It’s been fairly well demonstrated that the faces that people generally find the most beautiful are also those that are most average. E.g., people will find a composite face made from an averaging of multiple real faces more attractive than any of the real faces. One possible explanation assumes that beauty is a signal of health and thus probable reproductive success: if your appearance departs significantly from the average, maybe that indicates a weakness that makes you a poor reproductive bet, so average faces would be the most attractive. However, people also judge the average to be more attractive for animals or objects that have nothing to do with reproduction. A team of scientists led by Piotr Winkielman at the University of California San Diego has investigated another possible explanation, and their results indicate that the reason prototypes are more attractive is that they’re easier for the brain to process (you can see the press release from UCSD for details). The researchers showed volunteers patterns of dots or geometric patterns after priming their brains to recognize a particular prototype. Patterns most similar to the prototype were judged the most attractive, and the attractiveness of the patterns was linked to how quickly the volunteers were able to process it (the more quickly it was processed, the more attractive it was). So maybe an average face appears more beautiful not because (or not only because) of any evolutionary advantage the owner of the face possesses, but because it’s what we’re used to seeing and thus easier for our brains to process.
I’m not blogging much this week, and I have a good excuse. I’m on vacation on the Outer Banks, spending plenty of time on the beach. A couple of days ago I went to the top of the Hatteras Lighthouse (fantastic view), and today I went hang-gliding (tandem flight, so basically I was just a passenger; my first time hang gliding and a wondrous experience).
But I do have Internet access at the beach house where I’m staying, and I am doing the occasional bit of web surfing. Here’s an article from Science Daily about how music appears to benefit a growing brain. In a small study of young children (six who were given musical training and six who had no music lessons outside of school), researchers measured brain response on musical tests and also general memory tests. Those who had violin lessons showed a greater improvement on not just musical skills (ability to recognize harmonies and rhythms and such) but on the memory tests, which measure skills related to general cognitive abilities. I wonder whether music has effects like that on older brains as well. Sorry, this is kind of brief, but the tilefish is about ready and it’s time to eat.
An Ethiopian scientist has announced the discovery of the fossil skeleton of a three-year-old child of the same species as the famed Lucy. These Australopithecus afarensis lived around 3 million years ago (3.3 million years for the newly found baby, and 3.2 million years for Lucy herself). The species displays characteristics of both apes and humans, giving us an idea of how modern humans developed, so it provides a very interesting look at the process by which we turned into humans. There is some debate about the degree to which Australopithecus retained its tree-climbing abilities; the skeleton of the baby should provide new clues about this and other ways that early hominins shifted toward being more human. It’s the oldest and most complete child skeleton of any pre-human species yet found; it was likely buried in sediments after the child was killed in a flood. It took five years to painstakingly extract the skeleton from the sandstone in which it was found; by any criteria, it’s an extraordinary find.
Neanderthal research seems to be an active field right now. Here’s a BBC news story about some evidence that Neanderthals were around as recently as 28,000 years ago and possibly 24,000 years ago (instead of dying out 35,000 years ago as previously believed). At that time, Gibralter was not an island but was surrounded by coastal plain (marshes and dunes). In Gorham’s Cave on Gibraltar, archeologists had earlier found tools of a kind that only Neanderthals made; now they’ve gotten radiocarbon dates on charcoal from long-gone hearth fires in the cave, and the dates reveal that this is the most recent Neanderthal site yet found. The coastal plains around Gibraltar would likely have been full of game animals, and the site might have made a good hunting ground, with the cave a handy gathering place. This discovery provides more evidence for the idea that a mix of factors, including climate change, might have caused the Neanderthals to go extinct (rather than one single factor).
This press release from EurekAlert goes into the question of which represents more of a change in the hominid lineage, us or the Neanderthals. Traditionally anthropologists have viewed the Neanderthals as stranger compared to other early hominids, seeing them as something of an oddball side branch. But someone at Washington University at St. Louis has analyzed the ways in which modern humans and Neanderthals differ from earlier hominids, and found that modern humans are more unusual, suggesting that the main lineage should be considered as going straight through to Neanderthals, with modern humans something of an offshoot.
