It’s time to stop scoffing at the synesthetes: linking music to colors is totally normal. It’s not really about the notes, though. Researchers say the colors we find in music are actually the colors of the emotions the music makes us feel.
Synesthetes are people whose sensory experiences overlap; they most often link letters or numbers to certain colors. Music-color synesthesia, in which hearing music triggers the colors, is rarer. In fact, when Stephen Palmer and Karen Schloss at the University of California, Berkeley, set out to do a pilot study of music-color synesthetes, they couldn’t find any. So instead they began looking at the connections between music and colors in everybody else.
As part of a larger study called the Berkeley Color Project, Palmer and Schloss included questions about music. Participants saw a grid of colors while listening to 18 brief clips of classical pieces, and chose the colors that were “most consistent” and "least consistent" with each selection.
The researchers suspected that a connection between music and color, if there was one, might be emotional. So they separately asked their 48 subjects how happy, sad, angry, calm, strong, weak, lively and dreary each piece of music was. Subjects answered the same emotional questions about each color. (If you’re the kind of person who hates attributing personality traits to color swatches, you would not have enjoyed this study.)
There were 18 music samples, representing every possible combination of 3 composers (Bach, Mozart, Brahms), 3 tempi (fast, medium, slow), and 2 modes (major or minor). The Andante movement of Bach's Brandenburg concerto in F major, for example, was Bach/major/slow.
What emerged from this sea of lively Mozart and sad burnt-orange was a clear pattern. People linked uptempo and major-key music to colors that were warmer (yellower), lighter, and more vivid. Pieces with a slower tempo or in a minor key provoked the opposite colors: cooler (bluer), darker, and less saturated.
Additionally, music that was both slow and in a major key tended to be greener. And although there wasn’t a difference between Mozart and Bach, Brahms—a Romantic composer who wrote the most recently of the three—leaned more to the slow and minor colors.
To learn whether this consistency was strictly cultural, Palmer and Schloss found a collaborator at the University of Guadalajara who wanted to repeat the experiments with Mexican subjects.
The researcher, Lilia Prada-León, “initially complained that she didn’t want to study classical music because her Mexican participants don’t listen to that music much,” Parker recalls. “She wanted to do it with mariachi bands, which we may still do sometime later.”
Despite Prada-León's hesitation, the results from her Mexican subjects fit snugly with the results from Americans. “The pattern of results for tempo, mode, and composer were remarkably similar,” the authors write.
Also similar were the emotional ratings that Mexican and American subjects gave the musical selections, as well as the colors themselves. The emotions linked to each piece of music matched the emotions linked to that music's colors. This suggests that music itself doesn't make most people think of color. Instead, music triggers emotion—and that emotion is linked to a certain set of colors in the mind. The results are published in PNAS.
Out of the eight emotions in the original list, only four were needed to explain the results: happy, sad, strong and weak. Happier and stronger colors were associated with upbeat, major-key tunes, while weaker and sadder colors were tied to slower, minor-key pieces.
So what does all this tell us about actual synesthesia?
Palmer says his group has now repeated a version of their experiments with real music-color synesthetes (after finally rounding some up). The results looked different. While non-synesthetes chose different colors depending on the tempo of a piece of music—even if it was the same musical line artificially sped up or slowed down—synesthetes didn't.
"My current opinion is that synesthetes’ color experiences arise from direct mappings from sound to color," Palmer says. In their minds, emotions don't act as the middleman. However, "non-synesthetes’ color associations are indirect and do involve emotional mediation."
But when researchers asked synesthetes to choose the colors that were most "emotionally consistent" with the music, rather than the colors they experienced in their minds, the synesthetes picked out the same colors as everyone else. Additionally, when researchers altered melodies just enough to change them from minor to major, synesthetes—like everyone else—"chose happier colors," Palmer says.
There may be some common ground after all between synesthetes and others. The two groups probably won't agree, though, on the color of the mariachi music playing there.
Images: top by tanakawho (via Flickr); bottom Palmer et al.
