Music Taste Linked to Brain Type

How does the way you think influence the music you choose to listen to? Scientists at Cambridge University have developed a test that marries up a person’s personality traits including how empathic they are, and how systematically they think, with the tunes most likely to resonate with them. I went to see the lead researcher David Greenberg to discover what the test revealed about my own musical tastes…

David – The measure of empathy is called the empathy quotient and it’s a sixty-item measure that asks about how you interact in your daily life and your care for others, how you perceive emotion and react to emotion and thoughts of others. Another dimension is called systemising and systemising is the drive to construct, analyse and look at the rules that govern different aspects of the world.

Tom on the empathy quotient you scored a 56, and the average male scores around 30 so you were slightly above average on empathising. On systemising you scored very high – so you’re score is a 95 and the average male usually scores a 68.

Tom – Okay so that makes sense I guess – I do maths, I do see patterns in things and so this is sort of reflecting how I would have thought my brain worked.

David – It’s not too surprising because previous research has shown that males tend to score higher than females on systemising. And mathematicians score higher on systemising than for example students who are studying humanities.

Tom – And then once you’ve worked out how someone thinks, how did you then try to find out their musical preferences – do you say to them perhaps ‘here’s a list of band names who’d you like’?

David – No, so that’s been done previously where participants would just list how much they like a genre, but the problem with genres is that they’re so vast. If you take the rock genre in general, you have heavy metal, punk and you have bands like Metallica. But also in the rock genre you have Jeff Buckley or Jodie Mitchell and so there’s a vast difference. So we thought a more accurate way of doing it could be to just administer pieces of music to the participants: have them listen and then to indicate how much they liked each piece of music.

Tom – And so what did you find then? Once these participants have done this questionnaire you’ve worked out how they think – how did this affect their music choices?

David – What we found quite consistently over several studies was that empathisers in terms of the style of music that they liked, they were preferring music that was mellow and was from R&B, adult contemporary and soft rock genres. Whereas, systemisers were preferring music that was more intense and that was from the punk and heavy metal genres.

Tom – So what do I like? What did you find out about me?

David – You scored for example with mellow music or unpretentious styles which is from the folk genres or music that’s from classical or jazz, you scored average on those preference dimensions. But you scored the highest on intense music – so musical extracts that were from the punk, heavy metal and hard rock genres those were your favourites by far.

[MUSIC]

Tom – That was my favourite one that I listened to yesterday! I feel like I’ve been the perfect test student here! We’ve just been discussing exactly what type of music a systemiser should like and we’re just looking at my results here and I’ve nailed it to be honest!

And are there any applications for this beyond just figuring out which music people should and shouldn’t like?

David – A lot of research and there’s volumes of it has shown that music can be effective in music therapies. So, for example in terms of social skills or emotion recognition, we could use these results as a way of say teaching emotion recognition to children through music.

Tom – Based on my test results, play me the song that I should absolutely hate – I should leave the room I should dislike it that much!

[MUSIC]

…Yeah not liking that! That’s just so depressing I’m just not buying it.

David – But that’s the great thing about this study: there’s really no right or wrong answer. It’s just that people like different things and you can actually say that music is a mirror of the self in a way, it’s a reflective of who we are. And that our musical choices are a link or an expression of our mind, our personalities and the way we interact with the world.

You can listen to the full interview with the Naked Scientists here.

Can a pill make you fitter?

These days it seems that we are always hearing about the latest ‘wonder pill’ that will help you to get fit – often with very little science to back it up. Well, this time things are a little different. Scientists at the Salk Institute in California have discovered a new pathway used by the body during exercise and are able to recreate its effects in mice by simply giving them a pill. The mice were able to run for a much longer period of time and gained less weight! I spoke to senior researcher Weiwei Fan to find out how it all works…

  • The process involves a protein called PPL-delta which during exercise turns up the genes that burn fat and turns down the genes that burn sugar.
  • Mice that were given a chemical to activate the PPL-delta protein over an 8-week period could run for about 270 minutes, whereas mice that were not on the drug could only run for about 160 minutes.
  • The activation of the protein not only increases endurance, but by burning fat instead of glucose it can also result in weight loss, making it a possible treatment for type 2 diabetes, obesity and fatty liver disease.
  • On a high-fat diet, the mice with the drug gained 50% less weight than those without, with the weight loss occurring almost entirely in fat rather than muscle.
  • The ultimate goal is to test the findings in humans once the current negative side effects of the drug are eliminated.

 

 

 

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

World Cup 2018: The Perfect Penalty Kick

 

The 2018 World Cup in Russia kicks off today and so I bring you a special double-edition of Throwback Thursday looking at the science behind the perfect penalty kick… Fingers crossed the England players listen/read my website and we don’t lose to Germany in a penalty shootout (though let’s be honest we probably will).

