What is your gut telling you?

Intuition might seem like a concept too vague to be worthy of scientific investigation. Some cognitive psychologists see it as the opposite of rational thinking or reasoning – the time-saving ‘rule of thumb’. We often talk about it as the ‘gut feeling’, or the ‘feeling of knowing’. Intuition allows us to make a quick decision, based  on our stored knowledge and without the need for conscious deliberation. Such an ability is not only useful but often necessary in our fast paced hectic world – no wonder that the human brain is so well adapted to using intuitive judgments.

Perceiving the world, e.g. seeing something, is accomplished through brain structures that form a hierarchy. For instance, at the lower end of this hierarchy sensory regions of the brain (the concrete-processing areas) respond to and interpret physical features of what we see, such as colour or orientation of lines. Higher up, separate areas (the abstract specialists) then analyse more abstract characteristics, e.g. category or meaning.

It would be hard and time-consuming to process every single object in a bottom-up manner (from concrete to abstract); the visual cortex would need to perform a detailed analysis and generate numerous possible options as to what an object could be. Hence, the brain adopts a different strategy. If we look at an image of a fragmented object and at an image containing only scrambled lines we can quickly recognise which one can be completed into something meaningful, even though we do not consciously recognize the object (see below).

An image of a bed: fragmented (left) and scrambled (right). Luu P, Geyer A, Fidopiastis C, Campbell G, et al. (2010) Reentrant Processing in Intuitive Perception. PLoS ONE  5(3): e9523. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009523 http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0009523
An image of a bed: fragmented (left) and scrambled (right).
(Luu P, Geyer A, Fidopiastis C, Campbell G, et al. (2010) Reentrant Processing in Intuitive Perception. PLoS ONE)

This is because the concrete-processing areas send information to the abstract-specialists before they engage in a laborious analysis of details. One of the brain’s ‘abstract specialists’ is the medial orbitorfrontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex is situated quite high in the hierarchy of perception, so does not get involved in analysing the physical details of an object. Rather, its job is to assess information from structures lower in the hierarchy and decide on the emotional content of the experience and whether or not an action is required.

Having received the signal about the fragmented image, the medial orbitofrontal cortex works out the ‘gist’ of the image – an intuitive judgment as to what this object could be. Then this ‘gist’ is sent back down to the areas of the visual cortex, where it guides more detailed analysis of the object. The whole process takes place within a couple of hundreds of milliseconds – no wonder we are not even aware of it! But, how does the orbitofrontal cortex know what the fragments of lines might mean? The image activates information that we already have stored in the vast networks of knowledge about similar items. Hence, even if we consciously do not recognize an object, we can tell that it is, in fact, a meaningful thing, as opposed to a similar image containing only scrambled lines.

So we have an idea of how the areas of the brain work together when we experience the ‘feeling of knowing’ or make intuitive decisions. Good communication between the ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract specialists’ is key in this process. What would perhaps be useful to find out is: are there ways of increasing or improving our ability to use intuition to make good decisions? Should it be encouraged in certain situations where explicit information is lacking? Is it true what they say about women’s intuition and if so – how would that manifest in the brain activity? Even though we might sometimes underestimate intuition, the brain takes advantage of it whenever possible.

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek

Helen Beatrix Potter: Author, Illustrator and Scientist

Helen Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter with her spaniel Spot (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired)

You may be forgiven for thinking of Beatrix Potter as the talented author and illustrator of a large number of children’s books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but she is much more than that. For Beatrix Potter was a leading mycologist (someone who studies fungus) and conservationist and it was these interests that lead her to write her best-selling books. Beatrix Potter continues to enlighten people today as a recently discovered parasitic fungus (Tremella simplex) in Aberdeen was found to have been drawn by Beatrix Potter in the late 1890’s. So what drew the young Beatrix to nature and its study?