Palmer, S., Schloss, K., Xu, Z., & Prado-Leon, L. (2013). Music-color associations are mediated by emotion Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1212562110
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Zwischen 1821 und 1851 wurde im Königreich Württemberg die topographische Landesvermessung durchgeführt. Sie war noch vor der Annahme der württembergischen Verfassung angeordnet worden und sollte einer gerechten Besteuerung in dem 1806 erheblich erweiterten und zum Königreich erhobenen Württemberg dienen. Das Produkt war neben dem steuerrelevanten Primärkataster auch der topographische Atlas des Königreichs Württemberg, der die Messtischblätter 1:50000 umfasste. Eduard Paulus der ÄltereEduard Paulus der Ältere(Ölgemälde: Landesmus. Württemberg [Urheberrechte erloschen]; Wikimedia Commons)Einer der Mitarbeiter der Landesvermessung war Karl Eduard Paulus, geboren am 29.1.1803 in Berghausen südlich von Speyer. Er trat 1823 in das Königliche statistisch-topgraphische Bureau ein. Anfangs als Messgehilfe tätig, war Paulus bei der Erstellung mehrerer Urkarten und Atlasblätter beteiligt. 1843 wurde er zudem in das Projekt der Oberamtsbeschreibungen einbezogen. Nach und nach legte er eine archäologische Karte von Württemberg vor. 1852 konnte er die ganz Württemberg umfassende Karte im Maßstab 1:200000 auf der Tagung des Gesamtvereins der deutschen Geschichts- und Altertumsvereine in Mainz präsentieren. Es war die erste, ein Land vollständig abdeckende archäologische Karte. Da Paulus das Dreiperiodensystem nicht anerkannte, unterschied er - blau kartiert - altgermanisch (keltisch) und alamannisch (fränkisch) sowie - in rot - römisch.Paulus ergänzte die Karte in mehreren Auflagen. Die vierte Auflage erschien posthum, als sein Sohn Eduard Paulus der Jüngere Landeskonservator war. SurveymethodenMehrfach hat Paulus seine Methoden beschrieben. Die neuen topographischen Karten mit ihrer Schraffur-Darstellung des Geländes wie die genauen Flurkarten im Maßstab 1:2500 spielten hier eine zentrale Rolle, dienten sie Paulus doch einerseits zur Eingrenzung potentieller Fundstellen, zugleich aber auch der Kartierung und Dokumentation. Einzelne vor- und frühgeschichtliche Anlagen, wie beispielsweise die Viereckschanze von Fleinheim wurden bereits bei der topographischen Landesvermessung im Maßstab 1:2500 aufgenommen. Anhand der Karten definierte Paulus archäologisch interessante Situationen, die er dann beging. Die lokale Bevölkerung war ihm dabei eine wesentliche Informationsquelle (siehe Archäologen und mißrathene Genies - Tips für die archäologische Kartierung). Mit ihren topographischen Beobachtungen haben Paulus' Forschungen mehr mit einer modernen Landschaftsarchäologie gemein als mit der Kossinna'schen Siedlungsarchäologie, auch wenn auch für Paulus die Zuweisung zu früheren Völkern grundlegend war.Ausschnitt aus der topographischen Karte des Königreichs Württemberg4. Aufl., 1882Vaterlandskunde Das Projekt der topographischen und der archäologischen Ebene hängen nicht nur methodisch - die topographischen Karten als Voraussetzung zur archäologischen Kartierung - sondern auch auf der inhaltlichen Ebene zusammen: Karten und Archäologie als Elemente der Identitätsbildung.Das steigende Interesse für die Vorgeschichte hat in Deutschland sehr viel mit der politischen Situation nach der Auflösung des Alten Reiches zu tun. Der Blick in die Vergangenheit bot Ausgleich für die Gegenwart und lieferte mit seinen nationalen Untertönen Argumente für eine neue Reichsgründung.Unterhalb der "nationalen" Ebene diente eine Vaterlandskunde auch dazu, den neu geschaffenen oder vergößerten Staaten selbst eine Identität zu verschaffen. Parallel zur topographischen Landesvermessung und der von Paulus betriebenen Kartierung der archäologischen Fundstellen wurden in Württemberg weitere Vorhaben der Vaterlandskunde forciert: detaillierte Landesbeschreibungen, die zunächst die verwaltungsrechtlichen Rahmenbedingungen festgehalten hatten, aber bald schon um geologische, naturräumliche, volkskundliche und historische - einschließlich archäologische - Informationen ergänzt wurden. Ziel dieser Vaterlandskunde war unter anderem die Schaffung einer gemeinsamen Identität im neuen, gewachsenen Staat Württemberg, der nun neben den alten protestantischen Regionen auch katholische Landstriche mit einbezog. "Ohne Kenntnis des Vaterlands kann es unmöglich wahre Vaterlandsliebe geben (Memminger 1822, 2)." "Die Kenntnis des Vaterlands ist zugleich die Grundlage bürgerlicher Tüchtigkeit und fördert das staatsbürgerliche Leben. (Memminger 1822, 4f.)" LiteraturhinweisF. Kreienbrink, Mapping the Past: Eduard Paulus the Elder (1803–1878) and the Archaeological Survey of Württemberg. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 17 (2), 2007 DOI: 10.5334/bha.17202Memminger, Neuere Anstalten und Mittel zur Förderung der Vaterlandsliebe. Württembergische Jahrbücher für Statistik und Landeskunde 1, 1822, 1-71 (Digitalisat)... Read more »
Kreienbrink, F. (2007) Mapping the Past: Eduard Paulus the Elder (1803–1878) and the Archaeological Survey of Württemberg. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 17(2). DOI: 10.5334/bha.17202
Prohibition and the “tobacco control endgame.”
Despite all our efforts in recent years to reduce the percentage of Americans who smoke cigarettes—currently about one in five—the idea of full-blown cigarette prohibition has not gained much traction. That may be changing, as prominent nicotine researchers and public police officials start thinking about what is widely referred to as the “tobacco control endgame.”
Considering the new regulatory powers given the FDA under the terms of the Tobacco Control Act of 2009, as a commentary in Tobacco Control framed it, “will the government be a facilitator or barrier to the effective implementation of strategies designed to achieve this public health goal?”
