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Sword Swallowers, Belly Buttons and Flatulent Fish: the Ig Nobel prizes

9 Dec

In a world where high-speed neutrinos and melting ice caps hog the limelight, it’s sometimes nice to pay tribute to the sillier side of science. Because for every Einstein there’s a physicist trying to understand why toast always lands butter-side down; for every Darwin, a biologist who studies fish farts.

Once a year, scientists come together to honour the unsung heroes of science, awarding ‘Ig Nobel’ prizes to achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. A parody of the Nobel Prizes, these awards celebrate science that is eccentric, bizarre, or just downright ridiculous ­– studies “that cannot, or should not, be reproduced”.

The Ig Nobel awards – making people laugh, and then making them think (credit: Improbable Research)

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about the Ig Nobels for a while. So, here it is at last – a rundown of my all-time favourite prizewinners. Happy holidays! Continue reading


The Science of Swearing

17 Oct

Out, you green-sickness carrion,” bellowed Capulet to a Romeo-smitten Juliet. “Out, you baggage! You tallow-face!

Swear words may have evolved since Shakespeare’s day, but cursing has never gone out of fashion. Today, we swear when we stub our toe, we cuss when the GPS sends us down a dead end, and we take God’s name in vain when our computer crashes for the fifth time in a row. In other words, we utter expletives to express sentiments that milder words simply wouldn’t do justice to.

Slubberdegullions! Odd-toed ungulate! Champion swearer, Captain Haddock

It is estimated that around 0.5% of words in typical everyday speech are swear words. Given an average rate of 15,000 words spoken in a day, this amounts to an impressive 75 daily profanities – a figure that even Captain Haddock would be proud of. Continue reading

Inside the Mind of a London Cabbie

1 Sep

If modern London was ancient Athens, London taxi drivers would be worshipped as the Gods of Navigation, appeased only with offerings of fluffy dice and pine-scented air fresheners.

Because, before being able to drive one of the legendary black cabs, a wannabe taxi driver must pass a gruelling trial known as ‘The Knowledge’. This consists of memorising 320 routes along London’s 25,000 streets, as well as all nearby landmarks and places of interest.

Drivers train for up to four years before taking the test, racing around the capital on a scooter until every last route has been committed to memory. This wouldn’t be such a difficult task in a place like New York City, where the roads are numbered and gridded, but on London’s gloriously haphazard streets it’s an undertaking of epic proportions.

Spot the difference: a snapshot of the New York City (left) and London (right) street layouts (credit: Google Maps)

This navigational know-how has made London taxi drivers surprisingly popular with neuroscientists, who have long wondered how cabbies retain so much detailed information. Around ten years ago, Eleanor Maguire and colleagues at University College London discovered that part of the hippocampus, a structure in the brain associated with memory and navigation, is larger in taxi drivers, and that this region grows with taxi driving experience. Their conclusion: the information acquired during The Knowledge physically changes a cabbie’s brain!

But there’s an alternative way to interpret this result: what if the cabbies’ hippocampus differences were already there before The Knowledge? Maybe people with these brain structure peculiarities naturally have better navigational skills and are therefore more likely to become taxi drivers? To test this, Maguire and colleagues looked for a relationship between navigational skill and hippocampus size in people with no taxi training. The researchers failed to find a link, confirming that the taxi drivers’ brain differences are due to The Knowledge, rather than to any innate, pre-existing navigational talent.

A mini minicab (credit: lmg123)

This is all very exciting for neuroscientists because it means that the brain can exhibit ‘plastic’ behaviour, changing its grey matter volume in response to environmental stimulation. The process even works backwards: a study of retired cabbies found that the brain’s structural changes start to reverse once The Knowledge stops being used (“use it or lose it”).

This plastic ability of the brain could be important for people with brain injuries or diseases such as Parkinson’s. If, as these studies suggest, stimulating a brain can change its structure, it may be that brain injury patients can be rehabilitated using a similar method.

A London cabbie...he's probably got a bigger hippocampus than you (credit: silvertony45)

Meanwhile, a follow-up study has found that taxi drivers aren’t completely infallible. Katya Woollett, a researcher at London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, has tested the ability of cabbies to find their way around a simulation of London which incorporates a new, made-up district. Surprisingly, taxi drivers fared worse at navigating around this ‘new London’ than people without any navigational expertise.

This may be because the modified city is too similar to the taxi drivers’ memorised street maps, making it difficult for a cabbie to change his route-finding habits. Some drivers also recalled experiencing similar problems when the Canary Wharf district opened in the 1990s.

So this proves that not even London cabbies are perfect navigators – a small nugget of hope, maybe, for those of us who’d fail to find our way out of a paper bag.

Further reading:

ResearchBlogging.orgMaguire, E. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97 (8), 4398-4403 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.070039597
ResearchBlogging.orgMaguire, E., Spiers, H., et al. (2003). Navigation expertise and the human hippocampus: A structural brain imaging analysis Hippocampus, 13 (2), 250-259 DOI: 10.1002/hipo.10087
ResearchBlogging.orgWoollett, K., & Maguire, E. (2010). The effect of navigational expertise on wayfinding in new environments Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30 (4), 565-573 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.03.003

Screen Culture

10 May

I just finished watching this webcast of a très interesting talk given at the Oxford Internet Institute last month by Susan Greenfield, entitled ‘Does the Mind Have a Future?’.

Susan Greenfield at the Oxford Internet Institute, April 2011

The story is that by spending more and more time interacting with screens, rather than other human beings, our brains may be adapting in new ways. Greenfield picks up on one positive effect (higher IQ), and a whole load of negatives (e.g. shorter attention span, less empathy, lower sense of identity).

I don’t know enough about psychology or neuroscience to make an educated comment, but it seems a no-brainer than someone who spends every day reporting their life on Facebook / Twitter is going to miss out on some pretty important features of human interaction (body language, physical contact, eye contact, etc.). On the other hand, I doubt a quick blast on FIFA 2011 or Call of Duty could do too much harm.

When Stephen Fry gave his thoughts on social networking, I loved his comment that certain people were worried when the postbox first came along, because a daughter could send love letters to her sweetheart(s) for the first time without having to pass by her father. Maybe all these fears about information technology’s long-term impacts will prove to be similarly unfounded. Or maybe not. In any case, Susan Greenfield’s talk is really thought-provoking. Right…better finish this blog post before another brain cell dies!

[Webcast] Baroness Susan Greenfield – Does the Mind Have a Future?

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