What Do You See When You Look at the Cross?

Loving what is said here, and the perfect time to be thinking about the cross and all its glory

My Story, My Song

It’s a thing of beauty, the cross. It symbolizes our freedom from ourselves. It was a necessary tool used by a skilled Carpenter to build a bridge from us to God.

We see crosses everywhere, especially during Easter. They are decorated, they are displayed, they are worn on our clothes and around our necks.

What do you see when you look at the cross? This thing of beauty is also a terrible thing. Our Savior died a cruel death upon it. The cross wore all of our sin.

There was a moment when God in His holiness could not even look at the cross. “Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” that is, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” Matthew 27:6 

God looked at…

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The Wonders of Awe

A couple of days ago as i was reading Genesis chapter 1, i found myself becoming overcome with a sense of, WOW! HOW GREAT IS OUR GOD! God literally spoke the world into being giving it both a form and function necessary for our survival and relationship with Him. I mean to me that is mind blowing and with it knowing that everything to have come out of this great act is by definition awesome i.e. mountains, waterfalls, glaciers (need i go on).

Take a look at these photos and observe the awesomeness in God’s creation. How awesome is our God, how awesome is Earth!?

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Along the Mekong river

Along the Mekong river

Awesome is defined to mean, awe-inspiring and when i read Genesis chapter 1 and look at these photos, awe pretty much sums up what i’m feeling.

It is not just nature that is capable of creating these feelings though. Out of God came everything including the gifts each one of use has been blessed with. These are unique to us and serve specific purposes as it says in Romans 12 v4-8:

For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness”

When we use our gifts, we have the ability to inspire awe for example in art, architecture, sculptures and music to name a few. Have you ever felt chills or shivers down your spine when listening to a piece of music? This is actually one of your physiological responses to awe. It is as if we were designed to feel awe as a recognition of Gods work around and within us. Amazing!

How do we define awe?

Scientifically, the study of complex feelings and emotions is a tricky business as there are indeed many factors responsible for each experience, however that doesn’t stop folk from trying to define them anyway. Go science!

Awe is defined when we experience its two components; Vastness and accommodation.

Vastness is what you experience when you can’t quite grasp what you are seeing, hearing ect. It doesn’t fit in with your experience of life, your perception of the world and your own size and as such each of us experiences vastness differently. You may find yourself thinking or saying things like:

“I feel tiny”

“I totally forgot what i was doing, i could look at this all day”

“I feel the presence of something greater than me”

Following on from vastness is accommodation. This is when our mind tries to make sense of what it is experiencing and as a result either updates its picture of the world or creates a new view, as such people who have more open and flexible minds find this bit easier. This usually leads to feelings of enlightenment, which in my experience is true.

However, when we fail to accommodate our experience, instead of feeling enlightened and full of awe, we can feel fear, perhaps similar to when we see a natural disaster reported in the news.

The impact of awe

What i love about awe is its ability to change our lives and profound and permanent ways. Awe has the ability to:

  • Make us think less of ourselves and more of the environment and/or a higher power
  • Increase our perceived time ability
  • Change our behaviours and attitudes

This has the potential to impact our lives and others by:

  • Building a stronger connection with the environment driving us to want to prolong and/or relive our experience of it and in doing so change our behaviours and attitudes i.e. begin recycling
  • Being more altruistic
  • Being more motivated to gain knowledge
  • Being more patient
  • Focusing more on experiences rather than the material aspects of life
  • Increasing life satisfaction

Overall, awe is pretty amazing. I don’t know about you but i sometimes feel awe about awe (try and get your head around that). It has been described as something we experience rarely and fleetingly, yet is is so important to our lives; it is a foundational human experience that in part defines human existence.

I for one, would like to experience awe more often and i believe that one way to achieving this is to recognise God at the very centre of our lives. John the Baptist says in John 3 v30;

“He must increase, but i must decrease.”

As we humble ourselves to God, we open our minds and hearts to His plan for our lives and wherever that may take us. In faith we step out to do the impossible and by living a life of faith we can do the seemingly impossible with God by our side. I love the list of things accomplished by living a life of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11.

Faith causes awe, which points to God.

