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Saturday, April 5, 2008

A New Trial of Motherhood: Keeping Up With the Diagnoses

By Linda Keenan

When I meet a mother these days who does not have a child in occupational or physical therapy, I have the urge to shake her violently, maybe slap her, and say, "Are you mad, woman? Don't you know that something is wrong with your child?! Don't you care about Seamus/Suri/Maeve/Shiloh (take your pick)?"

OK, that was a joke, but it goes to the dilemma I've faced over the past 6 months. I had to decide whether to "label" my child, something that caused a bit of family strife and internal conflict. I came to the conclusion that, like it or not, the new normal of childhood is abnormal. And I found my near 40-year-old self caving to peer pressure, like an insecure teenager at a beer pong party.

My toddler has always been tightly wound and when he began preschool the director made it clear within two days she thought something was wrong with him. (Back story: at 3 years old, he had never been in any childcare, and because we are sadly lacking in grandparents or family close by, my son had never been in the care of anyone other than his parents. And I mean no one, not once, ever.) When pressed, the director used the phrase “Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified,” and then tried to console me about this by saying "all of us could be diagnosed with something!"

At home minutes later, furious googling ensued, showing PDD to be on the autism spectrum. Since you can see that I am splaying out this sorry saga for perfect strangers to read, you might suspect that I am not one to suffer through problems silently. After I got this news from the preschool director, I proceeded to tell everyone I knew about it, and even people I didn't know, like my unsuspecting seat mates at Starbucks.

The first thing I noticed was the stark generational difference. Anyone over the age of 50 (including a close relative) believed strenuously that we had medicalized every normal trait of childhood, that "rambunctious" had become ADD, that "sassing back" had become Oppositional Defiant Disorder, that "shy" and "nervous" had become mild autism, "sensitive" had become Sensory Integration Disorder, "awkward" had become Asperger's, "klutzy" had become a gross motor deficit. And they believed that medicalizing the natural diversity of child behavior was one step away from medicating the child, which they viewed as an unmitigated travesty (their view, not mine).

The second thing I realized was that among the parents I knew, well over 50 percent had their child in some form of therapy (I counted), hence my assertion that the new normal was in fact abnormal, a claim that would certainly make a statistician's head spin.

So it was with these competing impressions that I entered the evaluation process with our public school district. Frank was not found to have PDD, but rather a fine motor deficit and also a lack of "body awareness" (known to the pros as proprioception), which, in the evaluators' eyes, explained an array of seemingly disparate behaviors.

Did I believe any of it? Without question, I knew my son was well behind on fine motor skills. As for proprioception, well, I'm not sure I buy it. I'm not saying there aren't behavioral challenges for my son (which, by the way, have greatly improved after six months of school), but I'm not positive that lacking body awareness is at the root of them all. I should also say that my natural contrarian inclination would lead me to side with the older generation, who think we run the risk of turning borderline quirks into maladies.

But here's the ruthlessly honest truth of how I decided what to do. I did something because everyone else was doing it; I was undeniably a lemming. I chose to accept therapy and the attendant label because, frankly, more than half of my friends or acquaintances had done the same (even the ones like me who view the labels for marginal problems as faintly absurd).

I felt as if my son would be at a disadvantage if he did not get the therapy offered by the school district. I wish I could say my decision-making had more integrity. Maybe I can blame my lack of spine on my (diagnosed) pre-menopausal anxiety disorder. I just hope my son doesn't one day read this. I can hear myself saying to my rebellious teenager, "well, if everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?" And his answer, rightly, would be "well YOU did, Mom!"

Linda Keenan is a contributing writer at Burbia. Linda worked 7 years as a head writer/senior producer for various programs on CNN. Before that she worked as a writer/producer for Bloomberg TV. She now writes satire, primarily about parenting culture, at Thoroughly Modern more rants

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(Video) Method for Toddlers to Save Themselves from Drowning

This is a very scary video for any parent to watch. More information about the ISR program mentioned can be found below the video.

From the Web site:

“Welcome to Infant Swimming Resource - South Mountain with Certified ISR Drowning Prevention Specialist Casey Bunn.

ISR is the most comprehensive drowning prevention program. As a part of ISR, Casey Bunn is dedicated to the eradication of the drowning epidemic facing our children.

The ISR mission is to get to the next child before that child gets to the water. The reality of infant and child drowning is that, in most cases, it is a preventable tragedy.”

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9 things to stop worrying about right now

From eggs raising cholesterol to cold weather giving you a cold, Health magazine busts the biggest health myths out there.

Myth #1: Drink eight glasses of water a day
In 1945, the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board told people to consume eight glasses of fluid daily. Before long, most of us believed we needed eight glasses of water, in addition to what we eat and drink, every day.

The truth: Water's great, but you also whet your whistle with juice, tea, milk, fruits and vegetables — quite enough to keep you hydrated. Even coffee quenches thirst, despite its reputation as a diuretic; the caffeine makes you lose some liquid, but you're still getting plenty.

Contrary to common belief, urine color is not a great sign of dehydration, says Rachel Vreeman, MD, a fellow in Children's Health Services Research at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis: "If you're thirsty, you should drink." But don't overdo it. Drinking too much can lead to hyponatremia, in which sodium levels fall, causing an electrolyte imbalance that can make you very sick.

Myth #2: Stress will turn your hair gray
The carpool, the spilled milk, the deadlines. Who doesn't believe that stress can shock her locks?

The truth: "Too much stress does age us inside and out," says Nancy L. Snyderman, MD, chief medical editor for NBC News and author of "Medical Myths that Can Kill You." It ups the number of free radicals, scavenger molecules that attack healthy cells, and increases the spill of stress hormones in your body. So far, though, no scientific evidence proves a bad day turns your locks silver. "We gray according to genetics," she says. And, let's face it, when you do get those gray strands, hair products make covering them a cinch.

Myth #3: Reading in poor light ruins your eyes
It's the common-sense refrain of mothers everywhere — reading under the covers or by moonlight will ruin your eyesight.

The truth: "Reading in dim light can strain your eyes," Snyderman explains. "You tend to squint, and that can give you a headache. But you won't do any permanent damage, except maybe cause crow's-feet."

Your overtired eyes can get dry and achy, and may even make your vision seem less clear, but a good night's rest will help your peepers recover just fine.

Myth #4: Coffee's really bad for you
Surely something 108 million Americans crave so much each morning couldn't possibly be good for you? Wrong.

The truth: Too much may give you the jitters, but your daily habit has a lot of positives. "Coffee comes from plants, which have helpful phytochemicals that act as antioxidants," says Stacy Beeson, RD, a wellness dietitian at St. Luke's Boise Medical Center in Boise, Idaho. One set of antioxidants appears to increase insulin sensitivity, which might explain a lowered risk of type 2 diabetes in people who sip java. A Harvard study of more than 125,000 coffee drinkers found that women cut their risk of type 2 diabetes by 30 percent. Other studies suggest that coffee cuts the risks of Parkinson's disease, colon cancer, cirrhosis and gallstones. Drinking joe gives your brain a boost, too. And, despite the jolt of energy it provides, coffee has no effect on heart disease.

