Do Video Games Really Cause Aggression?

Helen Alford

Over the years, there has been much controversy over whether video games are linked to aggression and violence in the younger population. Usually, the games discussed are first-person shooters or action-adventure games where the player has the option to use weapons. This type of game has often been cited as a potential influence in the behaviour of young offenders committing violent crimes, such as school shootings in the USA.

Might there be any truth to this kind of speculation?

A quick Google search for ‘video games and aggression’ will bring up as many articles in favour of a link as those against it. Two articles appear next to each other, published less than three weeks apart, titled “Study Reveals Players Don’t Become More Aggressive Playing Violent Video Games” and “Study Finds Violent Video Games Increase Aggression”. There appears to be a great deal of research for each side of the debate, but no consensus.

The fact is the research is murky at best. Scientists have been looking into violent video games for over 20 years but there are still no conclusive results – as Google shows us.

In 2015 the American Psychological Society (APA) published the results of a study investigating the proposed link. The study looked at over 100 pieces of research dating from 2005-2013 and ultimately concluded that video games do contribute to aggressive behaviour. However, they were quick to note that “It is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behaviour. The research reviewed here demonstrates that violent video game use is one such risk factor”.

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Image Credit: Max Pixel

While the report made headline news in many newspapers, articles questioning its methodology and findings immediately popped up too. Over 200 academics signed a letter critiquing the research and labelling it as ‘controversial’. Some of these researchers agreed that the report highlighted important areas for further research, but ultimately didn’t tally with a near-global reduction in youth violence. On the other hand, video games really could be a factor in isolated cases of extreme violence.

Dr Vic Strasburger is a retired professor of paediatrics at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine. He has dealt with several ‘school-shooter’ youths and theorized that playing violent video games is one of four factors that drive these individuals to commit horrifying acts. The other factors were abuse/bullying, social isolation and mental illness. As with the APA report, he makes it clear that video games are just one factor contributing to such behaviour, and it is not a simple correlational relationship.

The Oxford Internet Institute has explored the topic from a different angle. They investigated whether the mechanism of a game contributed to feelings of frustration, rather than the actual content of the game itself. Interestingly, they found that if players were unable to understand controls or gameplay, they felt aggressive. Dr Andrew Przybylski said that “This need to master the game was far more significant than whether the game contained violent material”.

Interestingly, a few months after the APA report was released, researchers from Columbia University published a study looking at the positive aspects of playing video games. In many cases, children who play video games often are more likely to do well at school and experience better social integration. This is certainly a stark contrast to the ‘aggressive loner’ stereotype of gamers we have all come to recognize.

It seems that video games can actually have a plethora of positive effects. These include improved motor skills, improved vision and improved decision making skills. The hand-eye coordination of regular gamers tends to be better than those who rarely play or don’t play at all. There is also research that suggests playing video games enhances of attention span, ability to multitask and our working memory. Plus for many of us, they’re a good way to beat stress.

Ultimately, youth crime is falling while the accessibility of video games is increasing. While there may be a tentative link between playing video games and aggressive behaviour, other factors have a much greater influence. At best it seems that video games have a negligible effect on gamers, and that there are many positives to benefit from. So, ready, player one?

Taking Chronic Fatigue Seriously: Myth to ME

Helen Alford

Myalgic encephalomyelitis (usually shortened to ME) is a syndrome that causes constant mental and physical fatigue that no amount of sleep or rest can help. Around 250,000 people have the condition in the UK. It tends to affect women more than men and onset is most common between the ages of 20-50, though anybody can be affected.

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Image Credit: Pexels

Symptoms of ME include fatigue, sleeping problems, pain in the muscle and joints, increased sensitivity to light and sound and poor short-term memory and concentration. Not all sufferers will have the same symptoms, however. Depending on the severity of a person’s symptoms, their quality of life can decrease quite significantly. A mild case of ME might require a person take days of work to recuperate. In severe cases, sufferers are often unable to carry out simple tasks like getting out of bed. Many patients – though not all – improve over time.

There’s no cure for ME, but there are different treatment options. However, what works for one person isn’t guaranteed to work on another – there is no universal treatment. For example, medication is often prescribed to treat symptoms of ME such as muscle pain. While this may help one individual, it could also cause side-effects in another.  Graded exercise therapy (GET) is sometimes advised to increase an ME sufferer’s physical endurance. However, a person with severe ME would undoubtedly struggle with this kind of treatment.  