What better way to end this than on the most awe inspiring event of all time; when Jesus Christ died on the cross for us in the greatest act of love mankind as ever known. He did this so that everyone could be granted eternal life, free from our mistakes past, present and future; blessed to live a life filled with love, prosperity, blessing, hope and relationship with God. This relationship will allow us to do even greater things than Jesus himself had done as it says in John 14 v12

12 “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.”

That promise is for everyone as it states in the famous verse from John 3 v16 “16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” and in doing so experience all that is good and great in the world.

Happy Easter!

The Number Fourteen in the Bible

A fantastic look into the significance of the number fourteen. I never realised how awesome it truely was, or that even numbers had an importance in the bible. #deeperstudyrequired

Mark's Bible Study

The biblical significance of the number fourteen is very understated if you are just 14looking in a concordance, as there are not a lot of instances of it mentioned.  Many of them are associated with one very important day but fourteen and its symbolism goes very deep and starts with how it is written in Hebrew. Each of the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet represents a number.  The first nine letters are the ones for single digit numbers and the others take on higher numerical values.  An acrostic psalm is one that each verse/section starts with a letter of the alphabet so they either have twenty-two verses like Psalm 25 and 34 or twenty-two sections.  Psalm 119, which is acrostic, is divided into twenty-two sections of eight verses.  (Please see my blog for different way to read Psalm 119.)

The fourteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Nun, like…

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The Placebo and Perception

The placebo effect is an amazing phenomenon. Your brain is able to trick your body into thinking its receiving a treatment it actually isn’t. This can result in reduced depression, anxiety, pain and even improved motor function in the case of Parkinsons disease. Your belief is able to change an outcome, how awesome is that! Just take a moment to think about that…I mean WOW!

This amazing phenomenon is a combination of psychological and physiological factors. Specific areas of the brain linked to our perception of reward and processing of emotions have been associated with the neural processing of the placebo effect, whilst personality traits such as a person’s “openness” can predict how likely a treatment will be effective.

Our relationship with our doctor can also influence how effective a treatment is, based on the words used to describe a treatment to a patient.

Proverbs 12v18 states that “There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health.”

Take a look at these two statements and decide for yourself which you think is more convincing potentially leading to a more effective treatment:

Statement A: This pill will reduce your pain

Statement B: This pill in cases similar to yours has been shown to reduce pain in the majority of patients it was given to.

From my perspective, statement B is more convincing and a study looking into how effective a treatment is/is perceived to be, based on the dialogue between the doctor and the patient identified a similar scenario. So why is this so?

Comparing the two statements, B is more contextual, there is more to hold on to. Within that context though there is a sense of relationship, not just between the pill and the outcome (present in both statements) but a relationship between people. Statement B is put in the context of other people, signifying that what happens or has happened to others is important to us. We are able to relate to the situations of others and compare that to ourselves which can affect our perception of what will happen.

So what we say to others, and how we say it is important. Remember what Proverbs 12v18 states “the tongue of the wise promotes health”. To me this means that in the context of the above two statements that we have to realise that we are talking to a person and not a robot. A person has a history, a context, feelings, and a reality shaped by their own perceptions based on their past experiences, all of which involve relationships and connections. I feel therefore that what we say should contain some form of relationship and connection as shown in statement B, which is not devoid of emotion and context, but embraces it promoting the effectiveness of treatments, placebo or no placebo.

Predictive coding and Perception

Remember earlier I mentioned that our perceptions can affect the outcomes of situations. What we see in our own eyes is our reality which is shaped by our perception of the world we live in. We each have a model of the world based on our past experiences that inform us as to why certain things happen. This is key to the placebo effect and can help explain our actions in some situations, together they are thought to be understood by the theory of predictive coding.

The theory of predictive coding states that initially our minds are all the same as defined by our genetics, but as we grow our brains develop and they are shaped by the process of learning. As such our minds become adapted to our environment and what we individually experience, resulting in a brain that is specific to ourselves right down to its very neural networks.

Our learning physically effects the structure of our brain, and it is known that the more we experience the same things, the same environmental inputs, the more optimised our brain becomes to processing the information and producing an output. For example when you initially move to a new place it can take you a while to get from A to B as you don’t know where you’re going and you pay attention to everything. Over time though, getting from A to B becomes faster because as soon as you step out the door you already know how to get there, despite not knowing about any potential traffic delays which could disrupt you. You perceive a smooth journey based on past expectations. This is like your brain.

