Archive: February 2008

The neurobiology of the Mona Lisa’s smile

For hundreds of years, art critics have mused over why the Mona Lisa’s smile seems so mysterious. Now the Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone has a fascinating answer: It’s because Da Vinci painted her face in colors that play tricks on the eye.

Livingstone’s work has long examined the way that different cells in the visual system process different types of information — such as form, color, depth and movement. When she analyzed the Mona Lisa, she found that Da Vinci painted her smile almost completely in low spatial frequencies, and these are best picked up in your peripheral vision. The result, as she notes on her web site, is a nifty illusion:

These three images — [pictured above!] — show her face filtered to show selectively lowest (left) low (middle) and high (right) spatial frequencies.

So when you look at her eyes or the background, you see a smile like the one on the left, or in the middle, and you think she is smiling. But when you look directly at her mouth, it looks more like the panel on the right, and her smile seems to vanish. The fact that the degree of her smile varies so much with gaze angle makes her expression dynamic, and the fact that her smile vanishes when you look directly at it, makes it seem elusive.

It’s somewhat like the way rods in the eye are more numerous in the periphery of our retinas — so the best way to see a faint star in the night sky is to look slightly to the side of it. Either way, this is really cool science.

Cooler than the actual Mona Lisa, really. When I visited the painting a few year ago, I found the experience incredibly underwhelming, because the painting is so ferociously guarded by security devices: A velvet rope preventing you from coming closer than 20 feet, storm troopers with tasers, and, worst of all, a plastic box that produces reflections of light so garish that they destroy any effect Da Vinci was trying to make. Seriously — I get a more moving artistic experience when I look at a low-rez gif of the painting on Flickr. Walter Benjamin would be rolling in his grave.

(Thanks to David Dobbs for this one!)

Why solitary workers can be faster workers

For years, I’ve worked in isolation — either sitting alone in my office, or, recently, sitting in a rented cubicle in New York. I haven’t had a job that required me to work physically alongside coworkers since 1998.

And maybe that’s been a good thing for my productivity — because according to a new study, when you can see other workers performing different tasks out the corner of your eye, it slows you down. Tim Welsh, a kinesiologist at the University of Calgary, organized a nifty experiment in which he asked a subject to perform a task on a computer, alongside a partner performing a different computer task. Then he’d get the subject to perform the task while his partner went off to another room.

The result? When subjects were working alongside companions, they worked more slowly. Welsh theorizes that when we watch someone else performing a task, it triggers our mirror neurons, and mentally we begin modelling the task ourselves. If we’re simultaneously trying to complete our own, different task, the signals get crossed — and we slow down.

Welsh reports his results — “Seeing vs. believing: Is believing sufficient to activate the processes of response co-representation?” — in the December 2007 issue of the Journal of Human Movement Science, but, alas, it’s behind a paywall.

But as he concludes in this press release:

“In a situation where speed and accuracy in performing a certain task are important, I think an argument could be made for a work setting in which people work in isolation — or at least with people who doing very similar tasks,” he said. “That will remove the involuntary modeling of another’s behaviour, potentially improving speed and likely accuracy.”

If his conclusions hold water, they’d have some interesting implications for labor-resource management. For one thing, it might be that private offices would sufficiently improve the productivity of a corporation that it would offset the cost of giving employees private offices.

(Photo courtesy nycbone’s Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license!)

LaRouche report calls me a “degenerate writer”

This is beyond delightful! The LaRouche PAC report — “The Noosphere vs. The Blogosphere: Is The Devil in Your Laptop?” — refers to me as a “degenerate writer”, “infantile”, and a “disgruntled family man”.

Apparently the political action committee of Lydon Larouche — an economist, political activist, and prolific conspiracy theorist — decided to fund a report on various sourges of digital life, including blogs, Wikipedia, and video games. (PDF copy here.) As you might imagine, the section on video games argues that video games are training kids to become such bloodthirsty psychopaths — so thoroughly desensitized to death — that they are inexorably drawn to suicide.

Their proof? My video game columns at Wired News! The report writers stitch together horrified reactions to my columns on Halo suicide bombings and the infamous Super Columbine Massacre RPG, in a bouquet of prose so garishly purple it reads as if it had been written by a Victorian sexual anthropologist. I don’t even know where to start quoting; it’s all so spectacularly wonderful! So I’ll just excerpt the segment below at length, and let it speak for itself.