Two newer approaches have gained some traction in the research community: Reduce the level of nicotine in cigarette products (the FDA is prohibited by law from reducing nicotine content to zero), and continuing to emphasize the non-combustible forms. Plus, everybody pretty much agrees on higher prices.
Here are the six arguments for going all the way:
1) Death. Six million of them a year, worldwide, a number that will grow before it starts shrinking. A billion deaths this century, compared to 100 million in the 20th Century. Robert Proctor, author of The Golden Holocaust and a professor of history at Stanford, whose six arguments these are, calls the cigarette “the deadliest object in the history of human civilization.” So there’s that.
2) Other product defects. The cigarette is defective, Proctor writes in defense of his six arguments in Tobacco Control, because it is “not just dangerous but unreasonably dangerous, killing half its long-term users.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine the FDA green-lighting a drug product like that today. In addition, Proctor claims cigarettes are defective because the tobacco has been altered by flue curing to make it far more inhalable than would otherwise be the case. “The world’s present epidemic of lung cancer is almost entirely due to the use of low pH flue-cured tobacco in cigarettes, an industry-wide practice that could be reversed at any time.”
3) Financial burdens. These can be reckoned principally in terms of the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. This, in turn, leads to diminished labor productivity, especially in the developing world, a process that “in many parts of the world makes the poor even poorer,” Proctor observes.
4) Big Tobacco’s impact on science. By sponsoring shoddy and distracting research, by publishing “decoy” findings and by otherwise confusing and corrupting scientific discourse on the cigarette question in the advertising-dependent popular media. The tobacco industry has proved to everyone’s satisfaction that it can put politicians and regulators under intense pressure to see things its way. Not to mention other institutions that have been “bullied, corrupted or exploited,” according to Proctor: The AMA, The American Law Institute, sports organizations, Hollywood, the military, and the U.S. Congress, for starters. (Until 2011, American submarines were not smoke-free.)
5) Environmental harms. More than you might think falls into this category: Deforestation, pesticide use, loss of savannah woodlands for charcoal used in flue curing, fossil fuels for curing and transport, fires caused by burning cigarettes, etc.
6) Smokers want to quit. Smoking is not a recreational drug, as Proctor takes pains to point out. Most smokers hate it and wish they could quit. This makes cigarettes different from alcohol or marijuana, Proctor insists. He quotes a Canadian tobacco executive, who said that smoking isn’t like drinking; it’s more like being an alcoholic. This rings true to for the majority of addicted smokers I know, and was certainly true of me when I was a smoker.
So there it is, the case for tobacco prohibition. But hasn’t all this prohibition business been tried and found wanting? We know the results of drug and alcohol prohibition, whatever their rationales: Smuggling, organized crime, increased law enforcement, more money. This argument, says Proctor, has been central to the cigarette industry since forever: “Bans are ridiculed as impractical or tyrannical. (First they come for your cigarettes…)”
Proctor’s response is that smuggling is already common, and people should be free to grow tobacco for their personal use. He advocates a ban on sales, not possession.
There are at least two major obstacles to cigarette prohibition. First, an enormous amount of tax revenue is generated by the production and sale of cigarettes. And the troubling question of a steep rise in black marketeering goes largely ignored or unaddressed. In the same special issue of Tobacco Control, Peter Reuter has sobering thoughts on that front: “Cigarette black markets are commonplace in high tax jurisdictions. For example, estimates are that contraband cigarettes now account for 20-30% of the Canadian market, which has restrained government enthusiasm for raising taxes further. All the proposed ‘endgame’ proposals for shrinking cigarette prevalence toward zero run the risk of creating black markets.”
In the end, Proctor argues that the cigarette industry itself has repeatedly promised to quit the business if its products where ever found to be profoundly harmful to consumers. As recently as 1997, Philip Morris CEO Geoffrey Bible swore under oath that if cigarettes were found to cause cancer “I’d probably… shut it down instantly to get a better hold on things.” Incredible statements like this by company executives go back to the 1950s. Perhaps it’s time to let them stop lying. “The cigarette, as presently constituted,” writes Proctor, “is simply too dangerous—and destructive and unloved—to be sold.”
Proctor R.N. (2013). Why ban the sale of cigarettes? The case for abolition, Tobacco Control, 22 (Supplement 1) i27-i30. DOI: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2012-050811
Photo: AAP/April Fonti
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Proctor R. N. (2013) Why ban the sale of cigarettes? The case for abolition. Tobacco Control, 22(Supplement 1). DOI: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2012-050811
DNA analysis is unearthing the origins of the Minoans, who some 5,000 years ago established the first advanced Bronze Age civilization in present-day Crete. The findings suggest they arose from an ancestral Neolithic population that had arrived in the region about 4,000 years earlier.... Read more »
Stephanie Seiler. (2013) DNA analysis unearths origins of Minoans, the first major European civilization. The University of Washington. info:/
The city of Amarna was a 17 year period of change and drama in Egypt’s ancient history. It was established as the capital city of Egypt in 1353 BC during the late 18th dynasty by Pharaoh Akhenaten. He founded the city on virgin land in order to be ”seat of the First Occasion, which he had made … Continue reading »... Read more »
Barry Kemp, Anna Stevens, Gretchen R. Dabbs, Melissa Zabecki, & Jerome C. Rose. (2013) Life, death and beyond in Akhenaten’s Egypt: excavating the South Tombs Cemetery at Amarna. Antiquity, 64-78. info:/
While the internationalization of higher education is a hot topic at the moment and is widely seen as unique to the present, internationalization of higher education is not new. The politics of internationalization at Istanbul University in the early years … Continue reading →... Read more »
Ergin, M. (2009) Cultural encounters in the social sciences and humanities: western emigre scholars in Turkey. History of the Human Sciences, 22(1), 105-130. DOI: 10.1177/0952695108099137
All it takes is an antenna on a headband. If you've got a breathless video report on the dangers of wireless internet connections, that will help your case. It doesn't take much, though, to turn an ominous hint into a real headache.
