Wednesday, June 23, 2010


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Feeling sluggish? The solution may require getting outside the box – that big brick-and-mortar box called a building.

Being outside in nature makes people feel more alive, finds a series of studies published in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology. And that sense of increased vitality exists above and beyond the energizing effects of physical activity and social interaction that are often associated with our forays into the natural world, the studies show.

"Nature is fuel for the soul, " says Richard Ryan, lead author and a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. "Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature," he says.

The findings, adds Ryan, are important for both mental and physical health. "Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don't just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses. One of the pathways to health may be to spend more time in natural settings," says Ryan.

In recent years, numerous experimental psychology studies have linked exposure to nature with increased energy and heightened sense of well-being. For example, research has shown that people on wilderness excursions report feeling more alive and that just recalling outdoor experiences increases feelings of happiness and health. Other studies suggest that the very presence of nature helps to ward off feelings of exhaustion and that 90 percent of people report increased energy when placed in outdoor activities.

What is novel about this research, write the authors, is that it carefully tests whether this increased vitality associated with the outdoors is simply the feel-good spillover from physical activity and people-mixing often present in these situations. To tease out the effects of nature alone, the authors conducted five separate experiments, involving 537 college students in actual and imagined contexts. In one experiment, participants were led on a 15-minute walk through indoor hallways or along a tree-lined river path. In another, the undergraduates viewed photographic scenes of buildings or landscapes. A third experiment required students to imagine themselves in a variety of situations both active and sedentary, inside and out, and with and without others.

Two final experiments tracked participants' moods and energy levels throughout the day using diary entries. Over either four days or two weeks, students recorded their exercise, social interactions, time spent outside, and exposure to natural environments, including plants and windows.

Across all methodologies, individuals consistently felt more energetic when they spent time in natural settings or imagined themselves in such situations. The findings were particularly robust, notes Ryan; being outside in nature for just 20 minutes in a day was enough to significantly boost vitality levels. Interestingly, in the last study, the presence of nature had an independent energizing effect above that of being outdoors. In other words, conclude the authors, being outdoors was vitalizing in large part because of the presence of nature.

The paper builds on earlier research by Ryan, Netta Weinstein, a psychologist at the University of Hamburg, Germany, and others showing that people are more caring and generous when exposed to nature. "We have a natural connection with living things," says Ryan. "Nature is something within which we flourish, so having it be more a part of our lives is critical, especially when we live and work in built environments." These studies, concludes Ryan, underscore the importance of having access to parks and natural surroundings and of incorporating natural elements into our buildings through windows and indoor plants.

(Photo: U. Rochester)

University of Rochester


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The evolution of computer systems has freed us from keyboards and now is focusing on multi-touch systems, those finger-flicking, intuitive and easy-to-learn computer manipulations that speed the use of any electronic device from cell phones to iPads. But little is known about the long-term stresses on our bodies through the use of these systems.

Now, a team of researchers led by Kanav Kahol of ASU is engaged in a project to determine the effects of long-term musculoskeletal stresses multi-touch devices place on us. The team, which includes computer interaction researchers, kinesiologists and ergonomic experts from ASU and Harvard University, also are developing a tool kit that could be used by designers when they refine new multi-touch systems.

“When we use our iPhone or iPad, we don’t naturally think that it might lead to a musculoskeletal disorder,” said Kahol, an assistant professor in ASU’s Department of Biomedical Informatics. “But the fact is it could, and we don’t even know it. We are all part of a large experiment. Multi-touch systems might be great for usability of a device, but we just don’t know what it does to our musculoskeletal system.”

As we move towards a world where human-computer interaction is based on various body movements that are not well documented or studied we face serious and grave risk of creating technology and systems that may lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), Kahol said.

Many of today’s multi-touch systems have no consideration of eliminating gestures that are known to lead to MSDs, or eliminating gestures that are symptomatic of a patient population, Kahol said. This project – supported by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation – aims to develop best practices and standards for interactions that are safe and cause minimal user stress while allowing users to fully benefit from the new levels of immersion that multi-touch interaction facilitates.

In addition to Kahol, co-principal investigators on the project are Jack Dennerlein of the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, and Devin Jindrich, an ASU kinesiologist.

Kahol said the project initially will focus on evaluating the impact multi-touch devices have on the human musculoskeletal system. Users will be fitted with electromyography (EMG) equipment to measure muscle forces, and cyber gloves to measure kinematic features that are produced while they interact with multi-touch systems. The researchers will then evaluate the impact of those stresses.

