The Dark Side of Smart Devices

Have you ever tried to eat ten ice creams in a row? Too much of a good thing can make you sick. Excessive amount of vitamins creates an adverse reaction in the body. Too much sun is bad for your skin. If you eat too many strawberries, it’s bad for your stomach. It’s exactly the same with smart devices. They simplify our lives and provide us with data really quickly… all the while taking over our mind for exchange.

So, what’s the problem? Well, our brains like new input. Novelty is an important learning signal for the brain, because when an organism faces something the brain couldn’t foresee (something new!), it’s time to update brain’s model of the world. The brain has a trick to make sure learning new stuff works efficiently: novel input automatically leads to a pleasure sensation. This pleasure signal enhances learning and hence ensures that the novel aspect of the world is memorized. Smart devices offer plenty of novelty so they bring lots of pleasure, too. Each move of thumb on the smart device brings new input to the screen and hence causes small pleasure signals in your brain. The trouble is that in the brain pleasure always brings the risk of addiction.

Although smart devices bring us pleasure, too much of anything is not good for you. Photo credit: Hamza Butt /

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Sugar Sweet Science at the University of Tartu

In the Department of Botany, there are two very sweet days every year. On those days, researchers and students drive to a meadow near Ahja River, bringing 250 kilograms of sugar with them, and spread it to the soil following a specific methodology. They have been doing it for 15 years already as part of one of the longest running plant experiments in Estonia, to study the effect of soil fertility on plant growth and biodiversity.

Every year, about 50 buckets (500 kg) of sugar is added to the meadow. Photo credit: Riin Tamme

15 Years and 8 Tons of Sugar

Just imagine – during the last 15 years nearly 8 tonnes of sugar have been added to the meadow. It might seem wasteful but the scientists of the Department of Botany have a good reason for using sugar in a plant experiment. Since sugar is a carbon compound it can be used to change soil fertility, and study its impact on plant diversity.

When plant diversity decreases – something that is happening right now worldwide – it damages the whole ecosystem: biochemical cycles, other living organisms and humans as well. In order to conserve or restore plant diversity, scientists have developed ways to study how environmental factors affect plant diversity. One of those research methods involves changing soil fertility by adding a source of carbon or fertilizer to the soil.

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Yuxuan Chen: Estonian Small Cities Give Me a Peaceful Feeling

This blog post was originally published in the Multicultural Estonia website, compiled by the international students from the Johann Skytte Institute of Political Studies. 

Two years ago she moved to Estonia from China to enroll in the EU-Russia masters programme, a year and a half ago she married an Estonian, and today she works full time. Close to the end of her MA degree, Yuxuan’s life is divided between study, family and work. She can combine all of them without a problem, and she is excited about her future in the small city of Tartu, especially if compared to Beijing.

Yuxuan came to Estonia for the first time as an exchange student during her bachelor’s studies. At that time she was studying English Language and Literature, but the University of Tartu offered her a wide range of courses from various faculties, allowing her to choose as many classes as she could handle. Thanks to this opportunity, she frequently visited the faculty of social sciences, and eventually found the EU-Russia studies programme, to which she decided to apply.

The moment when Yuxuan and her coursemates knew their defence results and were celebrating with their professors. Yuxuan is in the middle of the photo. Photo from a personal archive.

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The impact of Facebook (groups) on political discussions

The essence of human beings, biologically and psychologically has not changed much throughout the past 50 000 years. On the other hand, during the same time, we have changed our own world dramatically – from inventing agriculture to the industrial revolution and the creation of the Internet.

The way we have been adapting to these changes (as we can’t change our biology and psychology) has been through social and political institutions. Institutions are, quoting from Samuel P. Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour” – in essence, the rules that shape human behaviour. So, every time the world changed, be it because of changes in climate or in technology or something else, humans have changed their institutions to adapt.

Martin Noorkõiv is the former President of the Student Council of the University of Tartu and currently the CEO of Domus Dorpatensis. Photo: Argo Ingver

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Where Do Our Everyday Habits Come From?

Why do we shake hands with other people when we meet? What is the origin of the knowledge that you have to finish your plate? Why do we take off our shoes when entering a living room, although putting them back on and tying the laces is really tedious and wastes our precious time? What is the origin of all the deeply rooted gestures, bodily movements, and customs we follow every day?

Art Leete, Professor of Ethnology at the University of Tartu, explains that no one really knows where some customs have come from: “This is the beauty of culture. Only tentative opinions exist about influences. People don’t make decisions about changing their customs at meetings. These things have just developed to be the way they are.”

From Knights to Politeness

In the Medieval Period and even a little later, politeness was a quality that was attributed solely to knights, as they constituted the higher social class. Many customs that are essential to modern etiquette come from the everyday life of the knights. For example, shaking hands while greeting someone, as well as tipping one’s hat, are thought to be from these old times. Showing a hand without a weapon or raising the visor of one’s armor were signs that the person came in peace, without aggressive intentions.

In the Middle Ages, showing a hand without a weapon meant you did not come with aggressive intentions. Photo credit: Chris-Håvard Berge / Flickr Creative Commons

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Hannah Schaper: Stay Curious and Show Initiative

During the hectic weeks leading up to the thesis submission and defence, I hardly realised that my time as a degree seeking student here at the University of Tartu is indeed coming to an end. Writing this blog post now, I begin to understand what I have experienced and learned during my time as a student here and in what follows, I would therefore like to share with you some of the best moments I’ve had during my two years of being an international degree seeking student at the University of Tartu, and how these moments changed me as a person.

IRRS students

After the thesis defences of the International Relations and Regional Studies programme in front of the Johan Skytte Institute. Photo credit: Maili Vilson.

Studying at the Johann Skytte Institute of Political Sciences

Needless to say I learned a bunch. My studies certainly made up the core of my student experience here in Tartu and I particularly enjoyed my programme’s flexibility as it allowed me to focus both on International Relations as a discipline as well as on a region of my choice. Apart from the fact that I know substantially more about the topics of International Relations and the post-Soviet space as a region than before starting my MA degree, studying here in Tartu has really helped me grow not only on an academic, but also on a personal level.

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Nicholas Vandrey: Visiting Tartu Is Like Taking a Vacation

Without a doubt, the first question I’m asked when meeting new people is, ‘Where are you from?’ That one is easy – I’m from Texas. Then, almost without fail, they’ll ask me how I ended up in Estonia. That one is a little more difficult to answer. Growing up, I had the opportunity to live in several countries and visit many more. I came to Estonia for the first time when I was 16. I spent three weeks in Tallinn, Tartu, and the countryside. While I had no immediate intentions of moving to Estonia, the tranquility of the countryside left a lasting impression. Despite the prevalence of WiFi in Estonia, it was a rare opportunity to disconnect. I also found out saunas were a thing, and that was pretty incredible.

Nicholas Vandrey – successful alumni of Business Administration programme at University of Tartu.  Photo from a personal archive.

It wasn’t until nearly two years later that found myself considering relocating to Estonia more permanently. I was preparing to graduate from high school in Texas without any concrete plan of what I wanted to do next. I had already applied to a few universities in the US, and had even accepted a spot at one of them (it might be relevant to note that universities generally require a commitment by May, about a month before admission results in Tartu are announced.) A friend pointed out to me that the University of Tartu had begun offering a bachelor’s program in Business Administration in English. I applied and got my acceptance notification a few months later while at the orienteering event for the university I had already committed to. One awkward email to the administration of the other university and a few weeks later, I was on a plane back to Estonia.

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