Some people consider themselves sensitive to electromagnetic fields. They report symptoms such as burning skin, tingling, nausea, dizziness, or chest pain, and they blame their malaise on nearby power lines, cell phones, or WiFi networks. A recent Slate article described such people moving to a remote West Virginia town where radio-frequency signals are banned. (The town is within the U.S. National Radio Quiet Zone, an area that's enforced to keep signals from interfering with radio telescopes there—telescopes that work because they receive the radio-frequency signals constantly hitting our planet from space.)
There's no known scientific reason why a wireless signal might cause physical harm. And studies have found that even people who claim to be sensitive to electromagnetic fields can't actually sense them. Their symptoms are more likely due to nocebo, the evil twin of the placebo effect. The power of our expectation can cause real physical illness. In clinical drug trials, for example, subjects who take sugar pills report side effects ranging from an upset stomach to sexual dysfunction.
Psychologists Michael Witthöft and G. James Rubin of King's College London explored whether frightening TV reports can encourage a nocebo effect. They recruited a group of subjects and showed half of them a clip from a BBC documentary about the potential dangers of wireless internet. (The BBC later acknowledged that the 2007 program was "misleading.") The remaining subjects watched a video about the security of data transmissions over mobile phones.
After watching the videos, subjects put on headband-mounted antennas. They were told that the researchers were testing a "new kind of WiFi," and that once the signal started they should carefully monitor any symptoms in their bodies. Then the researchers left the room. For 15 minutes, the subjects watched a WiFi symbol flash on a laptop screen.
In reality, there was no WiFi switched on during the experiment, and the headband antenna was a sham. Yet 82 of the 147 subjects—more than half—reported symptoms. Two even asked for the experiment to be stopped early because the effects were too severe to stand.
Witthöft says he expected to see a greater effect in people who had watched the frightening documentary. This wasn't the case overall. Instead, the movie mainly increased symptoms in subjects who described themselves beforehand as more anxious.
"It suggests that sensational media reports especially in combination with personality factors (in this case anxiety) increase the likelihood for symptom reports," Witthöft says.
Plenty of symptoms were reported without the sensationalist TV show, though. The antenna on the head, the researchers' allusion to a "new kind of WiFi," and the instructions to monitor their bodies closely were enough to trigger symptoms in many people who watched the other video.
Witthöft points out that his study would have been stronger if there were a third group of subjects who didn't wear the "WiFi" headband at all, but were simply told to pay attention to their bodies for 15 minutes. This kind of attentiveness might trigger symptoms on its own.
Still, Witthöft says, "I think the high percentage of symptom reports nicely shows how powerful nocebo effects are."
Though the researchers set out to show how irresponsible reports in the media can trigger a nocebo effect, they ended up showing how easy it is to make a person feel sick with just a a prop and a few choice words. Even a National Radio Quiet Zone can't protect against that.
