First world problems explained by SCIENCE!!!

Have you really ever paused to think how blessed we are as a society?  The American public is arguably the most well-off group of citizens in the world, meaning we are a pretty spoiled group of people.  A lot of problems we have are small and trivial compared to some of our fellow humans.

“Will I ever drink clean water again?” ponders a Kenyan national.

“I wonder when we will be able to openly express our opinions without the constant threat of persecution,” says many Chinese citizens.

“It would be cool if they cut military spending and provided us with food,” bluntly states pretty much every North Korean.

“Waiting in line for blue jeans isn’t fun,” says the Russians.

My point is, American “first-world” problems exist solely so we have something to complain about.  And for us, these are very real issues.  Some of the most annoying things in our awesome, perfect lives can be explained by science.  If you are sensing a list, you are correct.

Why are the sounds from scratching a chalkboard so irritating?

It’s a classic comparison; “… is like nails on a chalkboard” is synonymous with something bothersome, annoying, or unbearable.  In a literal sense, hearing nails on a chalkboard is one of the most irritating noises perceptible to the human mind.  Have you ever wondered why?  Some fancy-pants researchers from Europe have an answer.  It’s because of our own stupid bodies!  Michael Oehler, one of the researchers involved in testing this theory, postulated the shape of the human ear canal helped amplify the sound of nails across a chalkboard.  But its not like scratching a chalkboard produced a particularly loud sound, so why is it so offensive?  Audiologists explain it’s not how loud a noise is, but at what frequency such a sound occurs.  Specifically, sounds between 2000-4000 Hz are the most offensive to human ears, which conveniently is the range in which the “nails on a chalkboard” noise occurs.  The study also suggests the noise is especially annoying and triggers such a pervasive human response because the nails on chalkboard frequency range is similar to that of a screaming baby.  This sound triggers an emotional response in humans to determine the cause of the sound, which is why you cringe at the sound of a scratching chalkboard and probably a crying baby, if you aren’t a monster.

Close Talkers

So you are getting coffee Monday morning and it’s taking a while because the place is busy.  You and another guy start talking about the game the night before, attempting to pass time with idle chit-chat.  But you notice this guy is like, right up all in yo face.  Literally within inches of touching noses, providing an unwanted eskimo kiss and invading your personal space like Grenada, blissfully unaware of every cue you are nonverbally conveying.  This is a close talker.  So what’s this guy’s deal?  Is his brain messed up?  Well, yeah, kind of.  According to a study conducted by researchers at Caltech, close talkers suffer an abnormal amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for feelings of anger and fear.  The resulting “damage” to amygdala means people are more trustful and friendly, meaning they have no problems at all getting super close to perfect strangers.  The Caltech scientists also determined subjects with damaged amygdala’s were less aware of personal space, as they conducted an experiment requiring the subjects to walk towards another person, stopping at a distance they felt was appropriate.  Normal subjects would stop about 2-3 feet short, while subjects with abnormal amygdala’s would stop only about 10 inches or a foot short.  So just keep in mind, most close talkers aren’t crazy weirdos, they are just genetically predisposed to being super friendly, which is the most optimistic sounding mental diagnosis I’ve ever heard.

Headphones spontaneously form unbreakable knots

Most people deal with headphones in one of one ways:  they take them off and throw them in their pocket, bag, briefcase, etc. when they’re done using them.  Without fail, no matter how carefully the headphones are placed into the offending storage container, a knot will form.  It’s frustrating because it doesn’t seem plausible a knot can just occur without any agitation whatsoever.  Fortunately, science came to the rescue once again.  In 2006, Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith published a research article, titled “Spontaneous knotting of agitated string”, presumably because they were late to work the day the important assignments were handed out.  In this article, the researchers tested their hypothesis in a delicate, empirical manner by getting a box, putting string in said box, and then shaking the box.  Three thousand different times.  The researchers found the string getting tangled relied a couple factors, the first of which is the length of time.  They determined a string is more likely to become knotted the longer it spends in a container.  Duh.  The second factor involved the length of the string.  In their experiment, they found that as string increased in length, so did the probability of a knot forming.  However, after 2 meters, the probability plateaus and remains constant.  Rayner and Smith were able to conclude headphones, which on average are about 1.4 meters in length, will become an untangled mess a little over 50% of the time.  So, the most pointless experiment of time yielded results consistent with “if you shake a string long enough it’ll probably turn into a knot, like half the time, or something.”

Sudden bright lights cause sneezing

It’s the first day of school, and you aren’t excited.  Your alarm starts going off, but the pillow goes on top of your face, and you refuse to start this day.  However, in comes your loving mother to the rescue, throwing open your blinds, flooding the room with sunlight.  You are kind of surprised by the bright light and then ahhh ahhhh chooooooooo.  You are now like the estimated 30-35% of the population whose sneezing reflex is activated by the sudden onset of bright light.  This photic sneeze reflex is brought on by natural light, but can also be caused by artificial light, such as bulbs or flashlights.  Scientists, despite not knowing too much about the photic sneeze reflex, have suggested several causes, such as genetics.  However, some think the brightness of the sun affecting the eyes may affect the nose as well, much like plucking a nose fair makes the eyes water.

Traffic jams

Ah, the ultimate first-world problem.  On the way to and from your job, where an employer pays you money, you have to sit in traffic, because lots of other people also have employers who pay them money.  It’s an inevitable, and it sucks.  Trying to leave a major city between the hours of 4pm and 6pm has inspired more violent thoughts than every Rambo movie combined.  Sure, accidents, roadwork, and even weather contribute to an overall slowdown of traffic, but even on a clear, crisp fall day with no construction and no accidents will undoubtedly slow to a standstill.  It doesn’t make sense.  The lanes are straight!  How is this slowdown possible?  The issue, according to scientists, is called “saturation”.  Saturation is a simple enough concept; there are more cars than space on the road.  This means something as trivial as one person changing lanes can slow down miles of traffic.  Some scientists have even suggested something as seemingly inconsequential as tapping your brakes can cause a several mile long traffic jam because of the butterfly effect.  It makes sense in theory, since one set of tapping brakes means every person behind that one guy is doing that.  Once a jam begins and 30,000 people are all tapping their brakes, changing lanes, and attempting to merge, it’s devastating for your commute time.  But if everyone drove at a constant pace it would avoid slowdowns, regardless of a few taps of brakes.  The speed limit around Pittsburgh is 45 mph.  If one guy is going 45 mph and taps his brakes, the guy behind him has to show down to keep from hitting him.  Let’s say this momentary, second-long pause decreases the following driver’s speed to 40 mph.  Well, this means the guy behind him has to apply their brakes, decreasing speed constantly until the guys in the back are at a complete stop.

And despite all these minor annoyances being kind of stupid in hindsight, they are killing you faster

Sure, a 45 minute commute sucks.  But it’s not nearly as bad as divorcing your wife or dealing with a significant death.  Traffic, sneezing, and tangled headphones are all minor annoyances compared to big things in life.  Life changing stresses like divorce, death, stress disorders, and huge financial burdens, obviously, are huge stressors.  People dealing with those things clearly suffer from more stress, depression, and probably die earlier than most people.  Except they don’t.  According to a study conducted by researchers from the journal of Experimental Gerontology, people who experience little stresses every day throughout their lives, and let it bother them, have similar stress levels as people with higher, more significant stressors, and will on average die at the same time as the seemingly more stressed out bunch.  This study shows how important it is to make like Taylor Swift and shake it off, because worrying about little things is detrimental to your overall health.  So next time you’re stuck sitting in a traffic jam, turn on some music and try to relax and realize there’s more important things to worry about.


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