A winning “Smiling”, from the man behind “Swearing as a Response to Pain”

December 22nd, 2014

RStephens200x200The prize-winning essay about smiling, written by a professor who won an Ig Nobel Prize for his research on swearing and pain , appears in today’s issue of The Guardian. It begins:

How we grin to bear it – the science of smiling

The winning article of the 2014 Wellcome Trust science-writing prize looks at smile research – how they make us feel better, how to fake them and why you should say ‘cheeks’ not ‘cheese’

‘The curve that sets everything straight” was how comedian Phyllis Diller once described the smile. And it’s true that there’s something charming, trustworthy and disarming about a smile – but this can be misleading. Dig a little deeper and you will understand a much less wholesome side. Because, ladies and gentleman, the smile is one of the biggest fakes going.

I know what you’re thinking: we all pull a false smile now and again to appease our fellows and avoid unnecessary conflict. On the other hand, a genuine smile of true enjoyment is something different. Psychologists have named such a smile after the French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne. The Duchenne smile, utilising the muscles around the eyes that lift the cheeks to produce crow’s feet, has long been held as an inimitable sign of true human emotion. Or at least it was until 2013, when a team of researchers from Northeastern University, Boston, broke that hoodoo.

The 2010 Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Richard Stephens [pictured here], John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University, UK, for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain. [They published a paper describing their research: “Swearing as a Response to Pain,” Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston, Neuroreport, vol. 20 , no. 12, 2009, pp. 1056-60.]

Viewing Works of Art (authentic and not), an fMRI study

December 22nd, 2014

The field of ‘neuro-esthetics’ a.k.a. ‘neuroaesthetics’ can perhaps be loosely described as ‘the search for a neuronal interpretation of creativity’. Nowadays, neuro-estheticists (a.k.a. neuroaestheticians) have powerful scientific instruments at their disposal in the form of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machines. For an example of fMRI-based neuroaesthetic research, which is unique in the fact that it examines not only neural responses to authentic artworks, but also to those which have been flagged as fakes or copies, see: ‘Human Cortical Activity Evoked by the Assignment of Authenticity when Viewing Works of Art’ Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2011; 5: 134.

In the illustration below, the left hand image is REAL, but the right hand image is FAKE.


“Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, viewing of artworks assigned as ‘copy,’ rather than ‘authentic,’ evoked stronger responses in frontopolar cortex (FPC), and right precuneus, regardless of whether the portrait was actually genuine.”

“Viewing of portrait art elicited the predicted activation in lateral visual cortical areas, corresponding to regions sensitive to faces and object recognition. However, these areas were not differentially activated by the cue of authenticity. Other areas were significantly activated by the assignment of authenticity, including the right FPC, right middle temporal gyrus, right precuneus, and orbitofrontal cortex.”

Further resources: The Institute of Neuroesthetics and The Association of Neuroesthetics

BONUS: A trailer for the 1974 Orson Welles file ‘F for Fake’

Nicholas Galitzki joins Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists (LFHCfS)

December 21st, 2014

Nicholas Galitzki has joined the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists (LFHCfS). He says:

I am a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Throughout my journey in sub-millimeter experimental astrophysics, my fiery locks have been behind me, propelling me from one scientific discovery to the next. They we’re there keeping me warm when we launched our telescope, BLASTPol, from the ice sheets of Antarctica and they will be there when I go again in 2016. (Here is a recent paper I co-authored: “The Next Generation BLAST Experiment“.) The picture shows my follicles in their full flamboyant glory being reflected off of our former primary mirror. To accompany my flowing hair I have grown a full beard to reflect the rugged experimental side of my work which takes me to the field with all manner of large manly tools and equipment. I look forward to my hair and me joining this most prestigious of scientific clubs.

Nicholas Galitzki, LFHCfS [Click on the image. below, to see an enlarged version.]
Graduate student, Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


Ig Nobel Prize winners supply two of the ten “weirdest” TED Talk moments

December 21st, 2014

The TED Blog lists “The 10 weirdest things that have happened in TED Talks“. Two of those “weirdest things” involve Ig Nobel Prize winners.

Kees Moeliker was awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel Prize for biology, for documenting the first scientifically recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. Here’s what TED Blog says:


3. The story of a man and his dead duck. Ornithologist Kees Moeliker won the Ig Nobel prize for inspiring future generations of scientists with a strange but serious paper about the mallard’s inclination toward homosexual necrophilia. During his talk at TED2013, Moeliker shared the odd story behind his research… and handed an audience member the stuffed dead duck that inspired it. Before leaving the stage, he politely asked for the duck back, as it is technically a museum specimen.

Bart Knols was awarded the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize for biology, for showing that the female malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae is attracted equally to the smell of limburger cheese and to the smell of human feet.. Here’s what TED Blog says:


Bart Knols gives his talk… in his underwear. What’s more annoying than a mosquito bugging you while you’re in bed? To remind us of this, malariologist Bart Knols started his TEDx talk from a bed onstage. He emerged from under the covers to share the details of his research on the spread of malaria … aaaand he never stopped to put on pants. Also notable: watching hundreds of mosquitoes feed on his arm in a metal box on stage, at the 8:09 mark.


Tinnitus, and you guzzling coffee and bread, maybe

December 21st, 2014

If you hear a ringing in your ears, and if you eat food, you may or may not be persistently or bothersomely annoyed by this study. It is yet another document that explains to people that they should or should not drink coffee:

FortnumAssociation of Dietary Factors with Presence and Severity of Tinnitus in a Middle-Aged UK Population,” Abby McCormack, Mark Edmondson-Jones, Duane Mellor, Piers Dawes, Kevin J. Munro, David R. Moore, Heather Fortnum, PLoS ONE 9(12), 2014, e114711. (Thanks to investigator Falk Fish for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, based in Nottingham and Manchester, UK and in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, report:

“Participants were asked questions specific to tinnitus (defined as noises such as ringing or buzzing in the head or ears)….

“PERSISTENT TINNITUS: Eating oily fish, or non-oily fish once a week or more, avoiding eggs, and drinking more cups of caffeinated coffee per day were associated with a lower odds ratio of reporting persistent tinnitus. Conversely greater consumption of fruit and vegetables per day, eating wholemeal/wholegrain or ‘other’ type of bread compared to white bread, and avoidance of dairy produce were associated with increased report of persistent tinnitus….

“BOTHERSOME TINNITUS: The only dietary association with reporting of bothersome persistent tinnitus was a reduction in prevalence when wholemeal/wholegrain bread was consumed rather than white or brown bread.”