April 16, 2006
Marilia Duffles on Neuroaesthetics
Her article, "Secrets of Human Thinking," was published in the Financial Times on March 2, 2002.
That was before I began reading the peachy paper.
Here is her essay.
- Secrets of Human Thinking
When someone says "I might not know much about art but I know what I like", they may be modestly proclaiming their appreciation of great works but their ignorance of the underlying theories.
In which case, they almost certainly know far more than they realise.
A growing body of opinion sees all human activity - from art and music to language, literature and architecture - as a product of the organisation of human brains and subject to its laws. It sees a singular science of "being human".
And it is this that makes great aesthetic works timeless.
It is why Mozart was able to express himself - and us - so precisely in his operas, profoundly portraying human motivation and irrationality.
It is how Leonardo da Vinci revealed human nature with a dissecting scalpel as magnificently as he did with his artist's brush.
His precise anatomical drawings - often drawn next to architectural plans - were equalled by his sfumato technique, "washing" human faces with the very mystery of human thinking.
It is this "human thinking" that the Institute for Neuroaesthetics is seeking to unveil.
Its first international conference, held recently in Berkeley, California, brought together scholars and scientists from all parts of the globe to join its pursuit of consilience - the integration of knowledge from various fields.
Almost as soon as humans entered the evolutionary scene they became "artists".
Prehistoric art is not "primitive" but "represents features salient in the human mind as it explores the world", says Francis Steen, professor of communication studies at UCLA.
It means art and science have been linked since the dawn of man in a phenomenon known today as neuroaesthetics.
Since that dawn, the most efficient method for acquiring knowledge has been vision - which probably explains why one third of the brain is devoted to it.
Semir Zeki, professor of neurobiology at University College London and founder of the institute, has shown in research on the brain's visual system that great artists unwittingly expose and express the physiology of the brain in their work, using the same visual building blocks the brain uses to put together a mental picture.
First, the brain looks for the necessary features.
Then it distils, or abstracts, the essence of what it sees - like a caricature does - because of its limited memory system.
Zeki says we are not equipped to remember every detail of what we see.
This is the common thread that links the world inside our head with the world outside, whether on an artist's canvas, on the page of a novel, on a music sheet, in an architectural drawing or in maths problems.
Other delegates at the conference are studying the mind through different disciplines.
George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, for example, analyses language with the help of neuroscience's tools to explain how we metaphorically "calculate" mathematics.
In our mind's eye, numbers are precise locations, and plus and minus signs are directions for moving in space, forward and backward.
By using such methods employed by the brain for making sense of complex concepts, we could accelerate the learning curve in the teaching of maths and other subjects.
Similarly, when political rhetoric capitalises on these theories of abstraction, it leaves a lasting impression on voters' collective minds, says Lakoff.
To US conservatives, he says, the metaphor that carries most weight when it comes to social policy is moral strength: being good is upright; bad is low; evil is falling, and so forth.
Using such metaphors helps get conservatives' message across that "social programmes (welfare, affirmative action) are immoral and promote evil by working against self-discipline and self-reliance".
Unsurprisingly, music also taps into our neural machinery, making it a truly universal language, says Per Aage Brandt, professor of semiotics at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.
It's why Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, for instance, "speaks" to us all.
Listening and performing involves metaphoric thinking, with the brain's language area being used to figure out rhythm, and its visual area to work out pitch.
The latter involves the use of images symbolising something physically "high" for high pitch and the opposite for "low".
The brain also has an area on the right side (temporal lobe) whose task is to help us identify a melody or tune by metaphorically stringing together the notes.
The brain has areas for unpleasant emotions activated by dissonant music and, conversely, specific areas that respond only to pleasant, consonant music.
With this universal modus operandi, it's no accident that emotional highs and lows are the reason we give for listening to music.
And music does truly pluck our emotional strings: fear, happiness, and sadness elicit corresponding physiological changes of increased pulse, faster breathing, and changes in heart-rates.
This neurobiological confirmation places music therapy squarely into the realm of science.
As Zeki says, Wagner's assertion that you don't need to understand his opera's libretto because his music makes it perfectly clear is fully in accordance with today's scientific thinking.
The research of Hideo Sakata, professor of neurobiology at Nihon University, Tokyo, on how the brain sees and portrays depth, gives the art world great insight into one of the most difficult tasks artists undertake.
Sakata discovered that monkeys (their visual system is analogous to humans) have neurons whose task is to combine specific visual depth-cues (such as shading, texture) with linear perspective.
Sakata says Cezanne unwittingly portrayed this by painting the "same" cues the brain uses: compare his "Mt St Victoire" with Renoir's, and your brain will see the difference.
More conspicuously, his and Zeki's research provide art historians with a precise tool for accurately interpreting the techniques and intentions of old masters and art movements.
