Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

07 SEPTEMBER, 2011

World Science Festival: Scents and Sensibilities, or How Smell Works

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From pheromones to disease detection via smell, or what your nose has to do with the neurochemistry of nostalgia.

Smell is often considered the most primal and most evocative of our senses. But how does it really work, and what exactly is its secret language? That’s exactly what Scents and Sensibilities explores — a fascinating 90-minute program from the World Science Festival, covering everything from pheromones to the smell of fear to how scent influences behavior to the incredible sentimental value of smells. The full program is now available online in its entirety, an absolute treat of fascination and self-knowledge.

Smell is the only human sense that brings floating molecules from our environment into direct contact with our neurons.”

Particularly intriguing is this segment by neuroscientist and olfactory researcher Leslie Vosshall on how smell actually works and the complex chemical interplay of scents:

Once you go beyond three [olfactory] components, people are completely stumped because the 400 receptors start interacting. It will be like A + B = Z, so a completely different precept emerges, which is why perfumery ends up being so empirical and so artistic. You can predict what you’ll get when you mix two colors, you actually can’t predict what will happen when you mix two smells.” ~ Leslie Vosshall

For more on this infinitely fascinating subject, see Avery Gilbert’s excellent What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Secret Life of Pronouns: Computational Linguistics and What Our Word Choices Reveal About Us

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What the pronouns you use reveal about your thoughts and emotions, or how to liespot your everyday email.

We’re social beings wired for communicating with one another, and as new modes and platforms of communication become available to us, so do new ways of understanding the complex patterns, motivations and psychosocial phenomena that underpin that communication. That’s exactly what social psychologist and language expert James W. Pennebaker explores in The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (public library) — a fascinating look at what Pennebaker’s groundbreaking research in computational linguistics reveals about our emotions, our sense of self, and our perception of our belonging in society. Analyzing the subtle linguistic patterns in everything from Craigslist ads to college admission essays to political speeches to Lady Gaga lyrics, Pennebaker offers hard evidence for the insight that our most unmemorable words — pronouns, prepositions, prefixes — can be most telling of true sentiment and intention.

Both a fascinating slice of human psychology and a practical toolkit for deciphering our everyday email exchanges, tweets and Facebook statuses, the research looks at what our choice of words like “I,” “she,” “mine” and “who” reveals about our deeper thoughts, emotions and motivations — and those of the people with whom we communicate.

One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status.” ~ James Pennebaker

Art by Stefanie Posavec from her 'Writing Without Words' project. Click image for more.

Like much of scientific discovery, Pennebaker’s interest in pronouns began as a complete fluke — in the 1980s, he and his students discovered when asked to write about emotional upheavals, people’s physical health improved, indicating that putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals. They eventually developed a computerized text analysis program to examine how language use might predict later health improvements, trying to find out whether there was a “healthy” way to write. To his surprise, the greatest predictor of health was people’s choice of pronouns.

Scientific American has an excellent interview with Pennebaker:

As I pondered these findings, I started looking at how people used pronouns in other texts — blogs, emails, speeches, class writing assignments, and natural conversation. Remarkably, how people used pronouns was correlated with almost everything I studied. For example, use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) was consistently related to gender, age, social class, honesty, status, personality, and much more. Although the findings were often robust, people in daily life were unable to pick them up when reading or listening to others. It was almost as if there was a secret world of pronouns that existed outside our awareness.” ~ James Pennebaker

From gender differences that turn everything you know on its head to an analysis of the language of suicidal vs. non-suicidal poets to unexpected insights into famous historical documents, The Secret Life of Pronouns gleans insights with infinite applications, from government-level lie-detection to your everyday email inbox, and makes a fine addition to these 5 essential books on language.

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31 AUGUST, 2011

Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns for the Information Age

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What the basis of Buddhism has to do with Jack Kerouac, poverty in Italy and Alice in Wonderland.

Data visualization is a running theme of visual literacy here, and Manuel Lima has been one of its biggest advocates since 2005 when, shortly after graduating from the Parson School of Design, he launched VisualComplexity — an ambitious portal for the visualization of complex networks across a multitude of disciplines, from biology to history to the social web. This month marks the highly anticipated release of Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information — a rigorously researched, beautifully designed, thoughtfully curated anthology of the world’s most compelling work at the intersection of these two relatively nascent yet increasingly powerful techno-cultural phenomena, network science and information visualization.

Philipp Steinweber and Andreas Koller

Similar Diversity, 2007

A visualization of the similarities and difference between the holy books of five world religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.

Marco Quaggiotto

Knowledge Cartography, 2008

Screenshots taken from ATLAS, an application developed to explore the possibilities of applying cartographic techniques to mapping knowledge. ATLAS allows users to list their biobibliographic references and to map them according to four main rendering modes: semantic, socio-relational, geographic, and temporal.

From the sacred meaning of trees and their age-old use as classification systems to the science behind network thinking to the stunning and visually expressive products of cutting-edge digital visualization, Lima — author, designer, and deep thinker — not only explores the multiplicitous allure of networks, but also crafts an important analog artifact to contain these rapidly vanishing digital ephemera. (You know, in case you were wondering why computational creativity should belong in a book.)