Beatrix was interested in nature from a very young age and was very meticulous in recording observable data, often drawing or painting what she observed in nature. Although these paintings were not systematic as Beatrix drew what interested her it led to her close friend John Everett Millais acknowledging her keen eye: “plenty of people can draw, but you…have observation.” From as young as nine years of age Beatrix was drawing watercolours of caterpillars with anatomical and field observations. Her love of nature was further enhanced by opportunities during her childhood. Beatrix was born into a wealthy family and so enjoyed summer holidays near the River Tay in Scotland which enabled her to draw a wide range or flora and fauna in the local area. Additionally, she was able to learn photographic techniques, including detail and perspective, from her father Rupert, an amateur photographer, further enhancing Beatrix’s talent in painting. Subsequent trips to the Lake District also influenced a lot of Beatrix’s painting at a young age. On these trips she also exhibited a keen interest in geography and archaeology, noting in her journals about the formation of land, soil erosion and paintings of fossils.

Educated privately through governesses at home, Beatrix’s talent in drawing was recognised early and further tuition in painting was provided. However, this was detested by Beatrix who did not wish to copy other painters but experiment with her own style, later sticking with watercolours. Beatrix cared for a lot of pets at home and these provided a great source of inspiration for many of her drawings. She would also draw a menagerie of animals secretly hidden in the nursery with her younger brother Walter Bertram including mice, rabbits, bats, snails, egg collections and insects. Additionally, when pets died the Potter children would boil the corpse and play with the bones to learn more about the anatomy of the animals they drew.

Oyster mushroom mycelium growing on a bed of coffee granules  (Photo: Tobi Kellner, Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Oyster mushroom mycelium growing on a bed of coffee granules
(Photo: Tobi Kellner, Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

At first, study for her drawings were through the use of a hand lens, then a camera and later with her younger brother’s microscope and this is how Beatrix became fascinated with fungi. Her interests began at first with their colour and structure and she later became interested in her 30’s in the role of spores in reproduction of different fungi. At the time this topic was highly debated within British mycologist circles. On a holiday to Scotland in 1892, Beatrix formed an alliance with a noted naturalist Charles McIntosh and exchanged her accurate drawings of rare specimens for his knowledge of microscopic drawing of fungi, knowledge of taxonomy and live specimens during winter. By 1895, Beatrix had collected and drawn the spores and spore-producing structures (basidia) of the mushroom Boletus granulatus, now called Suillus granulatus. She had also successfully managed to germinate spores of a number of species and produced drawings of the mycelium.

With these interesting results at the time, Beatrix approached the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew Gardens only to be dismissed by the current director, Willian Thiselton-Dyer. However, her uncle, the chemist Henry Enfield Roscoe, encouraged Beatrix to continue her research into fungal spore reproduction, which she then later offered to the Linnean Society in London, though at the time they did not admit women or allow them to attend meetings. The paper Beatrix submitted was titled ‘On the germination of the spores of Agaricineae’ and contained many of her microscope drawings. This paper has since been lost but it seemed as if Beatrix was heavily interested in the idea of hybridisation.

Around this time as well, the principal of London’s Morley Memorial College for Men and Women, Caroline Martineau, commissioned Beatrix to produce lithographs for use in lectures, of which two survive today, one on a Sheetweb spider and the other of insects. After a lifetime of drawing Beatrix donated her botanical and mycological drawings to the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside, Lake District. These are still used today by both amateur and professional mycologists and 59 of her drawings were reproduced in a book on fungi.

Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, photo in the public domain)
Benjamin Bunny from one of Beatrix Potter’s books
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons, photo in the public domain)

However, these feats are not the limits to Beatrix’s love of nature. During her life, Beatrix also became fascinated with the countryside, not in keeping with her parents’ views for their child, and became a wealthy land owner in the North of England, running both her own farms and those she shared with the National Trust. It is through this work that Beatrix became interested in conservation, particularly concerned with breeding native Herdwick sheep and promoting the preservation of the land in the Lake District. On her death, Beatrix Potter donated her land to the National Trust and today over 1700 hectares are still enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.

Therefore, through her work as both a mycologist and conservationist it is important that we think of Beatrix Potter as more than an author. For it was through Beatrix Potter, who fought against societies who did not acknowledge women and rejected her papers that the foundations of mycology was born. In Beatrix’s own words ‘with opportunity the world is very interesting.’

SSAThis post, by author Rebecca Jones, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.

Singing the praises of reconsolidation (and shouting about asparagus)

Having studied Psychology in various forms for many years, I have often questioned the merit of some theories. It seemed to me that the psychological mechanisms that we investigate are often far removed from natural behaviour, and I shared the view of many that my field has a tendency to be reductionist – simplifying complex feelings and behaviours to little more than cogs in a machine.

In fact, in my cynicism I have at times wondered Memorywhether some reported parts of behaviour actually exist. One example, taken from research on the topic of memory, is a process referred to as ‘reconsolidation’. According to reconsolidation theory even a firm, long-term memory can be tampered with, possibly changing the memory altogether. Reconsolidation centres upon the process of ‘consolidation’ where a memory trace is converted from short- to long-term memory.

For reconsolidation to occur an existing memory must first be reactivated by a similar experience. It is this reactivation which renders the memory unstable. The unstable memory can then be modified by new experiences/information and undergoes a second consolidation, or ‘reconsolidation’. It is during this stage that alterations to the original memory can be made. The extent to which the reconsolidated memory persists depends upon the properties of the similar experience, but research suggests that the changes can be permanent in some circumstances.

My initial scepticism regarding this process was two-fold. Firstly, I found it hard to believe that an established long-term memory could be affected by showing me another similar piece of information. Could the memory of my parent’s address be altered like this? Surely this was absurd? Secondly, it seemed to me that reconsolidation theory may have been a scientific explanation of confusion brought about by knowledge of two similar and conflicting pieces of information – something I’m sure we have all experienced before.

Until recently, I hadn’t experienced anything in my own life that I could attribute to the process of reconsolidation, but I’m pleased to report that recently my stand-point on this has changed somewhat. Whilst living in Germany and attempting to learn the language, my German friends would often ask me to tell them an English word for something. My prior conclusions would have led me to believe that I could not possibly forget an English word that I have known all my life, simply by holding the equivalent German word in my head at the same time. However, one day whilst in the supermarket my German friend pointed to ‘Weisse Spargel’, which I knew in German and English. When he asked me for the English word, all I could do was stare blankly and mutter ‘Weisse Spargel’. It took me several hours of frustrated thinking before I eventually shouted out ‘ASPARAGUS’ later that evening!


In conclusion, I believe it is probable that repeatedly seeing the Weisse Spargel in the context of a German supermarket, over many visits reactivated my memory of the word asparagus. This reactivation rendered my initial knowledge temporarily unstable, and upon reconsolidation my knowledge was re-weighted to the German, rather than the English word. I can discount the possibility of being confused in this case because my knowledge of the word asparagus was not something I could mix up with something else. The information was there, but something very real had changed that made it more difficult to access.

I’m pleased to report that, although this was not an isolated incident, there were no lasting side effects, and I have not (yet) permanently lost my ability to speak English.

To find out more, please see this review by Thomas Agren.

Post by Gemma Barnacle

The Power of Yawning

No one looks pretty doing it yet somehow, when we see someone compulsively distort their face into a yawn, we feel inclined to do the same. We share this odd behaviour with a whole bunch of animals, who each do it for different reasons. Dogs do it when they’re confused, snakes do it to realign their jaws, lions do it to feign indifference in the face of combat, male penguins yawn to woo a mate and guinea pigs do it to scare enemies with their fierce incisors.

You wouldn’t want to encounter this fellow in a dark alley way.

Ancient Greeks and Mayas believed that yawning was the soul trying to escape the confines of the body and that it could only be stopped by covering your mouth. In Hinduism, yawning is considered a religious offense that must be repented by snapping your fingers and thumb and pronouncing the name of Raina. A more ‘sciency’ (yet equally unproven) notion is that yawning helps replenish blood oxygen.

In truth, yawning has only quite recently been husked of some of its mystery:

Us humans, as it turns out, are literally just cooling our brains (try yawning with a cool pack on your forehead). The reason for this is that our brains work best within a narrow temperature range. Staying awake longer than we should can heat up your brain as processes can get a bit out of control. When we go to sleep our brain temperature drops, allowing our brains to deal with some of the damage done during our waking hours. So perhaps yawning is just a quick fix until we can take a nap or sleep

The balance of chemicals in your brain also affects how much you yawn. Endorphins (increased by exercise, orgasms and horror movies) and adrenaline, generally prevent you from yawning while serotonin (increased by most antidepressants and MDMA) makes you yawn more. Why these chemicals affect yawning the way they do is still a bit of a mystery.

6703771645_f21858a47b_zYawning is contagious. In fact, just hearing someone yawn or reading about it (sorry…) will do the trick. Amazingly, yawning even breaks the species barrier, with studies showing that dogs and chimps will both mimic a human yawn! The degree of contagiousness amongst humans depends on how emotionally close you are to the yawner. Also, individuals with autism/asbergers syndrome don’t yawn in response to others; leading to the suggestion that this mimicry is based on empathy and may be an accurate index of your empathetic capacity. It certainly makes an interesting way of testing friendships…

So why is it contagious?

It all comes down to mirror neurons in your brain. Generally when you see someone move, certain cells in your brain tend to mimic the action. This helps us to imitate the actions of others, but also to understand them. Actually acting out whatever other people do is usually suppressed (see here for a fascinating talk on mirror neurons and their importance). In the case of yawning, it’s not. The reason it’s not suppressed might not be a coincidence – it smells of evolution. One idea is that it gets social animals to increase their vigilance as a group – so all of them keep a cool brain when on the look out for predators. It could also help signal tiredness to fellow group member, a non-verbal way of saying “it’s bed-time kids”.

So don’t feel bad about yawning. You’re boosting your brain power and showing you care. But you should still cover your mouth. 🙂

Post by: Isabel Hutchison

Dirty Tricks: World Cup Sweepstake – an analysis of 2014’s dirtiest teams

It’s ironic that the Brasil 2014 World Cup was one of the “cleanest” World Cups for some time. Ironic, because this was the World Cup where the Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez had another bout of teething trouble and chowed-down on an Italian shoulder. This hunger aberration aside, the players generally behaved themselves or at least when they did trespass perhaps the officials were prepared to be lenient if indeed they witnessed any wrong-doing at all.

This all brings me to an important consideration that I’m sure has divided many offices – The World Cup Sweepstake. A national tradition. An unmissable ingredient to raise the pulse. The best way to waste a pound.

The competition winner was fairly obvious. As was the runner-up. But then we get into some uncertain waters. The alternative prize at stake in my competition was the dirtiest team. So how to work this one out? Just give it to Uruguay? Or the team with the most red cards? Or the team with the most straight red cards perhaps?

Below is a plot of the yellow and red card statistics for each team, with the number of matches played in the competition in blue. When a player is given two yellow cards in the same game (resulting in a sending-off), this is shown separately to those yellow cards that do not contribute to a sending-off, green and red bars respectively. We can see that Brasil not only wore yellow but weren’t shy of picking up a few bookings here and there too. The Netherlands and Costa Rica also said hello to yellow more than the rest. The teams to the left up to Honduras all had a man sent for an early bath at some stage too. So, is Brasil the dirtiest team?

*Note: Click on graphs to enlarge


What we need is a combined yellow and red card statistic.The plot below shows some candidates. Let‘s assume that a yellow card is worth 1 point and a straight red card is worth 3 point so for example a team with one yellow and one straight red would score 4 points.

The question then is how much should a two-yellow-card-red-card (TYCRC) be worth?

The dark blue bars show the values if two yellows is simply worth the sum of two normal yellows i.e. two. The red bars are if its slightly worse but still not as bad as a straight red (2.5 points) and the green bars are if a TYCRC is worth the same as a straight red card (3 points). Purple is slightly worse still (4 points) and finally the light blue bars are if the TYCRC is worth the individuals yellows and the red card values (5 points). We see that in general Brasil are still naughty step contenders. Only when TYCRC is worth 5 do Costa Rica edge ahead.


But this still isn’t the whole picture. Obviously if a team played more games then they are more likely to have picked up a booking or two along the way so we should account for this. When we divide the numbers in the plot above by the number of games that each team played we get the plot below.

Now we get that when the TYCRD is worth two single yellows or just a bit more then Uruguay are on top. For any values bigger then Honduras come steaming-up on the inside to take pole position.

WC3So, what does this all mean? Well, personally, I would say that Brasil actually aren’t all that bad after all and that Uruguay are in fact the dirtiest team of the Brasil 2014 World Cup even without taking in to account the on-going antics of Luis the Chewey.

Post by: Nathan Green

Hooked on Music: the science of the musical ‘hook’

We all know a catchy tune when we hear one, with its repetitive, attention grabbing chorus that you just can’t get out of your head. Those who work in the music industry call this the ‘hook’, and it’s what all musicians strive for when they’re trying to write a hit song. But what is it exactly that makes a hook particularly successful?

Hit songs are often the ones that are the most memorable, and can often be recalled many years later on hearing just a few opening chords. This apparent connection between popular music and memory is supported by a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that our ability to recall autobiographical memories is strongest when the memories are associated with a popular song which we may have heard at the time (e.g. Krumhansl & Zupnick, 2013).

Such effects may be attributed to the fact that listening to music activates multiple areas of the brain at once. In research carried out at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, Dr. Vinoo Alluri and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI–which traces blood flow to measure levels of activity in different areas of the brain) to map the brains of participants whilst they listened to a piece of Argentinian tango music. Dr. Vinoo Alluri found that the music not only activated the areas of the participants brains which process sound, but also the areas responsible for processing emotions, movement and creativity.

Areas of the brain activated by music: http://sciencenordic.com/how-music-touches-brain
Areas of the brain activated by music: http://sciencenordic.com/how-music-touches-brain

But what is it, in particular, that makes one song more memorable than another? What is it that makes a song a hit? Dr John Ashley Burgoyne and Professor Henkjan Honing from the University of Amsterdam hope to find out. To help them, they have teamed up with The Museum of Science and Industry to run a citizen science project called Hooked on Music as part of the Manchester Science Festival (23rd Oct-2nd Nov 2014).

 Citizen Science projects are an innovative way for scientists to collect large amounts of data whilst also allowing wide scale public participation in scientific research. The Hooked on Music project does this by inviting users to take part in a number of online games. Depending on their taste (or age!) participants can select music from any decade (from 40s/50s, right up to the present day). They can then test their recognition and recall of the most popular songs from that decade, and decide on the catchiest segments of individual songs. The data collected will be used to help better understand the hook that helps to firmly embed certain songs in our memory.

Understanding what makes a song memorable has applications beyond making a hit. By exploiting the powerful connection between music and memory and developing our understanding of what properties of particular songs have the strongest effect, therapies are being developed to help those suffering with memory difficulties caused by, for example, traumatic brain injuries and dementia. Charities such as Playlist for Life and Music & Memory encourage people to provide family members suffering from dementia with mp3 players containing playlists of songs that have been meaningful throughout that person’s life. The premise is that music will be a powerful trigger for memories that will bring familiarity and comfort and encourage interaction with other family members.

Post By: Catherine Mcguire

 To find out more about Hooked on Music or to take part visit http://www.hookedonmusic.org.uk.