Predictive coding is thought to have evolved to reduce our stress by limiting the surprise we experience in our environment. It is therefore assumed that anything new in our environment will match up or be similar to what we’ve already experienced and thus we’ll know how to deal with it.

However, what happens when your experiences don’t match up with what has come before? Your brain does something amazing, it rewires itself. It lays down new neuronal paths associated with a new mode of thinking, changing your perception and changing your outcome. For example on your expectant journey from A to B you come across road works. They weren’t planned and they aren’t expected so what do you do?

You start to think of other ways to get to B. You know the bus routes pretty well and you decide to take a different bus however you’ve just found out that all the roads are blocked off and no busses are running. It’s not a great day is it? You only know how to get there via a bus, you don’t have a bike and you’ve never walked there before. What do you do?

Next you get your phone out, type in your destination and plan your route for walking. There are a million different ways to get to B and you don’t know which to choose. However, if you don’t leave soon you’re going to be late so you pick one. This turns out to be the best decision you’ve ever made, you end up seeing some amazing things and meeting some fantastic people who are all in the same situation as you. This route has changed your perception of getting from A to B which in turn has affected your outcome as you feel happy, joyful and have a positive outlook for the rest of the day. All you did was choose a different route, representing a re-wiring of your brain which in turn changed your outcome. Choose to change your thinking, shift your perspective which in turn will change your outcome.

What’s important here is that you know your mind is amazingly adaptable and it is so because God intended it to be. God knows that we were never meant to be stuck in the realm of comfort; we are explorers and discoverers of the unknown (watch a few TED talks and you’ll understand).We are designed to seek that which we don’t understand, that which we don’t know. I believe this means we are made to seek God both as Himself and through everything He has created.

Seeking Him means to shift our perspective toward God which changes our brain. Choose to change your thinking, shift your perspective which in turn will change your outcome. It says in Proverbs 3v6 “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.”

I believe this speaks into the renewing of your mind in God’s presence, literally changing your brain for the better and it all begins with a choice. The free will to acknowledge what is good all the time and that is God. We have been given the opportunity to shift our perception, change our thinking and ultimately change our outcome. It’s not easy, and it’s often not instantaneous but it is worth it. It is most definitely worth it. With God in my sights and as i acknowledge Him, He is helping me to change my thinking for the better. God is great!

What is important is that we know God loves us. Jesus, in the greatest act of love mankind has ever seen died on the cross, for us, so that we would no longer be tied down by our past, our previous perceptions of ourselves and others that shape our reality. He did this so that we could be in an eternal relationship with Him (John 3v16) and so be strengthened (Philippians 4v19) mind, body and soul in His presence. Choose to change your thinking, shift your perspective which in turn will change your outcome for the better.

Why we should smile more :D

Let’s just kick this off with one of my favourite songs at the moment, Kirk Franklin’s “I Smile”. I dare you to watch it and not smile at some point during the song.

There is something infectiously awesome about a smile for example, you pass a stranger in the street, lock eyes for a split second and smile. Maybe just as a kind gesture; the polite thing to do in what might feel like a slightly awkward situation, but from my experience it’s more than that. That smile lets you know you’ve been seen, it says there is a connection and we are all linked together in this sometimes seemingly chaotic universe. Behind every smile is a person.

A smile brings with it potential, the potential to brighten someone’s day but also to benefit both the smiler and the smilee (pretty sure that’s a made up word, don’t judge!)[1]. What’s interesting is how beneficial a smile is depends on the type of smile you deliver.

There are generally two types of smile; a polite smile and a genuine smile. Each are characterised by the facial muscles you use. A polite smile involves the zygomatic major (raising of the corners of the mouth) whereas a genuine smile involves both the orbicularis oculi (the muscle surrounding the eyes) and the zygomatic major (Figure 1) [2].

Figure 1 – Can you spot a genuine from a polite smile?

