Autotune the Abstract: Singing in the Brain

Autotune the Abstract: Singing in the Brain

Autotuned sensation Rebecca Black is very excited about this new concept...

As a science communication student I find myself constantly coming across new and different ways people try and get across scientific data and knowledge. It can range from typical things such as news articles and blog posts to knitted representations of science. Whilst some of the crazy ways people try and get out their research may seem misguided, I think this blatant eccentricity should be applauded and encouraged.

It is with this sentiment in mind that I decided for this post to create my own oddball way of presenting research. After much deliberation I decided to autotune the abstract of a science paper. The first step in my attempt to revolutionise science publishing was to pick a lucky research paper to become the launch song. After much scouring of Google Scholar I found the following:

“Singing in the brain: Professional singers, occasional singers, and out-of-tune singers: Gottfried Schlaug; Acoustical Society of America (2009)”

Which, given its subject matter, felt like the perfect research to autotune. Now, unfortunately not every research scientist is a professional sound technician. However, this is something that can be overcome as there are plenty of apps for Iphone and Android that will do all the complicated technical stuff for you! For this first attempt I selected one called “Songify” which is an app produced by the Gregory Brothers, the band who produce the popular online series ‘Autotune the News’.

So without further ado here is the first Autotune the Abstract:

I hope that this practice will become as established in scientific publishing as peer review. I also expect to see the awesomeness of the produced songs incorporated into the impact factors of journals.

And the Oscar goes to…Science!?

And the Oscar goes to…Science!?

"I'd just like to thank my project supervisor..."

Hollywood has never had a particularly good reputation for scientific accuracy. However, recently its science acumen has received a boost. It is currently the first time that the ‘reigning’ best actor and actress have been both been scientifically published.

Colin Firth, has taken time out from swimming in country lakes and stuttering to co-author a paper in Current Biology. The research looked into whether there are any structural differences in the brains of young adults with different political affiliations.

His co-Oscar winner Natalie Portman has been published twice. Credited as Natalie Hershlag, her family name, she published a paper on sugar chemistry whilst in high school and another entitled “Frontal Lobe Activation during Object Permanence: Data from Near-Infrared Spectroscopy” whilst completing her psychology degree at Harvard.

Figure 1. Individual Differences in Political Attitudes and Brain Structure

Both also seem to have made valuable contributions to scientific knowledge with their research. Firth’s paper showed that “Liberalism was associated with the gray matter volume of anterior cingulate cortex” and that “Conservatism was associated with increased right amygdala size” as can been seen in Figure 1.

The question of whether or not it is psychological or environmental factors that influence political stance has been debated for many years. The findings of the paper side with recent studies in twins which claims that “a substantial amount” of political opinion is influenced by genetics.

The neuroscience paper published by Natalie Portman looked into the progress of ‘object permanence’ in child development. Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, heard, or touched. Her research used near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor the levels of oxy and deoxyhaemoglobin. The research revealed that the rise in object permanence occurs simultaneously to a rise in the levels of haemoglobin concentration in the frontal cortex.

Whilst, these two members of the Hollywood A-list have dabbled in a bit of science it seems that they aren’t going to give up on their day jobs. Portman most recently graced our screens in the decidedly unscientific Thor, whilst Colin Firth was most recently seen in the tense spy film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.

New Research Idicates How OCD Behaviours Are Formed

New Research Idicates How OCD Behaviours Are Formed

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a debilitating condition affecting millions everyday. It is estimated that, in the UK, 2% of people aged between 18 and 56 suffer from some form of obsessive compulsive behaviour. Despite this widespread occurrence, however, there is much we do not know about the condition.

Historically, OCD has been dismissed as having no physiological cause, but scientists have shown that there are underlying biological factors in the condition. Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have shown that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, normally responsible for goal-based decisions, is implicated in the condition. Neurologists have also suggested several other areas play a role.

But how these physiological deficits manifest themselves is only just beginning to be understood. A recent study carried out in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University indicates that the compulsions are due to overactive habit forming mechanisms.