Witthöft, M., & Rubin, G. (2013). Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling? An experimental study on idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 74 (3), 206-212 DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2012.12.002
Image: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid (via Flickr)
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Witthöft, M., & Rubin, G. (2013) Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling? An experimental study on idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF). Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 74(3), 206-212. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2012.12.002
Jean Jacques Hublin has a commentary  in the current issue of Nature, about making fossils available for scanning, digital replication, and ultimately hopefully open dissemination. As Hublin points out, it's a bit ridiculous that a fossil is a rare enough thing as it is, but even after their discovery, fossils "can become unreachable relics once they are in storage." Fortunately, Hublin goes on to point to online collections that are available to anyone interested. Somewhat ironically, the article about free-ish data is behind a paywall, so here are the resources Hublin describes:The Ditsong CT Archive, created by the collaboration of Hublin's group at Max Planck and the Ditsong (formerly Transvaal) Museum in South Africa, which contains digitized hominin fossils from the site of Kromdraai (see also ).You can download CT scans of the Skhul V early human fossil, thanks to the Harvard Peabody Museum.Wanna see the the oldest possible animal embryos, early humans, insects, and other crazy fossils? Check out the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility's microCT database.Get free CT scans of 2 human skulls, thanks to the Virtual Anthropology program at the University of Vienna.Finally, the NESPOS initiative is a large repository of Pleistocene hominin fossil scans, which I somehow don't know enough about.In addition to these sources, here are 2 other datasets that are pretty badass:As I've pointed out before, the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University has a very impressive collection of primate CT scans on their website. You can manipulate & look inside the 3D images online, and potentially download the original scans (although I've not had luck with registering with them).The American Association of Orthodontists Foundation has published several sets of X-rays from longitudinal studies of craniofacial growth. It's quite a remarkable and useful collection for both research and teaching.I haven't had much opportunity to look into these datasets Hublin pointed out, but they look promising. If you know of other good resources, please do share!References Hublin, J. (2013). Palaeontology: Free digital scans of human fossils Nature, 497 (7448), 183-183 DOI: 10.1038/497183a Skinner MM, Kivell TL, Potze S, & Hublin JJ (2013). Microtomographic archive of fossil hominin specimens from Kromdraai B, South Africa. Journal of human evolution, 64 (5), 434-47 PMID: 23541384... Read more »
Hublin, J. (2013) Palaeontology: Free digital scans of human fossils. Nature, 497(7448), 183-183. DOI: 10.1038/497183a
Skinner MM, Kivell TL, Potze S, & Hublin JJ. (2013) Microtomographic archive of fossil hominin specimens from Kromdraai B, South Africa. Journal of human evolution, 64(5), 434-47. PMID: 23541384
No, I'm not looking for people with lithe limbs to be photographed for money. Much more sexily, I'm referring to a recent paper (Pietak et al., 2013) that's found that the relative length of the segments of human limbs can be modeled with a log-periodic function:Figure 2 from Pietak et al. 2013. Human within-limb proportions are such that the length of each segment (e.g., H1-6) of a limb, from fingertip to shoulder (A) and to to hip (B), can be predicted by a logarithmic periodic function (C).In other words, within a limb, the length of each segment is mathematically fairly predictable on the basis of the segment(s) before and after it. As the authors state, "Being able to describe human limb bone lengths in terms of a log-periodic function means that only one parameter, the wavelength λ, is needed to explain the proportional configuration of the limb."The biological significance of this pattern is difficult to discern. The length of a limb segment is determined by a number of factors, including the spacing between the initial limb condensations embryonically, and thereafter the growth rates and duration of growth at proximal and distal epiphyses. As a result, limb proportions aren't static throughout life, but change from embryo to adult. For instance, here are limb proportion data for the coolest animal ever - gibbons! - from the great anatomist Adolf Schultz.An important question, and follow-up to Pietak et al's study, is whether human limb proportions can be described by such log-periodic functions throughout ontogeny, and if so how these change. Plus, it's also not clear to what extent human proportions might happen to be describable by log periodic functions, simply because each segment is shorter than the one preceding it proximally. In short, this study raises really interesting and pursuable questions about how and why animal limbs grow to the size and proportions that they do.ReferencesPietak A, Ma S, Beck CW, & Stringer MD (2013). Fundamental ratios and logarithmic periodicity in human limb bones. Journal of anatomy, 222 (5), 526-37 PMID: 23521756Schultz, A. (1944). Age changes and variability in gibbons. A Morphological study on a population sample of a man-like ape American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2 (1), 1-129 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330020102... Read more »
Pietak A, Ma S, Beck CW, & Stringer MD. (2013) Fundamental ratios and logarithmic periodicity in human limb bones. Journal of anatomy, 222(5), 526-37. PMID: 23521756
Schultz, A. (1944) Age changes and variability in gibbons. A Morphological study on a population sample of a man-like ape. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2(1), 1-129. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330020102
In the soft jungle sun, a thick-limbed primate—with heavy fur and a strong grasping tail—is poised for flight. This is Lagothrix poeppigii, or Poeppigi’s woolly monkey, and it is the … Continue reading →... Read more »
Papworth Sarah, Milner-Gulland E. J., Slocombe Katie, & Noë Ronald. (2013) Hunted Woolly Monkeys (Lagothrix poeppigii) Show Threat-Sensitive Responses to Human Presence. PLoS ONE, 8(4). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062000.s004
The Intercultural Communication Special Interest Group of the British Association of Applied Linguistics is hosting a seminar at Newcastle University next week devoted to “Intercultural Communication in Higher Education – principles and practices.” Given that internationalization of higher education is … Continue reading →... Read more »
When you think of drum circles taking place in the United States, visions of hippies, Birkenstocks and the vibrant green lawns of private colleges may appear. The bacteria Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax, does not often materialize alongside the skunky mix of patchouli and ganja hovering above the crowd in one’s visions of (ar)rhythmic drumming events.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2010) Gastrointestinal anthrax after an animal-hide drumming event - New Hampshire and Massachusetts, 2009. MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report, 59(28), 872-7. PMID: 20651643
In a new short article out in the British Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Martijn de Koning asks what challenges anthropologists face in using blogs as a method of anthropological outreach. He begins by highlighting some of the motivations for anthropologists to blog: "[M]any anthropologists have suggested that for them the primary reasons for blogging are self-realization, creativity and networking, sharing research experiences and outcomes, and commenting on current affairs" (de Koning 2013:394).
As blogs have been around since the late 1990s, it seems a little strange that academic anthropologists are just now getting around to interrogating the utility of blogs and asking reflexive questions about our employment of the medium. de Koning quotes my 9 February 2012 blog post, "Blogs as Anthropological Outreach," to illustrate why some of us value blogging, although he only excerpts the first of these two paragraphs:
I blog because I find it rewarding - there's excitement in knowing that people who probably wouldn't touch my journal articles are reading about my work and about other developments in bioarchaeology; there's joy when I get emails from up-and-coming researchers, as young as middle schoolers, who want advice on how to make bioarchaeology a career; and there's the interaction with my readers that doesn't come across in the unidirectional, static medium of a publication.
Blogging is an exercise in writing for a different public, an exercise in taking all that jargon you learned in your coursework, distilling it, injecting your own ideas, and making it interesting. Writing a blog has helped me refine my research and my prose, and I think that my public lectures and my successful grant proposals in particular have greatly benefited from the practice. I always wish I had more time to blog. There's just so much cool stuff out there to talk about, and so little time to write...
Logo for PbO
Strangely, towards the end of the article, de Koning concludes that, "we can tentatively say that anthropology blogs appear to reach out mostly to fellow academics" (2013:396). Considering the brevity of the article and the lack of any sort of concrete assessment of the range of anthropology blogs (see Anthropology Report for a good ecology of the anthro blogosphere), I was surprised by de Koning's conclusion. After all, he cites my blog, one of whose prominent, recurring features is a critique of the forensic anthropology on the popular FOX TV show Bones each week. Those posts are aimed at the general public, and I can say with certainty from my analytics, comments, and emails that non-academics are the main consumers of that information. Further, my posts have been picked up by a variety of internet sources such as The Daily Beast, The Browser: Writing Worth Reading, and CounterPunch. My most popular blog post of all time, "Lead Poisoning in Rome - The Skeletal Evidence" is based on my own research but is written for the public; to date, it has garnered over 28,000 views but the article it's based on (Montgomery et al. 2010) has just one citation according to Google Scholar. This is quantifiable public outreach.
Logo for AnthInPractice
de Koning also cites Krystal d'Costa's Anthropology in Practice, which is similarly aimed at a non-academic audience in spite of its location at Scientific American, and Krystal's writing has been showcased by such pop culture websites as BoingBoing. Other blogs by anthropologists enjoy broad readership as well: bioanthropologist Barbara J. King writes at NPR blogs; archaeologist Rosemary Joyce writes at Psychology Today; the American Anthropological Association has a high-profile platform at The Huffington Post, to which dozens of anthropologists have contributed posts. While many of these sites are directed at an educated audience, that audience is not composed entirely of academics. Anthropologists are talking to the public. And all of these anthropologists can tell you that the public is listening and responding in comments, tweets, Facebook shares, and email forwards. Those stats are also quantifiable public outreach.
Flyer for T. Harrenstein's Foursquare
anthro outreach project in Pensacola FL
I will agree with de Koning, however, that the majority of anthropology blogs are likely focused on talking to academics in the language of academia, although I have not surveyed the blogosphere to test this hypothesis. If true, it is unfortunate, since a whole world of audiences exists if we are only willing to learn how to write for and engage them in our discussions. We definitely, in de Koning's words, need to "realize the full potential for public anthropology by blogging," (2013:397), and it was to this end that I required each of the graduate students in my Presenting Anthropology seminar this semester to create and maintain a social media presence. What I found interesting from reading the students' reports this past weekend was that the majority of them felt most comfortable with Tumblr, a short-format blogging platform, and were wary of the often lengthy, academic-style posts that show up on such sites as Savage Minds. My students by and large reported more engagement, in quantity and quality, through their Tumblr posts than through more traditional blog posts, even when those posts were the same content. So one of the questions we need to reflect on as anthropologists interested in engaging the public is: Who is our audience, and how can we best reach them? Is blogging the key? If so, what platform, what format, what language do we use? Or should other social media avenues be explored? Rhetorical question, of course; the answer is a resounding YES! Web 2.0 is founded on dynamism, and if we want to talk to the public, we need to be similarly flexible in our approach to reaching out. For example, my grad student Tristan Harrenstein devised a ... Read more »
M. de Koning. (2013) Hello World! Challenges for blogging as anthropological outreach. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 19(2), 394-397. info:/10.1111/1467-9655.12040
J. Montgomery, J. Evans, S. Chenery, V. Pashley, K. Killgrove. (2010) 'Gleaming, white, and deadly': using lead to track human exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period in Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology. info:/
Sabloff, J. (1998) Distinguished Lecture in Archeology: Communication and the Future of American Archaeology. American Anthropologist, 100(4), 869-875. DOI: 10.1525/aa.19126.96.36.1999
If cartoonists ever pause in their sketching to ponder human evolution, they must feel grateful to the forces that shaped our fear expression. All it takes is a pair of extra-wide eyes to show that a character is freaking out. There may be a point to this expression beyond making artists' lives easier: widening our eyes expands our peripheral vision, and might even help other people spot the cause of our alarm.
"Our lab is interested in the evolutionary origins of emotional expressions," says Daniel Lee, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Toronto—in other words, "why they look the way they do." When we feel afraid, for example, is there a point to stretching out our eyelids and raising our eyebrows to the ceiling?
To explore this question, Lee and his coauthors first asked whether widening our eyes helps us see better. They had 28 volunteers look at a fixed spot on a computer screen while holding their eyes in a neutral expression, an expression of fear, or one of disgust. (Subjects acted out these expressions rather than, say, having a chair pulled out from under them before each trial. Lee points out that emotions themselves may also change our perception, but he wanted to study the effects of widened eyes separate from any psychological effects of fear on the brain. "We coached each participant on how to make fear and disgust expressions based on the Facial Action Coding System," he says.)
Subjects were tested with flashing images on the screen in their peripheral vision. Lee found that people making a disgusted expression—with the eyelids narrowed as in "Ew, get that out of my face"—scored the worst. People making a wide-eyed fear expression scored the best, with a useful field of vision 9% larger than that of people with a neutral expression.
Being afraid, then, may help us gather more visual information about whatever's threatening us in our environment. But does it also help us communicate that threat to our companions?
The researchers next used pictures of models' eyes expressing different emotions to create simplified, graphic eye images. (They didn't use real eyes because those might have conveyed extra emotional information, instead of only varying in wideness.) Subjects saw these eye images flash briefly on a screen, looking toward the right or left by varying degrees. Lee found that when the eyes were wider, subjects had an easier time telling which way they were looking. The results are reported in Psychological Science.
"We believe the widening eyes of fear...[are] a functional response for vigilance toward threat," Lee says. When we're scared, he thinks, widening our eyes helps us to see threats and to communicate their location to our group.
The researchers point out that human eyes are uniquely suited for this kind of communication: we're the only primate with a white sclera (the area outside the iris). In other apes and monkeys, this part of the eye is dark. It's yet another factor that cartoonists, no doubt, appreciate.
Lee, D., Susskind, J., & Anderson, A. (2013). Social Transmission of the Sensory Benefits of Eye Widening in Fear Expressions Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464500
Image: by Tom Check (via Flickr)
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Lee, D., Susskind, J., & Anderson, A. (2013) Social Transmission of the Sensory Benefits of Eye Widening in Fear Expressions. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464500
The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, was one of the most devastating pandemics to sweep through Europe. In only four years, this single disease wiped out half the population and set back the progress of the nations of Western Europe. Its rapid spread was attributed to fleas, who traveled throughout the countrysides and cities on … Continue reading »... Read more »
Harbeck, M., Seifert, L., Hänsch, S., Wagner, D., Birdsell, D., Parise, K., Wiechmann, I., Grupe, G., Thomas, A., Keim, P.... (2013) Yersinia pestis DNA from Skeletal Remains from the 6th Century AD Reveals Insights into Justinianic Plague. PLoS Pathogens, 9(5). DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003349
If you’ve read any news in the past day, you’ve seen reports regarding cannibalism in colonial Jamestown. It was known prior that the colonists had undergone a number of starvation years where they were forced to eat foods that they wouldn’t normally. The trash pits from the sites hold the remains of animals who aren’t … Continue reading »... Read more »
S. JONES, H. WALSH-HANEY, & R. QUINN. (2012) Kana Tamata or Feasts of Men: An Interdisciplinary Approach for Identifying Cannibalism in Prehistoric Fiji. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. info:/
This week is vervet week. I have declared it. Coming from me, this means a lot, since I've never been particularly interested in vervet monkeys. But, two articles have been released in science recently: both on vervets, both so intriguing that I have been compulsively rereading them.
The first of these comes from Andy Whiten of primate culture fame. He has done impressive work in the past, and this latest vervet paper is an extension of that, though perhaps not the intuitive extension. The authors presented their wild vervet subjects with two types of food, varying two attributes of each type. First, the food was either colored blue or pink. Second, the food either tasted good, or tasted terrible.
Taste aversion can be found in pretty much all mammals; a type of learning that most humans are familiar with. By taste aversion, I mean that when you taste something bad you learn very quickly not to eat it again. Often it only takes one exposure to learn this, which in the animal behavior world is very very fast. Not only will animals learn to avoid foods that taste digusting, but they will also learn to avoid foods that they think made them sick, even if they didn't eat anything that tasted bad.
There is a broad literature on taste aversion in rats (a literature I happen to know pretty well), and in rats you will find even stranger, related phenomena. Rats possess the ability to socially transmit taste preferences through their sense of smell. They will actually smell the breath of other rats, and later, they will show a preference for food that smells and tastes like the odors they smelled on the other rat.
It turns out that vervets can do basically the same thing. The authors of this paper have shown that while vervets quickly learn to avoid the color of food that they know tastes bad, they can learn socially through watching other vervets to ignore their earlier preferences. For example, if a male vervet learns that pink food tastes gross, and then the male disperses to another group where everyone learned a long time ago that blue food doesn't taste good, the newcomer male will watch and learn to eat blue food, in spite of his earlier memories.
