Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

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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26 AUGUST, 2011

The Ghost Map: Hard Lessons in Epidemiology from Victorian London

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What an ill Victorian infant has to do with the power of maps and the future of modern cities.

At around 6AM on the morning of August 28, 1854, the Lewis infant started vomiting and excreting greenish stools with a pungent smell. Her mother gathered the soils in a bucket of tepid water and tossed them into the cesspool in the family cellar. So began the story of London’s most horrific epidemic, the Broad Street cholera outbreak. In The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, Steven Johnson, easily my favorite nonfiction writer working today, unleashes his signature cross-disciplinary thinking to explore the intricate interconnections between the spread of the disease, the rise of cities, the mysteries of medicine, and the very nature of scientific inquiry.

It’s the story of two men, Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead, who began to suspect the true cause of the outbreak and were eventually proven right by a rigorous, contested investigation. But Johnson’s genius is in his ability to translate the fascinating but seemingly irrelevant into a highly context of excruciating relevance, exploring what this story means for the liabilities and vulnerabilities of modern cities. (Cue in Monday’s omnibus of 7 essential books on cities)

This is a story with four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men. One dark week a hundred fifty years ago, in the midst of great terror and human suffering, their lives collided on London’s Broad Street, on the western edge of Soho.

This book is an attempt to tell the story in a way that does justice to the multiple scales of existence that helped bring it about: from the invisible kingdom of microscopic bacteria, to the tragedy and courage and camaraderie of individual lives, to the cultural realm of ideas and ideologies, all the way up to the sprawling metropolis of London itself. It’s the story of a map that lies at the intersection of all those different vectors, a map created to help make sense of an experience that defied human understanding.”

I’m a big believer in the power of maps as great sense-making mechanisms, so I find The Ghost Map deeply fascinating and an extraordinary feat of intelligence. It also makes me wonder how an epidemic of this scale would unfold today, at a time when evolved high-tech mapping tools like Ushahidi would not only glean better understanding of how the deadly wave is propagating but also track its progress in real-time and offer a powerful weapon in the arsenal of man’s epic battle against microbe.

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25 AUGUST, 2011

You’re a Wonder: How Your Ear Works

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Why temporary deafness is good for you, or what sound waves have to do with the smallest bone in the body.

Yesterday, mathemagician Vi Hart dazzled us with math of noises and science of sound, frequency and pitch. Today, we turn to a complementary short excerpt from BBC’s fascinating Inside the Human Body series, explaining the marvel of human hearing. Listen and learn.

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