Clair Gillan, a lead researcher in the study, said: ‘The goal was to look at the habit hypothesis of OCD, to see if [sufferers] had a greater predisposition to habit formation than control subjects’. The researchers were able to analyse this by comparing the abilities of control and OCD participants. Each subject was trained to use a computer programme to gain points by clicking on the correct boxes of fruit that appeared on screen. The fruits that gained the participants points were then changed. The OCD patients showed they were significantly less able than the controls to change the habit they had learned. They did not achieve their goals as successfully and thus gained fewer points. One participant, ‘Mr J’ (a severe OCD sufferer), commented that when he saw the fruits it was as if his ‘hands knew what to do’ and followed the earlier training goals, not the newer goals.

There are several different techniques currently used to treat OCD. These include the drastic (such as surgery), the experimental (such as psychedelic drugs) and the psychological (such as behavioural therapy). ‘I think it’s a very important validation of cognitive behavioural therapy’ said Gillan commenting on her study. She highlighted in particular the ‘exposure and response prevention technique’, also known as Pavlovian extinction. Patients undergoing this therapy are exposed to their feared situation.

Whilst our knowledge of OCD has no doubt improved, there is still much to discover.
Gillan CM, Papmeyer M, Morein-Zamir S, Sahakian BJ, Fineberg NA, Robbins TW, & de Wit S (2011). Disruption in the Balance Between Goal-Directed Behavior and Habit Learning in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The American journal of psychiatry PMID: 21572165

Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Put His Head in a Particle Accelerator

Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Put His Head in a Particle Accelerator

Images of his injury

“Have you been injured at work in an accident that wasn’t your fault?” The terrible adverts, for companies like ‘lawyers4u’,  characterise work injuries as falling off laders or slipping on a wet floor. Well for one man, his work related accident was a great deal more spectacular. Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski accidentally put his head in a particle accelerator.

He remains to this day the only person to have done so and, perhaps most shockingly, survived and is still around today. But, how does one go about accidentally putting your head in a particle accelerator? Well, on July 13, 1978, Bugorski was working on the U-70 synchrotron at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino. A small piece of equipment was malfunctioning and in the process of fixing it he leaned in too far and came into contact with the proton beam. When later asked to describe what it was like, he said he saw a flash of light that was “brighter than a thousand suns”. But, amazingly felt no pain.

Very quickly after the incident occurred the left side of his face swelled beyond all recognition. The beam entered his skull at the back of his head, with the exit wound close to his nose. After a few days the skin at the entry and exit points peeled away showing the path the beam took through the skin, skull and brain. His prognosis was extremely poor and was taken to a clinic in Moscow where they expected to observe him die over a period of two to three weeks.

The proton beam was about 200,000 rads. Previous data indicated that 1000 rads would be enough to kill a human (even the famously radioactively robust cockroach will die after 20,000). However, the specific effects of a proton beam travelling at the speed of light were not known.

After the initial incident the path of the beam began to burn through his brain. This continued for 2 years until the left-hand side of his face was completely paralysed. Apparently, this has had an almost botox like effect on his face. The left side of his face has been described as not having aged and being “frozen in time”, whilst the right side of his face has aged normally. Other than this, Anatoli has had surprisingly few neurological symptoms. Over the initial 12 years after the incident he had occasional petit mal seizures. More recently he has had an increased number grand mal seizures.

Anatoli continued his life after it became apparent he was not at risk of immediate death. He completed his PhD and worked as a researcher for many years  (Google Scholar lists some of his research). Not long ago he decided to make himself available to Western researchers, but he did not have the money to relocate from Protvino. He thinks he would make a brilliant research subject: “This is, in effect, an unintended test of proton warfare,” he claims. More to the point, he believes, “I am being tested. The human capacity for survival is being tested.”

Previous posts in this series:

The Man Who Could Not Forget

Musical Brain Surgery

Leborgne & Lelong

The Sound of Science: Results & Explanation

The Sound of Science: Results & Explanation

First of all a big thank you to everyone who took part in this little experiment. Secondly, sorry this post is a little later than I originally said it would be.

I was inspired to try this after listening to the sound and reading about what its effects should be. I was surprised to find that it’s effects worked on me, but I was curious as to whether that was the placebo effect because I knew what was supposed to happen. So that was the motivation for the experiment. The results were very interesting, 21 votes were recorded and were as follows:

What Effect Did the Sound Have On You?

