I sleep talk every night. Is there a reason for this? I don’t often remember what I dream about but it does sometimes wake me up. My other half is also being bothered by my “habit”. Is there anything I can do to help me become a “quiet” sleeper?
Yes, there is a reason for sleep talking. It is also perfectly normal to not remember it. To understand the reason for sleep talk, it’s very useful – and fascinating – to understand what happens in the mind during sleep.
When you first fall asleep, you enter light sleep. Have you ever had one of those instances where someone told you that had fallen asleep and you are certain you didn’t? This is because you had entered a short period of light sleep – during which you have absolutely no recollection of it.
As you fall off deeper into the land of Zed, you go through different sleep phases. Firstly, you will enter ‘slow wave’ sleep – your brain has effectively gone into ‘shut down’. You don’t normally dream in this stage. It is thought this phase of sleep may be the brain’s way of restoring or ‘resetting’ itself.
From slow wave sleep you pass into periods of what is called REM sleep (rapid eye movement). In this phase you are often dreaming and your brain fires in almost exactly the same patterns as if you were awake. It is believed that your mind is processing events and solving problems – not enough REM sleep will impair learning and remember. Whilst dreaming, your muscles are paralysed to prevent you from flailing your limbs and acting out your dreams. Throughout the night, you cycle between REM and slow wave sleep, each complete cycle lasting between 90 and 120 minutes.
Now, if there is something that drives you to start waking up, or to pull you back into deep sleep, then you can start talking (proper name: Somniloquy). Sleep walking (and sleep eating) can also occur. It’s not clear why such a disturbance in the sleep cycle causes this, but it is likely that as you are suddenly drawn out of dreaming your sleep muscle paralysis is stopped before the dreaming has. And because you are no longer paralysed, you start to talk / act out your dream.
Children sleep talk more than adults. Both stress and sleep deprivation also make sleep talking more common. Perhaps it is psychological stress that disrupts the normal flow into and out of REM sleep. Additionally, illness, fever and a heavy meal before going to bed increase the chances of sleep talking.
There seems to be a tendency for sleep talking to run in families, and there is no easy cure. Reducing stress, maintaining regular sleep patterns, avoiding eating before bed and regularly getting adequate sleep should all help. Hope that helps your relationship!
Answered by Dr Stu
Question from Alex Winker
Dr Simon Makin has been writing and contributing to Guru Magazine for some time now. Tirelessly churning out great articles for Guru, we are delighted to welcome him as the latest member of the team. He has a particular passion for covering the latest science and technological discoveries and is the lead reporter in the magazine’s news section (‘Reporting the news you might have missed…’). We love what Simon does, so it seemed fitting that he adopted the role of our first ‘News Guru’.
So, in true journalistic fashion, we interviewed with Simon, so you find out about the man behind his headlines…
SIMON MAKIN INTERVIEW: A KEEN EAR AND A HOT MOUTH
GURU: Simon, welcome to the Guru team! Tell us a little about who you are and your background.
I studied electronics at university but hated the job I got when I graduated, so after that company folded I looked around for something more interesting. I managed to land a job as a research assistant in the psychology department at Reading researching auditory perception. That was the most interesting job I’d ever done, so after the grant ran out I went out and got myself a master’s and PhD in these areas. After several years as a post-doc back at Reading, I decided to take a leap of faith and try to get into something I’d been thinking about for years – science writing. I moved to London to do a journalism diploma and since then I have written for Scientific American Mind, New Scientist, and of course, Guru – so it seems to be working!
GM: Why get involved with Guru Magazine?
SM: Science is advancing rapidly and becoming more and more integral to every aspect of our lives. Because the world we live in is growing increasingly complex and incomprehensible to many people there is a desperate need for more publications aiming to explain cutting-edge science to a wide range of readers. Guru has high production standards and covers important topics in a really accessible way – in an effort to reach people who might not normally read about this stuff. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of thing I think we need more of and by getting involved I get to ply my new trade while hopefully contributing to something that deserves to succeed.
GM: What really lights your fire and gets you excited?
SM: Cool science, live music and great fiction. My favourite TV show ever was Six Feet Under, but most recently I’ve been glued to The Walking Dead. Hmm, seems to be a death theme going on there – I’m not morbid honest!