A psychologist at the University of Leicester is looking for volunteers to fill out an online survey that asks about musical tastes, personality, and some demographic information. He’s hoping to find 10,000 people worldwide to contribute to the study, which is described as the “largest of its kind to examine how musical taste can be predicted on the basis of the listener’s age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and personality.” You can take the survey at http://www.musicaltastetest.com. I took it last night; it took maybe ten minutes. There are over 50 musical styles that you rate according to how well you like them on a scale of (I think) 1-10. I was surprised at how many styles there were that I didn’t recognize. There are also questions about what your favorite type of music is, why you listen to it, and why you enjoy it, and the survey starts off with some personality-test questions and questions about your income level and such.
The press release from the university describes the results of a smaller survey of people in the UK, who were asked about musical preferences, lifestyle, and their opinions on a number of social or political questions. There were some very interesting differences between fans of different types of music. The dance music/hip-hop fans in particular constituted a distinctive group. I’m guessing that group was fairly young but the article doesn’t mention anything about age, and it would be interesting to know how (or if) people’s musical preferences change over time. The worldwide survey does ask about age.
If you have the time, go take the survey. It’s fun, and you can contribute your data point to the research.
Well, who knew. September 14 is the first World Hearing Voices Day. This press release from EurekAlert describes a newly begun study at the University of Manchester that will investigate a fact of which I was unaware: not all people who hear voices in their heads find the experience upsetting. In fact, some find it comforting or encouraging. Researchers at Manchester will investigate why hearing voices is troublesome for some and not for others.
I found a little bit of info from the Hearing Voices Network, and several pages about various WHVD events. Could hearing voices be, as some of these pages suggest, a natural variation in the population that should be de-stigmatized? I am reminded of Julian Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I haven’t read this book, and I am no doubt oversimplifying a complex argument, but my understanding is that he suggests that before people were able to integrate activity in both sides of their brains, they interpreted thoughts from one half of the brain that were “heard” by the other half as representing something outside themselves. I.e., when they talked to themselves, they thought they were hearing voices from outside (and attributed them to the gods). Evidently Jaynes said that until both hemispheres were integrated, people were not conscious in the same way that humans today are, and that people didn’t become conscious in this way until relatively recently. I can’t remember exactly when the switch is supposed to have occurred, but it was recently enough that he goes back to the very oldest stories (the Epic of Gilgamesh, e.g.) for support for his theory. I don’t know what to think of this, but it does make me wonder if maybe there is some genetic variation that leaves some people more prone to hearing voices even today. That’s just speculation though. The Manchester study sounds like it will be interesting, but it would also be interesting if someone looked for genetic similarities among those who hear voices.
You may remember a post from June about relics of human adornment dating back to around 100,000 years ago, and possibly representing the use of objects as symbols. Now here’s some more news that might push the earliest evidence of symbolic thought in humans back even further. This news story from BBC reports a find in Zambia that seems to indicate that humans were using mineral pigments as paints, possibly for body markings, as early as 200,000 years ago. A symbolic use of color would represent abstract thinking that requires language, so this might turn out to be a clue to the origins of language. Thanks to Mark for passing this one along.
Synesthesia is the ability to experience together sensory perceptions that normally are separate (e.g., associating sounds with colors, or colors with particular words). Some researchers in London think that we may all have an intuitive sense for how sound and sight can be combined, and maybe have similar links between vision and hearing. This press release describes the way they tested this. They had both synesthetes and non-synesthetes describe their visual experiences related to a piece of music. Then they made animations based on these descriptions and had museum visitors rate the degree to which the images in the animations fit the music. People chose the animations based on the synesthetes’ descriptions over the others, indicating that even if people don’t experience synesthesia themselves, they may respond to the same types of sensory mingling. The press release also gives some synesthetes’ descriptions of a Kandinsky painting. Interestingly, Kandinsky used musical terms for the names of some of his paintings, and over the course of his career moved away from the representational and toward the abstract (making visual art that was more akin to music).