November 27, 2013
Tomorrow, most Americans will say they are grateful for many things–except, chances are, for the one thing they should be most thankful for when they sit down to the table.
I’m talking about our sense of taste, a faculty more nuanced than sight or hearing or touch, and one that’s become sadly under appreciated as eating has turned into just another thing we multi-task.
But this is a holiday during which the sense is celebrated, if only for a few hours. We savor flavors again, slow down enough to remember there are actually five distinct tastes we experience–sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, or meaty–instead of one indefinable gulp of bland.
In that spirit, let’s pay due respect to taste with a rundown of what research has taught us this year about the sense.
1) Eating more, enjoying it less: Last week, a team of University at Buffalo biologists published a study concluding that obesity can actually change how food tastes. At least that’s what they found in mice. They determined that compared to their slimmer peers, severely overweight mice had fewer taste cells that responded to sweetness, and that the cells that did respond did so weakly. Explained lead researcher Kathryn Medler: “What we see is that even at this level–at the first step in the taste pathway–the taste receptor cells themselves are affected by obesity.”
2) And no, it can’t make everything taste like bacon: It probably was just a matter of time, but scientists in Singapore have developed a digital simulator capable of transmitting the taste of virtual food to the tongue. And that, they say, could make it possible for a person to virtually taste food being prepared on a cooking show or featured in a video game. The researchers said the taste simulator could also be used to let diabetes patients taste sweetness without eating sweets.
3) Reason #200 that getting old stinks: As we get older, our response to different tastes changes, according to research on rats by Japanese scientists. They found that young rats love sugary and meaty flavors in foods, but really hated bitter ones. Older rats had just the opposite reaction–they were less enamored of sweets and umami flavors, but didn’t have nearly the aversion to bitter tastes as the young ones.
4) Who eats cheese with a spoon?: Apparently, the utensil you use to consume food can affect how you perceive its flavor. Among the findings of a team of researchers from Oxford University: If yogurt is eaten with a light plastic spoon, people tend to think it tastes denser and more expensive. Or when white yogurt was eaten with a white spoon, it was judged to be sweeter and more expensive than pink yogurt. But if a black spoon was used, the pink yogurt was thought to be sweeter. And one more: When cheese was eaten from a toothpick, spoon, fork and knife, it was rated saltiest when a knife was used.
5) But it’s still weird to keep different foods from touching on your plate: If you engage in some kind of ritual before you eat food, you are more likely to enjoy it, concludes a study published in Psychological Science. In one of several experiments they performed on the subject, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that people who were instructed to first break a chocolate bar in half, unwrap one half and eat it, then repeat the process with the other half rated the treat higher–and were willing to pay more money for it–than people who were told to eat the chocolate however they wanted.
6) Like, it always tastes better if you say “Arrgh” first: According to a study by a psychologist at the University of Oxford, the environment in which whiskey is imbibed can make a difference in how it tastes. A group of about 500 people who weren’t whiskey connoisseurs were asked to taste a single-malt Scotch in three different settings: a room with a turf floor, the sound of baa-ing sheep and the smell of fresh-cut grass; another with a sweet fragrance and a high-pitched tinkling sound; and the third with wood paneling, the sound of leaves crunching and the smell of cedar. According to their ratings on scorecards, they found the whiskey in the first room “grassier,” the Scotch in the second room “sweeter” and their drinks in the third room “woodier.” Although it was all the same Scotch, the study participants said they liked the whiskey they tasted in the “woody” room the most.
7) Beer wins again!: And while we’re on the subject, just the taste of alcohol can set off a release of dopamine in the brain. Scientists at the University of Indiana did brain scans of 49 men who first tasted beer and then Gatorade, and the researchers saw that the dopamine activity was much higher after men tasted the beer. The study also found that the dopamine release was greater among the men with a history of alcoholism in their families.
8) Even then, they didn’t hold the mustard: As long as 6,000 years ago, humans were spicing up their food. Researchers found evidence of garlic mustard in the residue left in pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany. Because garlic mustard has little nutritional value, the scientists from the University of York believe that it was used to add flavor to meals. The findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that ancient humans were solely focused on eating food to give them strength and endurance.