Going deeper into molecular neurobiology, Professor Jean-Pierre Changeux, at the Pasteur Institute, France, aims to identify the molecules in the brain that lie behind its emotional contemplation of art.
He points to the prefrontal cortex (front part of the brain) maintaining that artistic activity came about with the evolutionary expansion of this area.
Lesions there, he says, cause difficulties in understanding meaning and emotional content and result in more impulsive, fragmented judgments of what we experience.
Neuroaesthetics is science's growth area: UC Berkeley now has a department of neuroaesthetics while the European Union is keen to invest in understanding human nature.
It might not be long before neuroaesthetics helps to deepen our understanding of hotly debated issues in every field.
Can't you read the sign?
From the website:
- Authentic International Highway Signs
Each is an actual, heavy aluminum road sign, brand–new with reflective enamel.
Some are curiously whimsical.
Signs are made in Germany (except Kangaroo Crossing); each is about 24" wide.
They come with a pair of removable, plastic wall-mount strips that use 3M Command adhesive.
Would that they came with a provenance — but then, perhaps it's best not to ask....
Hey, what's that in the background... did a Van Halen song just break out?
Ciboulette — The best cheese shop in Charlottesville and Central Virginia
To find one as good you have to drive 120 miles, to Washington, D.C. and the wonderful cheese department at Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown.
Unpasteurized, real French cheeses that simply can't be purchased anywhere else in the area.
DeBrito even sells to upscale restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area.
Don't ask, don't tell.
Driving downtown to his store is a much-anticipated and delightful pleasure.
José is always on the premises.
He's got kind of a tart personality and demeanor but he's actually quite sweet and really, really knows food and cheese.
He formerly worked for an importer for fine restaurants, then decided to open his own boutique food market which now focuses on fine cheeses.
Me, I swoon when a cheesemonger pokes his array of St. Marcellin (top) to find one that's perfectly ripe.
That's what happened yesterday afternoon.
And have you ever had gouda aged five years?
I'd never even seen it until he cut me the first wedge from a wheel.
It's reminiscent of a fine cognac, so smooth and powerfully creamy and intense.
Ciboulette is at 416 E. Main Street in Charlottesville; tel: 434-295-0570; email email@example.com.
BizarreBids.com: The world's weirdest stuff — for sale to the highest bidder
You know how every now and then you find something really strange on eBay or read in the papers or online about some odd item being auctioned there?
This site is all that.
Most amusing and sure to lay waste to the remains of your day.
But then, it's not as if you're gonna accomplish anything anyway so why not have a good time getting nowhere fast?
We do here.
In fact, that's one of our credos.
I forget the others just now but no matter.
Pictured up top are a pair of currently available Roman Warrior Bronze Floor Lamps, each nearly eight feet tall, with a starting bid of $9,399.
'Why Do Women Now Sound Like Frogs?'
The above headline sure caught my eye when I saw it last December 23 over a Financial Times article by Marilia Duffles.
I must say that a bad voice is almost as off-putting to me — no, I take that back, it's more so — than the smell of cigarette smoke.
Once again it can be overcome, and as with the odor of cigarettes this can only be achieved by bringing an awful lot to the table.
But enough of me and my dislikes.
Here's the most interesting story.
- Why Do Women Now Sound Like Frogs?
If you've noticed an odd voice affectation in American women that's more irritating than hearing your own voice, then you're on the ball.
This gritty-gravelly voice towards the end of a sentence comes out of the mouths of television personalities, professors and chatty teenaged girls alike.
Click on a channel and you'll catch correspondents, commentators and the like uttering the last bit of their sentences with the croaky voice of a parrot (or a frog on helium).
At a recent conference, I could have sworn the evolutionary biology lecture was being given by a Sex and the City actress instead of a university professor.
To my vindicated relief, experts agree it is an epidemic. I had to investigate what's behind this latest, well, sound wave.
Researching the onomatopeic otolaryngology world revealed fascinating facts and led me to the office of Dr Susan Miller (George Washington University), voice trainer to the public and powerful and, most recently, me.
Though I didn't end up with Kiri te Kanawa's tone, I can now expertly use my voice to move even my editor.
The human voice, she explained with the honeyed tone of someone who practises what she preaches, is a powerful calling card that transmits a good or bad first impression even on the phone, where facial and body language are absent.
Before a word is uttered, air from the lungs travels through the windpipe and vibrates our vocal cords (in the larynx or voice box) at different frequencies that we perceive as pitch.
Cords are a misnomer since there are no strings attached to these V-shaped flaps of tissue that fold open and closed and are rightfully called vocal folds.
Talk while touching your Adam's apple and you'll feel them vibrating.
If you were to pluck them out of a cadaver and blow air through, they'd sound like a reed instrument.
A living person increases the amount of air for faster vibration, higher pitch and sound volume and longer duration of speech; decreasing the air yields the opposite.
Muscles in front of the neck also increase pitch by lengthening the folds and vice versa.
