Unplugged holidays could soon become a big part of the tourism industry, as workers increasingly opt to spend their annual leave with a "digital detox".

Researchers at Australia's James Cook University studied how the portrayal of digital-free tourism - where internet and mobile signals are either absent or digital technology use is controlled - is changing.

One of the researchers, Professor Philip Pearce, said digital "black hole" resorts had become popular luxury vacation choices in the United Kingdom and North America, and "digital detoxing" holidays are new selling points for many isolated island destinations.

"There is recognition in the industry of the 'new escapism', where people not only want to stay away from the physical home environment, but also to disconnect from the digital world of routine work and social life," he said.

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The researchers analysed media references over the past decade.

"The first references we found on the topic of digital-detox holidays were a single article from 2009 and another the next year.

"Serious media coverage of digital-free holidays started in 2011."

Pearce said the experience was first offered as an up-market product targeting the high-end travel market.

"By 2016 and in 2017 though, there was a change of emphasis, with digital-free holidays going from a niche product to one appealing to a broader consumer base."

Yet it was still a small market.

"It's not yet clear if this kind of tourism will be profitable for many commercial operators.

"We only know there has been a rise in media coverage which may indicate a growing industry phenomenon."

Pearce expected services offered would likely expand to include temporary disconnection, alternative activities, personalised digital-free experiences and special programmes for certain groups such as a family with children or a group of work colleagues.

Why no two brains are the same

The anatomy of our brains are shaped by our own individual experiences. Photo / 123RF
The anatomy of our brains are shaped by our own individual experiences. Photo / 123RF

The fingerprint is unique in every individual: as no two fingerprints are the same, they have become the go-to method of identity verification for police, immigration authorities and smartphone producers alike.

But what about the central switchboard inside our heads?

Is it possible to find out who a brain belongs to from certain anatomical features?

A team of Swiss scientists looked at the question to find how individual experiences and life circumstances influence the anatomy of our brains.

Professional musicians, golfers or chess players, for example, had particular characteristics in the regions of the brain which they use the most for their skilled activity.

However, events of shorter duration can also leave behind traces in the brain.

If, for example, the right arm is kept still for two weeks, the thickness of the brain's cortex in the areas responsible for controlling the immobilised arm was reduced.

"We suspected that those experiences having an effect on the brain interact with the genetic make-up so that over the course of years every person develops a completely individual brain anatomy," explained Professor Lutz Jancke, a neuropsychologist at the University of Zurich.

To investigate their hypothesis, his team examined the brains of nearly 200 healthy older people using magnetic resonance imaging three times over a period of two years.

More than 450 brain anatomical features were assessed, including very general ones such as total volume of the brain, thickness of the cortex, and volumes of grey and white matter.

For each of the 191 people, the researchers were able to identify an individual combination of specific brain anatomical characteristics, whereby the identification accuracy, even for the very general brain anatomical characteristics, was over 90 per cent.

"With our study we were able to confirm that the structure of people's brains is very individual,"he said.

"The combination of genetic and non-genetic influences clearly affects not only the functioning of the brain, but also its anatomy."

The replacement of fingerprint sensors with MRI scans in the future was unlikely, however.

MRIs were too expensive and time-consuming in comparison to the proven and simple method of taking fingerprints.

Could this fern help save the planet?

The leaves of the fern Azolla filiculoides may be compared to the size of a gnat. Photo / Fay-Wei Li
The leaves of the fern Azolla filiculoides may be compared to the size of a gnat. Photo / Fay-Wei Li

A tiny fern - with each leaf the size of a gnat - may provide global impact for sinking atmospheric carbon dioxide, fixing nitrogen in agriculture and shooing pesky insects from crops.

Azolla filiculoides is a water fern often found fertilising rice paddies in Asia, but its ancestry goes much further back.

"Fifteen million years ago, Earth was a much warmer place," explained Fay-Wei Li, a plant evolutionary biologist at Cornell University's Boyce Thompson Institute.

"Azolla, this fast-growing bloom that once covered the Arctic Circle, pulled in 10 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide from our planet's atmosphere, and scientists think it played a key role in transitioning Earth from a hot house to the cool place it is today."

As Li and a team of international collaborators downloaded the plant's genetic make-up, or genome, they discovered a fern-specific gene shown to provide insect resistance.

"In general, insects don't like ferns, and scientists wondered why," said Li, noting that one of the fern's genes likely transferred from a bacterium.

"It's a naturally modified gene, and now that we've found it, it could have huge implications for agriculture."

Nitrogen fixation was the process by which plants use the chemical element as a fertiliser.

While plants cannot fix nitrogen by themselves, Li said, the genome revealed a symbiotic relationship with cyanobacteria, a blue-green phylum of bacteria that obtain their energy through photosynthesis and produce oxygen.

Special cavities in the Azolla leaf host cyanobacteria to fix nitrogen, while the plant provides sugary fuel for the cyanobacteria.

"With this first genomic data from ferns, science can gain vital intelligence for understanding plant genes," he said.

"We can now research its properties as a sustainable fertiliser and perhaps gather carbon dioxide from the atmosphere."

Why some sounds make us dizzy

Did you ever hear a certain tone that made your head spin like you'd had a few too many wines?

It's been estimated that one in 100 people around the world have a congenital inner ear condition known as semi-circular canal dehiscence, a thinning of the bone enclosing the inner ear that can lead to vertigo in response to certain sounds, changes in atmospheric pressure or coughing.

It's a condition in which a person can feel the same imbalance effects of being drunk just by hearing certain tones, even from the sound of someone's voice or a musical instrument.

Normally, the inner-ear balance and hearing organs are encased in solid bone.

But in 1929, Italian biologist Pietro Tullio discovered that a hole in that bony enclosure can cause the inner ear semicircular canals to become sensitive to acoustic sounds like a sustained tone from a musical instrument such as a trumpet, violin or piano, even a higher-pitched conversation.

This condition causes the eyes to rotate through an automatic reflex that normally would stabilise the image in the eye during head movements.

But if the signal from the ear is wrong, the eyes movements are also wrong, causing the patient to feel dizzy.

"It's very much like the feeling when they've had too much to drink," explained Professor Richard Rabbitt, of the University of Utah.

"They get dizzy, and they feel nauseous, and they can't see well and lose their balance."

Rabbitt and a team of collaborators have now shed more light on why this happens.

The effect could occur in just seconds if the right tone is played, and it could render the person dizzy for tens of seconds even after the tone has stopped.

By monitoring the neurons and inner ear fluid motion in toadfish, which had similar inner ear balance organs as humans, it was discovered that this dizzying effect occurs when the sound generates pathological fluid mechanical waves in the semicircular canals of the ear.

Normally, inner ear fluid moves when you rotate your head, and your eyes automatically counter-rotate to stabilise the image on the retina.

But when there was a pathological hole in the bone certain acoustic tones cause the inner ear fluid to pump, and as a result, the ear sent an incorrect signal to the brain that you're rotating your head when you're not.

"Your eyes will counter-rotate the wrong way, and it will look like the world is spinning," Rabbitt says.

Fortunately, surgery to repair the dehiscence can help patients, Rabbitt says, but researchers now understand the connection of how a small hole in bone can create a lifetime of debilitating dizziness for many.

"What wasn't known was the 'why?' What exactly causes the symptoms patients have?" Rabbitt said.

"This finally connects the symptoms and the dehiscence in a precise biophysical way."