The second part of the project will develop biomechanical models where the user will be able to “enter the motion of a gesture, and the system will produce the forces being exerted through that motion, like a specific movement of the hand,” Kahol explained. “We would then take this data back to the Microsofts, the Apples and other manufacturers so they could use it when they are designing new devices.”

The system, Kahol said, will be built with off the shelf components and it will give designers a new tool to use when developing new multi-touch systems.

“The designers, the computer scientists, the programmers, they know little about biomechanical systems, they just want a system that they can employ in a usable manner and tells them if a gesture causes stress or not,” Kahol said. “So our major challenge is going to be developing the software, the tool kit and the underlying models that will drive the tool kits.”

Kahol said that the last time designers developed a fundamental interaction system with computers they modified the standard keyboard. While it was useful, it was not without its share of drawbacks.

“When we developed the keyboard, we didn’t think through how working with it would affect the hands, arms, etc.,” Kahol said. “As a result, it created a multimillion dollar industry in treating carpal tunnel syndrome. That is what we want to prevent with multi-touch systems.

“We are going for the preventative, rather than the curative,” he added.

(Photo: ASU/Scott Stuk)

Arizona State University


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East Africa's Turkana Basin has been a hot savanna region for at least the past 4 million years—including the period of time during which early hominids evolved in this area—says a team of researchers led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). These findings may shed light on the evolutionary pressures that led humans to walk upright, lose most of our body hair, develop a more slender physique, and sweat more copiously than other animals.

Their findings—which were based on measurements of the spatial distribution and concentrations of isotopes in carbonate ions—are being reported this week in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"When you measure the temperature of the ground, you learn a lot about the environment above it," says John Eiler, Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology and professor of geochemistry at Caltech. In fact, he says, soil temperature tells you not just about air temperature, but about whether there were trees and plants to shade the soil, keeping temperatures cooler during the hottest part of the day.

Today, northern Kenya—where the Turkana Basin is found—is among the warmest areas on earth. It has little canopy forest, leaving the ground exposed to sunlight. "The question is, was the ground here ever cooler than it is today?" asks Eiler. "And if it was, why? Was it because the air was cooler, or because of more forest shading?"

To find out, the team examined the spatial organization (or "clumping") of rare, naturally occurring isotopes of carbon and oxygen—specifically, carbon-13 and oxygen-18—in the form of carbonate ions that are constituents of minerals found in buried soils from northern Kenya. The clumping of these isotopes, Eiler and his colleagues have demonstrated in previous papers, is dependent on temperature: Hot temperatures lead to less clumping; cold temperatures, more.

"These carbonates are a common constituent of these soils," Eiler explains. "If you have the ability to measure their isotopes, then you have a ground-temperature thermometer."

When the researchers applied that thermometer to various layers of buried soils from East Africa, they found what Eiler says was "such a straightforward answer, it wasn’t obvious how we could talk ourselves out of the conclusion we reached."

That conclusion? "The Turkana Basin region—one of the key places where hominid fossils documenting human evolution are found—has been a really hot place for a really long time," says Benjamin Passey, formerly a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech. Passey, who led the work on this project, is now at Johns Hopkins University.

But why does it matter how hot Africa was millions of years ago? "This is the area where we find the occurrence of some of the earliest hominid species," notes Eiler. "It tells us that this environment, though harsh, was a place where our ancestors could thrive. It tells us that they were probably originally marginal species that lived in difficult-to-survive environments."

The findings also shed some light—and heat—on a longstanding debate over the origin of bipedalism in early humans.

"For a long time, anthropologists have hypothesized that bipedalism and other unique human traits would be advantageous to life in hot savanna environments," says Passey. "For example, by standing upright, we intercept less direct sunlight than if we were on all fours, and in hot, open environments, the ground and near-surface air can be appreciably hotter than the air a few feet above the ground. So, by standing upright, we are avoiding a high-temperature environment."

Of course, Passey adds, this strategy would only be of significant use if the environment in question is indeed a high-temperature one. "In cooler environments, these traits do not really have a thermal advantage," he notes. These considerations led to the team's interest in figuring out just how hot it was in the part of the world where bipedalism is most likely to have first gained a toehold.

Eiler cautions that the team's findings are simply assessments of the area's temperature over time, and have nothing to say about "the importance of ambient temperature in shaping human evolution." But, he notes, they are "consistent with the notion that the heat in the area would have been a selective pressure that could have made bipedalism advantageous."

In addition to Eiler and Passey, the coauthors on the PNAS paper, "High-temperature environments of human evolution in East Africa based on bond ordering in paleosol carbonates," were former Caltech postdoc Naomi Levin, now at Johns Hopkins University; and Thure Cerling and Francis Brown from the University of Utah. Their work was supported by grants from the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation and the National Science Foundation.





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