It’s Time to Tell Your Kids It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go To College

When my daughter Jora was in high school, she went to a talk I gave on the adolescent brain, during which I pointed out that high school grades don’t predict success very well. On the way home she said, “Great talk, Dad, but I bet you don’t really believe that bit about grades.” I assured her that I did. To prove it, I offered to pay her $100 if she got a ‘C’ on her next report card — in any subject.

We’ve all heard the familiar anxiety-inducing nostrums: That a screw-up in high school will follow you for the rest of your life. That if you don’t get into Harvard or Yale, you’ll never reach the c-suite. That the path to success is narrow and you’d better not take one false step. I have come to think of this unfounded belief system as what we psychologists call a “shared delusion.”

So why don’t we tell our kids the truth about success? We could start with the fact that only a third of adults hold degrees from four-year colleges. Or that you’ll do equally well in terms of income, job satisfaction and life satisfaction whether you go to an elite private college or a less-selective state university. Or that there are there are many occupations through which Americans make a living, many of which do not require a college degree.

I am not against being a good student, and there are clear advantages to doing well in school. But you don’t need to be a top student or go to a highly selective college to have a successful and fulfilling life. The path to success is not nearly so narrow as we think. We’ve all heard the stories of the college dropout who went on to found a wildly successful company. I myself was a C+ student in high school who flunked out of graduate school. At one point I went for 20 weeks without turning in a single assignment. (I often tell the underachievers I see in my practice: “Top that!”) Long story short, I managed to do pretty well in life, and I credit my failure in graduate school with leading me to a career more in line with my skill set.

The problem with the stories we’re telling our kids is that they foster fear and competition. This false paradigm affects high-achieving kids, for whom a rigid view of the path to success creates unnecessary anxiety, and low-achieving kids, many of whom conclude at a young age that they will never be successful, and adopt a “why try at all?” attitude. Many of these young people engage in one of the most debilitating forms of self-talk, telling themselves either, “I have to, but I can’t,” or “I have to, but I hate it.”

Why do we encourage our children to embrace this delusional view of what it takes to be successful?

I’ve asked various school administrators why they don’t just tell kids the truth about college — that where you go makes very little difference later in life.

They’ll shrug and say, “Even if we did, no one would believe it.” One confided to me, “We would get angry calls and letters from parents who believe that, if their children understood the truth, they would not work hard in school and would have second-class lives.”

Many adults worry that if their kids knew that grades in school aren’t highly predictive of success in life, they’d lose their motivation to apply themselves and aim high. In fact, the opposite is true. In my 32 years of working with kids as a psychologist, I’ve seen that simply telling kids the truth — giving them an accurate model of reality, including the advantages of being a good student — increases their flexibility and drive. It motivates kids with high aspirations to shift their emphasis from achieving for its own sake to educating themselves so that they can make an important contribution. An accurate model of reality also encourages less-motivated students to think more broadly about their options and energizes them to pursue education and self-development even if they aren’t top achievers.

Children are much more energized when they envision a future that is in line with their own values than when they dutifully do whatever they believe they have to do to live up to their parents’ or teachers’ or college admissions boards’ expectations. We don’t inspire our kids through fear. We inspire them by helping them to focus on getting better at something, rather than being the best, and by encouraging them to immerse themselves in something they love.

So if you want your kids to succeed in life, don’t perpetuate a fear-based understanding of success. Start with the assumption that your children want their lives to work. Then tell them the truth: That we become successful by working hard at something that engages us, and by pulling ourselves up when we stumble.

Statins myth: thousands are dying because of warnings over non-existent side effects

False claims about the risks of statins may have cost the lives of tens of thousands of Britons, researchers have said, after a Lancet study found the drugs do not cause side-effects which have deterred many.

The research on 10,000 people found that if they did not know what drugs they were given, they were no more likely than those given sugar pills to report symptoms such as muscle pain, sleep disturbance and cognitive impairment.

