Scans show similar activity to what occurs when you think about yourself.
It's really remarkable how seriously we take the fortunes of fictional characters. We care what happens to the people that we know perfectly well are simply words on a page or a screen. That they exist only in a writer's—and then in our—imagination somehow makes little difference. The best fictional characters stay with us, and we miss them when their stories end. We're weird.
Scientists from Ohio State University have published a study that describes just what is going on in people's heads when they invest in fictional characters. According to lead author of the study Timothy Broom, "When they think about a favorite fictional character, it appears similar in one part of the brain as when they are thinking about themselves." It would seem what's going on is that we identify with these characters to the extent that we—at least somewhat—become them.
This kind of identification can impact our real lives, too. As the study notes, there are undoubtedly more educators in the world because of Robin Williams' Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society," more doctors thanks to Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey in "Grey's Anatomy," and more than a few attorneys who got the idea for their careers from Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Conducting research in Westeros
The researchers used characters from HBO's "Game of Thrones": Bronn, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, Petyr Baelish, Sandor Clegane, and Ygritte. They chose the series due to its massive popularity and because the personalities of its characters were diverse enough that participants in the study would be more likely to find one they identified with.
The study took place over the course of GoT's seventh season. There were 19 participants in the study, all fans of the show, ranging in age from 18-37 years with a median age of 24. Ten were female, nine male, and all were right-handed and deemed to be good fMRI candidates — an fMRI shows changes in blood flow that indicate activity.
This is your brain on fiction
Credit: Judeus Samson/Unsplash
The study had two phases.
First, participants responded to questions asked in two well-regarded questionnaires: the interpersonal reactivity index (IRI) and the Transportability Scale. They were asked to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, "I really get involved in the feelings of the characters in a novel."
Next, each participant's brain was scanned in a functional neuroimaging (fMRI) device as they were shown a series of names: their own, any of nine pre-selected personal friends, or a Thrones character. Beneath each name was a descriptor such as "smart," "trustworthy," "lonely," or "sad," and the individual was asked to state whether the attribute was applicable by saying "yes" or "no."
The researchers were most interested in activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC). It's known from previous research that when we think of ourselves, activity in the vMPFC increases.
As the researchers predicted, those with lower scores on the IRI and Transportability Scale had the greatest activity in the vMPFC when they thought about themselves, somewhat less when they thought about their friends, and the least activity of all when they thought about the characters.
On the other hand, people with higher tests scores—those who had reported that they often identified with fictional characters—were seen as having higher levels of activity in the vMPFC than other participants when they were considering the characters, especially when they were thinking about characters they liked or related to.
Co-author of the study Dylan Wanger suggests that our identification with fictional characters may be a kind of pleasurable role-playing: "For some people, fiction is a chance to take on new identities, to see worlds though others' eyes and return from those experiences changed."
"What previous studies have found," Wanger says, "is that when people experience stories as if they were one of the characters, a connection is made with that character, and the character becomes intwined with the self. In our study, we see evidence of that in their brains."
A study from McGill University reveals the secret of musicians who have excellent time.
- When a person locks onto a beat, it's because their brain rhythms have become aligned with it.
- Listening and physically performing are brain functions not directly related to rhythm synchronization.
- The study tracked EEG brain activity during listening, playing along, and recreating rhythms.
For as long as anyone remembers, parents have rocked their babies to sleep. The simple, regular rhythm soothes and relaxes a wee one, and research has shown that the same thing can even help adults sleep and to consolidate memories. The way in which rhythm works on us is a curious thing. For musicians, of course, being able to lock onto, perform along with, and recreate a rhythm is a basic, mandatory skill. But how exactly does this work?
This is the question a team of researchers — themselves musicians — from McGill University in Toronto sought to answer in their new study, "Rhythm Complexity Modulates Behavioral and Neural Dynamics During Auditory–Motor Synchronization," published in the October 2020 issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
The study was led by Caroline Palmer, who explains, "The authors, as performing musicians, are familiar with musical situations in which one performer is not correctly aligned in time with fellow performers — so we were interested in exploring how musicians' brains respond to rhythms."
