Monday, June 18, 2018

Odors are perceived the same way by hunter-gatherers and Westerners

Previous research has shown the hunter-gatherer Jahai are much better at naming odors than Westerners. They even have a more elaborate lexicon for it. New research by language scientist Asifa Majid of Radboud University shows that despite these linguistic differences, the Jahai and Dutch find the same odors pleasant and unpleasant.

Scholars have for centuries pointed out that smell is impossible to put into words. Dutch, like English, seems to support this view. Perhaps the only really clear example of a smell word in Dutch is "muf." The Jahai, a group of hunter-gatherers living in the Malay Peninsula, appear to be special in that they have developed an exquisite lexicon of words for smell, like other hunter-gatherers. Earlier work of Majid and colleagues already showed that hunter-gatherers seem to be especially good at talking about smell.

In a new study, the researchers tested 30 Jahai speakers and 30 Dutch speakers and asked them to name odors. At the same time they also videoed their faces so they could measure their facial expressions to the different odors after the experiment. The researchers replicated the finding that Jahai speakers use special odor words to talk about smells (e.g., cŋεs used to refer to stinging sorts of smells associated with petrol, smoke, and various insects and plants, plʔeŋ used for bloody, fishy, meaty sorts of smells), while Dutch speakers referred to concrete sources (e.g., 'if you ride along or stand behind a garbage truck, but not right on top of it').
Asifa Majid et al. Olfactory language and abstraction across cultures, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0139

Time for some flower friendliness


Top 100 jazz albums according to 2000 on reddit

The r/jazz top 100 album results! from r/Jazz
I own, or have owned, maybe 50 or so of them. & the list is obviously heavily biased toward newer music.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

A real city, not SF noir

Creative thinking – Did you ever wonder where 'brainstorming' and 'thinking beyond the box' came from?

Bregje van Eekelen, Discipline and Creativity, Institute for Advanced Study, 2018.
On April 6, 1960, Institute for Advanced Study Director Robert Oppenheimer received a letter from psychologist John E. Drevdahl, requesting his support in setting up a study among IAS Members to assess the factors that made them creative. Thus far, Miami University-based Drevdahl wrote, most studies were “based upon Air Force captains and industrial chemists,” noting understatedly that “I do not feel that [this]… resulted in the identification of those personality factors which are most characteristic of a truly creative and productive researcher.” While it is easy to relate to Drevdahl’s intuition that the military and industry were not the most suitable places to capture creative thinking, it was in those very places that creativity theories and techniques were flourishing in the United States at the time.

My research project on the social history of creativity shows that in the decade preceding the correspondence, processes to garner new ideas and techniques to think “beyond” existing bodies of knowledge became an object of professional interest in a contact zone of industry, the military, and academia. Various elements of the military were early sites for the introduction of creative ideation techniques. Imagine for instance a psychologist (Abraham Maslow no less) imploring military officers in 1957 to get in touch with their unconscious: “out of this unconscious, out of this deeper self, out of this portion of ourselves of which we generally are afraid and therefore try to keep under control, out of this comes the ability to play—to enjoy, to fantasy, to laugh, to loaf, to be spontaneous.” By 1964, at least 50,000 Air Force members had taken creative problem-solving courses. U.S. Steel, Reynolds Metals, Ethyl Corp, GE Motors, New York Telephone Company, and Boeing Airplane were some of the earliest industrial places where free-wheeling buzz sessions, brainstorms, and group thinks emerged.

The scientific study of creativity, as carried out by Drevdahl and numerous others at the time, can be regarded as a legitimating element in this professionalization process. The field of creativity studies drew on a motley set of practitioners from military and industrial settings, engineers, philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists. Many of their research endeavors were generously supported by military funding. The Cold War provided a generative backdrop for much of the interest in creative ideation, as it highlighted numerous pressing situations that necessitated a move beyond existing knowledge. [...] As befitted the Cold War atmosphere, Drevdahl’s creativity study was also framed as a matter of national security. “[T]he survival of this nation, and perhaps, even of Western civilization,” he argued, depended on future creators. His thesis was that the most creative people were “of only moderately superior intelligence” (which does beg the question why he was keen to study IAS Members). Rather than intelligence, he hypothesized, “personality” might be the deciding factor in creativity, and personality was amenable to change, in that it was “produced by a person’s environment.” If his hypothesis that creativity was a matter of nurture rather than nature was correct, the United States government could step in by fostering an educational and institutional ecosystem that would “create more creative people.”
And so on.