They also help us co-ordinate breathing, swallowing and speaking since we use the same tube for all three.
It's precisely why we can't talk and eat at the same time, with the evolutionary trade-off being a bigger throat area for more sophisticated speech.
What makes a voice your own is the way the sound resonates and increases through the cavities above the folds: pharynx (throat), mouth, sinuses and nose, collectively known as the supraglottal vocal tract, which is typically bigger in men resulting in a bigger voice.
If you have a silky, voluminous voice like Pavarotti's then you're endowed with optimal sound equipment: a clear tone (healthy folds and vibration) that resonates in an open, well-constructed tract, Miller says, sometimes even giving us the ability to sing in frequencies outside the speaking range.
This is the timbre that makes the hair on your neck stand up and is also heard in voices like that of Ima Sumac, the Peruvian diva whose amazing folds sing across five octaves.
If you want to hear your real voice – not the lower pitch filtered through the bones of the head – then talk with your hands cupped behind your ears.
If you sound rather like Mickey Mouse, then instant tract adjustments can be made: talk with your tongue up against the roof of your mouth (or yawn) and you'll likely end up as governor of California.
If that doesn't resonate and you fancy sounding English instead, talk with your mouth more or less shut; it's intriguingly tricky to get words across clenched teeth, as Prince Charles or animation hero Wallace (but not Gromit) would tell you.
And just a mere stretching of the lips shortens the tract's length, resonating the voice at a higher tone and explaining why we can tell when the person talking at the other end of the phone is smiling.
Using all our vocal equipment properly begins with relaxed, paced breathing.
This prevents what otolaryngologists call glottal fry – the very biological cause of the voice affectation that irritates me whenever I switch on the TV – which occurs when people continue to speak without taking a necessary breath.
This allows the folds to vibrate with minimal air and register the low pitch.
Fry is stressful on the folds, a bit like driving with a parking brake on.
And what is the point?
Is the female collective-unconscious trying to say something?
Ralph Ohde, professor of hearing and speech sciences at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, believes women adopt this croaky pitch as a means of strengthening their image to make others think they stand on equal ground with men.
But in my humble observation, it's a dismissive laziness of a socioeconomically contented lot who simply can't be bothered to take another breath to finish a sentence.
Or, it could be both.
Whichever the case, stay tuned and you're bound to hear a social debate on why women are now marching to the beat.
Some years ago I saw a Steve Martin movie where he had a blind date with some total bombshell.
Oh, he was beside himself with excitement and anticipation.
Until she opened her mouth to speak and out came a voice that sounded like a needle being dragged across a record.
Those of you under 20 will simply have to imagine it.
Martin's character made a horrified face, covered his ears and sprinted out of the restaurant or wherever they happened to be.
I have ended relationships that had great promise because of voice issues.
Call me superficial but hey — I am what I am.
Besides, I've been called worse.
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- No-Rinse Shampoo Cap is ready to use.
Contains both a lathering shampoo and a soft conditioner within a convenient "shower cap."
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Can be heated in microwave prior to use.
Latex free and alcohol free.
One per package.
"Eggs" — by Michael Roux
Florence Fabricant reviewed the book in the April 12 New York Times Dining In section and made me so hungry I stepped off the treadmill and went to the kitchen to fry two eggs.
Now I am back and here is her review.
- You are not likely to find gull's eggs, spring delicacies in England, in these parts, but even the mention of them in "Eggs" by Michel Roux (Wiley, $24.95) gives you an idea of how comprehensive this alluring book is.
It covers just about every aspect of the egg, including its chemistry, safety, storage and flavor, and each page is beautifully photographed.
Mr. Roux, a Michelin three-star chef in England, provides recipes that begin with the simplest boiled eggs, for which there are dozens of variations, and include a delectably velvety French toast casserole with cheese and herbs that would glorify an Easter brunch.
His trick for frying eggs so that the white is crunchy and envelops the runny yolk is a keeper, and lovely served in a potato nest.
There are recipes for omelets, frittatas, custards, mousses and much more, making a rich collection indeed.
The 304-page book is $15.72 at Amazon.
Siemens Porsche Toaster — 'My other toaster is a Porsche'
You press a discreet button and the closed curved top slides open to reveal the toasting receptacles.
- From the web:
Created by F. A. Porsche, the Siemens two-slice toaster in brushed aluminium with memory function remembers the last setting you used to toast your bread.
Designer touch extends to the integrated blue LED that displays time remaining before your toast is ready.
• Soft-lift tray
• Eleven browning settings
• Automatically adjusts to bread thickness
• Quartz heating element is extremely efficient
• Cool Wall™ technology, variable browning and crumb tray
• Dimensions: 25cm H x 39.5cm W x 13cm D (9.8"H x 15.6" x 5.1")
£119 (€172; $209).
zoom Zoom ZOOM.
[via Jonathan Margolis and the Financial Times]