ME has attracted huge amounts of controversy over the years. Until fairly recently, this was over whether it was a ‘real’ illness. Recorded cases of ME have been around since the 1930s, but it’s taken many organisations decades to identify it as a real thing. In fact, it was known as ‘yuppie flu’ for a long time. Sufferers were stigmatised as being lazy or work-shy. In the UK, it was only recognised as a chronic and treatable condition in 2002.

That’s not to say that there’s no longer any controversy surrounding ME. Today, there is disagreement over how to define the condition. Some doctors consider it a psychological problem while others believe the cause is physical. Scientists from Columbia University recently found physical evidence indicating that ME is biological rather than psychological. The research showed definitive changes to sufferer’s immune systems. Perhaps this will turn the tide for supporters of the psychological school of thought?  

What causes ME is also a topic of intense debate. New research has proposed a cautious link between improper functioning of the autonomic nervous system and ME, along with other conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and fibromyalgia. There’s just not enough evidence yet to determine whether this link is causal or not, though.

In contrast, other research suggests that ME is caused by a change in the way the body makes energy. This model suggests that the cells of ME sufferers make energy from amino acids and fats, instead of sugar as the cells of a healthy person would. The body essentially switches from a high-yield source of energy to a low-yield source. Researchers in Norway have done some experiments exploring this. They grew myoblasts (embryonic cells that become muscle cells) in serums taken from severe-case ME patients. They found that these myoblasts had ‘increased mitochondrial respiration and excessive lactate secretion’. In other words, the cells were working harder to produce energy and creating lots of lactate. Excessive lactate build up in the muscles is linked to muscle pain, which is a common symptom of ME. This line of investigation is obviously of interest, and more research needs to be carried out to detect any potential links.

Really, every aspect of ME requires more research. Jose Montoya – a Stanford University professor and an expert on the condition – has said that with serious research and dedication, we could begin to understand what causes ME within a decade. He also hopes to find out what makes some people develop the illness while others, who experience the same potential causes, remain healthy.

While answers within a decade might be optimistic considering the continued controversy and disagreements surrounding the condition, Montoya’s words definitely offer some hope to sufferers.

Why Do I Hate Marmite?

Helen Alford

Ah, marmite. The notorious dark brown, gloopy sludge (I’m hard-pushed to call it a food) is a byproduct of beer brewing. The yeast extract left over from brewing lager, bitter, and ale is mixed with vegetable and spice extracts, along with some other ingredients that are ‘trade secrets’. The manufacturing process sounds just as unappetising as the end product tastes.

The spread is behind one of the UK’s most divisive advertising campaigns – ‘Love it or hate it’. Polling agents YouGov ran a poll in 2011, asking 2,500 British adults whether they loved, hated, or had no opinion on marmite. The results were 33% for both love and hate, with 27% remaining neutral. That’s a pretty even split. Personally, I just can’t understand how anybody could willingly eat this vile excuse for a condiment. But clearly, people do. So what makes our palates so different?

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Love it or hate it? (Image Credit: Helen Alford)

Taste and smell have long been evolutionary survival tactics. If something doesn’t taste right, we know to avoid it. Bitter tastes usually mean poison, while a sulphurous smell can be associated with something harbouring dangerous bacteria. The ‘survival’ role of these senses has declined as we have developed ways to keep food safe and the availability of food has grown. Even so, we still use these senses to judge food. If milk smells bad, we don’t put it in our tea. Evolution can explain the general aversion to bitter-tasting foods like grapefruit and broccoli, but what about more personal preferences?

Babies may inherit food preferences from their mothers. The flavours are transferred to the child from the mum through the amniotic fluid. One study found that babies whose mothers consumed carrots during the last stage of pregnancy were more likely to eat carrot-flavoured food compared to babies whose mothers did not eat carrots. The same principle could potentially be applied to other foods.

Another biological factor that can account for differing tastes is the amount of taste buds on an individual’s tongue. Taste buds detect the five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, butter and umami (savoury). “Supertasters” have more fungiform papillae – projections holding taste buds – and so taste things with much more intensity. They also have an increased sensitivity to bitterness. Research has shown supertasters have reduced preferences for foods including coffee, mushrooms, gin, tequila, green tea, and cabbage. Average tasters usually have a more accepting palate.

To try and understand why supertasters react negatively to certain foods, scientists are considering a gene named TAS2R38. The gene encodes a protein which is a bitter taste receptor. People who have a version of the gene that is very influential in tasting (as opposed to a non-tasting or subdued version) may be supertasters. Fussy eating could well be the results of genetic factors like this.