9) Must not work with fries: Taste sensors in the tongue have evolved so that while animals like salt, they are repulsed when something is too salty. This triggers the same avoidance response as when something is found to be too bitter or sour, according to a study published in the journal Nature earlier this year. In fact, said the researchers, mice that had been genetically engineered to be unable to detect bitter or sour tastes couldn’t gauge when they were consuming too much salt.
10) That’s right, “mutant cockroaches”: A strain of mutant cockroaches apparently has evolved to the point where they are now repulsed by the glucose in the sugar traps meant to catch them. A team of scientists in North Carolina tested the theory by giving hungry cockroaches a choice of glucose-rich jelly or peanut butter. And this particular type of cockroach recoiled at the taste of jelly while swarming over the peanut butter. Additional analysis of the pests’ taste receptors showed that they now perceive jelly–and therefore sweet flavors–as a bitter taste.
Video bonus: Just in case you want visual evidence of the above discovery about the mutant pests, check out this BBC video of a cockroach taste test.
Video bonus bonus: A dirty little secret is that at some point all parents mess with their babies, like when they get them to taste a lemon for the first time.
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November 26, 2013
With the inherent low-brow hokiness of instant spray-on hair and tans, the notion of clothing that you can simply spray on seems destined to occupy a spot at the bottom rung of gimmicky products typically found in the “As Seen On TV” aisle.
But it’s actually premier designer labels like Calvin Klein and specialty boutique shops that inventor Manel Torres had envisioned when he conceived and later developed his patented “couture-in-a-can” technology. At these upscale fashion outlets, shoppers would drop in, undress and have a custom-sprayed scarf draped around them in minutes. In this best-case scenario, prices will likely vary depending on whether the shopper wanted to be coated with $50 pair of Levi’s or $100 Ralph Lauren snug denim. Whatever outfit these style-conscious visitors choose, they’ll walk out feeling assured that they won’t run into anyone else who’s accidentally replicated their truly unique look.
Now, ten years after initially hitting upon the possibility, the British fashion designer is mostly busy fielding phone calls from representatives of fashion houses and other potential investors from a wide spectrum of industries. From the earliest failed prototypes to a current version that Torres has deemed “ready for production,” the revolutionary liquid fabric has since been showcased at a catwalk runway in London, during the Imperial College London Fashion show, where it received plenty of attention from the press. Still, the thoroughly refined technology has yet to go from showroom novelty to anyone’s actual wardrobe.
“I am always getting tons of emails asking when I will bring a product to the market,” says Torres, who founded Fabrican Ltd to market the concept. “Right now, we need global companies to fund this effort.”
The idea for spray-able garments came to him during a wedding, where he watched attendees playing with silly string. The sight left him wondering if something similar could be done with thread. Torres enrolled in a Chemical Engineering PhD program at Imperial College London, where he experimented with numerous formulations that would allow common fabrics like cotton, wool and nylon to be compressed and layered using an ejection system such as a spray gun or an aerosol can.
The fashion pioneer eventually settled on a solution comprised of short, cross-linked fibers held together by special polymers—all of which are soaked in a safe solvent so that the fabric can be delivered in liquid form. As the mixture is sprayed, the solvent evaporates before it comes in contact with the skin, which prevents the then-solid material from completely affixing to the body; it forms a layer of a sturdy, unwoven material with a texture Torres likens to the felt-like chamois leather used to make polishing cloths and towels for drying cars.
The method of spraying, he says, gives designers and consumers immense flexibility to hand-craft a wide range of apparel, such as shirts, coats and undergarments, on the fly. Spraying on multiple layers, for instance, hardens and strengthens the material, and designers can add their aesthetic touch by playing with a diverse range of source fabrics, colors, even scents. Clothing made from the spray-on technology can be washed, re-worn and easily recycled back since the same solvent used to deliver the material can be used to break it down too.
“The wearer can recycle the clothes themselves or perhaps they can take the used clothing into a shop and exchange it for a refill,” Torres explains. “There are many possibilities, but that’s really thinking further ahead.”
Besides being a fashion statement, Torres points out that the material is exceptionally versatile. In fact, Fabrican is currently developing a variation that can be sprayed to cover and protect car seats. It could also have medical value on the battlefield. What if you could, without ever touching a wound, spray on a 100 percent sterile bandage? The company has partnered with military personnel in Britain to test a prototype that functions as a plaster cast for soldiers who become injured while in combat.