Rats possess a unique neurochemical mechanism for learning this kind of stuff, and cannot learn taste preferences socially. Yet this is exactly what vervets do: watch other members of their own species and using that information, learn new preferences and extinguish old ones.
To see this in vervets is striking. If someone reported these results in chimpanzees, it would not be particularly surprising because chimps are extremely smart and adaptive. Vervets are not great apes, not lesser apes, they're just old world monkeys whose brains are smaller than many other old world monkeys, notably macaques and baboons. If we see this kind of behavior in vervets, it really does suggest that this cognitive ability is fundamental in all old world monkeys.
Moreover, the authors refer to this type of learning as "cultural learning". I am not sure if I fully agree with this; the line between cultural and social learning is not clear. However, I would certainly say that this type of learning is at least an evolutionary antecedent to cultural learning.
van de Waal, E., Borgeaud, C., & Whiten, A. (2013). Potent Social Learning and Conformity Shape a Wild Primate's Foraging Decisions Science, 340 (6131), 483-485 DOI: 10.1126/science.1232769
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van de Waal, E., Borgeaud, C., & Whiten, A. (2013) Potent Social Learning and Conformity Shape a Wild Primate's Foraging Decisions. Science, 340(6131), 483-485. DOI: 10.1126/science.1232769
We can knit sweaters for oiled penguins, but it's harder to protect whales and dolphins from the harm of having us as neighbors. Loud underwater sounds from activities like sonar and drilling may damage these animals' hearing and even lead to mass strandings. Though we can't chase cetaceans around with homemade earmuffs, we might be able to teach them to tune us out.
Like squinting or letting one's pupil shrink in bright light, some animals can adjust how sensitive their ears are. When we're making loud noises, humans reflexively squeeze the muscles of the middle ear to dampen our hearing. Some bats do the same thing while echolocating.
"Generally speaking, mammals have evolved mechanisms to protect their auditory systems from self-produced intense sounds," write Paul Nachtigall of the University of Hawaii and Alexander Supin of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 2008, the pair showed that a false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) could adjust its hearing while it echolocated. So they set out to see whether the species could also dial down its hearing in response to sounds made by someone else.
They taught their whale (a female, originally caught in the wild and now thought to be 30 or 40 years old) that hearing a quiet warning sound meant a louder sound was coming soon. The subject wore suction-cup electrodes on her head during the experiment. Waiting at an underwater listening station, she first heard a series of tones while the electrodes measured which ones her ears responded to. Then, a variable amount of time later, she heard a sudden loud sound (170 decibels).
Over hundreds of trials,* the researchers saw that the whale learned to anticipate the loud sound. If it came within 35 seconds of the warning sound starting, the whale was able to desensitize her ears before it played. (With a longer delay, her response wasn't as strong.) The authors report their results in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Nachtigall can't say how a whale turns down its hearing. "No one knows for sure how the cetacean middle ear works," he says. Whales don't have eardrums like humans or other land animals, he says, because the sounds they hear must travel through tissue instead of air. So his whale subject probably doesn't squeeze her ear muscles to dampen sound, as a human or bat would. He speculates that it's more likely a top-down control from the brain.
However she does it, the whale can make her ears less sensitive when she knows a loud sound is coming soon. The biggest decrease in her hearing sensitivity was about 13 decibels. That's "about what your hearing changes if you stick your fingers in your ears," Nachtigall says. If you—or the whale—are trying to protect your hearing from a loud noise, he says, "That helps. This would help."
When humans must make a racket underwater, it's possible that we could help whales and other animals by making quieter warning sounds beforehand. This could teach the animals to anticipate the sound and "plug" their ears.
Since he's only studied one animal so far, Nachtigall doesn't know how the abilities of other marine mammals to desensitize their ears compare. "To ask whether [warning sounds] would prevent whale hearing damage is sort of like asking whether ear plugs would prevent deafness in people who work next to jet engines," he says. "I believe the possibility is great, but there are more questions to be answered."
Image: by MichiKimmig (Flickr)
Nachtigall, P., & Supin, A. (2013). A false killer whale reduces its hearing sensitivity when a loud sound is preceded by a warning Journal of Experimental Biology DOI: 10.1242/jeb.085068
*If you're wondering how one convinces a whale to participate in so many trials, the answer is "fish reinforcement."
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Nachtigall, P., & Supin, A. (2013) A false killer whale reduces its hearing sensitivity when a loud sound is preceded by a warning. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.085068
Scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt together with dental technicians have digitally analysed modern human teeth using an engineering approach, finite element method, to evaluate the biomechanical behaviour of teeth under realistic loading.... Read more »
Sandra Jacob. (2013) Material loss protects teeth against fatigue failure. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. info:/
There are many things that can happen to a body between death and burial. A good example of this process is Weekend at Bernie’s. Bernie Lomax is murdered within the first twenty minutes of the movie, but he remains an important character as Richard and Larry feign that he is alive in order to continue to … Continue reading »... Read more »
André, A., Leahy, R., & Rottier, S. (2013) Cremated Human Remains Deposited in Two Phases: Evidence from the Necropolis of the Tuileries Site (Lyon, France: 2nd Century AD). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. DOI: 10.1002/oa.2317
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