Yet when participants in a second part of the trial were told the drugs were statins, rates of some reported side-effects shot up – with muscle pain appearing up to 41 per cent more common.

Last night the study’s lead author accused British medicines regulators of “jumping the gun” in ever listing such side-effects on drug packaging.

Prof Peter Sever, from Imperial College London, urged the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to now strip packets of such warnings, in order to save “tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives”.

There are people out there who are dying because they’re not taking statins, and the numbers are large, the numbers are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousandsProf Peter Sever, Imperial College London

He said it was a “tragedy” akin to the MMR scandal that high risk patients had been deterred from taking drugs which could save their lives. Urging patients not to “gamble” with the risk of heart attacks and strokes, he said “bad science” had misled the public, deterring many from taking life-saving medication.

The study of patients at risk of heart disease, found that those told that their daily drug was a statin were far more likely to think they were suffering side-effects.

Researchers said it illustrated a “nocebo effect” which meant patients were more likely to think they were experiencing side-effects if they expected them.

As a result, daily aches and pains were more likely to be attributed to statins.

The phenomenon is the opposite to the well-known placebo effect, the beneficial response sometimes experienced by those given “dummy” drugs as part of trials.

NHS guidance recommends the cholesterol-busting drugs for around 40 per cent of adults.

But a number of doctors have argued against “mass medicalisation” saying too many pills are being doled out instead of efforts to improve lifestyles.

The new study suggests millions of patients could benefit from high doses of statins

Prof Sever said many of those arguing against statins had exagerrated risks such as muscle pain, which were not backed by the new study, the largest ever research into their side-effects.

In 2009, the MHRA listed such side-effects on packaging for statins, after a series of observational studies suggested such links.

Prof Sever said the regulator should never have taken such action.

“There are people out there who are dying because they’re not taking statins, and the numbers are large, the numbers are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. And they are dying because of a nocebo effect, in my opinion,” he said.

“Many of us would say that the MHRA … did not make a profound value judgment based on the evidence,” the professor said.

“We would hope that the MHRA will withdraw that request that these side effects should be listed.”

He added: “These warnings should not be on the label … I would love to see these side effects removed.

A spokesman for the MHRA said: “The benefits of statins are well established and are considered to outweigh the risk of side-effects in the majority of patients.”

“Any new significant information on the efficacy or safety of statins will be carefully reviewed and action will be taken if required, including updates to product labelling.”

The study’s researchers said statins were not without any side-effects. Statins carry around a 9 per cent increased risk of diabetes, they said, with links to uncommon side effects such as myopathy, resulting in muscle weakness.

Even so, the benefits of the drugs in reducing risk of heart attacks and strokes “overwhelmed” the risk of side-effects, Prof Sever said.

Speaking of the nocebo effect, he said: “Just as the placebo effect can be very strong, so too can the nocebo effect.

“This is not a case of people making up symptoms, or that the symptoms are ‘all in their heads’. Patients can experience very real pain as a result of the nocebo effect and the expectation that drugs will cause harm.”

The study was funded by drug company Pfizer, which makes statins, but the authors said all data collection, analysis and interpretation of the results was carried out independently.

London cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, who has argued against mass prescribing of statins, last night insisted the drugs had only “marginal” benefits for those with established heart disease, and did not save lives for lower risk patients.

Other research had found that more than half of patients put on statins abandoned them within a year, most commonly because of side-effects, he said.

He said the misrepresentation of the risks and benefits of statins would unfold to become “one of the biggest scandals in the history of medicine”.


Magic mushrooms lift severe depression in trial

Magic Mushrooms
Psilocybin, which is found in magic mushrooms, was administered to depression patients in a pill 

Ahallucinogenic chemical found in magic mushrooms has successfully lifted severe depression in previously untreatable patients.

Scientists at Imperial College London induced intense psychedelic trips in 12 people using high doses of the banned substance psilocybin.

