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Notes & Neurons: Music, Emotion and the Brain

From axons to a cappella, or why music gives us chills and thrills.

Music is easily the widest-reaching, most universal emotional facilitator. Anecdotally, it shapes so many of life’s everyday experiences: An epic movie would fall flat without a cinematic soundtrack, a party without dance music is unthinkable, and a run without an upbeat playlist feels somehow much more tiresome. Scientifically, music has been shown to impact anything from our alertness and relaxation to our memory to our physical and emotional well-being.

Today, we take a look at just how music affects our brain and emotion, with Notes & Neurons: In Search of a Common Chorus — a fascinating event from the 2009 World Science Festival.

But before we launch into the geekier portion, here’s a quick improvised treat from phenomenal jazz and a cappella performer Bobby McFerrin, who embodies the intimate relationship between music and the human element.

The panel — hosted by John Schaefer and featuring Jamshed Barucha, scientist Daniel Levitin, Professor Lawrence Parsons and Bobby McFerrin — takes us through a series of live performances and demonstrations that illustrate music’s interaction with the brain and our emotions, exploring some of the most interesting questions about this incredible phenomenon.

Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined? Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment?

We encourage you to see the full Notes & Neurons: In Search of a Common Chorus program, or snack on some more digestible bites over at World Science Festival’s Vimeo channel.

And while we’re at it, we highly recommend neuroscientist Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain — an utterly fascinating read about the extreme effect music can have on our cognitive and emotional lives.

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The Mother of All Demos

Geek history, or why 2009 has nothing on 1968.

Today always has a certain arrogance towards yesterday — each generation likes to credit itself with the invention of, well, everything that matters. But certain things — personal computing, social networking, digital collaboration — are surely the product of our contemporary era, right? Wrong.

On December 9, 1968, Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart of the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute staged what’s been dubbed “the mother of all demos” — a 90-minute public multimedia demonstration that debuted personal and interactive computing to the world.

It was the cultural grand entrance of many of the technologies we use today: the computer mouse, hypertext linking, real-time text editing, multiple windows with flexible view control, screenshare teleconferencing.

Cure your presentism bias with a look at the full 1968 demo and catch Dr. Engelbart’s talk at Google Authors, where he delves into 57 years worth of his fascinating work on social networking systems.

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Documentary Spotlight: Waterlife

Canadian interactive genius, or where 100 billion gallons of water went while you were sleeping.

Sea levels may be rising at alarming rates, but there’s one vital place where they are dipping at a frightening pace — the Great Lakes, which provide 20% of the Earth’s surface fresh water and constitute the world’s third largest industrial economy.

Waterlife, a fascinating documentary by the National Film Board of Canada and director Kevin McManoh, explores the wide-ranging consequences of this concentrated environmental apocalypse. It tells the epic story of the water’s journey from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean through the lives of some of the 35 million people who rely on it for survival.

Perhaps most noteworthy, however — and contrary to what you’d expect from a government-subsidized documentary — is the film’s brilliantly interactive website that draws you in and doesn’t let go until you’re fundamentally disturbed by the issue at hand.

From fishing to evaporation to chemical poisoning, the site hones in on every aspect of the crisis in a thoroughly engaging way — a rare and priceless approach in a cultural market saturated by preachy environmental messages that often fall flat and fail to engage emotionally.

On average, 100 billion gallons of water evaporate from the Great Lakes each day.

So play around with the site and try to see the film. Meanwhile, explore the research behind the Great Lakes environmental tragedy, find out about local screenings, or learn how to organize your own.

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Animation Spotlight: The Falcon

Retrostalgia goes avian, or what old cameras have to do with humanitarianism.

We love steampunk. We love stop-motion. And we love vintage cameras. Thereby, we absolutely adore The Falcon — a delightful steampunk stop-motion animation composed entirely of macro-photographed hardware pieces from disassembled vintage and antique cameras, for that indulgent analog/digital experience.

The story stars Professor Weston (ISO 50), Silly Patty (+2/-2 EV) and ‘Howell’ the Owl (f/256), as they journey throughout the Focal Kingdom searching for dinner, with cameos by Falcon Minette, Argus AF & C3, Mercury II, Yashica TL, assorted Weston Light Meters, and various Polaroid Land Cameras. (Read the full story synopsis here.)

The film comes from The Shamptonian Institute, a wonderful humanitarian / culture collective that engages in anything from disaster relief advocacy to vinyl recordings preservation.

We encourage you to explore their fascinating library of media artifacts, including vintage ads and retro Eastern European postage stamps.

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