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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April 19, 2013
Question: What’s needed to raise the quality of school teachers in America?
Answer: A bar exam?
So say the head of the country’s most powerful teachers’ union, the governor of New York and the U.S. secretary of education, among others. Their contention is that the only way teachers can truly elevate their profession–and with it the level of public education–is if they follow the lead of doctors, lawyers and engineers and are required to pass a test to prove mastery of their subject matter and how to teach it.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), first floated the idea last summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival when asked what more could be done in training teachers. Then, late last year, her union put out a report, titled “Raising the Bar,” that pushed the idea further, calling for “a rigorous entry bar for beginning teachers.”
The debate has raged on ever since.
Joining those singing the praises of a tough teacher assessment is Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education. Writing on The Atlantic website, he pointed out that pretty much anyone who graduates from college in America today can become a teacher, and that “job security, not teacher excellence, defines the workforce culture.” He also quoted a sobering statistic from McKinsey: The U.S. gets nearly half of its teachers from the bottom third of its college classes.
And just last weekend, in the New York Times, Jal Mehta,an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote that compared to many other fields where quality is maintained by building a body of knowledge and training people in that knowledge, “American education is a failed profession.”
“We let doctors operate, pilots fly and engineeers build because their fields have developed effective ways of certifying that they can do these things. Teaching, on the whole, lacks this specialized knowledge base; teachers teach based mostly on what they have picked up from experience and from their colleagues.”
So what exactly do the proponents have in mind? For starters, they think any exam would need to focus both on the prospective teacher’s subject and on teaching more generally, particularly the social and emotional aspects of learning. While states would be able to adapt the guidelines, the intent would be to set national certification standards. And, above all, the process would need to be “rigorous.” They say “rigorous” a lot.
AFT’s proposal also recommends that American universities need to get much more selective in accepting students into education programs, that they should require a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average, plus an average score in the top third percentile on college entrance exams. The goal, ultimately, is make teaching a skill to be mastered, and one that requires serious preparation. Said Weingarten: “It’s time to do away with a common rite of passage into the teaching profession—whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they and their students sink or swim.”
Of course, not everyone thinks this is such a good idea. Some critics have suggested that it’s a ploy by the teacher’s union to sound high-minded, while actually aiming to protect its current members–who likely wouldn’t have to take the exam–and to justify a sizable bump in salary. Or that it’s really a swipe at programs like Teach for America, which offers a different route to becoming a teacher.
Still others think that focusing so much on a test score doesn’t make sense for a profession so dependent on interpersonal and motivational skills. Jonathan Kozol, author of numerous books on education, including “Letters to a Young Teacher,” makes the point that no test, no matter how refined, could adequately measure what he thinks is a good teacher’s greatest quality, that he or she loves being with students. The only way you can gauge that, he says, is watching them teach.
And Jason Richwine and Lindsey Burke, both of the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, argued recently in The Atlantic that having knowledge and being able to impart it are two different things. They wrote:
“A teacher with a doctorate degree, every certification and license available, and 15 years of experience is no more likely to be a high performer than a teacher with a B.A., the minimal certification, and five years of experience.”
In the end, this discussion often ends up in Finland. It’s the Magic Kingdom of Education, the place the experts talk about when they imagine what American teachers could be. Roughly 40 years ago, the Finnish government concluded that the key to the country’s economic future was a first-class public education system. And the key to that was a system that gave teachers the prestige of doctors.
To even be accepted into a Finnish teacher education program, candidates must be at the top of their class, complete exams on pedagogy, be observed often in clinical settings, and pass a challenging interview. Only about 1 in 10 Finnish applicants are accepted to study to be teachers. And while the U.S. has more than 1,200 universities that train teachers, Finland has only eight. In short, teachers need to earn the right to feel special.
So, does that elevated status of teachers there result in better students? Yes, you could say that. In science, in math, in reading, Finnish students rank first in the world.
Here are other recent innovations in education:
- Never start by trying to learn Chinese: One of the hot trends in higher education is predictive analysis, which evaluates data to help identify students at risk of dropping out and also which course sequences are more likely keep kids in school and which are more likely to make them choose to drop out.
- Even tests can be all about you: A new online portal called Smart Sparrow allows teachers to offer material that’s adapted specifically to a student. For instance, quiz questions can be based on how a student answered the previous question. If he got it right, the next question’s harder, if he got it wrong, it’s easier.
- Do the math: A company called Mango Learning is building a reputation for its mobile apps that teach grade school kids math. They’re interactive games that supposedly can make kids even want to add decimals.