A week after the experience all the volunteers were depression-free, and three months later five still had no symptoms of the condition.

I wouldn’t want members of the public thinking they can treat their own depressions by picking magic mushroomsDr Robin Carhart-Harris, Imperial College London

Published in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal, the study welcomes the results as “promising, but not completely compelling”.

Its authors are now seeking further funding from the Medical Research Council and other bodies to carry out fuller trials.

They conceded, however, that the use of a placebo control, a crucial component of thorough clinical trials, would be difficult as it would be obvious who was having a hallucinogenic experience and who was not.

The psilocybin is believed to cause relief from depression by targeting receptors in the brain and disrupting the Default Mode Network, which is responsible for sense of self and is overactive in depressed people.

However, the scientists did not rule out that the psychedelic trip could have caused an “awakening”, of the kind achieved by spiritual teaching, which also helped lift the depression.

Professor David Nutt
Professor David Nutt said current regulations made clinical trials extremely difficult

An estimated 350 million people worldwide are affected by the disease and the annual cost to the economy in England is thought to be around £7.5 billion, according to government figures.

About one in ten patients are resistant to treatment.

Despite the promising results, the researchers urged people not to try magic mushrooms themselves as a cure for depression.

Lead author Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, said: “Psychedelic drugs have potent psychological effects and are only given in our research when appropriate safeguards are in place, such as careful screening and professional therapeutic support.

“I wouldn’t want members of the public thinking they can treat their own depressions by picking their own magic mushrooms.

“That kind of approach could be risky.”

The volunteers in the trial had the psilocybin administered orally in capsules and were then closely monitored.

 Professor David Nutt, who also took part in the research, criticised the “Kafkaesque” tangle of regulations and licencing requirements that had forced the team to wait 32 months before being allowed to conduct the trial.

“It cost £1,500 to dose each person, when in a sane world it might cost £30,” he said.

“It is important that academic research groups try to develop possible new treatments for depression as the pharmaceutical industry is pulling out of this field.

“Our study has shown psilocybin is safe and fast-acting, so may, if administered carefully, have value for these patients.”

Professor Nutt, who was sacked as the Government’s drugs advisor in 2009 for his outspoken views, urged the Home Secretary to re-designate psilocybin from Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act to better enable further clinical trials.

Amanda Feiling, from the Beckley Foundation, which also took part in the research, said: “For the first time in many years, people who were at the end of the road with currently available treatments reported decreased anxiety, increased optimism and an ability to enjoy things.

“This is an unparalleled success and could revolutionise the treatment of depression.”


Study Shows How LSD Mimics Infant’s Mind as Ego Dissolves.

Article Image

A groundbreaking series of experiments show how LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) alters the operation of the brain.  Scientists gave LSD to 20 healthy volunteers in a specialist research center and used cutting-edge brain scanning techniques to understand what happens once the LSD is ingested.

One significant finding of the experiments was that when volunteers took LSD, many parts of their brain contributed to visual processing, not just the visual cortex.  They could essentially see things that weren’t there, experiencing dreamlike hallucinations.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, who led the research, elaborated on this discovery:

“We observed brain changes under LSD that suggested our volunteers were ‘seeing with their eyes shut’ — albeit they were seeing things from their imagination rather than from the outside world. We saw that many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD — even though the volunteers’ eyes were closed. Furthermore, the size of this effect correlated with volunteers’ ratings of complex, dreamlike visions. “

Dr. Carthart-Harris explained further that under LSD, people’s brain networks behave in a “unified” way, with specialized functions like vision, movement and hearing working without separation.

He said: ”Our results suggest that this effect underlies the profound altered state of consciousness that people often describe during an LSD experience. It is also related to what people sometimes call ‘ego-dissolution’, which means the normal sense of self is broken down and replaced by a sense of reconnection with themselves, others and the natural world. This experience is sometimes framed in a religious or spiritual way — and seems to be associated with improvements in well-being after the drug’s effects have subsided.”

lsd study

FIG. 1: Whole-brain cerebral blood flow maps for the placebo and LSD conditions, plus the difference map (cluster-corrected, P < 0.05; n = 15).

