Feature

Some of the things they said were good for us ...

From naps to a good massage

Naps make you smarter. Subjects in a study at the University of California at Berkeley were given a learning task designed to challenge their short-term memory; they took the test at noon and a similar one at 6 p.m. Those who were allowed to take a midafternoon nap fared far better on the second test. Sleep seems to “reboot” the brain, clearing short-term memory and making room for new information, says study author Matthew Walker. “It’s as though the e-mail inbox in your hippocampus is full, and until you sleep and clear out those fact e-mails, you’re not going to receive any more mail.”

Dreaming makes you smarter still. Harvard researchers asked people to navigate a maze, and found that those who both napped and dreamed about their maze experience in any way showed a tenfold improvement when they did the maze a second time. “Dreams are the brain’s way of processing, integrating, and really understanding new information,” says neuroscientist Robert Stickgold. That process isn’t necessarily rational or literal—one of the test subjects dreamed about being lost in a cave—but reflects a deeper process in which the unconscious mind consolidates what it has learned and produces new insights.

Laughter improves your appetite. Repeated bouts of “mirthful laughter”—produced by watching funny, 20-minute video clips—were found to trigger a rise in the hormone ghrelin, which cues hunger, and a drop in leptin, which cues satiety. In fact, laughter can offer some of the same benefits as exercise, such as lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Study author Lee Berk says laughter therapy might be a viable option “for patients who cannot use physical activity to normalize or enhance their appetite,” including elderly patients with so-called wasting disease or even widowers, who commonly suffer depression and lose their appetite following the death of a spouse.

Good-luck charms give you an advantage—if you believe they work. In a series of experiments, people who carried a lucky charm set higher goals and felt more confident than those who left their rabbit’s foot at home. It’s that confidence—not magic—that makes the difference. In one test, subjects who’d been told that a golf ball was “lucky” tended to perform better than those who were simply handed the ball. “Superstitious behavior won’t help you win the lottery,” says psychologist Barbara Stoberock. “But it could help you win a sporting event or pass a test.”

Getting older makes you happier. A study found that after age 50, people report being consistently happier, less stressed, and less worried than their younger counterparts. Because of life experience, older people may be “more effective at regulating their emotions than younger adults,” says psychiatrist Arthur Stone. They also seem more likely to forget or let go of bad memories. “If you were to do a survey and say, ‘How many of you would like to be 25 again?’” Stone says, “you don’t get a lot of takers.”

Sighing helps you breathe easier. A Belgian study found that after volunteers spontaneously sighed—defined as a breath with twice the mean volume—the dynamics of their breathing changed to become more effective. Under stress, our breathing becomes less variable from breath to breath, which makes the lungs stiffer and less effective at exchanging gas. But a sigh shakes up the system and “acts as a general re-setter of the respiratory system,” says study author Elke Vleminckx.

A good massage boosts your immune system. An hour after receiving a 45-minute deep-tissue Swedish massage, study volunteers had lower levels of the hormones cortisol, which causes stress, and arginine vasopressin, which can elevate cortisol; they also showed a rise in white blood cells, which aid the immune response. Massage also produced an increase in the “love hormone,” oxytocin, which makes people feel pleasantly “high.” The results are “very, very intriguing and very, very exciting,” says Cedars-Sinai psychiatrist Mark Hyman Rapaport, “and I’m a skeptic.”

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