Saturday, June 16, 2018



Friday, June 15, 2018

Blue Note Records

Majorie Ingall reviews Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, a documentary about Blue Note Records, a record label that was extraordinarly important in the jazz world of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. From the review:
The film is full of photos (Wolff was a passionate photographer), musical snippets, and footage of black jazz artists from the 1940s to the ’60s doing their thing. Blue Note’s most important behind-the-scenes hire was Van Gelder, another Jew, who was associated with it for decades; for almost seven years in the 1950s, the label’s albums were recorded in Van Gelder’s parents’ living room. Van Gelder, Donaldson, Hancock, Shorter, and jazz historian Michael Cuscuna—a consultant for Blue Note since 1984—talk about how much artists loved Lion and Wolff, how they never took advantage of the musicians who recorded for them, how they were directed by a pure love of the music. Which is probably true! But anyone who pays attention to contemporary music should be clued in to the oft-contentious relationship between African-Americans and Jews in the music business. Were Lion and Wolff extraordinary? How do they fit into the narrative of African-American art forms being capitalized on, popularized, and monetized by Jewish composers from Berlin to Jolson to Gershwin to Bernstein? Black artists have spoken of feeling exploited by white management; Jews have pointed to anti-Semitism in hip hop. Jazz in particular feels like a complex petri dish of cultural anxiety; hip hop has seemingly taken on much of the urgency jazz once had, and jazz audiences today feel heavy on wannabe-down white dudes in fedoras.... As its fans age, does an art form get less relevant?

These are big questions. But this movie doesn’t go there. It’s purely a celebration of one label, which may be sufficient for informed jazz fans and lovers of classic jazz, but isn’t enough for viewers who seek to understand jazz’s place in the world now. Young and young-ish Blue Note artists like drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist and educator Robert Glasper, and bassist Derrick Hodge talk eloquently about why jazz mattered back in the day. The film shows footage of civil-rights protests and the musicians reflect on how the music reflected the social upheaval of the era. “Never at any point do I hear the music and hear them being defeated,” Hodge reflects. “Somehow, regardless of what they were fighting with, they’re going down in history, creating something … in a way that I felt freedom, in a way that brought me joy, in a way that made me want to write music that gave people hope.”

The film doesn’t effectively convey the fury and grief of the civil-rights movement. It’s not until hip-hop producer Terrace Martin shows up that we feel the immediacy and high stakes that jazz must have conveyed in the 1960s. “When I was a kid, the ghettos wasn’t used to seeing motherfuckers with instruments no more,” he says intently. “Because at that point they’d killed all the music programs in the schools.”


On the difference between Black society and culture in Jamaica and in America

With a bonus about why Melissa McCarthy's Sean Spicer impersonation is superior to Alec Baldwin's Trump.

From Conversations with Tyler, Malcolm Gladwell Wants to Make the World Safe for Mediocrity:
GLADWELL: Well, yeah, there is something — well, I hesitate to say under-theorized, but there is something under-theorized about the differences between West Indian and American black culture, the psychological difference between what it means to come from those two places. I think only when you look very closely at that difference do you understand the heavy weight that particular American heritage places on African-Americans. What’s funny about West Indians is, they can always spot another West Indian. And at a certain point you wonder, “How do they always know?” It’s because after a while you get good at spotting the absence of that weight.

And it explains as well the well-known phenomenon of how disproportionately successful West Indians are when they come to the United States because they seem to be better equipped to deal with the particular pathologies attached to race in this country — my mother being a very good example. But of course there are a million examples.

I was just reading for one of my podcasts; I’ve been reading all these oral history transcripts from the civil rights movement. I was reading one today and I’m halfway through. And I had that completely unbidden thing, “Oh, this guy’s a West Indian.” He was an African-American attorney and a civil rights lawyer in Virginia in the ’60s. I got a 30-page transcript. I got to page 15, I’m like, “He’s West Indian.” And then, literally page 16, “My father came from Trinidad and Tobago with my mother and me.”

COWEN: [laughs]

GLADWELL: There is something very, very real there that’s not, I feel, fully appreciated.

COWEN: Another difference that struck me — tell me what you think of this — is that the notion of freedom for much of the Caribbean, it’s in some way more celebratory, and it’s more rooted in history, and it may be because these are mostly majority black societies. History is in a sense controlled; it’s much more commemorative. Does that make sense to you? It’s not a struggle to control the narration of history at a national level.

