Shankar Vedantam | WOSU Radio

Shankar Vedantam

It's been debated a long time: Does being part of organized religion improve your mental health? A new study finds that religion can buffer adolescents against depression.

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"Fake news" is a phrase that may seem specific to our particular moment and time in American history.

But Columbia University Professor Andie Tucher says fake news is deeply rooted in American journalism.

In 1690, British officials forced the first newspaper in North America to shut down after it fabricated information. Nineteenth-century newspapers often didn't agree on basic facts. In covering a lurid murder in 1836, two major papers in New York City offered wildly differing perspectives on the case.

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Some time ago, a couple of psychologists were having lunch together at a cafe in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. They did what millions of us do as we chat with other people. They put down their smartphones on the table next to them. The host of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast Shankar Vedantam is here to explain what happened next. Shankar, welcome.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: I am dying with suspense.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Tell me what happened. Did the phones start ringing?

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We just can't let go of some decisions. We replay them in our head and imagine alternate endings.

These sorts of looping mental videos are called counterfactuals. Northwestern University Professor Neal Roese says there's real value to wondering "if only."

"Counterfactual thoughts are generally useful for us in terms of providing a set of options that we might act upon in the future," he says. "This can lead to improvement. It can lead to learning from experience."

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Throughout history, people have sought to create utopias. Perfect societies free of defects.

Of course, not everyone shares the same vision for a utopia. Different people have different priorities. But the wishes of those with power and prestige almost always take precedence.

On this episode of the Hidden Brain radio show, we tell the story of overzealous American scientists who believed creating a utopia for some would eventually lead to utopia for all. This is a story of people who believed they were doing the enlightened thing, even if it traumatized others.

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Many people start exploring their sexuality in college. The lessons they learn about intimacy and attraction during these years lay a foundation for the rest of their lives.

"I have students who have had sex many times drunk but have never held someone's hand," says Occidental University sociologist Lisa Wade.

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In 2012, as a new mom, Maranda Dynda heard a story from her midwife that she couldn't get out of her head. The midwife told her that years earlier, something bad had happened after she vaccinated her son. One minute he was fine, and the next, he was autistic. It was like "the light had left his eyes," Maranda recalled her saying. The midwife implored Maranda to go online and do her own research. So she did.

She started on Google. It led her to Facebook groups, where other moms echoed what the midwife had said.

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