Interestingly, Dr. Carthart-Harris also said that the brain in the LSD state resembles the free and unconstrained brain of infancy, with its inherent hyper-emotionality and imaginative nature.  He added that “our brains become more constrained and compartmentalized as we develop from infancy into adulthood, and we may become more focused and rigid in our thinking as we mature.”

It’s noteworthy that the study was crowdfunded, raising almost $80,000 from individual donations. You can see their crowdfunding pitch which explains some of their approaches here:

Additional research from the same team showed for the first time that listening to music while on LSD trigged more information to be received from the parahippocampus, which is involved in mental imagery and personal memory.  The combination of music and LSD triggered complex visions in the subjects, such as evoking scenes from their lives.

The researchers hope that their findings will eventually lead to new therapies involving LSD, in particular directed at conditions with entrenched negative thought patterns such as depression or addiction.  The intention is to disrupt negative patterns by employing psychedelics.

“Scientists have waited 50 years for this moment — the revealing of how LSD alters our brain biology. For the first time we can really see what’s happening in the brain during the psychedelic state, and can better understand why LSD had such a profound impact on self-awareness in users and on music and art. This could have great implications for psychiatry, and helping patients overcome conditions such as depression,” said Professor David Nutt, the senior researcher on the study and Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London.

Source:Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Scientists find key to ‘turbo-charging’ immune system to kill all cancers

Imperial College scientists are developing a gene therapy designed to boost immune cells.

A protein which ramps up the immune system has been discovered by scientists at Imperial College London

A protein which ramps up the immune system has been discovered by scientists at Imperial College London

A protein which ‘turbo-charges’ the immune system so that it can fight off any cancer or virus has been discovered by scientists.

In a breakthrough described as a ‘game-changer’ for cancer treatment, researchers at Imperial College found a previously unknown molecule which boosts the body’s ability to fight off chronic illnesses.

Scientists at Imperial College London, who led the study, are now developing a gene therapy based on the protein and hope to begin human trials in three years.

“This is exciting because we have found a completely different way to use the immune system to fight cancer,” said Professor Philip Ashton-Rickardt, from the Section of Immunobiology in the Department of Medicine at Imperial, who led the study.

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“It could be a game-changer for treating a number of different cancers and viruses.

“This is a completely unknown protein. Nobody had ever seen it before or was even aware that it existed. It looks and acts like no other protein.”

The protein – named lymphocyte expansion molecule, or LEM, promotes the spread of cancer killing ‘T cells’ by generating large amounts of energy.

Normally when the immune system detects cancer it goes into overdrive trying to fight the disease, flooding the body with T cells. But it quickly runs out of steam.

However the new protein causes a massive energy boost which makes T cells in such great numbers that the cancer cannot fight them off.

It also causes a boost of immune memory cells which are able to recognise tumours and viruses they have encountered previously so there is less chance that they will return.

The team made the discovery while screening mice with genetic mutations. They found one type produced ten times the number of cancer-fighting T cells, suppressing infections and becoming resistant to cancer.

Researchers found that the mice with enhanced immunity produced high levels of the unknown protein which is also found in humans.

They are hoping to produce a gene therapy whereby T cells of cancer patients could be enhanced with the protein and then injected back into the body. It could end the need for harsh chemotherapies as the body itself would be fighting the disease, rather than toxic drugs.

Dr Mike Turner, Head of Infection and Immunobiology at The Wellcome Trust, said: “The discovery of a protein that could boost the immune response to not only cancer, but also to viruses, is a fascinating one.

“Further investigation in animal models is needed before human trials can commence, but there is potential for a new type of treatment that capitalises on the immune system’s innate ability to detect and kill abnormal cells.”