Now the reasons behind whether you smile a genuine or polite smile are numerous and depend on the situation you are in but the benefits to a genuine smile are evolutionary and smiling itself is a universal form of non-verbal communication. Research has shown that genuine smiles have evolved to promote cooperation in situations that require trust because the smilee perceives a genuine smile as coming from a person who is more honest and trusting. Genuine smiles have also been associated as being more socially rewarding, meaning that when someone smiles we expect it to be genuine and when it is, we feel good and like the other person more for it resulting in better engagement with the other person. We value genuine smiles so much they out-value money, now imagine a world where you can only pay for things in smiles, wouldn’t that be awesome!? [2, 3]

There is clearly an inherent need to smile linked to an inherent need for connection that benefits us not just socially but also mentally and physically for example genuine smiles have been found to help a person learn faster which is linked to its association with the promotion of positive attitudes and our prediction of positive outcomes [2, 3]. I know that when I’m fretting about an experiment not working, a smile can be encouraging, and the words that usually go alongside reassure me of the reason why I’m doing it in the first place, and let me know that it will all work out in the end.

Being able to understand what another person is feeling and then respond in such a way (smiling) that makes them feel better, demonstrates our empathetic nature. Unlike riding a bike, this isn’t something we learn, it’s a part of ourselves, it’s a part of our brain structure as specific neural pathways have been found linked to our ability to help others [4].

I believe this is one of our many gifts from God, a God so empathetic to us all that He sacrificed his one and only son Jesus Christ so that each and every one of us would no longer be bound by the chains of our sin, and the emotions of the past (John 3v16) but free to live the purpose God has placed upon each of us (Jeremiah 29v11). The more I think about this the more my mind is blown!

Our individual purposes may be different, but they are all driven by the same words from Jesus in Matthew 22v37-39 “Love the lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbour as yourself.”

It is clear when reading this that we weren’t made to be empathetic so we could ignore others when they are in need. Today our daily lives can seem so hectic that we feel we don’t have the time to help others, but when we stop and actually see, and by that I mean really look you realise that you can respond to the needs of others in more ways than one. You may see one kind act as being better than another but the fact is they all are pleasing to God (Hebrews 13v16) whether it is buying someone a coffee, helping to feed the homeless, or simply in giving someone a genuine smile, and with that I pray that we all are open to opportunities to help another in any shape or form.

References

[1] – Chang, J., Zhang, M., Hitchman, G., Qui, J., Liu, Y. (2014). When you smile, you become happy: Evidence from resting state task-based fMRI. Biological Psychology, 103, pp. 100-106

[2] – Heerey, E.A., Crossley, H.M. (2013). Predictive and reactive mechanisms in smile reciprocity. Psychology Science, 24(8), pp. 1446-1455

[3] – Centorrino, S., Djemai, E., Hopfensitz, A., Milinski, M., Seabright, P. (2015). Honest signalling in trust interactions: smiles rated as genuine induce trust and signal higher earning opportunities. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 36(1), pp. 8-16

[4] – FeldmanHall, O., Dalgleish, T., Evans, D., Mobbs, D. (2015). Empathic concern drives costly altruism. Neuroimage, 105, pp. 347-356

Is that your natural hair colour?!

I love that we are all individual right to the level of DNA. God made us in his image (Genesis 1v27), we are a reflection of his uniqueness and so by our very nature we too are unique. There is not another person in the world like you (except maybe if you have an identical twin, but let’s not be pedantic, I guarantee there is still a difference). Why then settle, for being like someone else when you can be yourself? Our individuality sparks randomness leading to funny stories, and a creativity that colours our world. Without our uniqueness and individuality I reckon the world would be a pretty boring place.

What is it about you, that makes you feel unique? Is it the way you dress, your ability to consume a whole large domino’s pizza in record time, or maybe just maybe it’s all those cat stories you have (not me I promise). Whatever it is, let it out once in a while, we all know it’s not easy being green sometimes, but I love the colour green so bring it on!

One thing that has always fascinated me is the variation in everyone’s hair colour. Yes there’s blonde, brown and red but there’s a whole spectrum in between. Some stand out and make you ask “wow, is that your natural hair colour?” others you think “yup, I definitely don’t think she was born with pink hair”. Our hair is another reflection of who we are as individuals but what is the reason behind your hair colour?

The differences in each individual, when we haven’t manually changed our physicality are down to our DNA. DNA consists of sections called genes that are directly linked to the production of proteins that dictate how our body functions. If you think of DNA as a present, what I’ve stated here is like taking off the wrapping paper; there is still so much to be discovered and researchers are constantly identifying new gifts which are hidden away in that four letter code, A, T, C and G.

Some of these gifts regulate when a gene is activated, inactivated and/or its level of its expression. What is important to realise is that something as simple as our hair colour is a complex process involving many genes and their associated gifts. That’s why it is such a challenge for scientists to pinpoint the exact reason behind one hair colour; alteration of one component has downstream effects on the rest of the process affecting the overall outcome.