GM: Tell us about a typical day in the life of Simon Makin.
SM: I’ll get up and have a game of online poker with my coffee before starting to look for things to write about. I’ll scan news wires, journals, Twitter, etc., looking for potential leads to cool stories. Then it’s lot and lots of reading. Mostly sat in my kitchen, but occasionally I’ll make a trip out to a café or library. On a good day this is followed by bursts of writing, or if I’m already writing something that usually takes up the whole day – often into the early hours if I’ve got deadlines. If I’m not up against it then I’ll call it a day around 8-ish, make a curry, pour a glass of red, and stick on an episode or two of The Walking Dead.
GM: You researched auditory perception. Did you discover anything interesting?
SM: Yeah, human hearing has a really clever way of telling the difference between a sound and the distortion the surroundings impose on it as it travels from the source to our ears. It then compensates for these distortions so that we hear sounds correctly wherever we are – up to a point.
GM: Tell us one thing about you that no one knows about.
SM: I suffer from imposter syndrome – a creeping feeling that you’re not really competent for or don’t belong in the job you’re doing, accompanied by the fear that you’ll be found out and exposed as a fraud. This has got much better since I started writing for a living, but it’s still there, lurking in the back rooms of my psyche…
GM: If you could host a dinner party for anyone (live or dead) – who would it be? What would you serve?
SM: I’d like to say Nicola Tesla. He was the archetypal mad scientist and pioneered everything from electricity and wireless communications to X-rays. He even claimed to have built a death-ray. He was such a genius, and so far ahead of his time, that we still can’t reproduce some of the things he did because he rarely wrote anything down – it was all in his head.
Unfortunately he lived on milk and crackers in his later years (he also hated jewellery and shaking hands, and couldn’t bear the touch of human hair, although he loved feathers…), so he wouldn’t make a great dinner guest.
In which case, it would have to be Philip K Dick. He was the author who single-handedly revolutionised what science fiction could be in the 60s and 70s. It’s often written on his book jackets that he “made most of the European avant-garde seem like navel gazers in a cul-de-sac”, but although his stories explored mind-blowingly profound philosophical issues, they read a lot like pulp adventure fiction, so anyone could enjoy reading them. To me that is the sign of a truly great writer. Anyone with a bit of education can dazzle and obfuscate, but it takes true talent to really communicate complex things in simple ways. He was the master of the fiction of unreliable realities, but always with a moral core of simple human values.
He was also almost as bonkers as Tesla. Having dabbled extensively with drugs, including speed and psychedelics, he went a bit off the rails, and in the 70s claimed to have been visited by a “vast active living intelligence system” that bathed him in a pink laser beam and deposited huge amounts of information in his brain. There’s a film based on the novels Dick wrote about these experiences, which, frustratingly, only seems to be showing at festivals so far.
Or perhaps Leonard Cohen –he’s a living legend but a model of humility; or Neil Gaiman; or Charlie Kaufman; or Chris Morris; or Chris Nolan… Can I just have a party instead?
And I’d serve Tom Yum Goong, because it’s one of my favourite things in the world, followed by a curry of some description.
GM: Sounds tasty… welcome aboard!
Simon J Makin
is an auditory researcher turned science journalist. Originally from Liverpool, he has a degree in electronics, a Master’s in speech and hearing sciences, and a PhD in auditory perception. He worked as a post-doc in the psychology department at Reading University for several years, before recently taking the plunge into journalism. Tweets as @SimonMakin. Blogs as Heisenberg’s Hamster.
If you are interested in joining the Guru team, why not send us an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org ?
“Why do people in their 20s and 30s mostly look like children when we get older – and when did they lower the age to 12 to be a police officer?”
I think all of us are familiar with this feeling – when were children allowed to drive cars?!” Guru writer Kyle Pastor and I have been having a good chat about the possible reasons. There are several possibilities (including the odd psychological phenomenon called telescoping – where past events seem as though they happened before they did), but I think we have come up with the best answer.