Charities said the protein showed ‘great promise’ and were eager to see if it could be translated into humans.

Dr Alan Worsley, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “This exciting work in mice is still at an early stage and only looked at one type of cancer.

“Cancer often finds a way to suppress the immune system, but drugs that overcome this and allow immune cells to target cancer show great promise. Research into the biology of the immune system could help develop more effective treatments by increasing the number of cancer-killing immune cells.

“The researchers now need to figure out how to develop drugs that target this molecule, and whether doing so would be safe and effective in cancer patients.”

New Treatment For Huntington’s Halts Disease Activity in Mice for 6 Months

Using a special engineered protein called a ‘zinc finger’, a team from Imperial College London, UK have successfully slowed down the progression of Huntington disease in mice trials for up to 6 months.


Scientists from Imperial College London, UK started testing a new treatment for Huntington’s disease on mice. Researchers are seeing an effectiveness even up to six months after the initial treatment.

Huntington’s disease is a hereditary, progressive brain disorder that affects movement, speech, and cognition, among other symptoms. As for now, the disease is incurable and patients usually only live 15-20 years after the first symptoms appear.

Image credit: Wikipedia/ Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Huntington’s occurs when a mutation produces a longer than normal Huntingtin gene. The gene is toxic to some cell types causing the brain damage which then causes the symptoms.

Scientists aren’t sure how the disease damages the brain, but the Imperial team has a brilliant plan. “We don’t know exactly how the mutant Huntington gene causes the disease, so the idea is that targeting the gene expression cuts off the problem at its source – preventing it from ever having the potential to act,” says Mark Isalan, the lead researcher on the project. The research team came up with a new treatment using a modified protein called a ‘zinc finger.’ The proteins cling to the faulty Huntington genes and prevents them from releasing proteins that are harmful to the brain.


In their most recent trials, the team injected 12 mice with the blocking protein. After three weeks, 77% of Huntington was repressed. Percentage of repression declined in the next weeks, but even after 6 months, gene expression was still being curbed. “In this study we weren’t looking at how repressing the gene activity affected the symptoms of the disease, and this is obviously a critical question as well. However, we have reason to be confident from our previous studies that repressing the gene does in fact significantly reduce symptoms,” explains Isalan. The results were published in Molecular Neurodegeneration.

As with any animal trials of human treatments, there are a few things to keep in mind. According to ScienceAlert, there is no way to ensure the treatment will also translate to humans. Also, there is no concrete proof that protein build-up from the mutation is to blame. Finally, while these trials show that the gene expression can be blocked, there hasn’t been any testing if this also stops symptoms.

If results continue to be promising, human trials can begin within the next 5 years.

Obesity Prevention May Be Possible By Controlling Area Of Brain That Produces Sugar and Starch Cravings.

Brain Craving For Glucose Detected

There may be a way to control the area of the brain responsible for craving sugars and carbohydrates.

Inside your brain there’s a special area that drives our cravings for sweet and starchy foods, and researchers have just found the mechanism behind the wheel. The reason we reach for the comforting mashed potatoes and after-dinner cookies could all change if the mechanism could be controlled. Researchers from the Imperial College London studied how glucose, which is found in added sugars but is also the building block of starches, affects the brain. Their published study appears in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

“Our brains rely heavily on glucose for energy,” the study’s lead author Dr. James Gardiner, from the Department of Medicine, said in a press release. “It’s clearly a very important nutrient, but in our evolutionary past it would have been hard to come by. So we have a deep-rooted preference for glucose-rich foods and seek them out.”

Researchers tracked glucokinase in rats because it’s responsible for detecting glucose in the liver and pancreas. It’s an enzyme also present in the hypothalamus, which is where the brain regulates food intake and sleep. After the rats went 24 hours without eating, glucokinase increased sharply in the hypothalamus. When they were fed normal food and food high in glucose, researchers increased the amount of glucokinase in their hypothalamus, and the rats ate more glucose than normal food. When glucokinase was decreased in their system, they consumed less glucose food.

