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Tales of the unexpected: 10 bad habits that sometimes do us good (Part 1)

All of us have bad habits, and all of us from time to time feel guilty about these habits. But there are some bad habits – at least when carried out in moderation – that might actually have benefits for psychological and/or physical wellbeing. Most bad habits help change our mood state and reduce stress (at least in the very short-term) but tend to become less helpful the more they are engaged in. Some of these bad habits turn into addictions where the short-term benefits are outweighed by the long-term costs. However, there are many activities that can sometimes have unexpected benefits and five of these are outlined in this blog. The next five bad habits will be in my next blog.

(1) Fidgeting helps burn calories

While fidgeting might be annoying for individuals and those around them, it is an activity that expends energy and burns calories. Fidgeting is one of a number of activities (along with walking, gardening, typing, tidying up, etc.) that are known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). In basic terms, NEAT is any activity that is not eating, sleeping, or sporting exercise. A number of studies carried out by obesity expert Dr. James Levine at the US Mayo Clinic (Arizona, US) have shown that individuals who fidget burn up about 350kcal a day. This is because fidgeting speeds up an individual’s metabolism by stimulating neurochemicals in the body thus increasing the ability to convert body fat into energy. So, if you are a compulsive foot tapper, an excessive thumb twiddler, or a restless doodler, just remember that all of these activities burn calories.

(2) Chewing gum helps boost thinking and alertness

Watching people chew gum is not a pretty site but if English football managers are anything to go by, chewing gum appears to be a stress relieving activity. In fact, there appear to appear to be many cognitive benefits of chewing gum. Dr. Kin-ya Kubo and colleagues in the book Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders noted that chewing gum immediately before performing a cognitive task increases blood oxygen levels in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus (important brain structures involved in learning and memory), thereby improving task performance. Dr. Kubo argues that chewing gum may therefore be a drug-free and simple method of helping those with senile dementia and stress-related disorders that are often associated with cognitive dysfunction. Another study by Dr. Yoshiyuki Hirano and colleagues showed that chewing gum boosts thinking and alertness, and that reaction times among chewers were 10% faster than non-chewers. The research team also reported that up to eight areas of the brain are affected by chewing (most notably the areas concerning attention and movement). As Professor Andy Smith (Cardiff University, UK) neatly summed up: “The effects of chewing on reaction time are profound. Perhaps football managers arrived at the idea of chewing gum by accident, but they seem to be on the right track”. 

(3) Playing video games helps relieve pain

Many individuals that do not play video games view the activity as a complete waste of time and potentially addictive. While excessive video game playing may cause problems in a minority of individuals, there is lots of scientific evidence that playing video games can have many beneficial effects. For instance, a number of studies have shown that children with cancer who play video games after chemotherapy take less pain killing medication. Video games have also been used as pain relieving therapy for other medical conditions such as burns victims and those with back pain. This is because playing video games is an engaging and engrossing activity that means the player cannot think about anything else but playing the game (and is what psychologists refer to as a ‘cognitive distractor task’). Pain has a large psychological component and individuals experience less pain if the person is engaged in an activity that takes up all their cognitive mind space. As well as being a pain reliever, there are also many studies showing that playing video games increase hand-eye co-ordination, increase reaction times, and have educational learning benefits.

(4) Eating snot helps strengthen the immune system (maybe)

How does it make you feel when you see someone picking their nose and then eating what they have found? Disgust? Contempt? Amused? In 2008, Dr Friedrich Bischinger, an Austrian lung specialist, claimed that picking your nose and eating it was good for you. He claimed that people who pick their noses with their fingers were healthy, happier and probably better in tune with their bodies than those who didn’t. Dr. Bischinger believes that eating the dry remains of what you pull out of your nose is a great way of strengthening the body’s immune system. He explained that in terms of the immune system, the nose is a filter in which a great deal of bacteria are collected, and when this mixture arrives in the intestines it works just like a medicine. He said that “people who pick their nose and eat it get a natural boost to their immune system for free. I would recommend a new approach where children are encouraged to pick their nose. It is a completely natural response and medically a good idea as well”. He went on to suggest that if anyone was worried about what other people think, they should pick their noses privately if they want to get the benefits.  This view is also shared by Dr. Scott Napper, a biochemist at the University of Saskatchewan. He theorises that hygiene improvement has led to the increase in allergies and auto-immune disorders and that eating snot may boost the immune system by ingesting small and harmless amounts of germs into the body. The same theory has also been applied to another bad habit – biting fingernails – because again, the act of biting nails introduces germs directly into a person’s orifices.