“Fashion was our starting point, but we’re now also realizing the technology has so many applications that can benefit other industries,” says Torres. “Fashion owes a lot to science for innovations that make it into clothes you see today, and it’s nice to think this can be our way of giving back.”
November 15, 2013
Despite the classy appearance, there’s something about an exorbitantly pricey bulletproof men’s suit that screams publicity stunt. After all, besides fictional movie characters that go by 007, who in the world would ever need something like this?
Turns out, the $20,000 three-piece fashion statement was actually conceived with an utmost sense of practicality in mind. Men’s custom tailoring upstart Garrison Bespoke designed the new armor-strength threads to suit the special circumstances facing a small subset of businessmen that work in mineral mining, oil production and other highly-lucrative industries that often require traveling to dangerous conflict-stricken regions in Africa and the Middle East. By putting on live demonstrations to showcase its one-of-a-kind creation, the Toronto-based brand hopes to distinguish itself as a design house that makes clothes that are both fashionable and functional.
“As part of our fitting process, we hold consultation sessions with our clients to learn more about the demands of their particular day-to-day routines,” says David Tran, the company’s head of special projects. “And when one of our clients told us about a situation where he was shot and barely survived, it got us thinking about what we can do on our end to help.”
After looking into Kevlar, a fabric commonly used by law enforcement to make bulletproof vests and other anti-ballistic garments, the development team deduced that the material was too bulky for their liking. The whole purpose, Tran says, wasn’t just to offer reliable safety but also to enable the wearer to remain inconspicuous enough to not tip off to those around him that he’s donning protective gear. The finished product had to look polished enough to wear to corporate meetings while also being comfortable to bear throughout the day.
The designers opted ultimately to collaborate with a military contractor company (whose name Garrison Bespoke is keeping confidential) to fashion an outfit that featured fabric made of carbon nanotubes. What makes the material ideal is that, at the molecular level, each sheet is composed of long cylindrical carbon structures that possess a unique combination of rigidity, strength and elasticity that other industrial fibers simply can’t match. Compared to Kevlar, textiles made from carbon nanotubes are thinner, more flexible, weigh 50 percent less and don’t lose their strength when wet.
Even with such advantages, fabricating an ensemble that looked sharp still required a lot of craftsmanship, such as stitching with a special needle and experimenting with numerous threading techniques. The tailors eventually settled on a design in which a minimal amount of thin nanotube sheets was strategically woven into the back lining of the jacket a well as in the front of the vest so that the clothing’s bulletproof properties didn’t significantly alter the natural look and feel of a designer suit. The only time anyone might be able to tell that you’re sporting something bulletpoof, Tran notes, is when the person is standing very close or during the critical moment shots ring out (obviously). As a bullet (up to a .45) strikes the fortified area, the three-layer system hardens on contact to absorb much (but not all) of the bullet’s kinetic impact. Translation: It’ll still hurt some.
“It’s not like Batman movies,” Tran explains. “The person wearing the suit will feel some of the blunt force of the projectile. But it’s a lot less then what they would have experienced with a vest made from Kevlar. It will also prevent sharp objects like a knife from penetrating the body.”
The suit’s shield-like properties won’t last forever, though, as all anti-ballistic materials have a limited shelf life. Carbon nanontube fibers, in particular, generally start to break down after four to five years. Despite some of these drawbacks, Tran says that the company has already sold two customized suits and has a wait list of about 16 orders they’re working to fill, including the president of a country who has expressed interest in meeting with Garrison Bespoke’s representatives for a custom fitting.
The company originally intended to demonstrate the suit’s effectiveness with a live model, but opted to test it using a dressed-up bust instead, citing all the ”red tape” required to obtain permission and, of course, the risk of injury.
“Obviously, nothing out there is going to make it so that it’ll be enjoyable to get shot,” says Tran. “But with our suit, if you happen to get caught in a gunfight, you’ll at least look great running away.”
September 25, 2013
When I got back from vacation the other day, I returned to a clean desk. Well, not actually clean, but every stack of paper was aligned. Not a sheet was askew.