None – 6 – 29%

Made me feel energised – 8 – 38%

Made me feel strange – 6 – 29%

Made me feel sleepy – 1 – 5%

But, what was the sound? Well, this experiment looked at the effects of binaural beats. An EEG detects different frequency waves in the brain during different mental states. The theory of binaural beats is that by listening to a particular frequency the brain enters the state of mind corresponding tp the EEG , as below:

> 40 Hz Gamma waves Higher mental activity, including perception, problem solving, fear, and consciousness
13–39 Hz Beta waves Active, busy or anxious thinking and active concentration, arousal, cognition, and or paranoia
7–13 Hz Alpha waves Relaxation (while awake), pre-sleep and pre-wake drowsiness, REM sleep, Dreams
4–7 Hz Theta waves deep meditation/relaxation, NREM sleep
< 4 Hz Delta waves Deep dreamless sleep, loss of body awareness

The sound in the experiment was a Theta wave. Therefore, should have created feelings of being tired  and sleepiness. The poll on my original post found very different results with feeling “energised” the most popular feeling due to the sound and feeling “sleepy” the least popular.

This is obviously not a 100% accurate study. I have no idea how long the people who voted listened for, what they listened with (supposedly headphones makes the effect much more pronounced) or what environment they were in. As a result, with a small sample size and these big unknowns the inverse of the expected results is, ironically, not unexpected!

There have been lots of suggested (and unproven) uses and effects of binaural beats including improving memory, sporting performance, stopping smoking, dieting help and tackling erectile dysfunction. Some have even referred to it as an “auditory alternative medicine”! Even more bizarrely some people are claiming that this technology can be used to create drug like effects known as “i-dosing”. The effects of these sounds are still being studied and their actual effects is hotly debated with some maintaining that it is all placebo.

To me, without being able to find sufficient research on the effects of the sounds, I find it hard to draw a conclusion about the effects. I am willing to accept that binaural sounds may have a real effect on alertness. However, the more outlandish claims are really just ridiculous, and should be ignored.

To see an alarmist US news report on “i-doping” watch this video (sorry about the poor syncing of the audio):

Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Facebook Shown to Boost Self-Esteem

Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Facebook Shown to Boost Self-Esteem

Is my profile picture the fairest of them all? As a phenomena Facebook is still fairly new and its impact sociologically and psychologically remains to be completely understood. However, a new study has shone a little bit of light into this still cloudy area, claiming that looking at your Facebook profile page boosts your self-esteem.

The study was carried out by Amy Gonzales and Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University. Previous research indicated internet use promotes depression, loneliness and to decreased social skills. However, the effect of Facebook exposure on general self-esteem had not been explored.

The participants were told that the study was designed to examine “people’s attitudes about themselves after exploring different Internet sites” and were separated into three groups. An online group, an offline group and an offline control group.

The online control group were asked to go onto their Facebook page and were given no instruction on whether or not they were allowed to change their page. After three minutes the researchers returned with a questionnaire. In the offline group a mirror was placed infront of the computer screen to act as an offline “self awareness stimulator” and were told they could not move it, due to it being “part of another experiment”. After three minutes they were given a questionnaire. The offline control group were placed in the same cubicle without the mirror and without the screen turned on.

Self-esteem was measure using the Rosenburg Self-Esteem scale and used to test several hypotheses. The hypotheses were as follows:

  1. Exposure to one’s Facebook site will have a more negative effect on self-esteem than traditional objective self-awareness stimuli
  2. Exposure to one’s Facebook site will have a more positive effect on self-esteem than a control condition or a traditional self-awareness stimuli
  3.  Participants who exclusively examine only their own profile will report higher self-esteem than participants who view other profiles in addition to their own profiles
  4.  Participants who make changes to their profile during the experiment will have higher self-esteem than participants who do not

Contrast analyses were undertaken that showed that there was a significant link between the Facebook views and an increase in self-esteem. When looking at the effect of individuals changing their Facebook pages the researchers declared that “participants who changed their profile during the study reported higher self-esteem than those who did not change their profile”.