There are at least three aspects to working with a rhythm: hearing it, comprehending it, and physically performing. The researchers were curious about what separates a solid player from one whose rhythmic sense was iffy. "It could be that some people are better musicians because they listen differently or it could be that they move their bodies differently."
It turned out neither was the case.
Says Palmer, "We found that the answer was a match between the pulsing or oscillations in the brain rhythms and the pulsing of the musical rhythm — it's not just listening or movement. It's a linking of the brain rhythm to the auditory rhythm."
Listening and tapping
A beat machine that produces notes similar to those used by the researchers
Credit: Steve Harvey/Unsplash
Palmer and her colleagues worked with 29 adult musicians — 21 female and 6 males, aged 18 to 30 years old — each of whom was proficient with an instrument, having studied for a minimum of six years. With electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes affixed to their scalps, the participants listened to and tapped along with different versions of three basic rhythms as the scientists captured their brain activity.
Each rhythm was preceded by a four-beat count off.
- Rhythm 1:1 — repeatedly played a simple series of evenly spaced clicks.
- Rhythm 1:2 — repeatedly played a two-beat phrase with a higher-pitched sound for the first beat of each phrase and a lower-pitched sound for the second.
- Rhythm 3:2 — repeatedly played the most complex rhythm of the three, a series of triplets. In this case, the lower-pitched sound played the quarter notes while a higher-pitched sound played the triplet notes.
(Tap or click each rhythm's name above to listen to its complete version with no beats or sounds omitted.)
The participants were assigned Listen, Synchronize, and Motor tasks. In the:
- Listen task — participants were played a dozen modified versions of the rhythms and asked to report any missing beats they noticed.
- Synchronize task — individuals played along with a dozen versions of the rhythms, in some cases supplying sounds researchers had removed from the patterns.
- Motor task — participants were asked to reproduce a dozen rhythm variations after hearing each one.
The scientists were able to identify neural markers representing each musician's beat perception, revealing the degree of synchronicity between the researchers' rhythms and the brain's own rhythms. Surprisingly, this synchronicity turned out to be unrelated to brain activity associated with either listening or playing.
Said the study's first authors, PhD students Brian Mathias and Anna Zamm, "We were surprised that even highly trained musicians sometimes showed reduced ability to synchronize with complex rhythms, and that this was reflected in their EEGs."
While the musician participants were all reasonably competent at tapping along to the rhythms, the degree to which the markers aligned to the beats was what separated the good players from the best. "Most musicians are good synchronizers," say Mathias and Zamm. "Nonetheless, this signal was sensitive enough to distinguish the 'good' from the 'better' or 'super-synchronizers,' as we sometimes call them."
When Palmer is asked whether a person can develop the ability to become a super-synchronizer, she answers: "The range of musicians we sampled suggests that the answer would be 'yes.' And the fact that only 2-3% of the population are 'beat deaf' is also encouraging. Practice definitely improves your ability and improves the alignment of the brain rhythms with the musical rhythms. But whether everyone is going to be as good as a drummer is not clear."
Google's Arts & Culture app just added a suite of prehistoric animals and NASA artifacts that are viewable for free with a smartphone.
- The exhibits are viewable on most smartphones through Google's free Arts & Culture app.
- In addition to prehistoric animals, the new exhibits include NASA artifacts and ancient artwork.
- The Arts & Culture app also lets you project onto your walls famous paintings on display at museums around the world.
Many of the world's museums are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but now you don't need to leave the couch to see some of the creatures on display at institutions like Moscow's State Darwin Museum and London's Natural History Museum. Google's Arts & Culture app just added a suite of new exhibits that can be viewed in augmented reality through your smartphone.
After installing the app on an ARCore-supported Android device, an iPhone, or an iPad, users can project the creatures onto any surface, take photos and videos, change their size, and move them around the room.