Live interview with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire looking at the ‘unsaveable zone’ and the best way to mentally prepare for a penalty.

 

And if that wasn’t enough, here’s a full description of the ‘Penalty Kick Equation’…

For all of the footballers out there who have missed penalties recently, I thought I would explain the idea of the science behind the perfect penalty a little further, and in particular the maths equation that describes the movement of the ball. On the radio of course I couldn’t really describe the equation, so here it is:

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 10.09.22

If you’re not a mathematician it might look a little scary, but it’s really not too bad. The term on the left-hand side, D, gives the movement of the ball in the direction perpendicular to the direction in which the ball is kicked. In other words, how much the ball curves either left or right. This is what we want to know when a player is lining up to take a penalty, because knowing how much the ball will curl will tell us where it will end up. To work this out we need to input the variables of the system – basically use the information that we have about the kick and input it into the equation to get the result. It’s like one of those ‘function machines’ that teachers used to talk about at school: I input 4 into the ‘machine’ and it gives me 8, then I put in 5 and I get 10, what will happen if I input 6? The equation above works on the same idea, except we input a few different things and the result tells us how much the ball will curl.

So, what are the inputs on the right-hand side? The symbol p just represents the number 3.141… and it appears in the equation because footballs are round. Anytime we are using circles or spheres in maths, you can bet that p will pop up in the equations – it’s sort of its job. The ball itself is represented by R which gives the ball’s radius, i.e. how big it is, and the ball’s mass is given by m. We might expect that for a smaller ball or a lighter ball the amount it will curl will be different, so it is good to see these things are represented in the equation – sort of a sanity test if you will. The air that the ball is moving through is also important and this is represented by r, which is the density of the air. It will be pretty constant unless it’s a particularly humid or dry day.

Now, what else do you think might have an effect on how much the ball will curl? Well, surely it will depend on how hard the ball is kicked… correct. The velocity of the ball is given by v. The distance the ball has moved in the direction it is kicked is given by x, which is important as the ball will curl more over a long distance than it will if kicked only 1 metre from the goal. For a penalty this distance will be fixed at 12 yards or about 11m. The final variable is w – the angular velocity of the ball. This represents how fast the ball is spinning and you can think of it as how much ‘whip’ has been put on the ball by the player. Cristiano Ronaldo loves to hit them straight so w will be small, but for Beckham – aka the king of curl- w will be much larger. He did of course smash that one straight down the middle versus Argentina in 2002 though…

So there you have it. The maths equation that tells you how much a football will curl based on how hard you hit it and how much ‘whip’ you give it. Footballers often get a bad reputation for perhaps not being the brightest bunch, but every time they step up to take a free kick or a penalty they are pretty much doing this calculation in their head. Maybe they’re not quite so bad after all…

Why are fingerprints unique?

Question

Please put me out of my misery. How is it possible no one person’s finger prints are the same as another’s? How can one developing embryo possible know what pattern another developing embryo has chosen?

Answer

The movies say that if your fingerprints are found at the scene of the crime, you’re guilty. But does this notion hold up in the real world. Forensic scientist Professor Niamh Nic Daeid, put me through my paces at our very own virtual crime scene where, would you believe it, the murderer has left his fingerprints on the candlestick in the dining room.

  • In forensic science, we’re moving away from the notion that fingerprints can be considered as unique and instead talk about the comparison between fingerprints and finger marks.
  • Fingerprints are the records that are taken directly from a person’s finger by law enforcement and finger marks are what we take from crime scenes.
  • There are a range of characteristic patterns, called friction ridge patterns, which can be used to identify and compare fingerprints. They include: whirls, loops, arches and the location of ridge divisions.
  • Ridge patterns also occur on the palms of your hands and on your toes.
  • Fingerprints develop in the womb around the 10th week of pregnancy and are largely complete by the end of the fourth month.
  • Factors that influence their development include blood pressure, oxygen levels in the blood, the position adopted by the foetus in the womb, nutrition, hormone levels and the touching of fingers onto the sac and amniotic fluid, which means that even identical twins have different fingerprints!

You can listen to the full interview with the Naked Scientists here.

Do antioxidants really keep you young?