Two to three cups a day is fine for most people, Beeson says. But if you take your coffee with a racing heart, anxiety, or wide-eyed nights, cut back or switch to decaf. If you're pregnant or low on calcium, talk to your doc about the best brew for you.

Myth #5: Feed a cold, starve a fever
The old wives' tale has been a staple since the 1500s when a dictionary master wrote, "Fasting is a great remedie of feuer."

The truth: "Colds and fevers are generally caused by viruses that tend to last 7 to 10 days, no matter what you do," Vreeman says. "And there is no good evidence that diet has any effect on a cold or fever. Even if you don't feel like eating, you still need fluids, so put a priority on those." If you're congested, the fluids will keep mucus thinner and help loosen chest and nasal congestion. A little chicken soup spoons in some nutrients, as well.

Myth #6: Fresh is always better than frozen
Ever since scientists honed in on the benefits of antioxidants, the mantra has been "eat more fresh fruits and veggies" — implying that frozen is second-rate.

The truth: "Frozen can be just as good as fresh because the fruits and vegetables are harvested at the peak of their nutritional content, taken to a plant, and frozen on the spot, locking in nutrients," Beeson says. "They aren't trucked far distances to sit on grocery shelves." And, unless it's picked and sold the same day, produce at farmers' markets — though still nutritious — may lose nutrients because of heat, air, and water.

Myth #7: Eggs raise your cholesterol
In the 1960s and 1970s, scientists linked blood cholesterol with heart disease — and eggs (high in cholesterol) were banished to the chicken house.

The truth: Newer studies have found that saturated and trans fats in a person's diet, not dietary cholesterol, are more likely to raise heart disease risk. (An egg has only 1.6 grams of saturated fat, compared with about 3 grams in a cup of 2 percent milk.) And, at 213 milligrams of cholesterol, one egg slips under the American Heart Association's recommendation of no more than 300 milligrams a day. "Eggs offer lean protein and vitamins A and D, and they're inexpensive and convenient," Beeson says. "If you do have an egg for breakfast, just keep an eye out for the amount of cholesterol in the other foods you eat that day."

Myth #8: Get cold, and you'll catch a cold
It must be true because your mother always said so. Right?

The truth: Mom was wrong. "Chilling doesn't hurt your immunity, unless you're so cold that your body defenses are destroyed — and that only occurs during hypothermia," Vreeman says. "And you can't get a cold unless you're exposed to a virus that causes a cold." The reason people get more colds in the winter isn't because of the temperature, but it may be a result of being cooped up in closed spaces and exposed to the spray of cold viruses. Staying warm may not prevent a cold, but staying cheerful might. A study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh says positive people exposed to cold viruses have a 13 percent lower risk of getting a cold than gloomier souls.

Myth #9: Your lipstick could make you sick
In 2007, an environmentalist group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, had 33 lipsticks tested for lead. Although there's no lead limit for lipstick, one third of the tubes had more than the limit allowed for candy. That started a scare that spread like wildfire.

The truth: "The reality is that lead is in almost everything," says Michael Thun, MD, head of epidemiological research for the American Cancer Society. "It's all around us. But the risk from lead in lipstick is extremely small." In fact, lead poisoning is most commonly caused by other environmental factors — pipes and paint in older homes, for instance. The bottom line, Thun says: The risk from lipstick is nothing to worry about.

4 big health whoppers
Most of us want to believe in "miracle" cures. But if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Weight-loss formulas
The National Institutes of Health warns against taking any drug combos sold without U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, including herbal mixes that promise big results. "The problem is that many contain stimulants and may be dangerous for people with underlying heart disease, high blood pressure, and other chronic illnesses they may not be aware of," says Marc Siegel, MD, a New York City physician and author of "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear." "And you may not know how much stimulant you're getting." It's far better to ask your doctor about FDA-approved appetite suppressants or, best of all, exercise and watch what you eat.

Arthritis fixes
Copper bracelets, shark cartilage, honey-and-vinegar mixtures, magnets. If only they would cure arthritis. But it just isn't so, Siegel says. In fact, copper can cause an allergic reaction. Although there's no cure for arthritis, rest, exercise, heat and drugs recommended by your doctor can help.

Colon cleansers
Colonics have been hawked as everything from a toxin remover to a cancer cure. But they only do what your intestinal system does already. Enemas, laxatives, or passing a rubber tube through your rectum and pumping water in and out can be expensive and dangerous. "There's no evidence that colon cleansing is necessary," Siegel says. And experts say long-term cleansing can cause anemia, malnutrition, infection, intestinal damage and even heart failure.

Alzheimer's cures
Removing silver fillings, zapping your brain with electricity, or taking smart pills won't keep your memory intact, says Stephen Barrett, MD, a retired psychiatrist who operates "Reputable drugs for slowing memory loss are only in their infancy. If brain tissue is dead, you can't revive it with something in a bottle."

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The Birth of a Brain Cell: Scientists Witness Neurogenesis

bran scan SQUARE MARKS THE SPOT: New neurons visualized via NMR spectroscopy. The methodology may allow researchers to see how young neurons behave in neurological disorders.

For the first time, researchers have developed a way to view stem cells in the brains of living animals, including humans—a finding that allows scientists to follow the process neurogenesis (the birth of neurons). The discovery comes just months after scientists confirmed that such cells are generated in adult as well as developing brains.

"I was looking for a method that would enable us to study these cells through[out a] life span," says Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, an assistant professor of neurology at Stony Brook University in New York State, who specializes in neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy that premature and low-weight babies are at greater risk of developing. She says the new technique will enable her to track children at risk by monitoring the quantity and behavior of these so-called progenitor cells in their brains.

The key ingredient in this process is a substance unique to immature cells that is neither found in mature neurons nor in glia, the brain's nonneuronal support cells. Maletic-Savatic and her colleagues collected samples of each of the three cell types from rat brains (stem cells from embryonic animals, the others from adults) and cultured the varieties separately in the lab. They were able to determine the chemical makeup of each variety—and isolate the compound unique to stem cells—with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. (NMR helps to determine a molecule's structure by measuring the magnetic properties of its subatomic particles.) Although the NMR could identify the biomarker, but not its makeup, Maletic-Savatic speculates it is a blend of fatty acids in a lipid (fat) or lipid protein.

After pinpointing their marker, the team ran two tests to determine the method's sensitivity and accuracy: First, they injected a bevy of stem cells into a rat's cerebral cortex, an outer brain layer where neurogenesis does not normally occur. They then passed an electric current through the animals' brains; electric currents induce neurogenesis in the hippocampus, a forebrain structure that is one of two sites (the other being the subventricular zone) where new neurons are believed to arise.

After performing each procedure, the team used NMR spectroscopy to capture images of the living rats' brains. There was, however, too much visual interference on the scans to find their biomarker. The researchers called upon Stony Brook electrical engineering professor Petar Djurić to help them come up with an algorithm to cut through the clutter and glean a clear picture of their target compound.

