Tag Archives: Research

Where do we feel that emotion?


It’s often said that you can make decisions with your head or your heart, which is something most of us have experience with, but have you ever thought about where you feel different emotions?

Is love solely an emotion of the heart, for example?

It was partially questions like this that engineering and psychology researchers in Finland recently set out to answer.

They showed volunteers two blank silhouettes of person on a screen and then told the subjects to think about an emotion. The volunteers then painted areas of the body that they felt were stimulated by that emotion (warm, red and yellow areas on the figures). On a second silhouette, they painted areas of the body that get deactivated during that emotion (the blue areas). The figures above show the findings across all volunteers.

It shows interesting details, like that the physical response to pride and anger are almost the same, and that happiness, love and anger seem to be the only feelings associated with your hands.

An interesting further study would be to see if where we feel emotions varies between countries and cultures.

The robots are coming for half your jobs!

According to recent research, about half of all jobs in the US are vulnerable to computerization.

What does that mean?

Well, take a look at your computer. See it? Right, imagine that it has a kid – a super smart, maybe even mobile kid, which is going to be a mix of computer and robot – a robuter or combot, if you like…although the latter somehow sounds a bit dirty… Over the coming 20 years or so, that kid and its classmates might do up to 45 per cent of the jobs that you and your fellow meat bags do at the moment.

According to the research, the takeover is going to happen in two stages. First, the robot/computers are going to claim transportation/logistics, production labour, and administrative support as their domains. Of course, administrative support is already theirs, and both productions labour and certain parts of transportation are already dominated by computers. Just think of autopilots.

Some positions in services, sales, and construction might also end up going to robots in this first stage.

The ‘second wave’, as it were, could mean computers taking over jobs in management, science and engineering – as well as the arts.

The latter might lead to a massive resurgence for cubist art…and to ballets with ballerinas that can do 750 pirouettes a minute. So count me in.

Scientists use lasers to fight drug addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is using lasers in a new way, turning them on people in the fight against drug addiction.

Not only are scientists at NIDA hoping to point the lasers at people who struggle with drug addiction – they’re actually planning to fire them straight into people’s’ brains.

So far the scientist have used the new laser technique on rats with good results.

In a classic example of ‘did they really do that???’ the experiment went like this:

Rats in a lab were supplied with cocaine if they pressed a lever. However, pressing the lever would also lead to an electrical shock. Some rats kept coming back for more cocaine, seemingly choosing to live with the pain from the electrical shocks.

Scientists noticed a distinct change in the cells in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain in these rats.

The addicted rats were then given light-sensitive proteins, which were placed (don’t ask how; seriously, don’t) in the prefrontal cortex. Shining a laser on the proteins would then activate them, and the result was that the addictive behaviour of the rats ceased.

June’s ‘Geeks on a Plane’ will look at solving what, exactly?

Take 100 geeks, stuff them on a plane, give them a set of problems, stand back and see what happens. No, this is not the sequel to ‘Snakes on a Plane’, but the core concept for an upcoming conference.

British Airways and the telecoms arm of the UN are the strange bedfellows behind the conference, which aim is to come up with solutions for the global tech skills crisis.

On a 12 hour flight from San Francisco to London, the 100 tech gurus and geeks (think brains and money men from Silicon Valley) will take a closer look at how companies can succeed in:

“[…] connecting the abundance of emerging STEM talent in cities around the world with civic and commercial opportunities in major tech hubs, where talent crunch is increasingly an issue.”

So, in other words, it’s about getting Indian and Chinese programmers to re-locate to Silicon Valley and London?

Well, Amir Dossal, chairman of the UN Global partnerships Forum said this in a statement:

““Our understanding is that the talent crunch is a real issue for companies and organisations in major tech hubs around the world.”

So that would be a yes….

So, media stunt?

Well, Marguerite Gong Hancock of Stanford Graduate School of Business, who has been partly responsible for picking the people who are going on the plane said this:

“Innovation is a contact sport. With 100 innovators from Silicon Valley together at 30,000 feet, anything is possible.”

So that would be a yes….

Scientists explain how you can get earworms out of your mind

You know that one song that got stuck in your head this morning? Maybe you didn’t know where it came from – it was like a bolt from the blue – or perhaps you caught the chorus seeping out of someone’s headphones on the tube?

And now it’s just stuck.

We all know earworms – songs that get lodged in our brains and place themselves on infinite repeat.

Now scientists at Western Washington University claim they have found a way of helping you get rid of the earworms.

And, strangely enough, the solution seems to be difficult anagrams.

“The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge. If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head.” Dr Ira Hyman, a music psychologist at Western Washington University and the one responsible for the research, explained.

“Something we can do automatically like driving or walking means you are not using all of your cognitive resource, so there is plenty of space left for that internal jukebox to start playing.”

“Likewise, if you are trying something too hard, then your brain will not be engaged successfully, so that music can come back. You need to find that bit in the middle where there is not much space left in the brain. That will be different for each individual.”

According to Dr Hyman, the project about earworms has wider potential than getting ‘that’ song out of your head.

“If we can understand how intrusive songs work, it should help us understand how having an intrusive thought stuck in your head can be controlled as well,” he said.