It is made more complex by the fact that gene expression varies also according to location, for example some mutations in genes linked to pigmentation can affect not only the colour of our hair, but also our skin and eyes (think albino), whereas others simply affect one area for example the hair on our head. This is also controlled by certain “gifts” in the DNA that require specific environments to become active in as much the same way, if its cold outside you’re not going to leave the house and go for a walk, compared to if it’s hot.

In 2014, one such component behind blonde hair colour in Europeans was identified as resulting from a single letter change (A>G) in a portion of the DNA that was linked to one of these “location gifts”, specific for the colour of the hair on your head. This mutation subsequently altered the expression of gene called KITLG which is linked to the function of an enzyme called the KIT receptor tyrosine kinase (KRTK) whose function is linked to the development of melanocytes that are responsible for the production of pigments throughout the body [1].

Isn’t it amazing, that something so simple on the outside i.e. haircolour can actually be really complex? This study demonstrates just part of the complex genetic network resulting in the blonde hair colour of Northern Europeans. Still genetic links between several other variations in hair colour remain to be elusive and in the interest of scientists to figure out. What is clear is that this complexity reflects our individuality. We are not just defined by single components but by several hundred crammed into our DNA resulting in total uniqueness. We’re born with DNA and are therefore born unique and individual. Embrace your individuality because at your core you can’t change it, and you shouldn’t change it just to fit in. Remember everyday just how unique you truly are, and know that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) right to the very colour of your hair.

[1] – Guenther, C.A., Tasic, B., Luo, L., Bedell, M.A., Kingsley, D.M. (2014). A molecular basis for classic blonde hair colour in Europeans. Nature Genetics, 46(7), pp.748-52

The reason behind all the crazy dancing: Part 2

Take a moment and read this;
“Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
Yes a jumpy rhythm makes you feel so fine
It’ll shake all the trouble from your worried mind
Get rhythm when you get the blues”

Do you recognise it? Well if you don’t you should, it is the first verse of Johnny Cash’s song “Get Rhythm”. As soon as I read those lyrics I felt my foot tap and my head bop. A natural response and I’m sure those who recognised the song did the same thing. It doesn’t just happen with Johnny Cash though; just about every song I listen to is accompanied by the same range of motions. Why do we insist on acknowledging rhythm in this way? Turns out scientists want to know the answer to this question, resulting in a tonne of papers all devoted to this topic.

You know what, why don’t you go ahead and listen to a song right now that gets you moving to the beat. If you haven’t heard of Johnny Cash’s song, here it is. Time to get that foot tapping!

Rhythm is defined in the oxford dictionary to mean “a strong, regular repeated pattern of movement or sound” and our ability to detect and process rhythm Is thought to be evolutionary with Darwin himself having said, “the perception, if not the enjoyment, of musical cadences and of rhythm is probably common to all animals, and no doubt depends on the common physiological nature of their nervous systems” [1]. Adding to this have been studies comparing the perception of beat between rhesus monkeys and humans that have shown humans to be better predictors of upcoming beats suggesting differences in how their brains process both the visual and auditory information. This was demonstrated by asking both the humans and monkeys to tap along with a metronome, finding that humans were within a few tens of milliseconds and monkeys were always a few 100 milliseconds after the metronome click [2, 3].

The notion of tapping along to the beat is known as rhythmic entrainment; a synchronization of both musical beat and movement which has been found to engage several areas in the brain linked to both our motor (movement) and auditory (sound) processing [4]. Expectantly, greater cooperation between these areas has been found in musicians compared to non-musicians, reflecting their ability to effectively predict the beat [5].

What is the benefit to us being able to predict the beat, and keep to the rhythm of the music? Well research suggests that moving to the beat of music is pleasurable and that when we listen to music we have certain expectations[6]. For example if I tap my finger to a beat I’m expecting to keep in time and whether I’m correct or not is met with a particular emotion. If I’m in time, this is seen to be rewarding and this is not restrictive to small movements but also applies to larger movements for example ballroom dancing.

Recognising rhythm has also been associated with the development of our reading skills; one piece of research has shown that tapping to a beat was correlated with performance in reading and attention tests, whilst another associated musical training with reading skills in children. This wasn’t just observed for children though; in normal readers music was able to improve their reading skills too [7]. This demonstrates that music and our ability to recognise rhythm influences our cognitive abilities.