With the analytical method helping to decode their scans, they could clearly see increased biomarker levels in the cortex after a neural stem cell injection. Similarly, after the animals were given electric shocks, levels of the compound clearly went up in the hippocampus.

The team next turned its attention to humans, enlisting 11 healthy volunteers, ranging in age from eight to 35, who each spent 45 minutes in an NMR scanner. Hippocampal scans turned up more of the marker than the cortical images. In addition, the older subjects showed lower levels of the biomarker than younger ones (a finding consistent with earlier studies). "This is the first technique that allows detection of these cells in the living human brain," says Maletic-Savatic.

Fred Gage, a genetics professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., and co-author a 1998 report in Nature Medicine that announced the discovery of neurogenesis in the adult human brain, praises the new approach. "It seems that they are measuring proliferation rather then maturation based on their results," he says. "It will be important for them to knock down neurogenesis in a mouse and show that [this] signal disappears to confirm the causal link with neurogenesis."

If the new work is replicated and confirmed, it may allow for faster diagnosis and tracking of myriad psychiatric and neurological conditions. Among them: chronic depression. Study co-author Grigori Enikolopov, an associate professor of molecular biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y., showed last year that antidepressants lead to new nervous system cells, raising questions about the role these cells play in the causation of the ailment.

"Although we are only just beginning to test applications, it is clear that this biomarker may have promise in identifying cell proliferation in the brain, which can be a sign of cancer," Enikolopov says. "In other patients, it could show us how neurogenesis is related to the course of diseases such as depression, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, MS, and post-traumatic stress disorder."

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The world's weirdest museums

Was Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, haunted by the ghosts of those killed by her husband's rifles? According to a popular story, Winchester consulted a soothsayer who told her that those killed by guns (an always growing number) would be appeased if they were provided with shelter — thus the 38 consecutive years of construction which she kept up until her death at age 82.

There's nothing like a visit to a respected cultural institution to foster the sense that you've spent at least some of your vacation in an enriching way. But let's be frank — rather than taking in yet another "life of prehistoric man" tableau or exhibit on commemorative coin minting, wouldn't you occasionally like to visit a museum that's a little less ... conventional?

If you're intrigued at the thought of checking out medieval torture devices, macabre medical curiosities or a display of chamber pots through the ages, read on! We here at believe there's no shame in bypassing the orthodox for the odd — so we've compiled seven of the world's weirdest museums, offering exhibits that are frightening, humorous, skin curdling or simply bizarre. Spend some time examining our esoteric exhibition, and don't forget to share your own favorites on our message boards!

Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments: Prague, Czech Republic
Ah, the Middle Ages, when a slip of the tongue could spiral hilariously into the accused being slowly disemboweled in the public square. Prague's Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments is dedicated to depicting the means by which confessions were extracted from alleged heretics.

The visitor can cast his gaze over more than 60 morbid torture devices in a tour that takes about 45 minutes. There's even a useful tutorial on how to operate each machine (English language descriptions included). Our favorite? The Head Crusher: The chin of the accused is placed on a wooden support, a helmet is attached snugly to his head, a crank is turned and ... well, we'll let you imagine the rest. Admission: about $12.

The Museum of Bad Art: Boston, Mass.
Some would argue that defining what constitutes high art is an impossible endeavor — but Scott Wilson, the founder and "esteemed curator emeritus" of Boston's Museum of Bad Art, seems quite comfortable determining when something really and truly stinks. Wilson was inspired to create the museum after a sudden trash heap discovery of "Lucy in the Field with Flowers," an inconceivably awful work of impossible angles, colors that confuse, and indecipherable ancillary elements. From that incredible find, an idea gradually took shape, culminating in a permanent exhibit of the most offensive attempts at art.

At last count there were over 400 frown-provoking pieces in the collection, though the limited space allows only around 40 or so to be on exhibit at one time. Just a short jaunt from Boston (both the T and the local buses stop nearby), the museum is housed in the basement of Dedham Community Theatre (a working movie house) next to a men's room. Admission is free.

Three sex museums: Amsterdam, Netherlands; Paris, France; Husavik, Iceland
No European city is really complete without a museum dedicated to amorous predilection. We've selected three of particular note — a menage a trois, if you will — dedicated to the ars erotica.

The Louvre? Been there, done that. On your next trip to Paris, why not visit the Musee de l'Erotisme? Housed in a seven-story building in Quartier Pigalle — an area known for its sex shops, Moulin Rouge and back-alley tarts — the museum displays an impressive collection of erotic bric-a-brac from around the world. Offerings include South American and Asian fertility objects, displays on the history of Parisian prostitution, and rotating exhibits of modern erotic art. Admission: about $12, or $8 with advance online reservations.

Amsterdam's sex museum, or Venustempel, the world's oldest of its kind, is visited by roughly half a million titillated tourists a year, who peruse its large stash of erotica. Pieces include paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, recordings, contraptions and even private interactive viewing booths. Admission: about $5.

The Icelandic Phallological Museum, located in the small fishing village of Husavik, is a bit more specific in its focus. Housing roughly 250 phallic specimens, the museum is said to contain examples from every mammal in Iceland, many of them mounted on the walls, others in glass jars. Admission: about $7.50.

Why not enjoy all three?

Winchester Mystery House: San Jose, Calif.
Heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, Sarah Winchester kept up construction on her 160-room, 40-bedroom mansion for 38 consecutive years, an obsession that lasted until the widow's death at age 82. Was Sarah Winchester haunted by the ghosts of those killed by her husband's rifles? How could she placate the apparitions? According to a popular story, Winchester consulted a soothsayer who told her that those killed by guns (an always growing number) would be appeased if they were provided with shelter — thus the constant construction.

The sprawling Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is reminiscent of an Escher drawing, with stairs that lead to the ceiling, doors that open to blank walls, and endless oddly shaped additions — all built out of Winchester's determination to expand the building in any manner, at any cost. The result is a glimpse into the mind of an obsessive woman, with the drive and bankroll to fulfill her compulsion.

Ironically, though the house is no longer growing, it does seem that said bankroll still is —admission for the mansion tour is $23.95 (with discounts for seniors and kids).

The Mutter Museum: Philadelphia, Pa.
Staring open-mouthed at a stranger's physical oddities is usually considered rather rude, but at the Mutter Museum, unabashed staring is encouraged — nay, demanded. How could you avert your gaze from an obese corpse that somehow turned into soap?

The Philadelphia museum exhibits some 20,000 objects showcasing human health anomalies of spine-tingling variety. With unblinking eyes, you can peruse the display of 2,000 objects removed from people's throats or put your face up against the glass to see President Grover Cleveland's cancerous jaw growth. And don't miss the skeleton of a woman long accustomed to wearing a corset; the suffocating apparatus slowly altered the bone structure of her ribcage, all in the name of culturally defined beauty. (You'll never complain about underwire again!) But these odd offerings are no mere gimcrack. Collectively they seem to communicate a message of medical progress. Admission: $12, with discounts for students and seniors. Children under 6 are free.