Video bonus: The Young Turks online news show offers its take on what makes Finnish education so special.
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March 29, 2013
Depending on who you’re listening to, Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs, are either the greatest boon to the spread of knowledge since Gutenberg cranked his first press or the biggest threat to learning on campus since the coming of cheap beer.
No question that they are the most disruptive innovation to come out of universities in a very long time, although it’s still too soon to say if that’s “good” disruptive or bad. A quick refresher: Though free online courses, notably through Khan Academy, were already starting to build an audience, the first MOOC by a university professor popped up at Stanford in the fall of 2011 when Sebastian Thrun, also head of the team behind Google’s driverless car, decided that he and his colleague, Peter Norvig, would offer online–and free–their course on artificial intelligence. About 160,000 people around the world signed up.
The following semester Thrun left Stanford–which didn’t particularly like the free part of his grand experiment–and started his own online education service called Udacity. A few months later, two more Stanford computer scientists, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, got venture capital backing to create another online company named Coursera, built around the model of signing up professors from top universities to teach classes. And then last fall, MIT and Harvard anted up, jumping in with a MOOC service they called edX.
A lot of professors who taught in the first wave of MOOCs were effusive about the experience, especially about having the opportunity to reach more than 100,000 people all over the world with just one class. But plenty of others wondered what really had been let out of the bottle, and whether once people got used to the idea of free college courses, how would they feel about the old model, you know, the one involving payment of tens of thousands of dollars.
Views from the front line
So, more than a year has passed since Thrun went to the free side and MOOCs–and the philosophy they promulgate of valuing competency more and time in the classroom less–are clearly gaining momentum.
Last week the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees approved an ambitious program of online education, including MOOCs designed to help students finish their degrees in less time for less money. The week before that, Darrell Steinberg, a leader of California’s State Senate, introduced legislation that would allow students to get full credit for a class by taking a MOOC if he or she was shut out of a course and unable to find a comparable one.
Also, the National Science Foundation has kicked in $200,000 to study a free online course in electronics offered through MIT last year, with the goal of comparing data and feedback from students who took the class online with what was gathered from those who took the same course in a classroom setting.
But a bit of analysis already has been done, in the form of a survey published by The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month. More than 100 professors who have taught MOOCs responded to an online questionnaire. Among the highlights of their feedback:
- Almost 80 percent said they think MOOCs are worth all the hype–although the Chronicle did point out that the professors most enthusiastic about the experience were more likely to respond.
- Eighty-six percent said they thought MOOCs would eventually reduce the cost of getting a college degree (45 percent said it would significantly, 41 percent marginally.)
- But 72 percent said they didn’t think free online students should receive full credit from their universities.
The dark side
It is a noble notion, this idea of first-rate professors sharing their wisdom with knowledge-hungry students around the world, playing the role of “sage on the stage,” as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman put it recently.
In practice, it hasn’t been such an idyllic model. The large majority of people who sign up for free online courses are what Phil Hill, an education consultant who has analyzed some of the MOOC data, refers to as “lurkers.” These are people who perhaps watch a video or two, but then drop out–a lot never get beyond registering. Hill says as many as 60 to 80 percent of MOOC students never make it past the second week of a course.
It’s apparently not unusual for as many as 90 percent of those who sign up for a free online class to drop out before they finish it. In one case, a bioelectronics course offered by Duke University through Coursera, only 3 percent of those who registered made it to the final exam.
Proponents of free online classes acknowledge that a lot of people who sign up for MOOCs are more curious than committed, and with neither a financial investment nor the option to earn credit, they don’t feel a compunction to stick it out to the end. More often now, universities are providing certificates to students who finish a course, for a nominal fee, generally under $100.
For professors, a big part of the motivation to teach MOOCs, according to the Chronicle survey, was the sense that mass online education is inevitable and that it would be wise to get ahead of the curve. Many also said they thought the experience made them better teachers.
But some believe the trend doesn’t bode well for many universities, particularly smaller ones and community colleges. Michael Cusumano, a professor of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, sees a troubling parallel with what happened with newspapers. “Free is actually very elitist,” Cusumano wrote recently in the monthly magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery. The result, he warns, could be a “few, large well-off survivors” and far more casualties.
His worst case scenario is “if increasing numbers of universities and colleges joined the free online education movement and set a new threshold price for the industry–zero–which becomes commonly accepted and difficult to undo.”
Adds Cusumano: “Will two-thirds of the education industry disappear? Maybe not, but maybe! It is hard to believe that we will be better off as a society with only a few remaining megawealthy universities.”