But what does this tell us, about us? The results follow the Walther’s Hyperpersonal model, suggesting that the process of selective self-presentation of ourselves on Facebook influences our impressions of ourselves, in this instance boosting self-esteem. In contrast to this when presented with a non-edited view (i.e. mirror) self-esteem is decreased.

There are limitations in this study that need to be taken into account. The study did not normalise for the number and quality of friendships on Facebook. This is a factor that obviously could play a role in how someone interacts with the site. 

So, next time I am on Facebook when I probably should be working I will tell myself, don’t worry, it’s good for me…and will avoid looking in the mirror!

Gonzales AL, & Hancock JT (2011). Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Effects of Exposure to Facebook on Self-Esteem. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 14 (1-2), 79-83 PMID: 21329447

Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Could Not Forget

Neuroscience Cases: The Man Who Could Not Forget

How many times have you been sat revising for an exam wishing that you had the power of a perfect instantaneous memory? Well, for a tiny number of people that isn’t just a pipe dream. Known as mnemonists these individuals have unfathomable memories and data recall. This is the story of one of the first properly studied, and most interesting cases, Solomon Shereshevskii.

Born in Russia in 1886 to a Jewish family Shereshevskii, or simply ‘S’ as he is sometimes referred in literature externally appeared to lead a normal life. As an adult, after failing as a musician he embarked on a career as a journalist. It wasn’t till a chance meeting with the Neuropsychologist Alexander Luria (one of the founding fathers of the discipline) that his gift became apparent.

Alexander Luria

Shereshesvkii was reporting on a talk given by Luria. At one point Luria looked around the room and noticed that, unlike all the rest of the journalists, there was an individual not taking any notes. Luria confronted Shereshesvkii asking why he was not taking notes, at this point Shereshesvkii recited his entire talk back to word for word. Luria was stunned, as was Shereshesvkii who at this point had never realised that no one else had his perfect recall. This began a friendship and research partnership that lasted many years, with Luria conducting many studies into what might be the cause of his incredible abilities.

Luria’s studies revealed many interesting things about the workings of Shereshesvkii mind. His descriptions indicate that Sherevskii had “at least six different types of synaesthesia” triggered by at least four different sensations (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The synysthetic links outlined by Luria in his book "The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory" (The page numbers indicate the pages of evidence for each link)

Sherevskii synaesthesia was very vivid describing the reaction he got when thinking about numbers as:

“Take the number 1. This is a proud, well-built man; 2 is a high-spirited woman; 3 a gloomy person; 6 a man with a swollen foot; 7 a man with a moustache; 8 a very stout woman—a sack within a sack. As for the number 87, what I see is a fat woman and a man twirling his moustache”

Shereshevskii’s ability to recall numbers was a particular area of study for Luria. The tests began with Luria giving him 30 numbers to memorise and testing him soon after, unsurprisingly given his previously demonstrated abilities this was no problem. He was then given longer and longer sequences (peaking at 70) and was able to recall them all. Curious about Shereshevskii’s long term memory Luria then asked him 15-16 years later for the original sequence of numbers, and he was able to remember the sequence.

However, having such vivid and accurate memory did have its problems. Due to the connection between his senses he sometimes had unpleasant reactions to stimuli, saying:

“One time I went to buy some ice cream … I walked over to the vendor and asked her what kind of ice cream she had. ‘Fruit ice cream,’ she said. But she answered in such a tone that a whole pile of coals, of black cinders, came bursting out of her mouth, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy any ice cream after she had answered in that way”

He also had a difficulty recognising faces, which he saw as “interchangeable”, occasionally had problems reading (due to the distracting sensations the words could cause) and grew frustrated with his inability to forget.

Luria said of Sherevskii that he “had no distinct limits . . . there was no limit either to the capacity of S.’s memory or the durability of the traces retained”.

Towards the ends of his life Sherevskii claimed to have discovered a way of selectively forgetting memories, although this was never scientifically tested.  


Yaro C, & Ward J (2007). Searching for Shereshevskii: what is superior about the memory of synaesthetes? Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006), 60 (5), 681-95 PMID: 17455076

Alexander Luria (1988). The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory (reprint). PsycCRITIQUES, 33 (3) DOI: 10.1037/025559