As the book gained shape, it quickly became clear that it was not just about making the pool of knowledge more accessible, but also saving it for posterity. As I reviewed projects to feature in the book, I was astounded by how many dead links and error messages I encountered. Some of these projects became completely untraceable, possibly gone forever. This disappearance is certainly not unique to network visualization — it is a widespread quandary of modern technology. Commonly referred to as the Digital Dark Age, the possibility of many present-day digital artifacts vanishing within a few decades is a considerably worrying prospect.” ~ Manuel Lima

From the Bible to Wikipedia edits to the human genome, the gorgeous and thought-provoking visualizations in the book will make you look at the world in a whole new way, and the insightful essays accompanying them will vastly expand your understanding of the trends and technologies shaping our ever-evolving relationship with information.

The tree of the Two Advents

Joachim of Fiore, Liber figurarum, 1202

This remarkable figure presents the main characters and institutions of the Christian salvation history. From bottom to top: Adam, Jacob the Patriarch, Ozias the Prophet, and Jesus Christ (repeated twice). The figure of Christ dominates the center of the genealogical tree (representing the first coming, or Redemption), as well as the very top (the place of the second coming, or Resurrection). The lower branches, originating from the figure of Jacob the Patriarch, correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel, and the top branches, radiating from the image of Jesus Christ, symbolize the twelve Christian churches.

Brain and Body

Alesha Sivartha, The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man, 1912

Density Design: Mario Porpora

The Poverty Red Thread, 2008

A map of the poverty line in Italy organized according to family typologies (number of family members), and further categorized by location (the north, center, or south of Italy).

Martin Krzywinski

Circos, 2005

A visualization of chromosomal relationships within one genome.

Stefanie Posavec

Writing Without Words, 2008

A chart of the structure of part one of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957). Each splitting of the branch into progressively smaller sections parallels the organization of the content from chapters to paragraphs, sentences, and words. Each color relates to one of eleven thematic categories created by Posavec for the book (e.g., travel, work and survival, sketches of regional life).

(More on Posavec’s brilliant project here.)

Christoper Paul Baker

Email Map, 2007

A rendering of the relationships between Baker and individuals in his address book generated by examining the to, from, and cc fields of every email in his in-box archive.

Chris Harrison

Visualizing the Bible, 2007

A map of the 63,779 cross-references found in the Bible. The bar graph on the bottom represents all of the books in the Bible, alternating between white and light gray for easy differentiation. The length of each bar, representative of a book's chapter and dropping below the datum, corresponds to the number of verses in that chapter. Each arc represents a textual cross-reference (e.g., place, person), and the color denotes the distance between the two chapters where the reference appears -- ultimately creating a rainbowlike effect.

One of the year’s most exciting volumes, Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information makes a winsome addition to these essential books on data visualization and a powerful tool in your visual literacy arsenal for navigating the Information Age.

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30 AUGUST, 2011

Lip Service: The Science of Smiles

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What crow’s feet have to do with authenticity and why you don’t remember your first smile.

Years ago, I did an undergraduate thesis on nonverbal communication and facial expression, a large portion of which revolved around the Duchenne smile — a set of anatomical markers that differentiate an authentic smile from a feigned one. The science of smiles is, of course, far more complex than the mere fake vs. real dichotomy — the universal expression of positive disposition lives on a rich spectrum of micro-expressions and nuances. That’s exactly what Marianne LaFrance explores in Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics — a fascinating new book drawing on the author’s research at Yale and Boston College, alongside a wide array of cross-disciplinary studies from psychology, anthropology, biology, medicine and computer science, to reveal how smiles impact our inter-personal dynamics and our life experience as social beings.

Facial expressions triggered by electric stimulation, from Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine by Guillaume Duchenne, 1862

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

From Darwin’s famous early dabbles in the science of facial expressions to Duchenne’s legacy, from evidence of babies practicing smiling in the womb to studies suggesting a positive correlation between smiling and longevity, LaFrance blends a researcher’s rigor with a social scientist’s humanism in an intelligent yet highly readable narrative, complete with 38 illuminating black-and-white illustrations. LaFrance writes:

Smiles are universally recognized and understood for what they show and convey, yet not necessarily for what they do. Smiles are much more than cheerful expressions. They are social acts with consequences.

Wired has an excellent interview with La France, for a taste of the book’s fascination:

People think they can tell by looking at what the overall face looks like, but in fact there is one muscle [that shows sincerity]. It’s a muscle, called the obicularis occuli, that encircles the eye socket. Most people don’t pay very close attention to and it’s very hard to deliberately adopt. So when people genuinely smile, in a true burst of positive emotion, not only to the corners of the mouth, controlled by the zygomaticus major, but this muscle around the eye also contracts. This causes the crows feet wrinkles that fan out from the outer corners of the eyes and its also responsible for folds in the upper eyelid. Most people can’t do that deliberately.

Lip Service is part Liespotting, part The Exultant Ark, part whole new way of looking at our most powerful nonverbal expression of shared humanity.

Thanks to Flickr Commons for the endless bounty of public domain images

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