The knowledge that music and the recognition of rhythm has the ability to be both rewarding and effect our cognitive abilities leads to the possibility of using it to rehabilitate those with cognitive and motor disorders [7]. This will be the focus of the next part of this series so stay tuned!

On a final note, research has also shown that our perception of rhythm for a given type of music can be different, where the beat of the music is more defined our individual differences are less so, compared to a piece of music which has a less defined beat [4]. Basically meaning, dance your own dance because you could just be dancing to a rhythm others haven’t realised and in doing so you will be happy and increase in your cognitive abilities. Be happy and dance crazy!

References
[1] – Darwin,C.(1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.doi:10.1037/12293-000
[2] – Honing,H., Merchant,H., Háden,G.P., Prado,L., and Bartolo,R. (2012). Rhesus monkeys (Macacamulatta) detect rhythmic groups in music, but not the beat. PLoS ONE 7:e51369. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051369
[3] – Repp,B.H., and Su,Y.-H. (2013). Sensorimotor synchronization: a review of recent research (2006–2012). Psychon. Bull. Rev. 20, 403–452.doi:10.3758/s13423-012-0371-2
[4] – Trost, W., Fruhholz, S., Schon, D., Labbe, C., Pichon, S., Grandjean, D., Vuilleumier, P. (2014). Getting the beat: Entrainment of brain activity by musical rhythm and pleasantness. Neuroimage. 103, 55-64. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.09.009
[5] – Grahn,J.A., and Rowe,J.B. (2009). Feeling the beat: premotor and striatal inter-actions in musicians and non-musicians during beat perception. J. Neurosci. 29, 7540–7548. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2018-08.2009
[6] – Patel, A.D., and Iversen, J.R. (2014). The evolutionary neuroscience of musical beat perception: the action simulation for auditory prediction (ASAP) hypothesis. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. 8(57), 1-14. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2014.00057
[7] – Flaugnacco, E., Lopez, L., Terribili, C., Zoia, S., Buda, S., Tilli, S., Monasta, L., Montico, M., Sila, A., Ronfani, L., Schon, D. (2014). Rhythm perception and production predict reading abilities in developmental dyslexia. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 8(392), 1-14. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00392

Smells of Christmas’ Past.

Our sense of smell is a fantastic conjuror of memories and the ability to link them together is known as our olfactory memory. I think that this is important to how we experience Christmas because it is a sensory overload and it got me to thinking, what is the cause of the sweet and spicy smell associated with gingerbread and that foul smell produced by your dad after one too many brussel sprouts? What is the smelly essence of Christmas to which we owe so many memories?

1. Snow
I love waking up in the morning with the feeling that the world outside my bedroom window has been transformed by a blanket of snow. I love snow and its crisp fresh smell although the actual component responsible for the smell of snow is a tricky thing to put your finger on. It appears not to be caused by one factor alone, instead it is thought to be a cocktail of molecules (Figure 1) which have been soaked up from the atmosphere [1]. A fingerprint of our past and present world.

snow

2. Musty loft
A couple of weeks before Christmas the decorations usually residing in the loft gathering dust are brought down and this is usually followed by an musty smell some would describe as being earthy, dirty, damp or even mouldy. It seems to stick to everything, the boxes containing your decorations and your clothes if you are up there for long enough. This smell is thought to originate from microbes and/or the wood in your attic that release several compounds [2] (Figure 2), not exactly your everyday perfume.

loft

3. Christmas trees
Real Christmas trees smell amazing; rubbing the pine needles with your fingers activates its smell by releasing the essential oil from the needle which contains several different compounds (Figure 3) which together have been recorded as having numerous health benefits and antimicrobial effects [3].

tree

4. Gingerbread
A construction material for houses and the very essence of the gingerbread man. Baking gingerbread fills the house with a spicy smell that warms the nose and sparks a desire to snuggle up with a hot water bottle. The main compound responsible for this is called [6]-gingerol (Figure 4) from stem ginger which has been reported to have anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour activities [4], just a few excuses to eat more gingerbread men!