Here are other recent developments in open online learning:
- “Like” us if you’d rather not have a mid-term: The first MOOC service based in the U.K., called Futurelearn, launched in December and will be offering classes later this year. Its CEO says that one day people may congregate around online learning courses the way they now do around Facebook.
- Engineering can be fun! No, really: Brown University has begun offering a free, six-week online course designed to encourage more kids to consider careers in engineering.
- All MOOCs, all the time: And in Rwanda, a non-profit called Generation Rwanda is moving ahead with a creating a “university” for which all of the courses are taught online by professors elsewhere.
Video bonus: Here’s a bit more on MOOCs in a New York Times video report.
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How Artificial Intelligence Can Change Higher Education
February 13, 2013
It should probably tell us something that the most frequently asked question on Google last year was “What is love?” Clearly, most of us are clueless on the matter; otherwise we wouldn’t be turning to algorithms for an explanation.
Which explains why scientific research on love continues unabated. We want answers.
So, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, here are 10 recent studies or surveys trying to make sense of matters of the heart.
1) You light up my brain: Researchers at Brown University in Rhode Island say that based on brain scans, they may be able to predict if a relationship will last. The scientists did MRIs on 12 people who said they were passionately in love, then repeated the process three years later. In the six people whose relationships lasted, the scans showed that the part of the brain that produces emotional responses to visual beauty was particularly active when they were shown a picture of their partners. But those same six had lower levels of activity in the pleasure center of the brain tied to addiction when they looked at the photo.
2) Yeah, but what did it do for their sinuses?: Scientists continue to ponder the effect of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” produced by the pituitary gland. One of more recent studies, at the University of Zurich, found that while men generally withdraw during conflict with their mates, those who inhaled an oxytocin nasal spray smiled more, made eye contact and generally communicated better during disagreements.
3) What you see is what you don’t get: A new study by sociologist Elizabeth McClintock at the University of Notre Dame concluded that highly attractive women are more likely to seek exclusive relationships than purely sexual ones, and also that, for women, the number of sexual partners decreases as their physical attractiveness increases.
4) Okay, now let’s try a salsa beat: Meanwhile, at the University of California, Davis, scientists studying the physical behavior of couples in relationships found that when they were sitting near each other–but without speaking or touching–their breathing patterns and heartbeats often matched up. The researchers also discovered that the women tended to adjust their behavior to their partners more often.
5) So yes, putting the toilet seat down is an act of love: A professor at the University of Rochester who’s been studying newlywed couples for the past several years says members of married couples who do small acts of compassion and thoughtfulness for each other usually have happier relationships. Researchers Harry Reis also found that men more often said that they had put their partner’s wishes ahead of their own.
6) As they say in the relationships biz, it’s complicated: According to a study soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, people like to believe that their way of life–whether they’re single or in a couple–is the best choice for everyone. The researchers also found that when it came to Valentine’s Day, people believed that their friends would be happier if they were in the same situation as they were–in other words, people in a couple thought their single friends would enjoy themselves more on Valentine’s Day if they were in a relationship, while singles thought their coupled friends would have a better time if they were single.
7) Thanks for not sharing: And apparently it’s not such a good idea to make big displays of affection on Facebook. So say researchers at the University of Kansas who discovered that people don’t like their partners sharing their feelings about their relationships with the Facebook universe. Participants in the study said they felt less intimacy with their partners if they went public with how they felt about their loved one.
8) Another reason not to do windows: Here’s one to stir up debate. According to a research team of American and Spanish scientists, men who share in the housework have sex with their wives less often than men in “traditional” marriages where the women handle all of the household chores. This runs counter to previous studies which concluded that married men had more sex in exchange for helping around the house. In the recent study, married couples reported having more sex if the women did the cooking, cleaning and shopping and the men did the gardening, electrics and plumbing, took car of the car and paid the bills.
9) Road trip!: A survey of more than 1,000 American adults found that couples that travel together have better sexual relationships than those that don’t. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed recently by the U.S. Travel Association said that a weekend vacation was more likely to spark up their relationship than a gift. And almost 30 percent said their sex life actually improved after traveling together.
10) Which is why you don’t take dogs on vacations: On the other hand, dogs may not be so good for your sex life. About 73 percent of dog owners who answered another survey said their pets get jealous when they show physical affection toward their partners. And it probably doesn’t help that almost as many of those surveyed said their dog sleeps with them in bed.
Video bonus: It’s really not that hard to write a bad love song. The Axis of Awesome lays it all out for you.
