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Deeper Read: Dr Jen’s Weird Science Guide To Living Through A Global Pandemic

11 January 2021
Galah In Mask Artwork by Tai Snaith

Artwork by Tai Snaith

WORDS DR JEN MARTIN

ARTWORK TAI SNAITH

Let’s face it: we’re not going to forget 2020 in a hurry. The summer bushfires, Black Lives Matter protests, a recession and, of course, experiencing a global pandemic for the first time. Aside from the virus itself, the pandemic has hit us all in different ways: either no work or too much work, a house full of kids or the intense isolation of living alone, scouring empty supermarket shelves or having a cupboard full of toilet paper to share. The challenge for me in presenting “Weird Science” on Breakfasters each week has been coming up with topics that were relevant and interesting while deciding not to talk about the science of COVID-19. I figured we were getting more than enough virus news elsewhere. Here are a few of the questions I’ve pondered in 2020.

WHY DOES IT FEEL LIKE WE’RE LIVING IN A TIME WARP?

For many of us, 2020 felt simultaneously like both the longest and shortest year ever. One of my favourite pandemic quotes came from economist David Wessel on Twitter: “2020 is a unique leap year. It has 29 days in February, 300 days in March and 5 years in April.” For those of us who experienced Melbourne’s Stage 4 lockdown, the groundhog days of July, August and September felt like another few years. But by the same token, 2020 whizzed by.

The various ways we perceive time are complex, so it’s not surprising that when we find ourselves in weird circumstances, our perceptions of time are also odd. The key thing to know is that the way we perceive time in the moment can be very different from how we perceive it in hindsight. The holiday paradox says during a holiday, the days race by far too quickly, but when we look back on our time away, it feels like we were on holiday for ages because we saw and did so many new things.

Perhaps what we are experiencing now should be called the quarantine paradox: confined to our houses without much to do, it feels like each day drags on forever. But retrospectively, the weeks and months of 2020 are hard to distinguish. There’s simply a blur of sameness because we’ve had very few novel, exciting experiences to punctuate our memories. This is the same reason time seems to pass faster as we age: we have fewer new experiences compared to when we were children. The trick in both cases is to find new, enjoyable things to do, but easier said than done when you’re stuck at home 23 hours a day.

WILL POT PLANTS PURIFY THE AIR IN MY HOUSE?

Given we are spending so many hours a day at home, it’s not surprising we’re interested in making our houses and apartments healthier places to be in. Much has been said about the power of indoor plants to improve our homes; in particular, that pot plants can improve air quality by removing airborne toxins.

It turns out this claim largely stems from a study carried out by NASA in 1989. They wanted to know if plants could filter out cancer-causing chemicals on space stations. At the time, the research only got as far as placing a plant in an airtight chamber smaller than a cubic metre, but the results were impressive, and this study is often reported out of context, but with the catchphrase “research from NASA shows…”. Of course, a small sealed chamber is very different to your home or office.

Subsequent research has shown that having plants in your home and workspace can definitely improve your creativity, productivity, ability to focus and your sense of wellbeing. But a paper published last year reviewing 30 years of research found that in a standard house, to achieve the same improvement in air quality as you get from opening a couple of windows, you would need more than 500 plants. And the rate at which plants remove toxins from the air turns out to be so slow as to be irrelevant. So that’s a big yes to pot plants, if bringing nature inside helps you to feel good, but probably don’t bother if it’s air quality you’re worried about: leave the windows open instead.

WHY DOES ZOOM MAKE ME SO EXHAUSTED?

For many of us, COVID-19 has brought about the rise of the “Zoombie”. Whether for work, remote learning with the kids, virtual book club or shared meals with family, most of us have spent far more time on video calls than ever before. It’s wonderful that we have the technology to meet, work and play while confined to our homes, but using the same technology for everything can make even social calls feel a bit like work. And regardless of their purpose, video calls can be exhausting.

One of the challenges is the fact that we’re not naturally good at reading people’s body language over video; we have to work a lot harder to process facial expressions. Interestingly, one of the ways we’ve been making up for a lack of non-spoken communication is by staring down our webcams to make prolonged eye contact, but this in itself is incredibly tiring. Research has also shown that even the very short delays, which are common to the stilted conversations we have over video, result in us perceiving other people to be less friendly. Of course, having to watch ourselves on video can also be very confronting: there’s a pressure to perform and an unwelcome added layer of self-awareness which adds to the exhaustion. “Is that really what I look like?!”

We’ve also all experienced the allure – or necessity – of multitasking. In a work meeting but your kid needs help with maths? As long as you’re on mute, you can half-listen to the meeting and simultaneously explain how to convert decimals into fractions. Equally, you can tackle emails and still look like you’re paying attention to the online conversation. But given video calls are unlikely to be going away anytime soon, resisting the temptation to multitask and either leaving your camera off or at least turning off self-view, can all help to make video calls less draining.

IS IT BETTER TO BE AN OPTIMIST, PESSIMIST OR REALIST?

A global pandemic with seemingly unending restrictions is a sure way to separate the optimists from the pessimists. But is there a mindset that serves us better in these challenging times? We know there are plenty of benefits to optimism: on average, optimists live longer, handle stress better and recover from illness more quickly. Optimism has been essential for human survival because it’s a form of mental time travel, which has allowed us to store food for winter and set off on migrations. But being overly optimistic may prevent us from taking precautions against harm, and the act of dreaming about a positive future may sap us of the energy we need to actually achieve that future.

Recent research explored optimism as part of a long-term British study. Among many other things, the researchers collected information about the study participants’ finances. In particular, they asked the volunteers to predict financially how they thought they would be a year from now. Each year, the researchers then compared these expectations with the participants’ actual financial situation; the difference between financial expectations and financial reality served as a measure of optimism. Then they looked at the relationship between each person’s level of optimism and their happiness and wellbeing.

Over 18 years, the results were clear: people with realistic beliefs and expectations had much higher wellbeing than those who were overly optimistic or pessimistic. Why? It could be that optimists frequently end up feeling disappointed if their expectations fail to materialise. Although pessimists might avoid disappointment, they probably waste time worrying about bad things that aren’t ever going to happen. It may not always come naturally, but realism definitely has a lot going for it, particularly when waiting to find out when Stage 4 is going to end.

WILL THE PANDEMIC LEAVE A PERMANENT RECORD ON THE PLANET?

One of the positives from the COVID-19 pandemic has been a reduction in pollution. Some of the most memorable images on social media were “new” views: the Himalayas, visible from northern India for the first time in 30 years, and Mt Kenya, seen from Nairobi over 136 kilometres away. Satellite data showed that even after two weeks of lockdown in the UK, air pollution associated with road traffic and industry fell by as much as 60 per cent when compared to the same period the previous year.

A recent study of ice cores extracted from glaciers in the Swiss Alps found the only time that lead pollution levels dropped over a 2000 year period was during the Black Death pandemic in the 1300s. Which led me to wonder: will scientists of the future be able to detect the COVID-19 pandemic in the Earth’s record?

If we do have any glaciers left a few hundred years into the future, experts think ice cores will definitely show a reduction in aerosols – the very fine particles of pollutants from factories, mining and vehicles. Similarly, the annual growth rings of trees, which record information about weather conditions and the pollutants that end up in our soil and water, will provide evidence of the reduction in industry and travel.

But sadly, geologists think the most lasting effect of this pandemic on our planet will be the increase in plastic – the discarded gloves, masks and other single-use plastic protective gear. This plastic waste may end up forming a distinctive sediment layer in our rivers and lakes – and given how long it takes for plastic to break down, the COVID-19 plastic record is likely to be found by scientists for many hundreds of years into the future.

WHAT HAS THE PANDEMIC DONE TO YOUR MICROBIOME?

Your microbiome is all of the bacteria living on your skin and in your mouth and gut. When we think of bacteria on our skin, we tend to think of our underarms, but in fact, your forearms are likely to boast a rich community of bacteria, too.

The biggest collection of bacteria lives inside our gut and the diversity of this gut bacteria – your gut flora or microbiome – is incredibly important. Your gut bacteria do useful things like breaking down dietary fibre and making some vitamins. They also play an important role in your immune system, with the gut microbiome known to have relationships with conditions including type 1 diabetes, allergies and bowel diseases.

The key thing about gut bacteria is that diversity is good! Many things determine the diversity of your bacteria, including your age, where you live, your diet, whether you were breastfed or not and whether you are taking antibiotics. But things like how many other people you interact with, how much stress you are under, how often you wash your hands, and how much time you spend close to your pets or gardening also have big impacts. Even brushing by someone in the supermarket results in an exchange of skin bacteria, so it seems likely the pandemic restrictions will be having an impact.

Without solid research it’s hard to know exactly what the overall effects might be. If you’ve been baking lots of sourdough, cuddling your pets, and making more food from scratch, your microbiome may be diverse and healthy. But equally, if you’ve been feeling stressed, have been adhering to physical distancing rules and using lots of hand sanitiser, your gut bacteria may have taken a hit. It might be time to embrace some beloved Melbourne iso-habits: making your own sourdough, sauerkraut or kombucha.

HOW WELL CAN WE READ EACH OTHER’S EMOTIONS WHEN WEARING MASKS?

One of the things we’ve all had to get used to is wearing a mask every time we leave the house. It seems likely we’re going to be wearing masks for some time to come and it made me wonder what that might mean for our relationships. I know I’m very tuned into smiles, but we all know the saying, “Eyes are the window to the soul.”

Research with newborns shows that we prefer looking at faces that look directly at us, and from a very early age, our brains respond more to a face looking into our eyes than one looking away. When we see a person, the eyes are the part of the body we look at first and for the longest, and it’s true that you can tell if a person is genuinely smiling or not by looking at their eyes (aka a Duchenne smile).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, research suggests that we are extremely good at reading other people’s emotions from their eyes. Researchers at Cornell University showed only the eyes from pictures of people expressing joy, surprise, fear, anger, sadness and disgust, and the study participants were consistently incredibly good at matching the correct emotion to the eyes.

Although eyes evolved for sight more than 500 million years ago, it turns out they have now become integral to how we communicate with each other. We might not enjoy wearing masks, but the good news is they shouldn’t stop us being able to read each other’s emotions.


This story first appeared in The Trip, Triple R's triannual subscriber magazine. Dr Jen Martin presents “Weird Science” on Breakfasters and is part of the Einstein A Go-Go crew. Jen founded and leads the University of Melbourne’s acclaimed Science Communication Teaching Program. Tai Snaith is an artist, published author and broadcaster.