(5) Daydreaming helps problem solving

Daydreaming is something that can occupy up to one-third of our waking lives and is often viewed as a sign of laziness, inattentiveness and/or procrastination. However, scientific research has shown that the ‘executive network’ in our brain is highly active when we daydream. A study carried out by Professor Kalina Christoff and colleagues and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found activity in numerous brain regions while daydreaming including areas associated with complex problem solving. These brain regions were more active while daydreaming compared to routine tasks. It is believed that when an individual uses conscious thought they can become too rigid and limited in their thinking. The findings suggest that daydreaming is an important cognitive state where individuals turn their attention from immediate tasks to unconsciously think about problems in their lives. Christoff says that “when you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal – say reading a book or paying attention in class – but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships”. In addition to this, Dr. Eric Klinger of the University of Minnesota has argued that daydreaming also serves an evolutionary purpose. When individuals are engaged on one task, daydreaming can trigger reminders of other, concurrent goals so that they do not lose sight of them.

Part 2 of this article will be in the next blog.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R., & Schooler, J.W. (2009). Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 8719-872

Fox, K.C., Nijeboer, S., Solomonova, E., Domhoff, G.W., & Christoff, K. (2013). Dreaming as mind wandering: evidence from functional neuroimaging and first-person content reports. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 42. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00412.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2013). Videogames as therapy: A review of the medical and psychological literature. In I. M. Miranda & M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Eds.), Handbook of research on ICTs for healthcare and social services: Developments and applications (pp.43-68). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Hirano, Y., Obata, T., Takahashi, H., Tachibana, A., Kuroiwa, D., Takahashi, T., … & Onozuka, M. (2013). Effects of chewing on cognitive processing speed. Brain and Cognition, 81, 376-381.

Kato, P. M., Cole, S. W., Bradlyn, A. S., & Pollock, B. H. (2008). A video game improves behavioral outcomes in adolescents and young adults with cancer: A randomized trial. Pediatrics, 122, E305-E317.

Klinger, E. (2009). Daydreaming and fantasizing: Thought flow and motivation. In Markman, K. D., Klein, W.P., & Suhr, J.A. (Eds.), Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation (pp. 225-239). New York: Psychology Press.

Klinger, E., Henning, V. R., & Janssen, J. M. (2009). Fantasy-proneness dimensionalized: Dissociative component is related to psychopathology, daydreaming as such is not. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 506-510.

Kubo, K. Y., Chen, H., & Onozuka, M. (2013). The relationship between mastication and cognition. In Wang, Z. & Inuzuka (Eds.), Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders. InTech. Located at: http://www.intechopen.com/books/senescence-and-senescence-related-disorders

Levine, J.A. (2004). Nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): environment and biology. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 286, E675-E685.

Levine, J.A., Melanson, E. L., Westerterp, K. R., & Hill, J.O. (2001). Measurement of the components of nonexercise activity thermogenesis. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 281, E670-E675.

Levine, J.A., Schleusner, S. J., & Jensen, M.D. (2000). Energy expenditure of nonexercise activity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72, 1451-1454.

Redd, W.H., Jacobsen, P.B., DieTrill, M., Dermatis, H., McEvoy, M., & Holland, J.C. (1987). Cognitive-attentional distraction in the control of conditioned nausea in pediatric cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 391-395.

Reichlin, L., Mani, N., McArthur, K., Harris, A.M., Rajan, N., & Dacso, C.C. (2011). Assessing the acceptability and usability of an interactive serious game in aiding treatment decisions for patients with localized prostate cancer. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 13, 188-201.

Vasterling, J., Jenkins, R.A., Tope, D.M., & Burish, T.G. (1993). Cognitive distraction and relaxation training for the control of side effects due to cancer chemotherapy. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 16, 65-80.

Wighton, K. (2013). From biting your nails to burping and even eating in bed: The bad habits that can be GOOD for you! Daily Mail, April 8. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2305953/Bad-habits-From-biting-nails-burping-eating-bed-The-bad-habits-GOOD-you.html

Disgust discussed: The psychology of revulsion

I have to be honest and say that today’s blog on the psychology of revulsion was inspired by reading another blog (on the same topic) – Inside the human revulsion (disgust) reflex” written by Don Burleson. The reason I am so personally interested is that get periodic emails from readers of my blog saying that what I have written is “gross”. “revolting” and/or “disgusting” (my blogs on necrophilia, zoophilia, vorarephilia, menophilia, apotemnophilia, coprophilia, eproctophilia, emetophilia and formiciphilia being the guilty parties). My interest is in the question of what makes these behaviours so revulsive (i.e., a sudden strong change or reaction in feeling, especially a feeling of violent disgust or loathing) and repulsive (i.e., causing repugnance or aversion; disgusting)? As Burleson’s blog notes:

“Behaviors that are uniform across the world can be teased-out to reveal the truly universal human behaviors, manifestations of our basest raw instinct, instinctive reactions without any cultural or social bias. One such universal behavior is revulsion, the natural squeamish behavior that once served to protect our bodies from carrion and now has become a major entertainment phenomenon”.

