Dec 17, 2020

Axios Science

This week's Axios Science, which looks at interpersonal communication, cooperation between competitors and more, is 1,339 words, a 5-minute read.

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  • Quick note: This is the last Axios Science of 2020. We'll be back in your inbox in January. I hope the last days of the year bring peace to you and yours.
1 big thing: How we talk to each other about the tough stuff

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

2020 brought unprecedented challenges for millions of people, but how we talk about our distress, pain and problems can help us cope.

Why it matters: Conversation "partners help, collaborate and validate us as we try to put into words what in some ways are unspeakable difficulties," says Denise Solomon, who studies interpersonal communication at Penn State University.

  • "It’s really critical in these extreme non-normative situations we are in.”

The big picture: Some researchers are calling for neuroscientists and communication scientists to collaborate in studying our conversations to more precisely understand what happens in our brains when we interact and try to support one another.

How it works: Supportive conversations can relieve stress and improve our emotions.

But the content of a conversation is key.

  • In a study earlier this year, Solomon and her colleagues presented married adults who had a disagreement with hypothetical messages from a confidant.
  • Messages that minimized someone's feelings in some cases led people to report feeling angry and to display reactance, which can occur when someone feels their ownership or control of the situation is threatened.

How a conversation unfolds is important, too.

  1. The first part should involve a lot of questions, says Solomon, and not trying to interpret or share one’s own experience. One of the most beneficial things is to “give people the opportunity to tell their story in their own words,” says Solomon.
  2. "As we get further into the conversation — in some ways when the discloser stops saying new things — then we move from reflective to interpretive," says Solomon. Here, she says, the goal is to guide someone to a new appraisal of their stressful experience. For an exhausted health care worker, it may be saying, "I’m glad you can talk to the families because you can do so with compassion," Solomon offers.
  3. The last phase is where one can most effectively offer advice or talk about their own experience, she says.

But it's important to listen because advice often isn't what people are looking for, says Amanda Holmstrom, who studies interpersonal communication at Michigan State University.

The flip side: There's a lot of pressure on the listener, but the teller plays an important role. "Disclosers have to be willing to tell their story and be receptive to the help even recognizing their experience may be so specific and extreme that no one else has ever experienced it," says Solomon.

  • The catch: “We’re not very good at it. Part of it is that there isn’t a simple set of messages,” says Solomon.

One potential pitfall: Conversations can devolve into rumination and co-rumination. We can get stuck in these "cul-de-sacs," as Solomon describes them, and "never get past this mutual telling of our distress to where it is reflective and ultimately put into a broader perspective."

Context: Neuroscientists have long studied our social brains — through the lens of empathy, morality and other processes — often by looking at one brain's neural activity during different interactions.

  • But one person's response will affect the other's, whether in nonverbal communication like seeing fear in someone's face or in conversations, says Chris Frith, a professor emeritus at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London who uses brain imaging to study social interaction.

What to watch: Holmstrom and her colleagues propose in a new paper that interpersonal communication scientists could benefit from neuroscience tools to look at the simultaneous brain activity of two people engaged in conversation.

  • "It may allow us to tap into important things people can’t articulate," says Holmstrom.
  • And communication science could offer neuroscience some theories about brain interactions, they propose.

The bottom line: "Collaboration is critical," says Frith. "We have vast amounts of data but not enough theory to understand it."

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
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Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

"The pace of new coronavirus infections leveled off over the past week, but the nationwide caseload is still dangerously high," Axios' Sam Baker and Andrew Witherspoon report.

The first doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine were given in the U.S. on Monday, as the country passed more than 300,000 deaths from the virus.

FDA scientists reported Moderna's vaccine is safe and "highly effective." The agency meets today to consider granting it emergency authorization.

"Shipping a coronavirus vaccine is a similarly delicate dance" to distributing Dippin' Dots, Maddie Bender writes in breaking down the cold shipping process for Popular Science.

The FDA gave an over-the-counter at-home COVID-19 test the green light for emergency use. Axios' Bryan Walsh looks at what rapid, at-home tests mean for controlling the pandemic.

3. China's Moon rock samples are back on Earth

China's Chang'e-5 spacecraft gathering a sample on the Moon. Photo: China National Space Administration/AFP via Getty Images

A capsule containing Moon rocks collected from the lunar surface by China's Chang'e-5 mission has been found in Inner Mongolia, Axios' Miriam Kramer reports.

Why it matters: China is just the third nation to return lunar samples to Earth, after the U.S. and former Soviet Union.

Details: The rock samples were taken from Oceanus Procellarum, an area thought to be hundreds of millions of years younger than the Apollo sites.

  • By analyzing these lunar rocks back on Earth, scientists will be able to get a more clear picture of the evolution of the Moon.
  • The Chang'e-5 mission comes on the heels of other robotic Chinese missions to the Moon, including the 2019 Chang'e-4 mission, which became the first to operate on the far side of the Moon.

The big picture: These kinds of sample return missions are beneficial for scientists because the kind of analysis that can be done on Earth is far superior to the science that can be performed by rovers or orbital missions taking photos — labs on the planet are just more powerful.

  • Japan just returned a sample of an asteroid to Earth for analysis, and NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission sampled a different asteroid, with plans to return its sample in 2023.
4. Worthy of your time

The new history of the Milky Way (Charlie Wood — Quanta)

A Bolivian "cloud forest" reveals a bonanza of new species (Eric Niiler — Wired)

AI weighs in on debate about universal facial expressions (Lisa Feldman Barrett — Nature News)

Profit and loss: America on dialysis (Carrie Arnold — Undark and Scientific American)

5. Something wondrous

Red squirrel pups. Photo: Erin Siracusa/University of Exeter

The benefits of having long-term neighbors, even if they aren't related, abound for territorial red squirrels, according to new research.

Why it matters: The finding helps to disentangle how cooperation evolves — a key question in evolutionary biology.

The research highlights that "the well-known benefits of stable social relationships for survival and reproduction — which we normally study in group-living species — can extend even to “solitary” species that like to stay apart from each other," Gerald Carter, an evolutionary biologist at Ohio State University who wasn't involved in the study, said in an email.

What they did: Erin Siracusa, who led the research as a graduate student at the University of Guelph, used 22 years of data for 1,009 squirrels collected as part of the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, which has been monitoring the same population for three decades

  • Earlier work found squirrels in established social systems are less likely to invade and steal each other's food.
  • In the new study, published today in Current Biology, the researchers looked at the benefits of this cooperation.

What they found: Squirrels with more familiar — i.e., longer-term — neighbors were more likely to survive from one year to the next and have more pups. (It's unclear how they are cooperating — for example, whether they are sharing food, nests or warning their neighbors of invaders.)

  • The study suggests the "fitness benefits of having repeated interactions with the same individuals are more important than associating with kin," says Carter.
  • The advantages of living near kin could be operating at a different scale though, says Siracusa.

The intrigue: The benefits appeared even greater for older squirrels. Those that kept the same neighbors from one year to the next actually increased their probability of surviving.

Yes, but: Only a handful of older squirrels maintained their neighbors to the following year, says Siracusa.

  • "But it opens up the interesting possibility in other systems and species that social relationships can have effects on aging."
  • Siracusa, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter, is studying how social relationships affect the aging process in macaques.

A life lesson: Nature has been depicted as "red in tooth and claw," and solitary squirrels can certainly compete. But, Siracusa says, "just because they are in competition doesn’t mean they don’t do better sometimes when they work together. "