gingerbread

5. Mulled wine
This in my opinion is the top dog of Christmas drinks, only thought of when the Christmas season begins. It is packed full of Christmas herbs, spices and fruits; clementine’s, lemon, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, ginger, honey and vanilla depending on the recipe. The clementine’s and lemons provide a citrusy fragrance, whilst cinnamon, cloves and ginger present a spice and warmth which together are complemented by the aniseed smell of star anise. Each component is linked to a specific compound (Figure 5) that together pack a punch with anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, anti-tumour and anti-diabetic properties as well as protection against neurodegeneration[5-8].

mulledwine

6. Stuffing
No Christmas meal is complete without a side of rosemary and sage stuffing to go alongside your turkey. This is another “Christmas only” appearance in our family and to me when I smell it I know that dinner is almost ready. The smell of rosemary and sage arises from their essential oils as with most herbs that contain various compounds (Figure 6) which together have anti-oxidant and anti-microbial activities [9-10].

stuffing

7. Brussel sprouts
Another in the “love ‘m or hate ‘m” category, brussel sprouts are too a Christmas staple. If, like me you hate them but happen to live with others that love them, you know a thing or two about the stinky consequences that result from their consumption and this is due to the release of hydrogen sulphide gas (Figure 7). Brussel sprouts belong to a family of cruciferous vegetables which contain isothiocyanates generated from the metabolism of glucosinolates by the enzyme myrosinase. These isothiocyanates have been shown to naturally release hydrogen sulphide gas and although not conclusive it has been suggested that our gut microflora have a role to play in its release. So if you would rather this smell was not present during your Christmas festivities, I would suggest hiding the brussel sprouts somewhere they cannot be found [11-12].

brussles

So there you have it! I hope that you have enjoyed our journey behind some of the smells associated with Christmas and the potential benefits of those compounds. Enjoy the festive season, and delight in everything it has to offer. Till next time!
References
[1] – Legrand, M. (1997). Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. Biol. Sci. 353(1350), pp.241-50
[2] – Bazemore,R.(2011). Musty
off‐odors. Available: http://www.volatileanalysis.com/resource/Musty_Off_Odors.pdf. Last accessed 26th Nov 2014
[3] – Zeng, W., Zhang, Z., Gao, H., Jia, L., He, Q. (2012). Journal of Food Science, 77(7), pp. C824-29
[4] – Kim, E., Min, J., Kim, T., Lee, S., Yang, H., Han, S., Kim, Y., Kwon, Y. (2005). Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, 335, pp.300-8
[5] – Zahi, M. R., Liang, H., Yuan, Q. (2015). Food Control, 50, pp.554-59 (limonene)
[6] – Sinha, L., Prasad, O., Chand, S., Sachan, A. K., Pathak, S. K., Skukla, V.K., Karabacak, M., Asiri, A. M. (2014). Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy, 133, pp.166-77 (anethole)
[7] – Roth-Walter, R., Moskovskich, A., Gomez-Casado, C., Diaz-Perales, A., Oida, K., Singer, J., Kinaciyan, T., Fuchs, H. C., Jensen-Jarolim, E. (2014). PLoS ONE, 9(10), e108402 (cinnamaldehyde)
[8] – Singletary, Keith. (2014). Nutrition Today, 49(4), pp.207-24 (clove)
[9] – Hamidpour, M., Hamidpour, R., Hamidpour, S., Shahlari, M. (2014). Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, 4(2), pp.82-8
[10] – Raskovic, A., Mailanovic, I., Pavlovic, N., Cebovic, T., Vukmirovic, S., Mikov, M. (2014). BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 14, pp.225
[11] – Dosz, E. B., Ku, K., Juvik, J. A., Jeffrey, E. H. (2014). Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 62, pp. 8094-100
[12] – Citi, V., Martelli, A., Testai, L., Marino, A., Breschi, M. C., Calderone, V. (2014). Plant Medicine, 80, pp.610-3

The Reason Behind all that Crazy Dancing!

The other night I was sitting around the house watching a show about cats on BBC when I felt the need to move off the couch. Not for food, but to get my groove on. The reason behind this, being that my favourite song right now is “Shake it off” by Taylor Swift and it has been stuck in my head for days! So I did the only thing that seemed possible. I took my laptop into the dining room, put the song on and got my groove on whilst doing the washing up. Those who have seen me dance probably would not call it dancing but who cares right? My version of dancing, is what makes me unique. I then got to thinking what drives us to dance? Why do we dance? Then just like that a post is born…So I guess you could say that through dance sparks inspiration. Now onto the science.