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November 9, 2012
This is what election night is like in America these days:
I had gathered with about dozen other people, ostensibly to watch the results on TV. But the TV received, at best, divided attention.
To my left, my wife Carol had fired up her laptop and was foraging for results on websites that might have vote totals more current than what was on the big screen. To her left, another woman was zeroed in on her smart phone and to my right, two more guests were doing the same. So was I, for that matter. I kept one eye on the TV so I didn’t miss any states changing color, but my good eye was focused on my smart phone, where I was following the running commentary of Facebook friends.
Of the people in the room, at least half were furiously working another screen.
And then, when NBC called the election for Barack Obama, our hostess jumped up and, with her smart phone, snapped a picture of the announcement on the TV screen, closing, for one fleeting moment, the screenfest loop.
Earlier that same day, appropriately, the Norwegian company never.no launched an interactive content tool called Sync. It’s designed to give advertisers the opportunity to jump on to the second screen so a commercial gets the attention for which the sponsor has paid. But we’re not talking about just showing the same ad at the same time on a smaller screen. That would be both lame and annoying.
No, Sync is meant to actually put an ad in play on the screen where the action is. You’d be encouraged to interact with it–answering poll questions, getting more info about a product, maybe even sharing a clip about it on Facebook and Twitter. And as this approach gets more sophisticated, the thinking goes, it will become possible to flip things around so that the audience can influence an ad in real time, perhaps by selecting an ending from several different choices.
For advertisers this would be a beautiful thing–genuine viewer engagement in an experience that makes an ad personal and extends its life beyond its 30 seconds on screen. All while tracking the behavior of all those people interacting with it.
Screen on me
Other companies have also been trying to master the two-screen shuffle, including Shazam, the outfit best known for creating the mobile app that can tell you the name of a song once it hears the music. Starting with the Super Bowl last February, when it worked with more than half of the event’s advertisers to steer owners of its app to bonus content, Shazam has been refining the process of using mobile phones to connect viewers in more personal ways to TV programs and advertisers.
It still follows its original concept of recognizing sounds or music to identify a show or sponsor, but now it takes the next step of actually providing opportunities to bond with a product.
The latest example rolled out in Ireland a few days ago, an ad for Volvo. Anyone with the Shazam app on their phone–and there reportedly are now more than 250 million people around the world who have it–can “tag” the Volvo ad when it comes on TV and that, among other extras, allows them to then sign up for a free test drive and get a chance to win an iPad mini.
Take this personally
Okay, but how many of us really want to engage with a commercial? Don’t we do just about anything to avoid watching them? People in the multi-screen business acknowledge this. They know people tend to resent the intrusion of ads into the personal space of their phones and that many would much rather play Words With Friends during commercials than get all chummy with a bathroom cleaner.
And yet while recent research found that at least three out of four TV viewers say they use some other device while watching, a nice chunk of them–more than a third–say they’ve used their cell phone or digital tablet to browse for products spotted in a show or ad.
So the inclination is there. The key for advertisers is learning to create true value for viewers in the experience they provide on the small screens, a real reason to interact, not just some shrunken message of what they put on the TV screen.
Which brings me back to the election. There’s already talk that four years from now, political advertising will need to move into the multi-screen world of the 21st century. It will need to evolve beyond the thinking that volume is everything, that the days are over when the winner invariably was the side that could hammer home its message most often.
A case in point: An analysis of Super PAC spending published this week by the Sunlight Foundation found that American Crossroads, which spent more than $100 million on campaign advertising this year, had a success rate of just 1.29 percent.
Here are more recent developments in efforts to reach people on multiple screens:
- Life imitates TV: NBC will begin using a social TV app called Zeebox, which not only allows viewers to converse in real time with friends watching the same show, but also now will provide them with info on how they can purchase items in shows, particularly clothing and kitchen products.
- When you wish you were a star: A live ad for the recent launch in Great Britain of the popular Xbox video game Halo 4 featured a “roll call of honor,” a display of the names and pictures of randomly selected gaming fans who opted in via Facebook. The ad also showed, in real time, the number of people playing Halo 4 on Xbox Live.
- You make the call…in 140 characters or less: Also in the U.K., a recent campaign for Mercedes-Benz allowed viewers to vote on Twitter to determine how an ad featuring a chase scene should end.
- Will only redheads see ads for ginger snaps?: Earlier this fall Allstate worked with DirecTV and the Dish Network to target the audience so that only renters saw an ad for renter’s insurance.
Video bonus: Here’s a taste of the Mercedes-Benz ad that viewers controlled through Twitter.
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