs of mental illness than did those in 1938. Increases in depression and hypomania—a mixture of anxiety and an unrealistic, manic form of optimism—were particularly acute.
Researchers speculate that modern society’s emphasis on wealth and external appearance places enormous pressure on young adults, who grow up believing that success is being rich, skinny, and “hot.” “We have become a culture that focuses more on material things and less on relationships,” psychologist and lead author Jean Twenge tells ABCnews.com. Other researchers suggest that overprotective parenting, which keeps kids from developing independence and coping skills, and even a lack of sleep contribute to the pandemic of mental illness. The new study helps to quantify a trend that many mental-health experts and school officials have observed anecdotally. “The next question is: What do we do about it?” Twenge say
Prettying up Neanderthals
Neanderthals, the hominid species that briefly overlapped with early Homo sapiens some 40,000 years ago, weren’t an attractive group by human standards, with the jutting jaws, massive noses, and crude features of the archetypal “caveman.” But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try to get pretty. In a recent discovery, archaeologists working at Neanderthal cave sites in Spain found evidence of jewelry and even makeup dating back 50,000 years, at least 10,000 years before the first humans arrived in Europe from Africa. The items included cockle and scallop shells with holes likely used for stringing; one shell was painted red, and another contained traces of complex pigments that may have been prehistoric cosmetics. The find suggests that “Neanderthals had the same capabilities for symbolism, imagination, and creativity as modern humans,” lead researcher João Zilhão tells Scientific American. Despite the stereotype of Neanderthals as brutish “half-wits,” says Zilhão, recent discoveries—including the possibility that they had the power of speech—indicate they were quite intelligent.
The ultra-marathoner of the air
Charles Lindbergh had nothing on the arctic tern. Each year, this small bird makes a marathon migration from pole to pole, flying between the shores of Antarctica and its summer breeding grounds in Greenland—about 44,000 miles, the longest annual migration in the world. As data trackers on birds’ legs revealed, the journey is far from straightforward. The birds linger for a month in the middle of the North Atlantic ocean, fueling up on fish and zooplankton before heading south into less food-friendly waters; on the trip north they zigzag across the ocean between Africa and South America to take advantage of prevailing winds. “It’s just more energy-efficient for them to do that,” study author Carsten Egevang tells BBCnews.com. Over its 30-year life span, the tern can rack up 1.5 million frequent-flier miles, enough to travel to the moon and back three times.
A plant-animal hybrid
Photosynthesis—the ability to derive energy from sunlight—was long thought to be restricted to plants. Now scientists have identified the first animal capable of running on solar power: Elysia chlorotica, a leaf-shaped sea slug native to New England and Canada. The sea slug eats photosynthetic algae and is known to permanently borrow tiny cell parts called chloroplasts, which are critical in converting sunlight to energy, from its meals. But to work, the chloroplasts need a steady supply of the green pigment chlorophyll. The new study confirmed that the sea slugs generate this pigment themselves, using genes they’ve stolen from the algae and incorporated into their own DNA. Once a young sea slug consumes a chloroplast, it can stop eating and live off sunlight like a plant for the rest of its life. “This could be a fusion of a plant and an animal,” invertebrate zoologist John Zardus tells Science News. “That’s just cool.”
Why flattery works
Flattery will get you everywhere: Tell someone you like his tie, or that you think she’s bright, and they’re more likely to look on you favorably, even if they know the flattery is insincere. The approach works, Scientific American reports, because it feeds into the “above-average effect,” the view held by most people that they are above average (even though that’s statistically impossible). In a recent study, researchers in Hong Kong asked subjects to rate the appeal of a hypothetical new department store after looking at a promotional leaflet that directly praised the reader’s fashion instincts. (“Your dress sense is not only classy but also chic.”) Even after acknowledging the flattery’s transparency, subjects rated the store more positively and said they were more likely to shop there. If someone tells us we look good, researchers say, we believe it, even if the flatterer’s motivation is obvious.