GLADWELL: Yes. You’re in charge of the narrative —


GLADWELL: . . . which is huge. I thought of this because I wanted to do — sorry, my podcast is on my mind — I wanted to do and I haven’t managed to figure out how to do it, but there’s a Jamaican poet called Louise Bennett. If you are Jamaican, you know exactly who this person is. She’s probably the most important colloquial poet. I think that’s the wrong word. Popular poet. And she wrote poetry in dialect. So for a generation of Jamaicans, she was an assertion of Jamaican identity and culture. My mother was a scholarship student at a predominantly white boarding school in Jamaica. She and the other black students of the school, as an act of protest, read Louise Bennett poetry at the school function when she was 12 years old.

If you read Louise Bennett’s poetry, much of it is about race. It’s about race where the Jamaican, the black Jamaican often has the upper hand. The black Jamaican is always telling some sly joke at the expense of the white minority. So it’s poetry that doesn’t make the same kind of sense in a society where you’re a relatively powerless minority. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense if you’re not in control of major institutions and such, but you are 95 percent of the population and you feel like you’re going to win pretty soon.
My mother used to read this poem to me as a child where Louise Bennett is . . . the poem is all about sitting in a beauty parlor, getting her hair straightened, sitting next to a white woman who’s getting her hair curled.


GLADWELL: And the joke is that the white woman’s paying a lot more to get her hair curled than Louise Bennett is to get her hair straightened. That’s the point. It’s all this subtle one-upmanship. But that’s very Jamaican.
Special bonus:
GLADWELL: Well, I don’t like the Alec Baldwin Donald Trump, I don’t think, actually, if you compare it to the Sean Spicer . . .


GLADWELL: It’s not as good, and it’s not as good because the truly effective satirical impersonation is one that finds something essential about the character and magnifies it, something buried that you wouldn’t ordinarily have seen or have glimpsed in that person.

With the Spicer impersonation, why that’s so brilliant is, it draws out his anger. He’s angry at being put in this impossible position. That is the essence of that character. So how does a person respond to this, it’s almost an absurd position he’s in. And he has this kind of — it’s not sublimated — it’s there, this rage. In every one of his utterances is, “I can’t fucking believe that I am in this . . .”


GLADWELL: And so that Saturday Night Live impersonation gets beautifully at that thing, it satirizes that. I’ve forgotten the name of the woman who does it
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Melissa McCarthy.

GLADWELL: Yes, when Melissa McCarthy, when she picks up the podium . . .


GLADWELL: That’s an absurd illustration of that fundamental point. But the Alec Baldwin Trump doesn’t get at something essential about Trump. It simply takes his mannerisms and exaggerates them slightly. But he hasn’t mined Trump.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

See, lit crit isn't the only displine packed with researchers having trouble with reality

Reflection and transmission of light on a night train


The comparative vocabulary of smell, some languages have more words than others

Every sense has its own “lexical field,” a vast palette of dedicated descriptive words for colors, sounds, tastes, and textures. But smell? In English, there are only three dedicated smell words—stinky, fragrant, and musty—and the first two are more about the smeller's subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself.

All of our other scent descriptors are really descriptions of sources: We say that things smell like cinnamon, or roses, or teen spirit, or napalm in the morning. The other senses don't need these linguistic workarounds. We don't need to say that a banana “looks like lemon;” we can just say that it's yellow. Experts who work in perfume or wine-tasting industries may use more metaphorical terms like decadent or unctuous, but good luck explaining them to a non-expert who's not familiar with the jargon.
In contrast, "the Jahai of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand use between 12 and 15 dedicated smell words":
“These terms are really very salient to them,” she says. “They turn up all the time. Young children know them. They're basic vocabulary. They're not used for taste, or general ideas of edibility. They're really dedicated to smell.”

For example, ltpit describes the smell of a binturong or bearcat—a two-meter-long animal that looks like a shaggy, black-furred otter, and that famously smells of popcorn. But ltpit doesn't mean popcorn—it's not a source-based term. The same word is also used for soap, flowers, and the intense-smelling durian fruit, referring to some fragrant quality that Western noses can’t parse.

Another word is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings, some species of millipede, the root of wild ginger, the wood of wild mango, and more. One seems specific to roasted foods. And one refers to things like squirrel blood, rodents, crushed head lice, and other “bloody smells that attract tigers.”
H/t Dan Everett.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A comparative perspective on turn-taking

Pika S, Wilkinson R, Kendrick KH, Vernes SC. 2018 Taking turns: bridging the gap between human and animal communication. Proc. R. Soc. B 285: 20180598.

