March 07, 2005
Music tastes delicious
A wonderfully surprising article from From New Scientist, 2 March 2005:
Life, according to the British band The Verve, is a bittersweet symphony. But for one musician in Switzerland who can "taste" sounds the symphony is also disgusting, and tastes of mown grass and low-fat cream.
The musician, known as ES, is a synaesthete, a person who involuntarily experiences a crossing over of the senses for certain types of stimuli. But not only does ES see certain colours when she hears specific notes - which is quite common among synaesthetes - but she also associates specific tastes with different pairs of notes, or intervals.
The fact that a minor second tastes sour to her and an interval of a fifth tastes of pure water gives ES a definite advantage in her profession, say Lutz Jšncke and colleagues at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. In tests where different tastes such as salty, sweet, cream and even low fat cream, were placed on the musician's tongue she was able to identify the correct interval faster than five musician non-synaesthetes.
It is difficult to tell whether synaesthesia was the driving force for ES becoming a musician because she started when she was just five. Either way, she believes that because of it she has a more intense relationship with music.
But while this helps her in the complex cognitive task of accurately identifying tone-intervals, which is useful for transcribing music, there is a drawback - it affects her taste in music. Both her visual and gustatory synaestetic experiences are more vivid when the notes and intervals are more pronounced.
Most modern forms of music have so few clear and distinct tones and intervals that the colours and tastes they evoke are somewhat muted. So ES tends to prefer simple harmonies such as renaissance music. Bach, for example is particularly creamy, she says.
Journal reference: Nature (vol 434, p 38)
Posted by matt at 02:24 PM
April 22, 2004
Baboons make love, not war
There's a great article in a recent New York Times (April 13, 2004) about a troop of baboons who have learned to live peacefully for over 20 years, but only after the most aggressive male baboons were killed. I've excerpted the most interesting bits below.
New York Times: Among a troop of savanna baboons in Kenya, a terrible outbreak of tuberculosis 20 years ago selectively killed off the biggest, nastiest and most despotic males, setting the stage for a social and behavioral transformation unlike any seen in this notoriously truculent primate.
In a study appearing today in the journal PloS Biology, researchers describe the drastic temperamental and tonal shift that occurred in a troop of 62 baboons when its most belligerent members vanished from the scene. The victims were all dominant adult males that had been strong and snarly enough to fight with a neighboring baboon troop over the spoils at a tourist lodge garbage dump, and were exposed there to meat tainted with bovine tuberculosis, which soon killed them. Left behind in the troop, designated the Forest Troop, were the 50 percent of males that had been too subordinate to try dump brawling, as well as all the females and their young. With that change in demographics came a cultural swing toward pacifism, a relaxing of the usually parlous baboon hierarchy, and a willingness to use affection and mutual grooming rather than threats, swipes and bites to foster a patriotic spirit.
Remarkably, the Forest Troop has maintained its genial style over two decades, even though the male survivors of the epidemic have since died or disappeared and been replaced by males from the outside. (As is the case for most primates, baboon females spend their lives in their natal home, while the males leave at puberty to seek their fortunes elsewhere.) The persistence of communal comity suggests that the resident baboons must somehow be instructing the immigrants in the unusual customs of the tribe.
"We don't yet understand the mechanism of transmittal," said Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford, "but the jerky new guys are obviously learning, `We don't do things like that around here.' " Dr. Sapolsky wrote the report with his colleague and wife, Dr. Lisa J. Share.
Dr. de Waal, who wrote an essay to accompany the new baboon study, said in a telephone interview, "The good news for humans is that it looks like peaceful conditions, once established, can be maintained," he said. "And if baboons can do it," he said, "why not us? The bad news is that you might have to first knock out all the most aggressive males to get there."
Dr. Sapolsky has no idea how long the good times will last. "I confess I'm rooting for the troop to stay like this forever, but I worry about how vulnerable they may be," he said. "All it would take is two or three jerky adolescent males entering at the same time to tilt the balance and destroy the culture."
Posted by matt at 12:42 PM
February 13, 2004
Love is the drug, scientists say
For music to put you in the Valentine's spirit, I highly recommend Andre 3000's (one half of Outkast) album The Love Below. It's the best thing I've heard in some time. And here's an interesting article for lovers and haters alike:
BBC: Being in love is physically similar to the buzz of taking drugs and also has withdrawal symptoms, an expert on addiction has said. Dr John Marsden says dopamine - the drug released by the brain when it is aroused - has similar effects on the body and mind as cocaine or speed.
"Attraction and lust really is like a drug. It leaves you wanting more," the National Addiction Centre head said. "Being attracted to someone sparks the same incredible feelings no matter who you are. Love really does know no boundaries," he said. According to Dr Marsden - a chartered psychologist - the brain which processes emotions becomes "fired up" when talking to someone it finds attractive.
The heart pounds three times faster than normal and causes blood to be diverted to the cheeks and sexual organs, which causes the feeling of butterflies in the stomach, he says. However, as with cocaine and speed, the "hit" is only temporary, though it can last between three and seven years, he added.
Happy Valentine's Day, people.
Posted by matt at 01:10 PM
January 19, 2004
Artistic genius may lie dormant in all of us
There's a great article in the special quarterly issue of Scientific American on savant syndrome. You need to pay to read it online, but I've pasted the opening paragraphs below. To be amazed and inspired, read on:
Scientific American: Leslie Lemke is a musical virtuoso. At the age of 14 he played, flawlessly and without hesitation, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 after hearing it for the first time while listening to a television movie several hours earlier. Lemke had never had a piano lesson--and he still has not had one. He is blind and developmentally disabled, and he has cerebral palsy. Lemke plays and sings thousands of pieces at concerts in the U.S. and abroad, and he improvises and composes as well.
Richard Wawro's artwork is internationally renowned, collected by Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, among others. A London art professor was "thunderstruck" by the oil crayon drawings that Wawro did as a child, describing them as an "incredible phenomenon rendered with the precision of a mechanic and the vision of a poet." Wawro, who lives in Scotland, is autistic.
[Lemke and Wawro] have savant syndrome, an uncommon but spectacular condition in which people with various developmental disabilities, including autism, possess astonishing islands of ability and brilliance that stand in jarring juxtaposition to their overall mental handicap. Savant syndrome is seen in about one in 10 people with autism and in approximately one in 2,000 people with brain damage or mental retardation. Of the known savants, at least half are autistic and the remainder have some other kind of developmental disorder.
Much remains mysterious about savant syndrome. Nevertheless, advances in brain imaging are permitting a more complete view of the condition, and a long-standing theory of left hemispheric damage has found support in these imaging studies. In addition, new reports of the sudden appearance of savant syndrome in people with certain forms of dementia have raised the intriguing possibility that some aspects of such genius lie dormant in all of us.
(Excerpted from "Islands of Genius", by Darold Treffert and Gregory Wallace, published in the June 2002 issue of Scientific American.)
Posted by matt at 07:06 PM