“This is the first time anyone has discovered a system in the brain that responds to a specific nutrient, rather than energy intake in general,” Gardiner said. “It suggests that when you’re thinking about diet, you have to think about different nutrients, not just count calories.”

By figuring out how to control the newly discovered mechanism involved in glucose cravings, Gardiner suggests humans could then reduce cravings with assistance from a drug. If the mechanism is the key to controlling cravings, Gardiner believes it could potentially prevent obesity, but they need to study how it functions in humans, and then adjust amounts for each person first.

“People are likely to have different levels of this enzyme, so different things will work for different people,” Gardiner said. “For some people, eating more starchy foods at the start of a meal might be a way to feel full more quickly by targeting this system, meaning they eat less overall.”

Source: Gardiner J, Hussain S, Richardson E , Ma Y, Holton C, and Backer ID, et al. Glucokinase activity in the arcuate nucleus regulates glucose intake Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2014.

Physicists have developed an ultra-fast laser that could drastically speed up our internet

This semiconductor nano-laser can produce up to one trillion laser pulses per second, making it the fastest laser ever at transmitting information.

The record-breaking lasers were created by physicists from Imperial College London in the UK and the Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany, using tiny wires made of zinc oxide placed on a silver surface.

“While the fastest lasers typically need several nanoseconds for one cycle our semiconductor nano-laser only needs less than a picosecond and is therefore a thousand times faster,“ said Carsten Ronning, one of the researchers involved from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, in a press release.

This breakthrough could lead to faster internet connections and data transfer, and is published in Nature Physics.

“Turning a laser on and off quicker means more information carrying 1s and 0s per second, allowing much faster data communications. In fact, these lasers are so much faster than conventional electronics that we had to develop an optical switching method to measure their speed,” said lead author of the research Themis Sidiropoulos from the Imperial College London.

Traditionally in these types of semiconductor lasers, the nanowires are placed on a glass surface – but by using the silver surface they were able to speed up the light by “squeezing it”.

The zinc oxide nanowires are only 120 nanometres in diameter – around a thousandth of the diameter of a strand of human hair – and can already pulse out light at an impressive rate.

But by using features on silver called surface plasmons, which are wave-like motions of excited electrons found at the surface of metals, the physicists could squeeze the light into a much smaller space inside the laser, which meant that it also interacted more strongly with the zinc oxide nanowires.

This stronger interaction sped up the rate at which the lasers could be turned on and off by 10 times, and makes them the fastest on record.

“Most likely we also achieved the maximum possible speed, at which such a semiconductor laser can be operated,” said Robert Röder, a PhD student involved in the project in a press release.

The laser is also stable at room temperature, which makes it perfect for use in internet and communication systems. It could also be used to help detect single molecules or microbes in medical diagnostics.

“This work is so exciting because we are engineering the interaction of light and matter to drive light generation in materials much faster than it occurs naturally,” said senior author and Imperial College London researcher Rupert Oulton in a press release. “When we first started working on this, I would have been happy to speed up switching speeds to a picosecond, which is one trillionth of a second. But we’ve managed to go even faster, to the point where the properties of the material itself set a speed limit.”

Pesticides may harm growing brains

Two neonicotinoid chemicals may affect the developing nervous system in humans, according to the EU.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) proposed that safe levels for exposure be lowered while further research is carried out.

They based their decision on studies that showed the chemicals had an impact on the brains of newborn rats.


One of the pesticides was banned in the EU last April amid concerns over its impact on bee populations.

Neonicotinoids are “systemic” pesticides that make every part of a plant toxic to predators.

They have become very popular across the world over the past two decades as they are considered less harmful to humans and the environment than older chemicals.

But a growing number of research papers have linked the use of these nicotine-like pesticides to a rapid fall in bee numbers.

New levels needed

In April, the European Union introduced a two year moratorium on the use of several types of these chemicals, despite opposition from the UK.