How old you feel and how old you actually are, are rarely the same thing: a teenager feels like they are an adult, and a pensioner feels ‘young at heart’. How we ‘feel’ is often at odds with the person we see in the mirror. No one knows exactly why this happens, although it might be because Western societies tend to idolise people in their young adult life (late twenties to early thirties).
Last year, research performed on 20,000 BBC TV viewers showed that typically we feel slightly older than we are until we hit 30. Thereafter, we start to feel younger – and this discrepancy increases with age: at 47 we feel 40, and at 75 we feel 58. The chart (click to enlarge) shows these results.
So, to explain your question: you are probably older than you feel. Don’t take it personally. Your mind is telling you that you are 30, but your mirror shows the face of a 35 year old (assuming you are 35 of course). Therefore, to you all 30 year olds should look like you. Of course, a real 30-year-old looks younger than you, so when you see a 30-year-old police officer, they look younger than their real age.
The bad news is that as you get older, this phenomenon will get worse. You will continue to feel young and vibrant, and the world will look like it is getting younger and younger.
There could be some positives though. If you want to be told “You look so young and healthy!” just hang out with people older than you. To get a real ego boost, just make sure they are a lot older.
Answered by Dr Stu
Asked by Mike Ellis via Facebook
Age chart via research-live.com
Fret not – guacamole isn’t unsafe just because it has turned brown. Your culinary creation has turned brown as part of an avocado’s normal response to being chopped up. It happens for the same reason a cut apple will turn brown.
Bruising or cutting many fruits makes them turn brown. This is because of a process called ‘enzymatic browning’. Fruits that brown contain certain enzymes within their cells (with delightful names such as catechol oxidase and polyphenol oxidase). No one really knows what they are there for – it is thought that fruits and plants with these enzymes are better at fighting fungal infections. When these fruit are cut and exposed to air, these enzymes set off a variety of chemical reactions within the flesh. The products of these reactions have a brown colour. (Specifically, one of the key chemical reactions is catechol reacting with oxygen to produce benzoquinone.)
Different fruit and different fruit species have differing amounts of these enzymes in them, explaining why some fruits brown faster than others. Avocado fruit have an abundance of such enzymes, hence the rapid browning.
Fortunately, these browning reactions can be stopped or slowed to help keep your guacamole looking fresh. Enzymatic browning only occurs if oxygen is present – so you should seal your guacamole in an airtight container. Additionally, the reaction does not take place in an acidic environment – so you can add lemon juice to your recipe (which will taste a lot nicer than vinegar!)
You can also impress your friends with your newfound chemistry knowledge: cut an apple in half, and (surreptitiously) smearing lemon juice on one half. Now you can ‘cast a spell’ to the lemony half to keep it fresh – and hold up the cut surfaces to your amazed audience.
Well, it impresses the kids anyway.
Answered by Dr Stu
Question from Linda
“Does gargling with salty water really do any good for a sore throat, and how? Can the salt, or effects of osmosis, damage healthy throat cells too…?”
This is a great question. Let’s start at the beginning: why does your through hurt? Well, if you have a cold or the flu (a viral infection) it is probably because the tissues in your throat are swelling. As they swell, they push on pain-sensing nerves making these nerve fibres fire. You sense this as pain – and it sucks.
So is it possible to gargle a salty solution to ‘un-swell’ the swollen tissues in your throat? YES!
The high concentration of salt will draw fluid out of your tissues (called ‘osmosis’ – in an effort to restore normal ‘osmotic pressure’). This is the same process as salting meat to draw fluid out (or putting salt on a slug to fizzle the water out of it). Assuming the salt concentration in your gargling fluid is high enough, it really can relieve the soreness of your throat because your tissues calm down and stop pressing on the nerves. At least for a little while. It doesn’t “fix” or “cure” your sore throat – it just buys you a bit of time. Your immune system does the actual fixing part.
As far as damaging the cells in your throat goes I’m not sure, I don’t think so. But one thing I have learned as I go through life is that even with the most benign acts someone somewhere has taken it too far and caused an injury. Don’t be that person. Gargle like a normal human a few times a day when you have a sore throat. Don’t drink the solution. Everything should work out just fine.