A person’s taste can evolve through the influence of various psychological factors. For example, association of a food with a feeling or emotion can affect the way the food is perceived in the future. If a person eats a food which makes them ill, chances are they won’t like that food anymore. The appeal of the food in terms of all 5 senses is diminished.  In contrast, if a person associated a food with being exceptionally positive, they’re probably more likely to keep eating it.

Interestingly, recent studies have shown that people who enjoy bitter foods like gin may have psychopathic traits.  One experiment showed that the ‘agreeableness’ of a person is negatively correlated with a liking of bitter foods.

Societal influences can also play a role in determining what people like and don’t like. As children, we naturally have a fear of trying new things. It’s possible that people whose parents encourage them to eat new foods regularly could grow up to be less fussy than those who stuck to a more restricted diet. Adults are expected to be less fussy than children, and so may be forced to consume foods they don’t like to ‘fit in’. Olives seem to be the prime example of this. Luckily, research shows that the more times you eat a food, the more you grow to like it.

Food preferences are down to the interaction of numerous factors. Gene variation, upbringing, number of taste buds, psychology, society, experience… Call me narrow minded but none of these factors could ever explain to me the love people have for marmite.

 

Can The Weather Control Our Mood?

Helen Alford

The answer to the question “can the weather control our mood” is most definitely: yes. Scientists have been researching this topic for decades and a majority of findings support the notion. As to what effects different kinds of weather can have… That’s a bit more complicated.

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Image Credit: Pixabay

The effects of sunlight on mood are perhaps the most studied. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short) is a well-known disorder affecting about 30% of the UK population. SAD sufferers experience depression in the autumn and winter months as the days get shorter. That’s not to say that the depression is non-existent in spring and summer – but the symptoms may be more subdued. The accepted theory is that the hypothalamus – the part of the brain which controls thirst, hunger, fatigue and sleep – is prevented from functioning properly without sufficient levels of sunlight. Levels of serotonin (a hormone generally thought to control mood) drop, causing symptoms of depression. So, there’s proof that the weather can have a direct biological effect on us.

For other types of weather, the links are correlational. That is, we know there’s a link between weather and behaviour, but it’s not clear if weather is the cause of mood changes, or just a factor in a bigger picture. There’s plenty more research to be done.

The temperature of the environment is known to have an effect on us. Warmth is beneficial as it lifts people’s moods. However, it seems there’s a threshold. Once the temperature gets too high, its effect becomes negative. A study done in 2013 showed that when it was very hot, numbers of group conflicts and individual conflicts rose by 14% and 4%, respectively.  The USA’s Department of Justice has found that crime rates rise in hot weather.

Muggy days have also been proven to impact our mood. High humidity is when the air is saturated with water vapour, meaning that it’s harder for you to cool down. Lethargy increases when it’s muggy, which is unfortunate as high humidity also makes it more difficult to sleep!  Studies looking into humidity showed that participants felt a lack of “vigour, elation, and affection” in muggier conditions.  Usually mugginess disappears after a thunderstorm and things feel fresher. It’s possible our moods improve after storms too, giving us a fresher state of mind.

Rainy days have a reputation for being pretty dull and slightly melancholy. They’re days for cuddling up inside with a cup of tea. Perhaps the media is to blame for this image. Films and TV shows tend to portray rain as a pensive kind of weather. In contrast, scientists have found that heavy rain might actually make us more aggressive. People also seem to have lower life satisfaction on rainy days versus on dry days. Of course, getting wet from the rain won’t help things either. Take an umbrella when you go out to avoid an even worse mood!

Research indicates that men and women respond to weather differently. Men are more likely to be flexible and change their plans to suit the weather. Women tend to view their plans as more ‘set in stone’, and are less likely to change despite unfavourable conditions. This may make for a less optimistic outlook. Of course, this won’t be true for everyone, but it’s interesting to consider how gender could determine our response.

New research might bring a new perspective to the topic. A recent study, done on a small group of Dutch teenagers, indicated that people might have “weather personalities”. 52% of the group expressed preference for certain seasons or weathers. Their moods decreased when the opposite weather occurred. For example, people who dislike summer were happier in winter. There’s not much research on this, and the study mentioned can’t be generalised. However, it’s an interesting line of inquiry and could well be at odds with previous research. For example, would a person who loves winter be less likely to develop SAD? There are plenty of questions to be asked.

So yes, weather can affect our mood. Aside from sunlight, there aren’t any concrete theories as to how the biology works. However, with research on this topic showing no sign of stopping soon, it’s only a matter of time until we find out the answers.