Now EFSA, in a statement, says that it has concerns that two types of neonicotinoids, imidacloprid and acetamiprid, may “affect the developing human nervous system“.

They have proposed that guidance levels for acceptable exposure be lowered while further research is carried out.

The decision has been based on a review of research carried out in rats.

In one study, young rodents exposed to imidacloprid suffered brain shrinkage, weight loss and reduced movement.

In the statement, EFSA said that the two neonicotinoids may “adversely affect the development of neurons and brain structures associated with functions such as learning and memory”.

Current guidelines, it went on, “may not be protective enough to protect against developmental neurotoxicity and should be reduced”.

According to EU Commission health spokesman Frederic Vincent, they would now allow the chemical companies involved to comment on the findings.

“In principle, the next step would then be to amend the reference values,” he said, indicating that this would begin next March.

In their findings, EFSA pointed out that the available evidence had limitations but that they believed the health concerns that have been raised are legitimate.

But other experts said the move by EFSA was more of a precaution than anything else.

“The reduction in the reference values in most cases was modest,” said Prof Alan Boobis, from Imperial College London.

“Whilst there is clearly a question mark over the possible effects of these compounds on the developing brain, the conclusions of EFSA do not suggest that exposure of humans to these compounds at the levels that occur normally in food or in the environment is a cause for concern.

The science of dread: anticipating pain makes it worse

For most people, a chocolate today is better than one tomorrow. Economists refer to this as “future discounting”, where we prefer to have nice things now rather than wait and unpleasant things later rather than now.

Rather be in the waiting room?

But this isn’t always the case in reality. When it comes to a potentially painful experience, like having an operation, many people choose to get it over and done with rather than put it off.

In a new paper published in PLOS Computational Biology, researchers from Imperial College London and University College London explore how this reluctance to wait for pain – a feeling commonly known as dread – changes depending on the timing of the painful event. The researchers wanted to know if dread is worse when pain is more delayed.

The study involved a series of experiments in which pain took the form of brief electric shocks to the back of the hand of 35 participants. Over the course of the experiments, participants could choose to receive shocks soon, or delay them by a certain amount of time, which could range from a few seconds to a quarter of an hour.

A minority chose to wait and receive the shocks further into the future. But 71% of participants opted to receive pain sooner, even if meant it would be worse, because, in half of the experiments, choosing earlier pain resulted in more shocks.

The researchers also compared the size of the delay and the probability a participant would choose the later shock. They found the relationship between the two was best described by what they called “exponential dread”: the bigger the delay, the more likely it was the person would opt for the earlier shock.

The shock experiments were relatively brief, so researchers also looked at what happens when people can delay a painful experience much further into the future. The participants were given a hypothetical scenario, in which they had to schedule an appointment for a painful dental procedure. They were told they could have the procedure “today”, or at a fixed later time. This time varied between participants: it could be 1, 5, 13, 32, 89 or 237 days.

Once again, the participants’ choices suggested dread increases exponentially as people approach a painful event:

These results build on previous work, such as a 2006 study which assumed people experienced constant amount of dread over time, rather than having dread increase with the size of the delay. There are, however, still some questions that remain unanswered.

First, how does dread scales with time? The researchers looked at events that occur over minutes and weeks, but can the same patterns be found at other timescales?

Second, what causes us to experience dread in the first place? The researchers suggest a couple of potential explanations. It might be that the brain processes designed to prepare us for a painful experience overrule other types of behaviour, even if this other behaviour could be beneficial. Alternatively, dread could be a form of “stimulus substitution”, whereby the anticipation of pain triggers the same responses that we experience during an actual pain event.

Even if the causes of dread remain elusive, understanding how people deal with the anticipation pain could help in a number of fields. In particular, it could be useful when assessing options about a potentially painful future event, whether that event is an electric shock, a medical procedure, or your girlfriend finding out you’ve eaten all the chocolates.

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