Answered by Matt Linsdell (Fitness Guru)
Question sent from Louise via Facebook
“There’s no use crying over spilt milk” certainly isn’t true if you’ve spilt milk in your car. Within a few days a rancid smell will start linger – and persist for months. Utterly revolting, it will act as a highly effective deterrent from anyone wanting to share a lift with you.
Milk spoils because of growth of bacteria in the milk. When milk is left to warm, bacteria present in the milk feed off the milk sugars (lactulose) to grow and produce lactic acid. Lactic acid doesn’t taste very nice.
The two main types of bacteria that cause milk to spoil – called lactococci (which look like little balls under a microscope) and lactobacilli (which look like little cigars). As they multiply, they also release gases – giving milk that distinctive ‘off’ smell. Drinking acidic milk with an abundance of bacteria in certainly isn’t good for you – and explains why drinking spoiled milk gives you a dodgy belly.
One of the best ways to get rid of the stomach-churning ‘off milk’ smell is to use bicarbonate of soda (baking powder): pour it over the offending area, leave for a day or so then vacuum it up. Sodium bicarbonate is a fantastic substance with a great many uses aside from cooking. It is an alkaline substance (a ‘base’) and neutralises acids – try putting some in a glass of vinegar to see what happens (stand back!) Likewise, the bicarbonate of soda will react with, and neutralise, the lactic acids in the spilt milk. Bicarbonate of soda is also very absorbent, helping to draw out the foul smelling residual milk.
It doesn’t stop there – sodium bicarbonate is so versatile that it is one of the best substances for cleaning clothes of a variety of contaminants – even depleted uranium.
Worth keeping some in the kitchen cupboards for those emergency moments.
Answered by Dr Stu
Question from Craig Cutlan-Wilson
When I first read this question, I wasn’t sure you were right. I suspected you believe driving to be worse in the summer because you only notice the bad driving you see in the summer months (this is called confirmation bias). However, I confess my experiences have been similar – and there is some evidence to suggest our observations are accurate:
Most people think that there are more crashes in the cold winter months, but this isn’t so: traffic accidents are higher in the summer months. (Except for a surge in accidents that occurs the day after a snow storm – presumably because drivers haven’t yet adjusted their driving habits to compensate for the snow and put on their snow chains). Evidence for unsafe summer driving? Perhaps so. Speeding tickets tend to be higher in the summer months – again, suggesting a higher number of fast drivers (and speeding probably meets the definition of ‘bad’ driving).
So, are there simply more irresponsible, speeding drivers on the road in the summer?
And of course, being a ‘bad driver’ depends on your idea of ‘bad’. Is it driving too fast, driving too slowly, meandering over the road, or driving with a mobile phone?
If there truly are more ‘bad’ drivers in the summer then there are two very good reasons:
Therefore, the summer will almost certainly see an increase in less confident and less experienced drivers.
However, I think there is a factor more important than the season: the make of car that people drive. I am convinced that drivers of a certain small Nissan car are almost all terrible behind the wheel.
But that’s something best saved for another day…
Question from J Joy via Facebook
Answered by Dr Stu
I find the same thing with football matches – the second half always feels shorter than the first. Which is good, as I’m not much of a football fan. There are several interesting reasons for this odd phenomenon…
Time ticks steadily on – but our minds don’t. Remember the last time you were anxious about something. Public speaking or an interview, perhaps? Your stomach tied itself in knots, your palms got sweaty and you got jittery. Time felt as though it was dragging as the inevitable slowly approached.
When we get nervous, scared or anxious, the body’s ‘fight or flight‘ response is triggered: adrenaline surges around the body, heart rate increases and pupils dilate. Your body primes itself for action – and so does your brain. Brain cells fire more rapidly – helping you to make decisions very quickly. And as your brain shifts up a gear, time consequently appears to slow down. If you’ve ever jumped off a cliff into the sea (don’t do it), it probably felt like the fall lasted several seconds. In reality it was probably less than one.
Likewise, when you’re travelling somewhere, you are probably feeling ever-so-slightly more anxious than how you feel on the way home. It may be the excitement of going to a nice hotel, or the worry of getting lost. These heightened anxiety levels will make time feel as if is passing more slowly.
However, there is another reason to do with our horribly fallible memory (something my family and friends know only too well).