A recent study published in the European Journal of Sport Science [1] compared how competitive and recreational ballroom dancers felt before and after dancing. This study revealed that after dancing, recreational dancers (marginally of the older generation) experienced more pleasure compared to competitive dancers, reflecting feelings of optimism and happiness. This backs-up previous research which identified recreational dance as a way to increase well-being by decreasing feelings of depression and psychological distress [2]. Does anyone else jump to thinking of the film “Silver Linings”? No, just me?

Interestingly after dancing, measurements of tense arousal (tension and nervousness vs relaxation and calmness) decreased in recreational dancers and energetic arousal (vigour and energy vs fatigue and tiredness) increased. This translated as recreational dancers having showed reduced tension and increased energy compared to some of the competitive dancers [1]. So what is the reason behind this?

Past research has suggested that energetic arousal is an indicator of motivation; the more motivated you are, the greater your use of cognitive, emotional and physical resources resulting in feeling less energetically aroused [3]. To put it another way, have you ever pushed yourself too hard at something physically, to only wonder where is my “endorphin hit”? The secret to feeling that boost associated with exercise could be to take it down a notch and not to compare yourself to others according to this study [1]. Summing up, one of the reasons why we dance could be to reduce tension, increase energy levels and boost our mood. I know that’s why I dance in stressful situations!

Side-lining onto the subject of bees for a second, did you know that bees use dance as a form of communication? This dance is called the “waggle dance” and is used by honey bees to recruit more bees to a particular flower patch, increasing the amount of nectar an entire colony can collect. Interestingly, this communication helps to regulate exploitation of several highly rewarding resources and is an evolutionary trait of the honey bee [4] therefore could it be that we have evolved dance for some evolutionary reason too? Has dance played a positive factor in our survival or is it a by-product of who we have developed into?

Darwin suggested that the quality of our dancing is related to the probability of being selected as a sexual partner [5]. Alongside this, it has been suggested that the origins of human dance are pre-historic and are therefore, a part of our evolutionary history [6]. Looking to our closest relatives the chimpanzee [7], in males it has been observed that they put on a courtship display, called the “bipedal swagger” dance. Bipedal meaning hind legs. The male chimpanzee performs a series of rocking gestures that the female then observes to determine whether or not the male chimpanzee “gets lucky” [8].

Usually, we dance on our feet with the exception of those talented folk that can use all manner of body parts. Being bipedal (two-legged) as opposed to quadrupedal (four-legged) affords a greater range of movement [8]. You only have to try to experiment with this at home to realise this! So is it likely that we too dance for the same reason as the male chimpanzee, to increase the likelihood of sexual selection?

Prehistoric use of dance has been attributed as a form of social communication and courtship activity. This has been observed in many societies all around the world. In fact, dance is thought to be a medium to display beauty, health, and strength which all relate to sexual attractiveness. Therefore the need to dance links to the selection of a partner, and how we dance is determined by our culture [8].

So there we have it, mentioned here are just two reasons for why we dance (1) to make ourselves feel better in the context of recreational activities and (2) sexual selection in relation to evolution. I could go on and believe me I want to but I’m sure you would get bored 1000 words later. I’ll save what I call “part 2” for another time. Hope you’ve enjoyed part 1.

References
[1] – Zajenkowski, M., Jankowski, K.S., Kotata, D. (2014). European Journal of Sport Science, doi:10.1080/17461391.2014.969324
[2] – Kiepe, M.S., Stockigt, B., Keil, T. (2012). The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39, pp.404-11. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2012.06.001
[3] – Humphreys, M.S., Revelle, W. (1984). Psychological Review, 91, pp.153-84. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.91.2.153
[4] – Donaldson-Matasci, M., Dornhaus, A. (2014). PLoS ONE, 9(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107527
[5] – Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of men, and selection in relation to sex. Princeton: University Press.
[6] – Ellis, H. (1976). The art of dancing. In: H. Ellis (Eds.), The dance of life. pp.34-63. Boston:Houghton Mifflin Company.
[7] – Sheets-Johnstone, M. (2005). Contemporary Aesthetics. 3, http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=273.
[8] – Hugill, N., Fink, B., Neave, N. (2010). Evolutionary Psychology. 8(1). pp.66-89.