As part of the Naked Scientists Mythconception series, I question my choice of new year resolution as I investigates the science behind the infamous ‘free-radicals’ and their sworn enemy, the all-conquering antioxidants…

Tom – We’re now well into the new year – how are those resolutions going? If, like me, you’ve decided to eat more healthily, maybe you’ve been stuffing yourself with antioxidants. They’re good for you… right? And they attack free radicals, those naughty things flying around in your body causing damage to your cells and making you age faster. At least that’s what we’re told by the so-called ‘health experts’. Let’s see what science has to say on the subject…

The story begins in 1945, when the wife of chemist Denham Harman suggested that he read an article in Ladies Home Journal entitled “Tomorrow you may be younger.” This sparked his interest in the process of aging and a few years later whilst working at the University of California, Berkeley, he proposed that ageing is caused by reactive molecules that build up in the body as by-products of your body’s natural processes and lead to cellular damage. These are what he called “free radicals.” Harman himself described his discovery as ‘a thought out of the blue.’

Scientists began to rally around the theory of free radical ageing and that antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta-carotene were able to neutralise them. The antioxidant boom occurred in the 1990’s with the word entering into the public domain and supplements being added to foods and taken as tablets. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s, however, that scientists began testing the theory and they encountered some interesting results. Two separate studies compared mice, which were genetically engineered to overproduce either free radicals or antioxidants, with normal mice and they saw no change in the life span in each case. Further studies in humans found antioxidant supplements negate the health promoting effects of exercise and may even lead to a higher chance of death.

The increase in life expectancy which is often attributed to antioxidants is, in fact, likely to be a by-product of a generally healthier lifestyle. People that take antioxidant supplements tend to be more health conscious in general and as a result, are likely to live longer.

The bottom line is that scientists are still unsure of the exact roles of free radicals and antioxidants in the body and more studies are required. Most researchers do agree, however, that free radicals cause cellular damage but this is not necessarily a bad thing. In many cases is seems to be a normal part of the body’s reaction to stress. We are certainly not being oxidised and therefore do not require antioxidants to save us from impending doom as the health experts would like us to believe.

Nonetheless, the global antioxidant market was worth 2.1 billion dollars in 2013 and is expected to continue to grow by a further billion by 2020. I’ll leave you with a quote from Professor David Gems from University College London, which sums it all up quite nicely – “It’s a massive racket. The reason the notion of oxidation and ageing hangs around is because it is perpetuated by people making money out of it.”

You can listen to the full interview with the Naked Scientists here.

How old is Homo naledi?

Back in September 2015, a new species of early human – Homo naledi – was announced to the world. The remains were found in the aptly named ‘Cradle of Humankind’ near Johannesburg, South Africa at the Rising Star cave system. Since their discovery they have changed the way that we think about human evolution. Now another chamber has been discovered containing yet more remains and analysis of the skeletons within has shed light on what Homo naledi looked like and where they fit into the timeline of evolution. I spoke to the lead researchers Lee Berger and John Hawks…

  • The new ‘Lesedi chamber’ is located 100 metres from the original and contains multiple partial skeletons which have been dated at 2 to 300,000 years old.
  • Homo naledi has human-like hands, wrists, feet, body size and teeth, but the rest of the body is primitive in nature, including the skull, trunk and the brain, which is about one third of the size of modern human brains.
  • It was originally thought that Homo naledi branched from human evolution around 2 million years ago, but the fact that the new skeletons seem to be much younger suggests that there was another lineage evolving in Africa at the same time as our Neanderthal ancestors.
  • The Rising Star cave system has up to 2 kilometres of passageways and the entrance to the Lesedi chamber was found branching off from the original Dinaledi chamber through a 25cm gap.
  • The Dinaledi chamber contains at least 15 individuals of all ages and the Lesedi chamber at least three individuals.
  • Homo naledi are believed to have been purposefully entering these caves up to 30 metres underground to ritually dispose of their dead.

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

Naked mole rats could help stroke victims

Stroke occurs every 2 seconds worldwide and is the second largest cause of death. When a stroke happens, the most important tissues of our body, the brain and heart, are starved of oxygen causing cell damage. To improve therapies for stroke patients we need to understand how the human body copes without oxygen and one researcher at the University of Cambridge thinks he may have found the answer in the form of a small rodent called a naked mole rat. Dr Ewan St John Smith and his colleagues were able to identify a new mechanism used by the naked mole rats to maintain an energy supply to the cells in their body without using oxygen. He told me more about these fascinating creatures…

  • Naked mole rats are the same size as a mouse, are the only cold-blooded mammal that we are currently aware of and they live for over 30 years despite the maths suggesting they should only live between 3-5 years.
  • They live underground in large colonies of up to 300 and so have adapted to be able to function normally in a low-oxygen environment.
  • A low-level oxygen environment, such as that experienced by the brain when a human suffers a stroke, will kill a mouse, but the naked mole rats are able to survive for 20 minutes without experiencing any side effects.
  • The heart rate of the naked mole rats drops to around 20-25% of normal levels during the oxygen deprivation and the question faced by the researchers was where does the energy come from, as it can’t be via the usual method of aerobic respiration with glucose.
  • Their findings suggest that the brain and heart cells of the naked mole rats are able to undergo respiration using fructose in their blood, rather than glucose from their cells, and while this also has a limited supply, it does provide a back-up plan to survive the oxygen depletion.
  • With this new understanding of how nerve cells function, Ewan and his colleagues hope to be able to develop a similar response in human cells to act as a preventative strategy to stop brain damage during a stroke.