I should point out that their research is so dreadful that the errors begin in the header opening up their section on me, where they report that I live in “Worcestershire, U.K.” I also love that picture, which — in addition to clearly depicting my homicidal/suicidal degeneracy and familial dissatisfaction — they appear to have stolen, without attribution, from the web site of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships.

This is the best thing I’ve read in, like, seven years or something. And who knows? Given that just yesterday I blogged about the aesthetic pleasure of dying in Halo 3, maybe they’re right!


The Case of Wired Magazine Writer Clive Thompson, 38 years old Worcestershire, U.K., Nov. 5, 2007

On Nov. 5, 2007, degenerate writer Clive Thompson supplied clinical evidence to support the charge by Lyndon LaRouche that, the intended end-game of computer games is to drive the player to suicide. In addition, he provided clinical evidence that it is an obvious intention of certain institutions to popularize this cult of death, in the United States and Western Europe. In his enraged screed, titled, “Suicide Makes Sick Sense After Playing Halo 3,” Thompson wrote, “I used to find it hard to fully imagine the mindset of a terrorist. That is, until I played Halo 3 online, where I found myself adopting — with great success — terrorist tactics. Including a form of suicide bombing.” The infantile Thompson whines that he “sucks” at Halo 3, played on Bill Gates’s Xbox live, because he has a wife, and kid, and therefore only gets “maybe an hour with Halo on a good day.”

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Study: Gamers actually enjoy dying in first-person-shooters

Two years ago, I wrote a column for Wired News called “The Joy of Sucking” — about the subtle pleasures of totally screwing up in a video game. It wasn’t just pulling that out of my hat. It was based on a study by Niklas Ravaja at MIND Labs, who wired up a bunch of gamers with biosensors and found that they gave off strong pleasure signals whenever they died in the game Super Monkey Ball.

Well, Ravaja is at it again — and this time he checked for players’ reactions to killing others, and dying, in a first-person shooter. The results? Apparently the act of killing other people causes enormous strain on us; however, we actually enjoy getting shot to death. As Brandon Erickson summarizes it:

“… instead of joy resulting from victory and success, wounding and killing the opponent elicited anxiety, anger, or both.” In addition, “death of the player’s own character…appear[s] to increase some aspects of positive emotion.” This latter finding the authors believe may result from the temporary “relief from engagement” brought about by character death.

That latter argument makes sense to me. When I’m in a really intense firefight in a game, I’m a total wreck, emotionally. Sure, it feels good to vanquish my foes, but sometimes it’s just nice to get a break, and dying is — among, uh, other things — certainly a break.

Part of this has to do with the intriguing aesthetic question of precisely how the first-person-shooter represents the player after the moment of death. Multiplayer Halo online offers my personal favorite death vignettes. The instant you die, the game shifts to a third-person camera perspective and follows your body as it slumps to the ground or, more often, goes pinwheeling through the air.

This sudden switch in camera angle — from first person to third person — is, in essence, a classic out-of-body experience, of exactly the sort people describe in near-death experiences. And much like real-life near-death experiences, it tends to suffuse me with a curiously zen-like feeling. The emotional narrative goes like this: During the gameplay, I’ll be desperately fighting for my life, ducking behind pillars, firing spastically, and synaesthetically wincing each time I take gunfire. Just when I think I’m safe, I’ll turn a corner, and whoa — find myself face-to-face with another opponent who slams me with a surprise punch, killing me instantly. The final attack will give me one final jolt of amygladaic shock, and then …

… hey, I’m dead, and my body is floating through the air, and I’m watching myself just sort of tumble around lazily, like a ragdoll.

It’s amazingly peaceful.

(Thanks to Brandon for this one!)

A possible explanation for “email apnea”

Linda Stone, one of my all-time favorite thinkers on the impact of technology on human life, has written a superb piece about what she’s termed “email apnea” — the phenomenon of holding your breath while you check and write email.

Stone noticed recently that whenever she sat down to check email, she began, quite unconciously, to hold her breath. Then she noticed that other people were doing it, too:

I observed others on computers and BlackBerries: in their offices, their homes, at cafes. The vast majority of people held their breath, or breathed very shallowly, especially when responding to email. I watched people on cell phones, talking and walking, and noticed that most were mouth-breathing and hyperventilating. Consider also, that for many, posture while seated at a computer can contribute to restricted breathing.