This lasted about 20 minutes.
But rather than stare forlornly at the paper swirl building before me, this time I gave myself a big “attaboy,” because clearly I was getting my creative on.
When things get messy
That’s right, a messy desk is a sign of an innovative mind at work, not a chaotic one. At least that’s the sage suggestion from a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota.
Here’s how they reached this conclusion. First, they arranged a room to look either particularly tidy or especially messy and haphazard. Then they invited people in for what they were told was a “consumer choice study.” The study participants were shown a menu for fruit smoothies. Actually, there were two versions of the menu. On one, smoothies with a “health boost” of added ingredients, were labeled “classic.” On the the other menu, those same smoothies were promoted as “new.”
And here’s how it played out: When people were in the tidy room, they picked smoothies with a health boost twice as often if it was labeled classic. Conversely, when they made their smoothie choices while in a messy room, they opted for those described as “new”—again twice as often. In short, they preferred convention while in a clean environment and novelty when immersed in messiness.
Interesting, but it doesn’t feel like this is quite enough to declare that messiness fosters creativity. So the Minnesota researchers, led by Kathleen Vohs, ratcheted up the research. They used the same tidy and messy rooms, only this time, they asked subjects to propose as many different uses for ping pong balls as possible. Then they had a team of independent judges rate the ideas based on the level of creativity.
Suggesting that the balls be used for beer pong wouldn’t have impressed the judges. Recommending that they could be converted into ice cube trays would.
Once again, the messy room worked its magic. As Vohs explained recently in the New York Times, the people who spent their time there offered up five times as many ideas deemed “highly creative.”
Maybe it’s time to aim a fan at the papers on my desk and start thinking deep thoughts.
It’s all about connections
If only it were that simple. Turns out that even the way our brains produce creative thoughts appears to be a lot more complicated than long believed. The conventional wisdom that the right half of our brain handles creative thinking? Way too simple—at least according to a study published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A team of Dartmouth scientists found that human imagination is much more of a whole brain experience.
That’s what they observed after they hooked 15 participants up to an fMRI scanner and asked them to visualize specific abstract shapes, then told them to imagine combining those shapes into more complex figures. Large networks within the subjects’ brains became active as they conjured up the images. This included areas that deal with visual processing, along with others related to attention and executive processes. All of them worked together to make the imaginary images take shape.
While their findings didn’t provide a clear answer as to why some people are more creative than others, it did allow the scientists to speculate that it may come down to a matter of connections, that in truly creative people, the different brain regions needed to shape imagination are particularly well-connected.
Here’s other recent research on what may help make us creative:
- Still, they should not be encouraged to take apart the air conditioner: Researchers at Vanderbilt University say that a teenager’s ability to figure out how things work may be a better predictor of innovative thinking than more conventional math or verbal skills. The study found that students who did well on the Differential Aptitude Test, which measures the ability to manipulate two-and three-dimensional objects, often proved to be high achievers in math, science and engineering.
- I did it my way…and so should you: A study published by Northwestern University scientists challenges the notion that creative people can be a bit flighty. Instead, their research suggests just the opposite, that people who achieve creative success tend to cling to ideas, sometimes to the point where it keeps them from shifting focus.
- And you scoffed: A British psychologist commissioned by the music streaming service Spotify to determine what type of music benefits which topics of study came to the conclusion that listening to the music of Miley Cyrus can actually boost a person’s creativity.
Video bonus: Singer Annie Lennox offers her take on catching creative ideas and why it’s important to keep our internal critic out of the room at those moments.
Video bonus bonus: You gotta admit that there’s something creative about putting birds on hang gliders.
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Working In a Creative Field? Despite What You Think, Coffee Is Not Your Best Friend
April 24, 2013
In one those strange twists of modern life, we were reminded last week of the power of music–at a hockey game.
It was at Boston’s TD Garden, two days after the explosions that contorted so many lives, and as singer Rene Rancourt began the Star Spangled Banner before the game between the hometown Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres, he noticed that many in the crowd were joining in. Rancourt got only as far as …”what so proudly we hailed” before he pulled the microphone away from his mouth and motioned to those in the stands to carry on. They did, in full voice, building to a stirring finish.
