Greetings everyone and welcome to another trip into the wonderful and sometimes kooky world of science. I looked at the files this week and discovered that the biggest one was the one labeled Miscellaneous so today’s topics are going to be all over the map. For our first one, I’ll take the Boomers on a little trip down Memory Lane
REMEMBERING TO THE MUSIC
Researchers have recently announced the results for the Magical Memory Tour, the largest-ever international online survey, which asked people to record their memories of the Beatles to create the biggest database of autobiographical memories ever attempted. The survey sought enhance our understanding of human memory by discovering the role The Beatles and their music play in our personal lives.
The six-month online survey generated some 3000 responses from people ranging from 17 to 87 years old and spanning 69 different nationalities. People were invited to share the most vivid memory that came to mind relating to a Beatles album, song, news story or band member. The majority of respondents were ‘silver surfers’, between the ages of 55 to 65, who would have been teenagers during the Beatles heydays in the 1960s.
As expected, the majority of memories related to the teenage years of people’s lives, showing a classic reminiscence bump. The difference is that the bump occurs slightly earlier in the lifespan than for autobiographical memories more generally, suggesting that music, or at least The Beatles’ music, is important in the storage of particularly early memories.
The song that emerged overall as generating the most memories was ‘She Loves You’, not surprising since this was the biggest selling single of the 60’s and the Beatles’ most popular record ever.
There were some differences among nationalities. English people related most memories to the song ‘She Loves You’, while for Americans it was ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. English people reported most film-associated memories to ‘Help’, while Australians reported most to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. But what’s more interesting than these relatively minor differences between nationalities is the similarities in terms of the moods, feelings, scenes and situations they relay. They show the influence The Beatles had as global cultural icons.
One of the researchers said they were impressed with how vividly people recalled memories sometimes from more than 40 years ago, especially when many eloquent and vivid memories appear to have been little recalled in decades. This shows the power of music in shaping and reliving sometimes long-neglected memories.
The researchers also hoped to examine the levels of emotionality in the uploaded memories. They anticipated that women might have more emotional memories but that wasn’t substantiated by the data. Apparently the Beatles really were a universal force in people’s lives. To read memories from the survey visit http://www.magicalmemorytour.com.
And though the Beatles may be intimately linked with the memories and emotions of many of us, there’s some surprising research that says that some of the most basic parts of our makeup are not learned but are innate.
The result of a surprising new study says that our facial expressions of emotion are hardwired into our genes and are not products of cultural learning. The study is the first of its kind to demonstrate that sighted and blind individuals use the same facial expressions, producing the same facial muscle movements in response to specific emotional stimuli.
The study also provides new insight into how humans temper our emotional displays according to social context, suggesting that the ability to regulate emotional expressions is not learned through observation.
San Francisco State University Psychology Professor David Matsumoto compared the facial expressions of sighted and blind judo athletes at the 2004 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games. More than 4,800 photographs were captured and analyzed, including images of athletes from 23 countries.
“The statistical correlation between the facial expressions of sighted and blind individuals was almost perfect,” Matsumoto said. “This suggests something genetically resident within us is the source of facial expressions of emotion.”
Matsumoto found that sighted and blind individuals manage their facial expressions of emotion in exactly the same way and they do it according to social context. For example, because of the social nature of the Olympic medal ceremonies, 85 percent of silver medallists who lost their medal matches produced “social smiles” during the ceremony. Social smiles use only the mouth muscles whereas true smiles, known as Duchenne smiles, cause the eyes to twinkle and narrow and the cheeks to rise.
The losers all produced these ‘social smiles’ whether they were blind or sighted. The athletes who were blind from birth couldn’t have learned to control their facial expressions in this way through visual learning so there has to be another mechanism. Dr. Matsumoto speculates that our emotions, and the systems to regulate them, are vestiges of our evolutionary ancestry. It’s possible that in response to negative emotions, humans have developed a system that closes the mouth so that they are prevented from yelling, biting or throwing insults.
So watch that ‘social smile’. You may just be responding to an age-old evolutionary beat!
Photos show comparison of facial expressions by blind and sighted athletes who just lost a match for a medal. (Credit: Bob Willingham)
Our next two items have to do with food, one of my favorite pastimes. Remember I told you last week about the fact that one of the world’s richest ecosystems is the one that lives in your personal gut? Well, not only do bacteria digest your food for you, it turns out they have a lot to do with which food you eat!
ENHANCING THE TASTE
Scientists in Switzerland have reported that bacteria in the human mouth play a role in creating the distinctive flavors of certain foods. They found that these bacteria actually produce food odors from odorless components of food, allowing people to fully savor fruits and vegetables.
The researchers point out that some fruits and vegetables release characteristic odors only after being swallowed. While scientists had previously reported that volatile compounds produced from precursors found in these foods are responsible for this ‘retro-aromatic’ effect, the details of this transformation were not understood.
To fill that knowledge gap, the Swiss scientists performed sensory tests on 30 trained panelists to evaluate the odor intensity of volatile compounds called ‘thiols’ that are released from odorless sulfur compounds found naturally in grapes, onions, and bell peppers.
When given samples of the odorless compounds, it took participants 20 to 30 seconds to perceive the aroma of the thiols – and this perception persisted for three minutes. The researchers also determined that the odorless compounds are transformed into the thiols by anaerobic bacteria residing in the mouth – causing the characteristic ‘retro-aromatic’ effect.
“The mouth acts as a reactor, adding another dimension to odor perceptions,” they explain. However, the authors conclude, it is saliva’s ability to trap these free thiols that helps modulate the long-lasting flavors.
So not only do bacteria digest your food for you, they tell you you like it and you want to eat it! And now we’ll move on to a tale of why you eat too much. This one probably has a lot of application here!
I’LL HAVE SOME OF THAT
Researchers at Cornell University have recently made a not-so-surprising discovery. Overweight diners at Chinese buffets serve themselves differently and eat differently than normal weight individuals. These differences may, in fact, lead them to overeat. Compared to normal weight diners, overweight individuals sat 16 feet closer to the buffet, faced the food, used larger plates, ate with forks instead of chopsticks, and served themselves immediately instead of browsing the buffet.
“What’s crazy is that these people are generally unaware of what they’re doing – they’re unaware of sitting closer, facing the food, chewing less, and so on,” says Brian Wanink, lead author of the study and of the book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.”
The study was published in the journal Obesity and includes observations of 213 diners at 11 all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant buffets across the country. Study participants included a range of normal weight to obese diners, none of whom were Asian. Major study findings include:
- 27% of normal-weight patrons faced the buffet compared to 42% of obese diners.
- Overweight diners sat an average of 16 feet closer than normal-weight diners.
- 16% of obese diners sat at a booth rather than a table compared to 38% of normal weight diners
- 71% of normal-weight diners browsed the buffet before serving themselves compared to 33% of obese diners
- 24% of normal-weight people used chopsticks compared with 9% of overweight people
The researchers say that when food is more convenient people tend to eat more and that seemingly subtle differences in behavior and environment may cause people to overeat without even realizing it.
So, the next time you go to the buffet, see how many of the research criteria you meet and then have a look at your waistline. Correlation? Only you can say!