But even without the further potentials, I personally think Dr Hyman is on the short list for a Noble Prize. It, that is, his ideas helps me this Kylie Minogue song out of my mind (it’s been there ever since I read about his research):

Electricity goes boom!

Photo by: RG John

OK, I’m a geek / nerd. So this video where the US Navy tests one of their little toys, I had to physically restrain myself from clapping and giggling like a manic little kid in the throes of an intense sugar rush:

According to this article from Wired, it’s an electrically powered rail gun, capable of firing massive bullets very, very far at supersonic speeds. OK, now I sound like that kid who just had sugar with tea. But it’s just really cool, right?

For me, watching something like this is a bit like watching boxing: I know it’s wrong and that I ought to object to the needless violence – but at the same time I’m fascinated by the spectacle and the science behind it….

Here’s why you’re likely to get punched in the US in 2020

The old phrase that we must learn from history if we aren’t to repeat it has been put under the microscope by Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

And his results show that we’re going to repeat history, whether we want to or not.

Turchin has been developing mathematical models that have previously been to predict predator-prey cycles in forest ecosystems and applying them to human history. The results of his research show that parts of our history has a decidedly cyclical nature.

One of the places this shows up is recent US history from 1870 and onwards, where things come to a head roughly every 50 years. The good news is that we’re currently in a lull, between spikes, but the bad news is that the next spike, if Turchin’s research and models are correct, will come around 2020.

You’re nicer than I think – and I have science that proves it

One of the oldest philosophical debates out there is about the simple question: is man good or is he evil? Now I’ve personally been an apostle of the musician Tom Waits on this one. He has a great lyric that goes ‘if there’s one thing you can say about mankind it’s that there’s nothing kind about man.’

However, new scientific results seem to put both me and Tom to shame. The science in question can be found in the cheerily named paper ‘Simulating murder: The aversion to harmful action’ which can be found in the American Psychological Association’s PsycNET.

In it, Fiery Cushman (no kidding, that’s a real name), Kurt Gray, Allison Gaffey and Wendy Berry Mendes ‘[…]demonstrate that unwillingness to endorse harm in a moral dilemma is predicted by individual differences in aversive reactivity, as indexed by peripheral vasoconstriction.

This was done by ‘discharging a fake gun into the face of the experimenter, fully informed that the actions were pretend and harmless. These simulated harmful actions increased peripheral vasoconstriction significantly more than did witnessing pretend harmful actions or to performing metabolically matched non-harmful actions.’

The team found that ‘[…]the aversion to harmful actions extends beyond empathic concern for victim harm. Together, these studies demonstrate a link between the body and moral decision-making processes.’

In short, you could say that we’re good on a biological level, which can be proved by firing blanks into the face of researchers. By God, I would have liked to be part of that study…

A slightly longer analysis than that can be found here.

That’s funny and I can prove it!

First, this joke:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services.

He gasps: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says: “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: “OK, now what?”

If you don’t think that’s funny, you’re wrong. How can I say that? Well, I have science to back me up.

OK, so the science comes from a place that calls itself LaughLab, but their science is no….OK, I’m not going to go there…

Where I will go is to psychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman, from the University of Hertfordshire, who was part of LaughLab. In 2002 he put together a list of more than 40,000 jokes got a total of almost two million ratings of how funny they were. And in this case of evaluating jokes, democracy = science.

The results were that some jokes tested well across demographies, while others only scored highly within certain groups – such as adolescent men, for example.  A somewhat surprising find for the Brits carrying out the study was that the Germans actually found just about all the collected jokes funny and did not express a strong preference for any specific kind of joke.

This might, of course, be a case of not knowing what to laugh at and deciding to laugh at everything just to be sure.

Fast forward to the end of 2011 and cue Matthew Hurley from MIT. Hurley is the co-author of “Inside Jokes: Using Humour or to Reverse-Engineer the Mind”. If that isn’t a barnstormer of a title, I don’t know what is….

However, the results found by Hurley and his colleague are actually pretty darn interesting.

Hurley and his co-authors start with an idea that our brains make sense of our daily lives via a never ending series of assumptions, based on sparse, incomplete information. Basically, we sort of see parts of the world and then make the rest of it up as we go along. Now our best guesses simplify our world, helps us understand other people and help simplify our decisions. But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can snowball into a massive mistake.

Enter mirth/humour which, in the scenario described above becomes a sort of little treat the brain gives itself for seeking out and correcting our mistaken assumptions. A sense of humour basically works like the endorphins released after working out – much like the treats you use to train a dog.

For more on this pretty interesting take on what humour is and what it does, go to this interview Hurley did with the Boston Globe.

Science: Who’s working with who

Humans have been said to be visually orientated creatures. But, looking at row after row of numbers can make your head spin and make it impossible to make meaning of statistics.

Research analyst Olivier Beauchesne at Science-Metrix found a rather stunning and beautiful way around that, when trying to describe the way scientist collaborate on articles.

He produced a series of maps, each based bibliometric data from 2005 – 2009, that visualise the collaborations and makes sense of an enormous amount of data. The data does not cover all journals, but gives an indication of how scientists collaborate on articles.

You can see a number of high-resolution images of the results and learn more about the process by visiting his website here.

And here is a link to a zoomable version of the world map.