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Why city brains are stressed out

When Barbra Streisand sang “New York state of mind”, she wasn’t singing about stress. Yet a recent small study, published in Nature, comparing the brains of city and country people, found urban brains behave differently to country brains. They don’t regulate for stress as well as those of country people. It sounds like a good argument for moving to the country, but there’s more to it than that. It also depends on where you were brought up.

The study used fMRI scans to watch what happened to the brain when respondents were under stress. Researchers looked at two regions of the brain: the amygdalas and the perigenual anterior cingulated cortex (PACC). The amygdalas assess threats and generate fear; the PACC regulates the amygdalas. People living in the country had the lowest levels of activity in the amygdalas, people in towns had higher levels, and city people had the highest. Activity in the amygdalas seemed to relate to where respondents live now, but activity in the PACC related to where the respondents were brought up. This suggests the regulatory activity was out of step, which is true for schizophrenia (also more common in the city).

One of the most amazing traits of the brain is the way it becomes moulded by continual thoughts and behaviours and, in a way, gives you what you thought you wanted. If the city creates anxiety, the brain adapts to deal with it. If the country is less stressful, the brain adapts to that. This study, albeit small, seems to be a fascinating reflection of how the brain adapts to external circumstances throughout life.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 25 June 2011, 'A New York state of mind'. Anon.
Search words: anxiety, city, country, fMRI, amygdala, PACC, regulation, schizophrenia, social stress.
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The beauty of clinical trials

Most women are accustomed to being told this product or that will make them look more beautiful, younger, or reduce their wrinkles. While beauty products in Britain have had to prove their safety, they have not had to prove their effectiveness (unlike pharmaceuticals). If something didn’t work, it became the province of the British Advertising Standards Authority. This seems to be changing, and rightly so if women are going to stop being guinea pigs.

Olay published results of a clinical trial in British Journal of Dermatology that compared its product, Olay Professional, with a prescription product, tretinoin. It measured number of wrinkles, wrinkle depth, dryness and redness and found the Olay products were as effective and caused fewer side effects. Clinique followed this with a clinical trial published in Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, which found its product had similar results to hydroquinone for reducing pigmentation.

One industry observer claims this kind of publicity will continue, especially as companies are already doing these trials. It’s just they are reluctant to spend time and money submitting papers and getting them published. He claims beauty products should be seen as more scientific and manufacturers could then provide web links to where their trials are published.

If you are interested in learning more about a product, you might ask the manufacturer the following questions: how many women tested the product, did they test the whole product or one ingredient, how many changes were assessed, and was the research published in a peer-reviewed journal? The alternative is to continue being a guinea pig. It’s probably a quicker way of finding out.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 4/5 June 2011, 'Fairer trials?', by C. Coleman.
Search words: beauty, brand, Clinique, Olay, clinical trial, wrinkles, testing, British Journal of Dermatology.
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Blu light district for smokers

It seems cigarette manufacturers will stop at nothing to get their products out, especially given all the nasty restrictions on advertising. The latest is an e-cigarette pack that communicates with other smokers of Blu e-cigarettes. (E-cigarettes release a nicotine-laden vapour instead of smoke, which also avoids regulations.) When someone with the same pack is standing within 50ft, the pack vibrates and flashes a blue light! This is called, somewhat ironically, a “social networking device”, and gives new meaning to the saying, “social smoker”.

The packs are reusable, serve as a charger for cigarettes, and can be used to exchange personal information that can be downloaded onto PCs. The pack also vibrates when near a shop that sells Blu cigarettes. Interestingly, more than 105 million adults Americans have two types of connected devices already - we thought it would be more.

Ref: New York Times (UK), 10 May 2011, 'A social networking device for smokers' by J. Brustein.
Search words: smoker, e-cigarettes, vapour, social networking, “smart packs” Blu, affinity.
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Parents are the custodians of clutter

I would be surprised if any parents of grown-up children are surprised by this story. Grown-up children are storing their stuff at mum and dad’s, long after they leave home. The family home has become a free warehouse for, in order of quantity: old clothing and shoes, photos and holiday souvenirs, old school and university books, and toys and games.

A study by Liverpool Victoria, an insurance company in the UK, found more than a million people had belongings in storage rooms outside their home, most often in their parents’ home. A twelfth of parents had asked them to move it – unsuccessfully! A fifth said their kids were in their late 20s or early 30s before they finally removed their possessions from the family home.

The reason they store their stuff is, of course, because they rent small flats or one-room studios that don’t accommodate clutter. This has been documented, ironically, as a new trend to avoid clutter and live simply. Most parents, on the other hand, seem to accept their offspring can’t afford anything larger. This of course raises questions about insurance, if you have an interest in increasing premiums. Many parents fail to insure the belongings held by their children. It sounds like a marketing opportunity for someone.

Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 8 June 2011, 'Empty nest is now warehouse of mum and dad' by R. Alleyne.
Search words: warehouse, family home, insurance, possessions, clothing, photos, books, parents, clutter.
Trend tags: Too much stuff, materialism
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Global capitalists choose capitals

It makes intuitive sense that the market for prime property in global cities is becoming distinct from the national property market in those countries. According to Knight Frank, a few “super cities” receive much of the international wealth, while the rest of those countries stagnate or make only slight gains. The top 6 super cities in its Prime City Index 2011 are Paris, Hong Kong, Helsinki, Shanghai, Beijing and London.

Chesterton Humberts claimed there was “insatiable demand” from investors in Asia and the Middle East for prime property in London, Paris and New York. Savills said 60% of all buyers in central London were foreign nationals. It also found London prices rose 26% over 5 years, compared to 6% nationally, 95% in Hong Kong (59% nationally) and flat in New York (26% decline around America). China is now seeing a slowdown in property. Average annual price growth in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore was 54.6%, but had fallen to 11.5% by the first quarter of 2011. Moscow and New York also experienced a slowdown.

Since these super cities are sought after by global buyers, their purchasing is more affected by global events than by domestic ones. Increasingly, there will be an elite group of buyers who move between cities buying up the cream of the crop. In a way, this mirrors the luxury market in other products, where people who buy luxury brands have more in common with other luxury buyers than they do with people in their own countries.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 4/5 June 2011, 'A world apart', by D. Thomas.
Search words: housing, prime property, price, Asia, London, gold, Hong Kong, Knight Frank.
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