Glore Psychiatric Museum: St. Joseph, Mo.
About an hour's drive from Kansas City, the Glore Psychiatric Museum documents the history of "State Lunatic Asylum No. 2" (only just closed in the mid 1990's). The holdings are contained in a separate, modern building, as the original asylum is now serving as a prison.

Some of the devices used to treat the insane are reminiscent of a torture museum — like a tranquilizer chair and blood-letting blades. And in a clear attempt to one-up the Mutter Museum, Glore showcases 1,446 objects of digestive intrigue — paper clips, nails, safety pins, buttons — removed from one patient's stomach and intestines in 1929 (she died on the operating table). The second floor of the building displays art created by the inmates. Admission: $3.50, with discounts for children. The price includes admission to two other local museums.

Sulabh International Museum of Toilets: New Delhi, India
"Unlike body functions like dance, drama and songs, defecation is considered very lowly." So begins a 1995 paper written by Dr. Bindeswar Pathak, the founder of this New Delhi museum as well as the Sulabh International Social Service Organization. And with 600 to 900 million people in India (as of 1995) practicing "open defecation, the subject of [the] toilet is as important if not more than other social challenges like literacy, poverty, education and employment."

Ostensibly part of a sanitation crusade, the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets follows the toilet's historical pipeline from 3,000 B.C. to the present. What began as a hole in the ground — and remains a hole in the ground in some parts of the world — has come a long way in terms of design, comfort and plumbing. The museum offers fun facts (Louis XIV purportedly used to relieve himself while holding court), examinations of toilet customs from around the world, and arts and literature (from poems to painstakingly crafted chamber pots).

Despite the museum's clear element of humor, we should note that the founder has done quite a bit of social good, providing affordable toilets for thousands in India. Admission is free, though ironically there is a charge for the public lavatory (about 2.5 cents).

Further afield
Looking for a few more odd museums to supplement your upcoming travel? Check out these other options:

The Paris Sewer Museum is located under the Left Bank. Visitors get a guided tour of a portion of the impressive system that outlines the history of the rat-infested place (the inspiration for Les Miserables). It's parallel to the Seine, so after you emerge from from the city's underbelly you can bask in the beauty of its famous river. Admission: about $6, with discounts for seniors, students and children.

Houston's National Museum of Funeral History respectfully sets out to "preserve the rich heritage of the funeral industry." A casket factory exhibit, information on the art of embalming, and various hearses round out the dignified display. There's also a funeral school on the premises. Admission: $6, with discounts for seniors, veterans and students.

If you've got a phobia of dolls or dummies, you may want to steer clear of the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky, with its impressive (if slightly creepy) collection of ventriloquist dummies. The museum hosts a yearly convention at which several hundred ventriloquists, amateur and professional, come together to celebrate their unique craft. Admission: $5. Tours must be scheduled ahead of time.

Note: All admission prices are subject to change at any time and may vary with currency fluctuations.

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Laugh Your Way to Good Health

Health Benefits of Laughing
Get those convulsions going and chuckle yourself to health.

Positive Convulsions

Kevin Lee Smith bounds to the front of the room, grabs a microphone and utters a few words. Then something comes over him: A cascade of chemical messengers in his brain throws Smith into convulsions.

For several seconds, he loses voluntary control over most of his body. His legs, arms, back and chest tense. His facial muscles squeeze upward. His stomach muscles and diaphragm spasm. His heart races. His blood pressure spikes. Someone call 911; give the man a sedative!

But Smith's audience is also experiencing the same phenomena: They are, of course, laughing.

Value of a Giggle
Laughter is so common a human experience, we forget how bizarre it is. When aliens first see us laugh, they'll think we're having some sort of fit (and they probably won't get the punch line either). Smith causes the hilarity by talking about his growing forehead: "My hairline is making a beeline for my behind." Those chemicals cascade, bodies convulse, laughter erupts.

Smith informs the audience that he's a male nurse: "Some people think it's unusual for a man to be a nurse. But there are male nurses throughout the country. Every once in a while the seven of us get together to talk about things." He teaches a course on humor and medicine at the University of Minnesota and came to this medical conference at Loma Linda University in California to argue that laughter has medical benefits. That notion is at least as old as Proverbs 17, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine" (which wasn't saying much back then, unless you liked leeches). It's also an idea that some mind-body fanatics, with more enthusiasm than medical proof, have oversold. But in the past few years, a brave group of scientists, fewer in number than male nurses, has been trying to uncover the physiology of laughter and its provable medical benefits. Foremost among these researchers is Loma Linda professor Lee Berk, PhD, who organized the conference Smith addressed and who also stands convulsing in the room.

"The jury is still out," says Robert Provine, a University of Maryland professor and author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, "and more work needs to be done." But the initial results are very encouraging. All the suggestions are that laughter is indeed good for you. So get those convulsions going and chuckle yourself to health.

Tickled Pink
Tickle laughter is a good place to start because it is, in fact, the most primal form of laughter. Or perhaps we should say the most primate form of laughter. Chimpanzees and other primates "play-fight," especially when young, and let out a rhythmic "pant-pant" that is the simian version of ticklish laughter, according to Provine, who has been studying the subject for decades.

Provine and others are convinced that laughter is deeply wired in our evolution, predating language. And its origin in tickling and play-fighting is more complicated than simple humor: We're being touched in our most sensitive (and lethal) areas, under the ribs, under the arms, under the neck. Maybe we laugh because we're pleased as punch that we're not actually getting beaten or killed. If so, we can chalk that up as laughter's first medical benefit!

So just what is this ancient phenomenon of laughter? It's a preset program that involves the entire body. If it's a joke we hear, the phenomenon starts in the auditory nerves in our ears. If it's a comic strip, the program is triggered by our eyes. When a father tickles his son, nerve endings in the boy's skin send electric impulses to the spinal cord and up, triggering a reaction in the part of our brains responsible for sensing what's going on in our muscles, joints and on our skin. Similarly, someone hearing a joke or reading a comic strip sends that information to the brain for processing.

A Natural High
Whatever the cause of a laugh, what happens next is not fully known. Scientists are actually starting to put people into functional MRI machines and make them laugh in order to find out. In a recent study at Stanford, researchers showed Bizarro comics to people while their brains were monitored by an MRI. They were able to prove for the first time that laughter (or at least humor) stimulates the parts of our brain that use the "feel good" chemical messenger dopamine. That puts laughter in the category of activities you want to do over and over again, such as eating chocolate or having sex. Dopamine systems that get out of whack can lead to addiction, says Emory University neurologist Gregory Berns. This finding explains why kids want to keep playing silly games until parents can't stand it anymore. Laughter is pleasurable, perhaps even "addictive," to the brain.

Whole Body Benefits

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the brain of someone about to laugh, the supplementary motor area executes a bunch of commands, sending signals to dozens of muscles and glands all at once. The whole business of a laugh is what scientists call "stereotyped." People may make different noises and faces, laugh at different intensities, and have a different sense of humor, but the commands human brains give out during a guffaw are a recipe followed precisely. Here's what happens throughout the body:

Face Time: When we laugh, as many as 15 small muscles squeeze our faces into a smile. Increased blood flow there may turn us a bit pinker and give us a happy glow.