Everyone’s memory is subject to a psychological phenomenon called ‘telescoping‘:
When did you last see your Great Aunt Daphne? Was it a couple of days, a few weeks, or a couple of months? It is probably longer ago than it feels. Your most recent memories will always feel as though they happened more recently than they did.This ‘telescoping effect’ is greatest for the events that have happened most recently. So, as you sit in the departure lounge considering how long it took to travel from home to the airport, it will feel as if you arrived at check-in much sooner than you did. The memory of setting off from home will not be ‘telescoped’ as much – giving the overall effect that the travelling time was longer than it was.
So if you’re stuck watching a terrible opera, just remember that in the second half the agony won’t last so long….
Question from Hannah Tucker via Faceboo
Answer by Dr Stu
Chilli is a poison. The stuff you put in your fajitas is the same stuff the police squirt in your face with a can of ‘pepper spray’ (I’m not talking from personal experience). The amount of chilli in food is unlikely to cause you any harm, but it explains why you feel uncomfortable when you eat too much of it.
The active ingredient in chillies – the thing that ‘burns’ – is the chemical capsaicin. Interestingly, the chemical binds to a taste receptor on the tongue (called VR1), which is the same receptor that is stimulated when the food is very hot. Hence, the brain is tricked into thinking that spicy food is ‘hot’.
It has been thought that you can build up a tolerance to eating spicy food. All the evidence shows that this isn’t the case: repeated exposure to spicy foods makes no measurable effect on a person’s perception of its spiciness.
Others have speculated whether it is something in our genes or culture that allows some people to tolerate insanely spicy food. Sadly, this appears not to be the case either. A comparison of American and Mexican eaters showed that there was barely any difference in the amount of chilli they could tolerate.
The reason why some people enjoy spicy food more than others may be something psychological. Ingesting capsaicin triggers the sensation of pain. Perhaps curry-lovers enjoy this sensation, in the same way we love roller-coasters and horror movies – it feels dangerous, but isn’t.
This, however, doesn’t explain why our cat likes spicy food.
Question from Ashley Smuckers Cheng via Facebook
Answered by Dr Stu
Do we know what trees are most effective in turning CO2 into oxygen, and, if so, should commercial forests plan such trees to help offset CO2 emissions?
Good question. There is a great deal of research looking into ways of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Although there are some exciting high-tech solutions on the horizon, the good old tree is hard to beat.
Trees use carbon from the air as their ‘food’ to grow. You might have thought that a plant gets sustenance from the earth (you may remember that from school), but it doesn’t. A plant’s ‘bread and butter’ is garnered by sucking in carbon dioxide (called carbon sequestration) from the air and using that carbon to make wood, leaves, roots, and whatever else the plant needs as it grows and repairs.
On this logic, the best trees are those that grow quickly. Similarly, trees with large leaves are also particularly good (as the carbon dioxide is taken in through the leaves). Where the tree is located is important – near the equator is by far the best place, giving trees sufficient sunlight to grow all year round. This also explains why the logging of the rainforests has such a dramatic effect on greenhouse gasses.
Biologists are actively trying to find the best trees and plants for ‘offsetting’ the carbon dioxide produced by mankind. Research has shown there are some particularly good carbon-sucking trees; top of the list are: Yellow Polars and European beech. The other top performers are: Common Horse-chestnut, Black Walnut, American Sweetgum, Ponderosa Pine, Red Pine, White Pine, London Plane, Hispaniolan Pine, Douglas Fir, Scarlet Oak, Red Oak, Virginia Live Oak and Bald Cypress.
However, when picking the best tree, there are a some other considerations need to be taken into account, e.g. how much maintenance they require, how much space they require, the effect they have on the local environment…
It doesn’t all end there though. Japanese researchers have bred a hybrid larch tree that is 30% better at carbon sequestering than the competition. And the geneticists are also getting involved – trying their hand at genetically engineering plants with enhanced carbon absorbing abilities.
Whether genetically engineering plants are an ethical way for reducing greenhouse gases is contentious. I think we’ll leave those debates for another day…
Question sent from Patrick Brindle via website
Answered by Dr Stu