As Stone points out, holding your breath a lot wreaks havoc in your body’s normal balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitric oxide. Among other things, it freaks you out by constantly triggering your fight-or-flight instinct; it also triggers the liver to “dump glucose and cholesterol into our blood, our heart rate to increase, our sense of satiety to be compromised, and our bodies to anticipate and resource for the physical activity that, historically, accompanied a physical fight or flight response.” Stone hypothesizes that this may be a partial cause of today’s increasing obesity rates.

Yet Stone doesn’t offer an answer to what for me is the most interesting question: Why are we holding our breath when we do email?

It’s so metaphorically rich I can barely begin to tease out the implications. Do we feel somehow threatened while doing email — hence our unconscious trip into fight-or-flight mode? Or do we feel as though we’re literally diving into some socially or technologically unbreathable environment, as if jumping underwater? Or is it because we’re preparing to vocalize — i.e. that email triggers the mental rhythms of conversation and self-presentation, so we’re taking a deep breath so we can “talk” uninterrupted for 20 seconds or so? By which I mean, is this a symptom of some form of performance anxiety?

Here’s an interesting parallel. I’m a guitar player, and in my teens I learned a trick that some jazz players employ: They use breathing to keep from dithering on too long in their solos. Every time they start a new phrase in the solo, they take a breath, then exhale as they play; when their breath is gone they stop the flurry of notes. This prevents them from producing overly-long phrases of notes, which can otherwise tire out their audience.

The thing is, while this was described to me as a conscious technique, I’ve also noticed that lots of guitar players do the same thing unconsciously: Holding their breath seems to help them measure out certain emotional or logistical aspects of a guitar solo. And so I wonder, does the role of breathing in this sort of guitar playing shed any light on what we’re doing while we’re holding our breath typing email? They’re not entirely dissimilar activities. They’re both digital — in the original, literal sense of performed with our fingers — and they’re both involved with self-expression. Indeed, when I scrutinize my feelings a bit while doing email at my laptop, it does feel slightly like being on stage: I’m crafting something that’s going out to an audience.

This is all off the top of my head, and probably wrong — but hopefully it’s at least wrong in an interesting way. And hopefully Stone will write more on this, because I’d love to know her thoughts on the question! Why are we holding our breath while doing email?

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Why C-section births might cause eczema in babies

This is just about the oddest bit of research I’ve recently come across: Apparently C-sections might cause eczema in babies.

No one fully knows what causes eczema, of course. But immunologists have for years been suspecting that eczema is linked, in some way, to autoimmune disorders. And they’ve also been learning that if you want to have a good immune system, you need to have a healthy balance of intestinal bacteria.

New evidence supporting this argument comes in the latest Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, which reports on a fascinating study by some scientists out of Lund University in Sweden. The reseachers studied the feces of babies one week after birth to get a sense of how well-balanced the bacteria in their gut were. They found that newborn infants who had imbalanced intestinal bacteria often developed atopical eczema by the age of 18 months.

But here’s the interesting thing: How do newborn infants wind up with bacterial imbalances? Because of their mothers. During vaginal delivery, the children are pick up a lot of lactobacilli — lactic acid bacteria — from their mother’s vagina. Lactobacilli are crucial for maintaining a healthy balance of intestinal flora. If the mother has any bacterial imbalances, the babies won’t pick up enough lactobacilli, as this press release notes:

“With a vaginal delivery the child will come into close contact with the mother’s bacteria. If the mother has a good flora of bacteria, the contact is an important help for the child to be able to be colonized by bacteria in the proper way. It can be assumed that certain hygiene measures, such as antibiotics given in some countries in connection with deliveries, in normal cases may have a deleterious effect, since the mother then is at risk to get a skewed bacteria flora, which she passes on to the child,” Goran Molin reasons.

And as Molin goes on to point out, in the US today, one third of all women have bacterial vaginosis — a condition in which bacteria other than lactobacilli dominate.

What Molin doesn’t talk about, but which is equally interesting, is the drastic increase in the use of ceasarean-section delivery in the last few decades. If there’s no vaginal delivery, then there’s presumably no way to pass on a healthy dose of lactobacilli, either.