Eyes Have It: If the laugh is vigorous enough, our tear ducts can activate. Sometimes our glee can have a cumulative effect till we're literally crying with joy-and studies show that tears, whether happy or sad, may reduce symptoms of stress.

Mouth Off: Of course, our mouths open to let out those "ha-ha" rhythmic blasts of vocalized air. In addition, Loma Linda's Lee Berk and others have tested the saliva of patients after laughing episodes and found that they have higher levels of disease-fighting agents called immunoglobulins. Other studies have found higher blood levels of killer T-cells, suggesting that laughter may raise our immune function.

Vocal Point: Our vocal equipment has to roll up its sleeves to produce our high-pitched hysteria. The diaphragm, a strong muscle under the lungs, pumps down and up, filling the lungs and then blasting air out of them, up through the voice box to produce the laugh. A hearty guffaw is quite a workout for this system, requiring as much effort and volume as yelling. Because the lungs are exchanging much more air than normal, they enrich the blood with oxygen.

Wrestle Your Vessels: Our heart rate and blood pressure spike briefly when we laugh (especially when laughing while wrestling). They increase a bit even when we chuckle while sitting in a chair watching a funny movie. In addition to possible immune benefits noted earlier, laughter seems to help diabetics keep their glucose levels in check.

In a recent study, University of Maryland cardiologist Michael Miller investigated the effect of laughter on the inner lining of the blood vessels, or endothelium. Yep, even that part of our body produces chemicals-good ones when it expands, bad ones when it constricts. Miller put a pressure cuff on his subjects and blew it up to restrict blood flow for a few minutes. In the meantime, the victims (I mean subjects) watched a scene from a stressful movie (Saving Private Ryan) one day, and then a scene from a funny movie (There's Something About Mary or Kingpin) another day. Then Miller released the cuff and used an ultrasound machine to see whether the blood vessel lining expanded or contracted. By significant margins, it expanded after the funny movie and narrowed after Ryan. When the blood vessel lining expands, we get a shot of good chemicals like nitric oxide (not to be confused with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas), which reduces clotting and inflammation. When the endothelium contracts, we get a shot of stress hormones like cortisol, which make our blood clot and can lead, over time, to heart disease.

Pain Reliever: Whether in our extremities or up in our brains, laughter seems to have an analgesic effect: It increases our tolerance for pain. Back in 1987, Texas Tech psychologist Rosemary Cogan used the discomfort of a pressure cuff to test another medical benefit of laughter: pain management. Subjects who had watched a 20-minute Lily Tomlin routine could tolerate a tighter cuff than those who had watched an informational tape or no tape at all.

Belly Laughs: A hearty laugh can cause us to double over and tense all our major muscle groups for minutes at a time, leading Lee Berk to a simple conclusion: Laughter is exercise. He is fond of saying, "Laughter is inner jogging." The heart rate and blood pressure go up while you're laughing, but then they fall down below your baseline afterward, the same as with exercise. This could be very important exercise, Berk avers, for elderly and sick people who can't get out and run two miles.

According to Provine, early laughter researcher William Fry found that it took ten minutes on his rowing machine to elevate his heart rate to the same level provided by a good belly laugh, a finding that may have millions of Americans rationalizing their way out of the gym and back to reruns of Friends or I Love Lucy.

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Water's benefits questioned by scientists

Water_3Why are they so irritated by water?

Six years ago, scientists trashed the "eight glasses of water a day" dictum, in part because no one could figure out where it came from.

Now there's no reason to feel guilty for not hydrating during aerobics class because there's not much evidence showing that drinking "lots" of water will improve our health, according to the editorial "Just Add Water" by University of Pennsylvania researchers in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

That means excessively hydrating won't necessarily clear toxins from your system, keep organs healthy, curb hunger pains, reduce headaches and improve your skin tone, said authors Dan Negoianu and Stanley Goldfarb of Penn's Renal, Electrolyte and Hypertension Division.

"Our purpose was to relieve people of the burden that they have to drink extra water in order to be healthy," co-author Stanley Goldfarb told me. "There's no evidence of that."

But while the researchers say they wish they could "demolish all the urban myths found on the Internet regarding the benefits of supplemental water ingestion,"they never tell us what "excess" water consumption is. How much is too much?

And what they ultimately concede after reviewing the literature is that there's not enough evidence for either side: No clear data exists for a lack of benefit, either.

In the review, Goldfarb and Negoianu looked at what they consider to be "four major myths" of extra water drinking: that it helps excrete toxins, improves skin tone, reduces appetite and helps cure headaches. Here's a brief look at what they found.

  • Excrete toxins: The human body is made up of 60 percent water, so a 200-pound person consists of 120 pounds of water or 15 gallons, said Goldfarb. He contends that adding a cup of water to 15 gallons wouldn't make much of an impact.

"In fact, drinking a lot of water very quickly tends to lower blood flow to the kidney," Goldfarb said. "That actually impairs its ability to excrete toxins," he said.

But they also found that several studies reveal that drinking water does have an impact on clearing various substances by the kidney, including sodium and urea. These studies, however, do not indicate any sort of clinical benefit that might result.

  • Skin tone: Goldfarb maintains that whenever you ingest water, it's distributed equally throughout the body; there's no reason the skin would get preferential treatment. Plus we have so much skin that the possibility that a few ounces would have an effect seems unlikely and there's no evidence that this has been carefully studied.
  • Reduces appetite: Studies are inconclusive but there is a possibility that if you drink water before you eat, it would stay in the stomach--a small volume area--and suppress your appetite. But drinking water with meals didn't seem to have the same effect, and no one has looked at the possibility whether it leads to weight loss, Goldfarb said.

On the other hand, studies have shown that drinking diet soft drinks can lead to obesity. So drinking water instead of diet soda might confer health benefits.

  • Headaches: Dehydration can make you feel ill and give you non-specific headaches, but that's different from stress and tension headaches, Goldfarb said. Only one small trial (15 migraine sufferers) has addressed the question, and the researchers found participants who increased their water intake experienced fewer headaches than those who did not. To me, that sure sounded like evidence of a health benefit. But the results were "not statistically significant" according to the study.

When I asked Doctor Alexa Fleckenstein, co-author of "Health20--Tapping into the Health Power of Water" what she thought of the editorial, she agreed that water is not a cure-all.

"And I definitely abhor seeing people everywhere running around with a glass or a bottle in their hands - you never need water that urgently, at least not if you are not hiking," she told me. "Even in aerobics class drinking can wait until you are done."

But Fleckenstein, who wrote Health20 with Roanne Weisman, is a firm believer in water's healing properties and tells people to drink seven glass per day.

"Not because I have a study but precisely because there is NO study giving the exact amount - and seven is a sacred number," she said.

Moreover, we all require different amounts of water because of "different climates, different sizes, different exertion, different clothing (to name a few of the parameters)," she said.

(The average intake is about a quart a day, and most experts say to drink when you're thirsty.)