One of the strangest new exhibits is the Cambropachycope, a tiny crustacean from the Cambrian Period that has one of the world's oldest preserved compound eyes. Here's a look:
Google Arts & Culture
Other animals on display include:
- Opabinia — A 500-million-year-old arthropod with five eyes
- Skeleton of the blue whale – The largest animal to ever exist on Earth
- Spotted trunkfish — A fish with an unusually strong carapace made from thick hexagonal scale plates called scutes
- Aegirocassis — A 480-million-year old marine animal, believed to be the oldest large filter feeder, which existed hundreds of millions of years before whales and sharks
Google Arts & Culture
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Fans of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are captivated by Leonardo da Vinci's exceptional eye for human forms. Those masterpieces followed countless hours of anatomical studies. Da Vinci was fascinated by the human form, most famously expressed in his classic sketch The Vitruvian Man.
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Researchers observed "inter-brain coherence" (IBC) — a synchronisation in brain activity — between a musician and the audience.
"Through music, the producer and the perceiver connect emotionally and behaviourally," note the authors of a new paper, published in NeuroImage. And now this team, led by Yingying Hou at East China Normal University, has uncovered a connection right down at the neural level. The team has observed "inter-brain coherence" (IBC) — a synchronisation in brain activity — between a musician and the audience. What's more, the strength of this coherence could be used to predict how much the audience enjoyed a piece.
The team used a technique called near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor the brain activity of a professional violinist while he was videoed playing a series of 12 brief, classical pieces. They then used the same technique (which involves shining beams of light through the skull, to monitor changes in blood flow) on 16 women while they watched the video, and listened to all of these pieces. (Because gender differences in inter-brain synchronisation have previously been observed, only women were recruited as listeners.)
The violinist had been instructed to look directly at the camera and maintain a neutral expression while he played the pieces, which each lasted about 100 seconds. If he was enjoying one piece more than another, the team hoped this would not be obvious to the viewers. They were told to gaze at the violinist's face while they listened. After each piece, they rated how much they liked it on a seven-point scale.
The data revealed inter-brain coherence between each of the listeners and the musician, for all of the violin pieces. That is, there were similar patterns of heightened activity in certain key regions of the brain while the violinist played and the other participants listened.
The key regions included the left temporal cortex (which is thought to focus on processing the rhythm of sound information), the right inferior frontal cortex and the postcentral cortices. These two latter regions have been highlighted as important hubs of a hypothesised mirror system that allows a sender and receiver to share brain representations. "In the present study, the frontoparietal mirror neuron system allows audiences to experience or comprehend the mind of the performer as if they were to 'walk in another's shoes'," the researchers believe.
The team also produced an average IBC score for each piece of music, and compared these with the listeners' averaged liking scores for each piece. They found clear correlations. The more popular pieces were marked by stronger inter-brain coherence in the left temporal cortex between the audience as a whole and the performer.
The team also reported that the link between level of coherence and popularity only developed during the second half of each piece. This could be because there are two stages to music appreciation, they suggest. The first stage involves recognising rhythms, and identifying the potential musical structure of a piece. During the next stage, the listener develops aesthetic judgements and experiences emotional resonance, and generates stronger predictions about the sounds that 'should' follow. "If the expectation matches the incoming information, the musical performance will be experienced as pleasant," the team thinks.
More work will be needed to explain why the coherence-liking effect only emerged at a group level, and to explore whether the results obtained here will also apply to other types of musical instrument, and other genres. The team also note that the near-infrared technique only allowed them to look at blood flow in the cortex, not other deeper areas that might be involved in the response to music production and perception, too, such as limbic structures. Also, by design, this study only involved women. Whether men will respond in the same way is unknown.
Still, it's fascinating research. "This study expands our understanding of music appreciation," the researchers write, adding: "The results can potentially be applied to the development of brain indices for predicting public attitudes towards various musical performances."