This made me wonder about myself, actually. I developed atopical eczema in my late teens, and it’s slowly grown more annoying over the years; and I was born by C-section. Ditto for the younger of my two older sisters. My eldest sister wasn’t born via C-section and she has no eczema. A vanishingly small and subjective sample, of course, but it fits the pattern the Swedish guys would predict.

Given the roaring debate around C-sections in this country, I’m surprised I haven’t heard much about this study. Though that’s probably because it doesn’t exactly lead to particularly palatable Thanksgiving conversations, eh? Hey mom: What was the bacterial count in your vagina when I was born? Oh boy.

Hiccups due to our fish ancestry

Here’s a lovely bit of evolutionary trivia: Apparently our hiccups are caused because we’re descended from fish.

That’s the argument that Neil Shubin, head of the University of Chicago’s anatomy school, makes in his new book Your Inner Fish. As a review of the book notes:

Spasms in our diaphragms, hiccups are triggered by electric signals generated in the brain stem. Amphibian brain stems emit similar signals, which control the regular motion of their gills. Our brain stems, inherited from amphibian ancestors, still spurt out odd signals producing hiccups that are, according to Shubin, essentially the same phenomenon as gill breathing.

Love it. Shubin’s book is a nifty and subtle rebuttal to opponents of evolution, since he documents the often kooky ways in which DNA from far-back ancestors wound up inside us: “Fossil amphibian fins that demonstrate a structural affinity with human hands; teeth, first discovered in ancient jawless fish, that evolved into modern mammary and sweat glands; and genes, which control our eyes and ears, that correspond directly to DNA found in primitive jellyfish.” I think I’m going to buy a copy tomorrow.

(Photo courtesy ich_bin_ein_elmo’s Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license!)

“Social proprioception” in the workplace

Last June, I wrote a column for Wired about how Twitter creates “social proprioception” — the ability of a large group of friends and colleagues to know what each other are doing, and to co-ordinate themselves accordingly. Since I wrote that, Facebook’s newsfeed became an bigger new prioprioceptive force amongst friends. Last weekend, I pulled out my mobile phone to check email, and a friend of mine said, “oh, that’s the phone you’re finally loving!” — which was a reference to a Facebook status update I’d published a week earlier, saying “For some reason, I’m now liking my mobile phone, which I used to hate.” This stuff happens all the time now, of course.

But you can tell a trend has truly arrived in the absolute geometric center of the mainstream when it appears in an “Editorial Observer” column in the New York Times. So I was tickled to open today’s paper to read a piece by Adam Cohen that begins thusly:

A co-worker apologized to me recently for being slow on a task. “It’s probably just your insomnia from last night,” I said. She was confused about how I knew, but I reminded her we were Facebook friends, and that she had posted a “status update” about her sleeplessness.


Cracking the sex code of John Maynard Keynes

As you might imagine, John Maynard Keynes was careful with his numbers. For his entire life, the economist tabulated all manner of personal information: His golf scores, his expenses, the number of steps on each house of his street. But apparently Keynes was also pretty promiscuous, and so — to the delight of historians — after each sexual conquest, he’d snap on the green accountant’s visor and tally another mark in his ledger.

Now, Keynes kept two sex diaries. While neither one includes exact names, the first one is pretty easy to decode: Keynes used initials and nicknames, which makes it pretty easy to deduce those partners.

But the second diary is in code. From 1906 to 1915, he listed a quarterly total of sexual acts that are designated only by three letters — C, A, and W. Whatever do they mean?

Well, Keynes was gay, so historians — and those in his social circle who knew him — apparently agree that A and W are pretty easy to figure out: They’re the first letters of two sex acts, the second one which is a Britishism. (No, I’m not going to specifically name those sex acts, because this is a family blog! I’ve gotten email from people who tell me their elementary-school children read Collision Detection, which both pleases and scares the living crap out of me. And so I should also point out that the article to which I link below is TOTALLY NOT SAFE FOR WORK, nor for YOUR ELEMENTARY-SCHOOL KIDS, and probably also not FOR CERTAIN ADULTS. Ahem.)

Anyway, the point is, while most everyone can figure out A and W, historians have never agreed upon what, precisely, C stands for. There are plenty of sex acts that start with C, of course. (Man, this blog item just keeps getting filthier and filthier, if only by inference, doesn’t it?) But nobody has ever agreed on which one Keynes meant.