Fleckenstein says that "common sense and observations in daily life show that skin turgor is better when one drinks enough: I can always tell when my husband forgot to drink - he looks 10 years older."

She adds anecdotally:

"I found out that my ear problems during flights are much improved if I keep solidly hydrated. Other than that, the authors are right: We have no studies. Wish we had!"

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10 Reasons to Work Out That Have Nothing to Do With a Sexy Bod

Old time bicycleThe greatest challenge in developing a permanent exercise habit is finding motivation that lasts. It’s easy to get to the gym when you’re preparing for that big beach vacation or want to look great for your high school reunion. But what about the rest of the time?

For much of my life I followed a pretty consistent pattern:

  • Get a bit fat.
  • Start to hate the way I look.
  • Hit the gym with a vengeance for a few weeks.
  • Start to look noticeably better.
  • Smugly enjoy my new found vanity.
  • Lose motivation and stop working out for a few weeks.
  • Repeat from beginning.

Vanity, it turns out, isn’t a great longterm motivator for most people. It wasn’t until I associated exercise with rewards beyond physical appearance that I was able to get myself to the gym 5-6 times a week without any lapses.

To help you bring consistency and enthusiasm to your exercise schedule, here are some powerful reasons to work out that have nothing to do with looking good.

1. Testosterone

This one is mostly for the gents (sorry ladies) and it applies to weight training. Testosterone is the essence of manhood. When you lift weights and gradually increase the level of resistance, your muscles produce testosterone. This gives you the energy, stamina, and aggressiveness you need to take on the world.

On days after a big weight training work out, I’ve experience a significant increase in energy. I tend to pop out of bed (I’m usually groggy) and feel more vigorous over the course of the day.

2. Clarity and Concentration

An active body has been linked to an active mind. The more consistently you exercise, the less prone you’ll be to grogginess and lapses in concentration. As anecdotal evidence of this, my best cure for writer’s block has always been going for a long walk, run, or hitting the gym.

3. Reflection

Exercise is a time to let your mind unwind while your body does the work. Strangely, when you stop actively trying to solve a mental challenge, the solution often pops into your head. Exercise is an opportunity for your subconscious mind to put together the pieces.

4. Enjoyment

Working out needn’t be seen as a chore or obligation. There are tons of enjoyable ways to exercise. For example, if you live in a scenic area, going for a run or bike ride along a beautiful route can brighten things up. Since I moved to Los Angeles a couple months ago, running on the beach has gotten me out the door much more frequently.

Other great options include: using exercise as a chance to spend time with friends and family, playing a sport or game, striving to achieve new personal bests, week after week.

5. Cleansing

Have you ever gone a couple weeks without exercise and noticed that you begin to sweat an exorbitant amount? That’s because sweat, along with toxins, tends to build up over time. Sweating regularly through exercises removes these toxins and will help you feel more comfortable.

6. Better Sleep

Studies have shown that exercise improves sleep. I love my sleep, so this is big for me.

7. Longer Life

When you choose to exercise, you’re making an investment, not just in your present physical appearance, but in the rest of your life. People who exercise regularly live longer and stay healthier into old age. If not for yourself, consider the family members that love and depend on you.

8. Stress Relief

Exercise has also been shown to reduce stress. This is a combined result of the benefits of cleansing, reflection, and a physical outlet for frustration.

9. Superior Strength and Endurance

About 4 years ago I went through a rough stretch where I gained 15-20 pounds in only a few months. Being unfit drastically changed the way I could move my body. It threw off my balance and made everyday tasks more difficult and uncomfortable. By exercising regularly, you’ll be better able to live and act, and in the event of an emergency, seize the moment.

10. Self Confidence

The sum of all these benefits is self confidence. (And, yes, looking good will help here too.) Greater self confidence is drives success, so its value can’t be underestimated. Exercise and fitness are an enormous part of reaching your potential.

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18 Five-Minute Decluttering Tips to Start Conquering Your Mess

“Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” - Albert Einstein

I’ve written a lot about simplicity and decluttering (I can’t help it — I’m passionate about it!) and I’ve noticed that a lot of readers share my ideal of having an uncluttered home or workplace, but don’t know where to start.

When your home is filled with clutter, trying to tackle a mountain of stuff can be quite overwhelming.

So here’s my advice: start with just five minutes. Baby steps are important. Sure, five minutes won’t barely make a dent in your mountain, but it’s a start. Celebrate when you’ve made that start!

Then take another five minutes tomorrow. And another the next day. Before you know it, you’ll have cleared a whole closet or a room and then half your house and then … who knows? Maybe before long your house will be even more uncluttered than mine. We’ll have a challenge!

For those who are overwhelmed by their clutter, here are some great ways to get started, five minutes at a time.

  1. Designate a spot for incoming papers. Papers often account for a lot of our clutter. This is because we put them in different spots — on the counter, on the table, on our desk, in a drawer, on top of our dresser, in our car. No wonder we can’t find anything! Designate an in-box tray or spot in your home (or at your office, for that matter) and don’t put down papers anywhere but that spot. Got mail? Put it in the inbox. Got school papers? Put it in the inbox. Receipts, warranties, manuals, notices, flyers? In the inbox! This one little change can really transform your paperwork.
  2. Start clearing a starting zone. What you want to do is clear one area. This is your no-clutter zone. It can be a counter, or your kitchen table, or the three-foot perimeter around your couch. Wherever you start, make a rule: nothing can be placed there that’s not actually in use. Everything must be put away. Once you have that clutter-free zone, keep it that way! Now, each day, slowly expand your no-clutter zone until it envelopes the whole house! Unfortunately, the neighbors don’t seem to like it when you try to expand the no-clutter zone to their house, and start hauling away their unused exercise equipment and torn underwear when they’re not at home. Some people don’t appreciate simplicity, I guess.
  3. Clear off a counter. You want to get your house so that all flat spaces are clear of clutter. Maybe they have a toaster on them, maybe a decorative candle, but not a lot of clutter. So start with one counter. Clear off everything possible, except maybe one or two essential things. Have a blender you haven’t used since jazzercise was all the rage? Put it in the cupboard! Clear off all papers and all the other junk you’ve been tossing on the counter too.
  4. Pick a shelf. Now that you’ve done a counter, try a shelf. It doesn’t matter what shelf. Could be a shelf in a closet, or on a bookshelf. Don’t tackle the whole bookshelf — just one shelf. Clear all non-essential things and leave it looking neat and clutter-free.
  5. Schedule a decluttering weekend. Maybe you don’t feel like doing a huge decluttering session right now. But if you take the time to schedule it for later this month, you can clear your schedule, and if you have a family, get them involved too. The more hands pitching in, the better. Get boxes and trash bags ready, and plan a trip to a charity to drop off donated items. You might not get the entire house decluttered during the weekend, but you’ll probably make great progress.
  6. Pick up 5 things, and find places for them. These should be things that you actually use, but that you just seem to put anywhere, because they don’t have good places. If you don’t know exactly where things belong, you have to designate a good spot. Take a minute to think it through — where would be a good spot? Then always put those things in those spots when you’re done using them. Do this for everything in your home, a few things at a time.
  7. Spend a few minutes visualizing the room. When I’m decluttering, I like to take a moment to take a look at a room, and think about how I want it to look. What are the most essential pieces of furniture? What doesn’t belong in the room but has just gravitated there? What is on the floor (hint: only furniture and rugs belong there) and what is on the other flat surfaces? Once I’ve visualized how the room will look uncluttered, and figured out what is essential, I get rid of the rest.
  8. Create a “maybe” box. Sometimes when you’re going through a pile of stuff, you know exactly what to keep (the stuff you love and use) and what to trash or donate. But then there’s the stuff you don’t use, but think you might want it or need it someday. You can’t bear to get rid of that stuff! So create a “maybe” box, and put this stuff there. Then store the box somewhere hidden, out of the way. Put a note on your calendar six months from now to look in the box. Then pull it out, six months later, and see if it’s anything you really needed. Usually, you can just dump the whole box, because you never needed that stuff.
  9. Put a load in your car for charity. If you’ve decluttered a bunch of stuff, you might have a “to donate” pile that’s just taking up space in a corner of your room. Take a few minutes to box it up and put it in your trunk. Then tomorrow, drop it off.
  10. Create a 30-day list. The problem with decluttering is that we can declutter our butts off (don’t actually try that — it’s painful) but it just comes back because we buy more stuff. So fight that tendency by nipping it in the bud: don’t buy the stuff in the first place. Take a minute to create a 30-day list, and every time you want to buy something that’s not absolutely necessary (and no, that new Macbook Air isn’t absolutely necessary), put it on the list with the date it was added to the list. Make a rule never to buy anything (except necessities) unless they’ve been on the list for 30 days. Often you’ll lose the urge to buy the stuff and you’ll save yourself a lot of money and clutter.
  11. Teach your kids where things belong. This only applies to the parents among us, of course, but if you teach your kids where things go, and start teaching them the habit of putting them there, you’ll go a long way to keeping your house uncluttered. Of course, they won’t learn the habit overnight, so you’ll have to be very very patient with them and just keep teaching them until they’ve got it. And better yet, set the example for them and get into the habit yourself.
  12. Set up some simple folders. Sometimes our papers pile up high because we don’t have good places to put them. Create some simple folders with labels for your major bills and similar paperwork. Put them in one spot. Your system doesn’t have to be complete, but keep some extra folders and labels in case you need to quickly create a new file.
  13. Learn to file quickly. Once you’ve created your simple filing system, you just need to learn to use it regularly. Take a handful of papers from your pile, or your inbox, and go through them one at a time, starting from the top paper and working down. Make quick decisions: trash them, file them immediately, or make a note of the action required and put them in an “action” file. Don’t put anything back on the pile, and don’t put them anywhere but in a folder (and no cheating “to be filed” folders!) or in the trash/recycling bin.
  14. Pull out some clothes you don’t wear. As you’re getting ready for work, and going through your closet for something to wear, spend a few minutes pulling out ones you haven’t worn in a few months. If they’re seasonal clothes, store them in a box. Get rid of the rest. Do this a little at a time until your closet (and then your drawers) only contains stuff you actually wear.
  15. Clear out your medicine cabinet. If you don’t have one spot for medicines, create one now. Go through everything for the outdated medicines, the stuff you’ll never use again, the dirty-looking bandages, the creams that you’ve found you’re allergic to, the ointments that never had an effect on your energy or your eye wrinkles. Simplify to the essential.
  16. Pull everything out of a drawer. Just take the drawer out and empty it on a table. Then sort the drawer into three piles: 1) stuff that really should go in the drawer; 2) stuff that belongs elsewhere; 3) stuff to get rid of. Clean the drawer out nice, then put the stuff in the first pile back neatly and orderly. Deal with the other piles immediately!
  17. Learn to love the uncluttered look. Once you’ve gotten an area decluttered, you should take the time to enjoy that look. It’s a lovely look. Make that your standard! Learn to hate clutter! Then catch clutter and kill it wherever it crops up.
  18. Have a conversation with your SO or roommate. Sometimes the problem isn’t just with us, it’s with the person or people we live with. An uncluttered home is the result of a shared philosophy of simplicity of all the people living in the house. If you take a few minutes to explain that you really want to have an uncluttered house, and that you could use their help, you can go a long way to getting to that point. Try to be persuasive and encouraging rather than nagging and negative. Read more about living with a pack rat.

“We don’t need to increase our goods nearly as much as we need to scale down our wants. Not wanting something is as good as possessing it.” - Donald Horban

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The school of the future

Ørestad College is the new danish school , built around an open area that can be seen from almost every floor. It looks like a big mall.

It offers fields of study in science, social science and human science. The purpose of the college is to realize the 2005 reform’s aims to strengthen and renew the student’s professional capabilities, to prepare the students better for university and to enhance the science aspect.

The school has wireless internet everywhere and every student receives a free laptop. It even has some orange pillows for students to relax, talk , work on the computer.

This is the school of my dreams!

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"10-Table" Super Bowl Ring for Giants

The Giants have selected a design for their Super Bowl XLII championship ring, and it's certainly noticeable. Designed by Tiffany & Co., the white gold ring features three Lombardi trophies and a lot of diamonds (Tiffany also makes the Lombardi trophy). Michael Strahan wanted a "10 table ring"-- as in people would be able to see it 10 tables away (not 10 tables heavy).

Player Shaun O'Hara, who sat on the design team along with Strahan, Eli Manning, Amani Toomer, coach Tom Coughlin and Giants management, told reporters, "There was some discussion about maybe one of the rings was too big. I threw out the fact that it was a big win, it was a huge win, so the ring should be designed accordingly."

One side will have the player's name and number, plus the phrase "Eleven on the Road." The other side will say "Super Bowl XLII" with the date.

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Design & Mystique of the Japanese School Uniform

The U.K., Malaysia and Ireland have nice school uniforms, but how come Japanese school attire seemingly takes it to another level, leaving the students looking like little sailors and marching band leaders? Having worked as a public school English teacher in rural Fukushima and downtown Tokyo, I’ve been amazed by the variety of uniforms as well as the ways students customise them as far as they are allowed. PingMag shows you interesting details in fashion and the social performance that accompany this apparel to a point where the traditional Japanese school uniform has developed beyond the schoolyard and into pop culture.

By Michael Mahoney

Schools use different bows and ties, giving each school a different look, here designs by Kuri-ori. Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.


The school uniform, seifuku, in Japan started over a hundred years ago, in the Meiji period. According to the Tombow Uniform Museum, first a more formal kimono, shirt and hakama combination was selected by the Ministry of Education, to “escalate” the profile of students. Later in this era, however, as Japan began to embrace things Western, the hakama set was replaced with a black or navy gakuran jacket and slacks.
Uniform for young boys that lived as scholars with writers or politicians during Meiji Period. Courtesy of the Tombow Corporation Uniform Museum.

Totally old school! A hakama, shirt and kimono set, which the Ministry of Education recommended as the student school uniform in 1872. Courtesy of the Tombow Corporation Uniform Museum.

The gakuran, school uniform jacket, was modeled specifically after state military uniforms, which themselves emulated the uniforms of Prussian military cadets, because the Prussian Army was so strong at the time. The uniforms had a high, stiff collar and brass buttons up to the neck, kind of like “marching band leader” meets “Men in Black”… Dark slacks, belt, dark shoes and sometimes a flat, round black cap with a flat top completed the ensemble.

Sailors and Cadets

The all so familiar sailor uniform… Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.

In 1920, a women’s school in Fukuoka began to use a sailor suit uniform. It had a triangular scarf and low-cut skirt, and was modeled after the British navy uniform used at the time since the headmistress, Elizabeth Lee, apparently had lived in Britain. This also became popular because of Britain’s strength as a naval power at the time.

Despite some modifications to the seifuku over the years (as well as a move towards blazers at some schools), the basic design remains the same at many middle schools and high schools throughout Japan. However, after World War II many elementary schools stopped using uniforms altogether.

emulated after British naval uniforms. Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.

Roles of the Uniform

For students, of course, the uniform serves to link them to their schools, and reasserts their collective identity in Japanese society as students.

Accessorise! For the personal note, a shiny pin is brushing up the standard outfit. Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.

As Pierre Bourdieu has mentioned, fashion is important in giving everyone a ‘sense of one’s place. As well, since school uniforms differ between schools – in the use of scarves or black slacks, for example – the students can instantly recognise students from other schools.

Yet within the school itself, uniforms remove the messages of social and economic status carried in apparel according to a study at Southeastern Louisiana University.

One could argue that uniforms prevent students from expressing themselves through clothes. Interestingly enough, they have found ways to make their attitude or habits known through their uniforms: For example, in my schools, rebellious ‘cool’ boys often left the top buttons of their high-neck collar unbuttoned, or wore colourful belts with their otherwise all-black uniforms. Some also grow out their hair to match the latest J-Pop star (although many were forced to chop their hair short again before taking the brutal high school and university entrance examinations.)

Mass customisation! Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.

A recent PBS report similarly explained that girls often use colourful shoelaces, bright hair accessories or attach character keychains or sutorappu, charms, to their zippers. Others wear rebelliously-puffy knee-high socks, or hike their skirts up (to shocking heights) in order to identify with a particular group of people.

On a different note, the uniforms play a symbolic role for students in professing first love. Upon graduating high- or middle-school, girls will go up to their crush and ask for his dai-ni button – the second-button down on his uniform jacket. If the boy has similar romantic feelings for the girl, he will remove this button – the button closest to his heart – and give it to her…

A tie selection by the Beverly Hills Polo Club brand. Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.

Uniform Fashionistas

Golden embroidery - chic elegance by the Japanese Kuri-ori brand. Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.

Furthermore, as one Japanese student told me, for fashion-conscious parents and children, the school uniform can often be used as a fashion statement, if not a symbol of a family’s wealth or good taste. Local fashion designers such as Hanae Mori have launched their own versions of the school uniform in the past, while international labels such as Benetton have announced plans to create uniforms especially for the Japanese market.

Takeshi Tsukada of Hanae Mori Associates told me that their uniforms have been popular with parents and schools due to their traditional, classic design. “They trust her designs to be noble, not too trendy. This is a relief to the parents,” he said. He also noted that, for the school, using high-quality school uniforms were one to attract new students.

Beyond the Schoolyard

Yet, when you visit Japan, you notice the uniform - notably the girls’ sailor-suit uniform - everywhere: in comics, on billboards, on TV shows… There are even shops selling cheap knock-offs of the school uniform! Why are they so popular?

The TV series Life about a school girl’s everyday drama.

One possible reason is that, over time, these uniforms have become a nostalgic symbol of a more carefree youth. A sleepy salaryman can see a student wearing the exact same uniform he once wore, and is reminded of a happier, simpler time, when days were spent on homework and sports practice rather than at the office…

Since the uniform is THE symbol of school, comics such as the prominent Sailor Moon, games such as PaperMan or TV series such as WaterBoys or the school girl drama Life use it as a prominent theme.

A fake sailor collar from the 100 Yen shop at Takeshita Dori…

… and accompanying pigtails! So popular…

As a result of comic book characters being dressed in uniforms, we showed you before how many teenage cosplayers use imitation uniforms to remake themselves into their favourite manga characters. Catering to this market, there are the shops offering anime-style uniform costumes and chat rooms, for example one discussing how to make your own uniform.

Symbol of Beauty

As a teacher, a thing that you notice is that students – especially high school girls – wear their uniforms all the time, even on weekends, when school is out and wearing uniforms isn’t necessary. Why?

Youth as ‘brand’ in a brand-conscious society - advertisement at Yokohama station.

A New York Times article claimed that Japanese teenagers are acutely aware that, because of their youth, they are a sought-after ‘brand’ in a brand-conscious society – implying that students wear their uniforms often in order to flaunt their youth.

To test this theory, I asked around a bit. Molly Elgin, an English teacher in Fukushima, noticed high school girls in Fuku city wearing uniforms, even though their local high school did not require students to wear uniforms.

A uniform as symbol for youth. Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.

When asked why they wore them anyway, the students explained that it was considered “cute” to wear them. “The analysis on our part was that the images of school girls in uniform are so prevalent, [it] is emphasised as… the pinnacle of beauty, so the girls want to wear their uniform to fit that idealised beauty standard,” Elgin assumed.

On the other hand, Elgin also noticed that her junior high school students often wore their uniforms outside of school as well. “But for them, it was a laziness factor – it was easier” to wear a uniform, than to pick out an outfit of their own to wear, she stated.

I went around the corner of PingMag headquarters in Harajuku to a nice uniform shop. There, Shihori Hata, a clerk at Conomi School Goods Shop, said that students wear their uniforms on the weekends because they often have to go to extracurricular activities where they have to be in proper attire.

The Future…

As schools merge and student population numbers drop, the market for uniform sales companies does not look so great. Back to Takeshi Tsukada of Hanae Mori Associates. He stated that since parents are having fewer children, they are willing to spend more money on their kids’ uniforms than before – making some interesting sales opportunities for uniform manufacturers.

Student numbers drop. But since parents are having fewer children, these are willing to spend more money on their kids’ uniforms than before. Pupils at Nagatcho station.

To attract parents, companies have been adding some interesting new gimmicks to their uniforms. Tsukada recalls going to a uniform trade exhibition and seeing many new devices: a uniform skirt with an elastic snap device, which would automatically snap a heightened skirt back to a lower, more modest length; uniform slacks with a metal clip that would prevent boys from wearing their pants too low; shirttails and button openings embroidered with the school’s name so that, if untucked or unbuttoned, the uniform would reveal the school’s name – and thus embarrass the student.

A while ago, one company even started making Japanese uniform jackets equipped with a GPS system, allowing parents to locate their children at all times!

Another selection of bows for each school to choose, by Beverly Hills Polo Club brand. Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.

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