WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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Indy Lifestyle Online
DID Neanderthal man tell jokes to first-born baby rats to reduce their stress levels, or would that have been a waste of time? Last week, thanks to the continuing efforts of dedicated scientists, we came closer to tackling all aspects of that important question.

On Thursday the Mail reported research at the University of Wisconsin showing that "first-born children may be more stressed, fearful and timid than their second- and third-born siblings because they produce higher levels of a stress hormone". As the report later explained, that conclusion came as the result of experiments in which scientists frightened baby monkeys, then measured the amount of cortisol in their blood and how long they spent rooted to the spot in terror, or just cowering in a corner.

More prominence was generally given, however, to the research demonstrating that rats can laugh. The Daily Telegraph headlined it "Rats can be tickled pink too"; the Independent called them "Fun-loving rats that shriek with laughter"; and the Times unnecessarily sullied the reputation of the rodents with "Dirty rats have the last laugh on human friends". All the pieces referred to a report in New Scientist that rats emit shrieks of ultrasonic sounds and whistles when playing or when you tickle them. "These chirps, outside the range of frequencies audible to the human ear, have been detected before," the Times told us. "But most researchers thought they were linked with a distress signal, aggression or a prelude to sex."

So something that had been seen as a sign of distress is now viewed as the opposite. The confusion may well be explained by another of last week's research reports, "Stress? It's hardly worth the worry", in Tuesday's Mail. The piece quoted Dr Rob Briner, the head of Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck College, who said: "People seem to have the expectation of being constantly happy - and when they're not, they say they are under stress." Criticising self-appointed stress-management counsellors, he said: "What stressologists have created is a kind of psychological hypochondria."

What with tickling rats, frightening monkeys and curing imaginary stress, it's amazing that psychologists have time for more mundane chores, but last week's news revealed two other part-time jobs for them. On Thursday, under the headline "Drama group finds captive audience ready", the Telegraph reported on the antics of an experimental theatre company who are going to "kidnap two members of the public off the streets, keep them hostage for 48 hours, verbally abuse them and deprive them of most comforts" in the name of art. The victims will be chosen from almost 400 people who have already volunteered for the ordeal. And as the report makes clear: "Qualified psychologists will be on hand in case the victims become agitated." Volunteers may, when they put their names forward, pay an extra pounds 12, on top of the registration fee of pounds 10, to be allowed a hot bath, and pounds 10 for a bedtime story.

The Mirror, however, found a more fulfilling job for a psychologist. In a piece headed "But will he still like me in the morning, doc?," Carole Aye Maung reported on her date with Dr Patrick McGhee, "Britain's first dating coach". As Ms Maung explained, he came from the Manhattan Agency "First Impressions Inc", and his job, as a psychologist, "is to improve my chances of snaring an eligible bachelor. Or rather, as I'm competing with the UK's 4.3 million other single women, any bachelor". They met for lunch on a simulated date, and he told her what she was doing wrong. He liked her dress but thought she shouldn't have had the lamb shank. "It'll be difficult to cut and you'll splash gravy everywhere." It's also a good idea to tell the waiter what a good time you're having.

Whether Neanderthal bimbos could have chatted up the waiter while having dinner with their psychologists is an open question, but it now seems possible, thanks to research reported on Wednesday. "The much-maligned Neanderthal man may have sung to himself as he went out hunting," the Mail told us. "And later, there may have been talk over dinner as they feasted on an exotic diet of grilled tortoise, whale meat, shellfish and rabbit, served with olives, tomatoes, pistachio nuts and hazel nuts." Those conclusions are drawn from research on fossilised skulls in North Carolina, which revealed that the Neanderthals had the same bony canal that now carries a nerve essential to speech. The Daily Telegraph said that: "Neanderthals may have had tongues nimble enough to recite Shakespeare". Yet without any fossilised restaurant bills or theatre tickets, it's difficult to take any of this too seriously. The Mail, however, supported the picture of cultured Neanderthals, quoting "recent research" as showing that they "were sophisticated hunters who crafted primitive flutes, made jewellery and cared for elderly relatives. There were also probably the first Europeans to fish in the sea".

Ah, but did they drink white wine with their fish? If not, then the week's most useful scientific finding might also have been relevant in their time. "Plonk goes that old wine rule on 'breathing'," said the Mail. "Take it as red: You don't need to open a bottle hours before it's drunk," announced the Evening Standard. Both were reporting a splendid piece of research done by two doctors to resolve an argument at the annual meeting of the American Lung and Thoracic Association in Chicago. The question was: is it better to let red wine "breathe" before drinking. Dr Pier Agostoni of Milan and Dr Nirmal Charan of Idaho together opened five bottles of cabernet, took samples of the wine, then let it sit, and took more samples after two, four, six and 24 hours. "They concluded," the Standard said, "that the bottle opening is so small that letting the wine stand uncorked barely affects the taste. The oxygen level went up, but the carbon dioxide level hardly changed." Some wine experts, however, disagreed. "It's been experimentally and scientifically proven," said Randall Graham, owner of a Californian winery. "The problem is, they are wrong."

Other things scientists might have been wrong about last week include: "Life-saving pig organs in five years" (Express); "Cancer pill in five years" (Mirror); and "No more fillings in five years" (Sun). Funny how scientific promises used always to be "within the next 10 years", but now it's five. It's the pace of modern life, I suppose.

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