You can listen to the full interview with the Naked Scientists here.

Photo credit: Jedimentat44 on Flickr

 

Men and women may feel pain differently

It’s an age-old debate, who feels more pain, men or women? Scientists at McGill University have taken us one step closer to answering this question with a study using mice. Jeff Mogil and his team have discovered that the biological pathway that causes chronic pain is completely different in male and female mice. If the same is found to be true in humans it could lead to gender specific, or ‘his n’ hers’, painkillers in the not too distant future… You can listen to the full interview with the Naked Scientists here.

Jeff – We found that a major biological pathway involved in pain processing that’s been studied for the last 15 years or so by researchers around the world is actually only relevant and valid in male mice. And in fact it appears not to be used at all in female mice who instead appear to be using a completely different biological pathway.

Tom – What did you actually do in these experiments?

Jeff – Well we were studying a common and important symptom of chronic pain called mechanical allodynia. Mechanical allodynia is when a stimulus that should be perceived as touch is actually perceived as pain. 

Tom – Could you give an example of what that would be in a human?

Jeff – Everyone has had mechanical allodynia. If you’ve ever had sunburn – let’s say you’ve sunburnt your back and I came by and sort of gave you a playful slap on your back. Under normal circumstances that wouldn’t be painful, but if you had a sunburnt back you would go through the roof and that in fact is mechanical allodynia. Before injury mice will tolerate about a gram of force applied to their hind paw. After the injury, they will now withdraw form fibres that are 0.1 or maybe 0.2 grams of force. And then we looked at how we could block that mechanical allodynia, by blocking a cell in the spinal cord called microglia. In males what we would see is that the withdrawal thresholds would go right back up to 1 gram, whereas in females they would stay down at 0.1 grams. There has to be another system that is picking up the slack and performing the same function in female mice. In our study, we preliminarily identified another system involving T-cells, which are also immune cells, but a completely different type of immune cell than microglia.

Tom – And you think this potentially could translate to humans?

Jeff – I think our default assumption is always that the biology of pain in mice and humans is likely very similar until proven otherwise. Now of course there are always species differences, but in general biomedicine only works because these species differences are few and far between. 

Tom – So you’ve shown this in mice and this potentially could be the same in humans, but what does this actually mean?

Jeff – There’s a lot of drug development going on – there’s great need for new analgesics because the analgesics that we have available either don’t work very well or have really terrible side effects. So, there’s a huge need for new analgesics in the world, new painkilling drugs and there are lots of people trying to develop them. Many of the compounds that are under development are actually working on this biological circuit that we have now shown only applies to males. That of course is a problem because what that would predict is that the drugs that are going to be developed will work in men, it’s just that we have no reason to believe that they will work in women. The clinical trial is going to come along, which by law are half men and half women and what might happen is that if the drug works in the men but doesn’t work in the women, overall it’s going to look like the drug doesn’t work and that clinical trial is going to fail. The drug will never get on the market, it will never help the half of the population that it could’ve helped and hundreds of millions of dollars will have been wasted and no-one will really know why. The other thing is that while there’s a whole biological circuit that applies to females and not males, then eventually drugs might come out of that which work on women and not men. So, you can think of the idea of blue pills and pink pills for pain. I really believe that one of these years that’s actually going to be reality.

Part of the ‘Throwback Thursday’ series – you can find all of the highlighted interviews here.

Anglerfish

In the final Critter of the Week for Marine Month, I introduce the villainous Anglerfish with the help of SeaLife Europe’s Joe Lavery…

  • There are more than 200 species of anglerfish identified and they can range in size from a tiny thumbnail to a small dog.
  • The name Anglerfish comes from the ‘fishing rod’ on their head which is in fact a modified dorsal spine called an illicium that’s used for hunting.
  • They can go for days on end without eating but when the time does come they’re able to eat a fish which is twice their own size.
  • The deep-sea Anglerfish lives more than a mile underwater on the desolate ocean floor, meaning that when a male and female cross paths they don’t hang around.
  • The male angler bites into the female and fuses its mouth to her body, eventually becoming a part of her used only to fertilise her eggs.

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

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