Burleson also claims that we as humans love to become disgusted. So what evidence is there (besides our seemingly insatiable appetite for reality television shows)? Dr Valerie Curtis (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK) has been carrying out research in different countries to see which things and activities are perceived as disgusting. Some things are very cultural (e.g., in India, meals cooked by menstruating women are viewed as disgusting). However, there were many things perceived as disgusting and revolting irrespective of where people lived. This included:

But overall, people kept reporting the same things as revolting

  • Bodily secretions (faeces, vomit, sweat, spit, blood, pus, sexual fluids)
  • Body parts (wounds, corpses, toenail clippings)
  • Decaying food (e.g., rotting meat and fish, rubbish)
  • Certain living creatures (e.g., flies, maggots, lice, worms, rats)
  • People who are ill and/or contaminated

Given the widespread cultural similarities, Curtis speculates that disgust might therefore be genetic (i.e., “hard-wired in our brains and imprinted on our biological code by millions of years of natural selection”). The similarity between most of these things is that they are things that have a high association with illness across all cultures. In short, Curtis believes that disgust is (or was) an evolutionary biological mechanism that helped us avoid infectious disease. The latest 2011 paper by Curtis and her colleagues was unequivocal:

“Disgust is a fundamental part of human nature. Darwin was the first to propose that disgust is expressed universally  and many studies since then have supported this proposal. Though there has been no systematic cross-cultural survey of the objects and events that elicit disgust in humans, the available data suggest that there is a universal set of disgust cues. These include bodily wastes, body contents, sick, deformed, dead or unhygienic people, some sexual behaviour, dirty environments, certain foods – especially if spoiled or unfamiliar – and certain animals”.

However, Professor Paul Rozin (Penn State University, US) argues that disgust is culturally acquired because his studies have shown that among North American participants, it was ‘death’ that was rated as the most disgusting thing. He argues that: “Anything that reminds us we are animals elicits disgust. [It] functions like a defence mechanism, to keep human animalness out of awareness.” An article written by Erik D’Amato on disgust in Psychology Today argued that disgust is both instinctual and learned:

“We are socialized by our disgust and, in turn, use it to socialize others; what better way is there to stop people from doing something socially undesirable than to “make” that something–whether eating rancid meat or, in India, defying the caste system, disgusting.”

One of my favourite papers in the area of psychological disgust was by Professor Andrea Morales and Professor Gavan Fitzsimons who published a paper in Journal of Marketing Research on “product contagion”. Their research showed how consumer evaluations can change in response to physical contact with products that elicit only moderate levels of disgust. Using evidence from six studies, Morales and Fitzsimons developed a theory of product contagion, in which disgusting products are believed to transfer offensive properties through physical contact to other products they touch.

The law of contagion argues that objects or people can affect each other merely by touching. Although it is clear that contagion beliefs influence behaviour in both primitive and advanced societies, Morales and Fitzsimons say it is still unclear how they became so prevalent. In a series of studies, Morales and Fitzsimons found that some products (e.g., rubbish bags, nappies, cat litter, tampons) evoke a subconscious feeling of disgust even before they’re used for their ultimate messy purposes. However, they also found that touching these products can also transfer their disgust to anything they come in contact with. In an interview with Time magazine, Professor Fitzsimons said: “We were pretty surprised at how strong the effect was. This is probably the most robust result in my career”.

The study suggests an evolutionary basis for shopping preference and the researchers agree with Curtis that disgust is hard-wired (i.e., low-threshold revulsion protected our ancestors from eating rotten or poisonous food or touching animals that had died of infectious disease). Morales and Fitzsimons wanted to examine whether products like toilet paper psychologically contaminated food in a shopping basket.

They found that any food that touched something perceived to be disgusting became immediately less desirable (even though all of the products were in their original wrapping). Food appeal fell even if the two products were close together but didn’t touch. Everything the researchers did suggested the feelings of disgust were below the level of awareness. They also found that the product didn’t stay “contaminated” as the effect faded after about an hour. The aversion tends to fade after about an hour.

One area where there is no debate is the way in which we as a human race express our disgust facially. Research by Professor Paul Ekman (University of Califiornia, US) has consistently shown that humans across different cultures use a distinctive facial expression to signal disgust and appears to be universal (i.e., screwing up our noses and pulling down the corners of our mouths). Biological research using magnetic resonance imaging scans also show that one particular part of the brain (i.e., the anterior insular cortex) is activated when we are disgusted.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Burleson, D. (Undated). Inside the human revulsion (disgust) reflex. Burleson Consulting. Located at: http://www.dba-oracle.com/p_human_revulsion_instinct_behavior.htm

Curtis, V., de Barra, M. & Aunger, R. (2011). Disgust as an adaptive system for disease avoidance behaviour. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 366, 389-401.

D’Amato, E. (1998). The mystery of disgust. Psychology Today, January 1. Located at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200909/mystery-disgust

Lemonick, M. (2009). Why We Get Disgusted. Time, May 24. Located at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1625167,00.html

Morales, A.C. & Fitzsimons, G.J. (2009). Product contagion: Changing consumer evaluations Through Physical Contact with “Disgusting” Products. Journal of Marketing Research, XLIV, 272–283