Yes, it would have been a powerful moment had those 17,000 people stood and cheered in unison. But they sang together, without restraint, and that moved us in a way we can’t fully comprehend.
Welcome to the pleasure center
Why is it that music can affect us in such profound ways? “Because it does” seems like a pretty good answer to me, but scientists aren’t that easy. They’ve been wrestling with this for a long time, yet it was not that long ago that two researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre, came up with an explanation, at least a physiological one.
Based on MRI scans, they found that when people listened to music they liked, the limbic and paralimbic regions of the brain became more active. They’re the areas linked to euphoric reward responses, the same ones that bring the dopamine rush associated with food, sex and drugs. (Right, so throw in rock and roll.)
Okay, but why? Why should a collection of sounds cause the brain to reward itself? That remains a bit of a mystery, but a favorite theory, proposed almost 60 years ago, posits that it’s about fulfilled expectations. Put simply, music sets up patterns that causes us to predict what will come next and when we’re right, we get a reward. Some have suggested this has its roots in primitive times when guessing wrong about animal sounds was a matter of life or death. What was needed was a quick emotional response to save our skin, rather than taking a time to think things through.
And so, the theory goes, our response to sound became a gut reaction.
And the beat goes on
The truth is we’re learning new things about music all the time. Here are eight studies published in just the past few months.
1) But can you dance to it?: Toronto researcher Valorie Salimpoor wanted to know if our strong emotional response to a song we like is due to the music itself or some personal attachment we have to it. So she had a group of people listen to 30-second samples of songs they’d never heard before, then asked them how much they’d be willing to pay for each track. And she did MRI scans of their brains while they listened. The result? When the nucleus accumbens region became active–it’s a part of the brain associated with pleasant surprises or what neuroscientists call “positive prediction errors”–they were more willing to spend money. In other words, if a song turned out better than they had expected, based on pattern recognition, they wanted more of it.
2) Drum solos not included: Two McGill University psychologists in Montreal say that soothing music can actually be more effective than Valium when it comes to relaxing people before surgery.
3) Unless their favorite song is by Metallica: And it helps even the tiniest of babies. A study at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York found that when parents turned their favorite songs into lullabies and sang or played them on an instrument, it reduced stress levels in the infants and stabilized their vital signs.
4) The ultimate mind meld: Back to brain scans. Stanford neuroscientist Daniel Abrams determined that when different people listened to the same piece of music–in this case a little known symphony–their brains reflected similar patterns of activity. And those similarities were observed not just in areas of the brain linked with sound processing, but also in regions responsible for attention, memory and movement.
5) You know you love “Gangnam Style”…Ooops, sorry about that: Yes, scientists are even doing research on earworms or as most of us know them, songs that get stuck in our heads. And the latest study found that contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s usually not awful songs that we can’t seem to get rid of. Most often, it’s songs we actually like, even if we don’t want to admit it. Researcher Ira Hyman also has suggestions for how to get rid of an earworm–you need to engage in a task that requires the auditory and verbal components of your working memory–say, reading a good book.
6) No language barrier here: Previous research has shown that people with a musical background are more likely to be able to learn a second language, and now a new study suggests that people who speak a language that’s tonal, such as Cantonese, may be better suited to learning music. Understanding Cantonese requires a person to master six different tones, each of which can change the meaning of words. On musical tests taken by non-musicians as part of the study, those who spoke Cantonese scored 20 percent higher than English-speaking participants who didn’t play music.
7) Some day you’ll thank me for this, kid: A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that musical training before the age of seven can have a major effect on brain development. Those who learned how to play chords at an early age tend to have stronger connections between the motor regions of their brains.
8) Say what?: So loud music may not ruin your hearing after all. At least that’s the conclusion of New South Wales scientist Gary Houseley, who says his research showed that loud music causes hearing to diminish for only about 12 hours. His study was able to demonstrate that when sound levels rise, the inner ear releases a hormone which reduces the amount of sound transmitted by the ear hair’s cells. That reduces our hearing sensitivity for a while, but it also keeps our ears from being permanently damaged.
Video bonus: Then there are the people who can improvise music. Researcher Charles Limb took a look inside their brains.
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