But in a recent article in More Intelligent Life, the novelist Evan Zimroth argues that he has finally cracked the code. He points out some of the possible sex acts that begin with C are extremely casual — first-base material — while others are much more hot and nasty. This leads him to the following logic, in a story that, I’ll point out again, is JUST TOTALLY NOT SAFE FOR WORK OR KIDS:

My … guess is that this coded list has nothing to do with the specifically named lovers recorded on the first list but instead records only anonymous sex, and that therefore C, with its high tally, is something that happened easily, often and surreptitiously. Why keep a lengthy, specific tally, indexed by activity, if you’re doing “it” every day anyway with the same person? If most days you have a bit A and you don’t have to resort to W, why bother to note it? Not interesting.

It makes more sense, as I see it, to keep a list of how often and under what circumstances you could possibly have sex, and then how often you scored. Seeking anonymous sex would be sort of like investing in the stock market (which Keynes did obsessively, trading daily before he even got out of bed): invest often, hedge and maximise your chances, hope for the best.

I’ll leave you to read the story and figure out his conclusion.

(Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily for this one!)

Why do beluga whales enjoy the clarinet note G?

Scientists for years have tried to figure out what whale song means. David Rothenberg has a different approach: He decided to play clarinet to a bunch of beluga whales to see if they respond.

It turns out this is pretty hard to do, because the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act criminalizes all “harassment” of marine animals, which apparently includes jamming with them. Anyway, Rothenberg is a naturalist who’s also a musician, and who has spent years experimenting by playing his clarinet with various animals; his web site boasts of playing in “a band of birds and crickets”. So he finally got some Russian scientists to take him to the White Sea, where Rothenberg would have unfettered access to some Belugas.

Most of the time, he didn’t feel like the whales were responding at all. Beluga music is extraterrestrially weird — ranging from grinding buzzsaw-like sounds to whistles that float in the upper ranges of the human ear’s range. (Check out a couple of samples here.) So Rothenberg admits that the majority of the time, “we’re playing at and around each other.”

There’s one clear exception: The note G, which seemed to connect each time he sustained it. As Rothenberg wrote in Orion magazine:

Before coming to Karelia, I spent three days at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, where I tested my equipment and played clarinet to the captive belugas there. On the first day, no response seemed to come from the whales, but by the third day, one pregnant whale was inclined to copy one of my notes exactly, a middle G. Later I analyzed a sonogram of the encounter and was able to see how closely the whale note resembled the clarinet note —not just the pitch, but the phrasing. The sonogram showed that the overtone structure, the real timbre or color of the sound, was quite close to what I was playing. The whale had definitely listened and given her response.

In the White Sea I try the same tone and right away there is a response! Either that sound is easy for belugas to master, or it is already a pitch that means something to them. This isn’t science, so I can’t be rigorous or conclusive about it, but I feel as if I am getting through.

A whale and I share a note for a moment or two.

I’m probably dating myself, but my earliest memory of whale music was back in the 70s, when National Geographic would include little flexible plastic records in “whale” issues; you could rip them out and play them on your record player. I’d sit there, at age 7 or whatever, listening to this hallucinogenically odd stuff. Though there’s a strong whiff of patchouli coming off Rothenberg’s clarinet experiments, I have to admit, the idea of playing music to animals makes a lot of sense. The semantics and syntax of instrumental music are may well be closer to what passes for speech in the animal kingdom than what we know of as “language”.

(Thanks to SciTech Daily for this one!)

The beauty of destruction: My latest Wired News gaming column

Last week, Wired News published my latest video-game column, and this one is about a subject near and dear to my heart: The sumptuous aesthetic pleasures of watching stuff get totally destroyed inside a game.

The column is online free at the Wired web site, and a copy is archived below!

Is Virtual Destruction an Art Form?

by Clive Thompson

I plowed into the intersection at about 140 miles an hour and boom — slammed headfirst into an oncoming four-door sedan. Ouch.

And: Wow. The scene immediately shifted into John Woo-style slow motion. The cars reared upward, groaning, like two fighting antelopes; my hood crumpled into an origami flower, the metal bending like tin foil. The windshield became a fistful of glittering ice, hurled into the air. A tire pirouetted away like an escaping planet.

Let me tell you: It was beautiful.

Heart-stoppingly beautiful.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson