Posted in biology, music

The physical power of music

A great article from Scientific American summarizing the power of music on the psyche, and seemingly physical subconscious response to it:

Listening to music in and of itself is undeniably pleasurable. Unlike food or sex, music is not intrinsically valuable to the humankind; regardless of what Shakespeare may have lead you to believe, moonlight serenades are not required for survival of our species. Yet, how is music – something so intangible, so “useless”- capable of triggering such profound feelings of euphoria across cultures and generations since prehistoric times?

A few years ago, in an attempt to unravel the mystery, researchers from Montreal monitored the brain’s reward system of volunteers as they listened to music that gave them the “chills”. To visualize changes in the brain, researchers injected the volunteers with a radioactive ligand that binds to receptors of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that mediates the pleasurable effects of natural and drug rewards. As music gradually built up, edging closer and closer to the climax, dopamine flooded the right caudate nucleus, correlating with the listener’s experience of anticipation. At the moment of the “chills”, dopamine rushed out from the synapses of neurons in the right nucleus accumbens (NAc). This intangible mental “high” accompanied a measurable physical response – increased heart rate and sweating, rapid breathing, and a drop in skin temperature – all physical signs of emotional arousal.

It seems rather clear-cut that music feels good because it triggers a dopamine rush. Yet the story, like most of science, is not so simple. Dopamine is released during presentation of the reward, or (as learning occurs) in anticipation of reward. For a familiar piece of music, the theory fits our understanding of pleasure – we squirm at the edge of our seats, anticipating the chills; but how can dopamine release explain our appreciation for previously unheard music?

In a new series of experiments, the same researchers studied how the brain values a newly encountered piece of music. Using an iTunes-like interface, they first played for the volunteers a short clip of an unfamiliar song, and then asked them how much they’re willing to pay ($0, $0.99, $1.29, or $2) to buy the entire tune. Compared to relying on subjective rating, this design allowed researchers to put an objective number on the “value” of music.

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Posted in biology, design and architecture, electronic imaging and displays, Illumination

Liminoids Wants To Turn Your Fridge Into Your Therapist | The Creators Project

Art often explores the psyche, now it’s actually trying to help:

Inspired by designer Alice Wang’s “Peer Pressure” and artist Noam Toran’s “Desire Management,” Koyuncu’s Liminoids project explores her fascination with the possibility for machines to bring attention to a medical condition–and provide relief. Rather than simply being the cause for more anxiety and stress to fuel our neuroses, Koyuncu believes that technology can also act as an alternative treatment. Liminoids is a concept line of comfort machines that helps users manage their clinical nervousness. They are everyday items rigged to identify stress with a wireless biosensor that is worn like jewelry. The accessory adopts mechanisms often found in a lie detector. It combines a heart rate monitor, galvanic skin response GSR that reacts to the skin’s electrical conductivity i.e. sweatiness, and an accelerometer to help recognize and cancel out the noise caused by movement. When the anxiety thresholds for the GSR and heart rate are met, and the wearer goes to employ a Liminoidally-altered machine, the machine does something magical. It ceases normal operations and begins to comfort the wearer. Koyuncu dubbed this as the “liminal moment” and modeled it on her observations of the way people subconsciously and perpetually look to technology for gratification outside its classical function–like when you check your phone to avoid making eye contact with strangers when in an elevator or another confined space.

more via Liminoids Wants To Turn Your Fridge Into Your Therapist | The Creators Project.

Posted in biology, communication and networking

Shadows Bright As Glass: When Brain Injuries Transform Into Art : NPR

This morning I am listening to this interview on Fresh Air with Jon Sarkin, who became an artist after a serious brain injury. And I mean literally transformed, from a chiropractor to a compulsive doodler,

Jon Sarkin was working as a chiropractor when he suffered a massive stroke. Afterwards, the 35-year-old became a volatile visual artist with a ferocious need to create, as his brain tried to make sense of the world at large.

“[My artwork is] a manifestation of what happened to me,” Sarkin tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “I’ve learned how to visually represent my existential dilemma caused by my stroke.”

Sarkin is the subject of Shadows Bright as Glass, a new book by science writer Amy Nutt. The book describes Sarkin’s journey from happy-go-lucky doctor to manically-compulsive artist.

more via Shadows Bright As Glass: When Brain Injuries Transform Into Art : NPR.

Sarkin describes it as “Everything is new, everything is alien…” The act of exploration and scientific inquiry is described similarly, but this guy is now forced to be in that frame of mind at all times. Really interesting stuff.

Posted in biology, communication and networking, medical imaging

Color vision skewed by the brain

Rendering of human brain.
Image via Wikipedia

I knew it, I knew it! I remember coming up with this theory when I was 9 years old having an argument with my little sister about whether or not the blue in her skirt matched her shoes. She insisted it did, and I insisted it was more green. My dad chimed in and said it was purple, and stop arguing. I quickly realized a) I would never win an argument with my sister about fashion, and b) maybe our brains were all seeing the same color differently.

Now, Anna Roe, professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University., has found that to be exactly the case!

Courtesy of

A brain area known to play a critical role in vision is divided into compartments that respond separately to different colors and orientations.

The findings have important implications for furthering understanding of perception and attention. The research was published Nov. 14 in Nature Neuroscience.

“In vision, objects are defined by both their shape and their surface properties, such as color and brightness. For example, to identify a red apple, your visual system must process both the shape of the apple and its color,” says Roe. “Our study showed that in V4, which is a brain area that plays a role in visual object recognition, there is significant segregation of color/brightness and shape processing regions.

“We also found that processing regions come in different flavors. There are color processing domains, for example, for purple, green and yellow. Shape processing domains come with preference for different orientations, such as horizontal or vertical. This is a functional segregation that has never been seen before in V4.”

The researchers made their discovery by examining V4 in awake macaque monkeys. V4 was already known to play a key role in shape and color perception, but uncertainty about its organization has led to debates among researchers about the overall role it plays in vision.

“One reason this segregation is important relates to visual attention. For example, in your multicolored world, you can easily pick out a purple object if you’re looking for it. How does your brain direct your attention to only purple?

“The fact that there are purple domains in V4 that are distinct from green or yellow domains gives us a handle on the specificity with which we can focus our attention. These domain-based ideas about how attention is implemented in the brain are exciting directions that we are currently investigating.”

Compartmentalization may reflect groups of neurons that are processing more complex aspects of color and form, such as integrating different contours that are the same color, to achieve overall shape perception.

Though V4 is segregated, the different areas do work together to process information, Roe explains. “Functional segregation does not mean that shape and surface information do not interact. What it means is that there are distinct circuits for color vs. shape.”

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Science contributed to the study, which was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, Vanderbilt Vision Research Center, and Vanderbilt University Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience.

More news from Vanderbilt University:

Original article at

Posted in physics

The Physics of the Poker Game

A great story from NPR and Discover Magazine about how being good at Physics and probability can also help you when playing games, in this case card games like Poker.

“A little research revealed there are a lot of poker-playing physicists, some of whom are pretty serious about the game.

Physicist Michael Binger placed third in the 2006 World Series of Poker, winning $4 million. Two others, Michael Piper and Liv Boeree, competed last spring in a tournament in San Remo, Italy. Piper placed fourth, and Boeree won, racking up $1.6 million. Ouelette’s husband, CalTech cosmologist Sean Carroll, entered a Chicago tournament in 2004 and, to his surprise, met three other poker-playing physicists, including Harvey.

In a recent article for Discover Magazine, Ouellette says one reason so many physicists are playing poker — and playing well — is that their brains are particularly attuned to thinking about probability, statistics and modeling. In physics, those things are crucial. And in poker, they just might give you a leg up.”

via Want To Clean Up At Poker? Study Physics : NPR.

I also love the introduction to the Discover Magazine article about how all the physicists ignored the showgirls to go play math and physics. Go here to read it.

Posted in biology, chemistry, communication and networking, medical imaging, Optics

Technology Review: Sensor Detects Emotions through the Skin

So this isn’t directly art-related. But measuring and gauging emotions has always been considered a “touchy-feely” kind of activity. Well, now it is very touchy-feely, with specific measurements! And the armband conducts more of a stress-test rather than a mood ring, but it is still cool. From Technology Review:

A new device developed by Affectiva, based in Boston, detects and records physiological signs of stress and excitement by measuring slight electrical changes in the skin. While researchers, doctors, and psychologists have long used this measurement–called skin conductance–in the lab or clinical setting, Affectivas Q Sensor is worn on a wristband and lets people keep track of stress during everyday activities. The Q Sensor stores or transmits a wearers stress levels throughout the day, giving doctors, caregivers, and patients themselves a new tool for observing reactions. Such data could provide an objective way to see what affects an autistic person positively and negatively, says Rosalind Picard, director of the Affective Computing Research Group at MIT and cofounder of Affectiva.

If this works, it’d be a great tool not only for autistic kids, as the article suggests, but for anyone who is worried about panic attacks, stress-induced heart trouble, or anything like that

more via Technology Review: Sensor Detects Emotions through the Skin.

Posted in biology, communication and networking, music

Sound health

Listen to Julian Treasure’s TED talk about sound. Treasure says our increasingly noisy world is gnawing away at our mental health — even costing lives. He lays out an 8-step plan to soften this sonic assault (starting with those cheap earbuds) and restore our relationship with sound.

Julian Treasure is the chair of Sound Agency, “a firm that advises worldwide businesses — offices, retailers, hotels — on how to use sound. He asks us to pay attention to the sounds that surround us. How do they make us feel: productive, stressed, energized, acquisitive?

Treasure is the author of the book Sound Business and keeps a blog by the same name that ruminates on aural matters (and offers a nice day-by-day writeup of TEDGlobal 2009). In the early 1980s, Treasure was the drummer for the Fall-influenced band Transmitters.” (Source: TED)