Language, humans’ most distinctive trait, still remains a ‘mystery’ for evolutionary theory. It is underpinned by a universal infrastructure—cooperative turn-taking—which has been suggested as an ancient mechanism bridging the existing gap between the articulate human species and their inarticulate primate cousins. However, we know remarkably little about turn-taking systems of non-human animals, and methodological confounds have often prevented meaningful cross-species comparisons. Thus, the extent to which cooperative turn-taking is uniquely human or represents a homologous and/or analogous trait is currently unknown. The present paper draws attention to this promising research avenue by providing an overview of the state of the art of turn-taking in four animal taxa—birds, mammals, insects and anurans. It concludes with a new comparative framework to spur more research into this research domain and to test which elements of the human turn-taking system are shared across species and taxa.
9. The comparative turn-taking framework
The new framework enabling comparative, systematic, quantitative assessments of turn-taking abilities centres on four key elements characterizing human social action during conversation:
(A) Flexibility of turn-taking organization
(B) Who is taking the next turn?
(C) When do response turns occur?
(D) What should the next turn do?
The first element—flexibility of turn-taking organization (A)—refers to the phenomena of varying size and ordering of turns and intentionality involved in human turn-taking sequences [9]. The element mirrors the ability to voluntarily change and adjust signals/actions and thus the degree of underlying cognitive flexibility. It can be operationalized by quantifying the number, frequency and degree of repetition of signals and actions produced in turn-taking events, their combination (e.g. A-B-A; A-B-C), distribution of roles between participants (e.g. role reversal), and intentionality involved (e.g. goal persistence, sensitivity to the social context) [34,112,113].

The second element—who is taking the next turn (B)—concerns who can or should produce the next signal and includes techniques for allocating turns to individuals or parties [9]. Parameters should involve (i) body orientation towards recipient(s), (ii) gaze direction of signaller, (iii) response waiting, and (iv) whether recipient(s) can perceive the signal (e.g. being in the visual or auditory field).

The third element—when do response turns occur (C)—addresses the time window or temporal relationship between an initiating turn and the response turn [10,24]. Since the normative timing of signal exchanges may differ across species, modalities, and transmission medium, a first mandatory step should be to establish typical time windows for a given species (see [34] for ideas to operationlize this element).

The fourth element—what should the next turn do? (D)—concerns one of the most fundamental structures in the organization of human conversation: adjacency pairs [114]. An adjacency pair can be recursively reproduced [115] and expanded in conversation and—in its minimal, unexpanded form—is composed of two turns, by different participants, that are adjacently placed, and are relatively ordered into first pair parts (actions that initiate some exchange, e.g. requests), and second pair parts (responsive actions, e.g. grants) [114]. This element can be operationalized by testing whether subsequent turns qualify as adjacency pairs involving predictable signal-response sequences (e.g. a request gesture is typically responded with a granting signal; a call is typically responded with the same call type, e.g. common marmosets) [74,116].

Cumulative Cultural Evolution (CCE)

Mesoudi A, Thornton A. 2018 What is cumulative cultural evolution? Proc. R. Soc. B 285: 20180712.

Abstract: In recent years, the phenomenon of cumulative cultural evolution (CCE) has become the focus of major research interest in biology, psychology and anthropology. Some researchers argue that CCE is unique to humans and underlies our extraordinary evolutionary success as a species. Others claim to have found CCE in non-human species. Yet others remain sceptical that CCE is even important for explaining human behavioural diversity and complexity. These debates are hampered by multiple and often ambiguous definitions of CCE. Here, we review how researchers define, use and test CCE. We identify a core set of criteria for CCE which are both necessary and sufficient, and may be found in non-human species. We also identify a set of extended criteria that are observed in human CCE but not, to date, in other species. Different socio-cognitive mechanisms may underlie these different criteria. We reinterpret previous theoretical models and observational and experimental studies of both human and non-human species in light of these more fine-grained criteria. Finally, we discuss key issues surrounding information, fitness and cognition. We recommend that researchers are more explicit about what components of CCE they are testing and claiming to demonstrate.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Zig-zag on the Hudson


Empathy and music

Original Research

Wallmark Z, Deblieck C, and Iacoboni M
Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening
Front. Behav. Neurosci., 06 April 2018
The social cognitive basis of music processing has long been noted, and recent research has shown that trait empathy is linked to musical preferences and listening style. Does empathy modulate neural responses to musical sounds? We designed two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments to address this question. In Experiment 1, subjects listened to brief isolated musical timbres while being scanned. In Experiment 2, subjects listened to excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked (FL)/disliked and unfamiliar liked (UL)/disliked). For both types of musical stimuli, emotional and cognitive forms of trait empathy modulated activity in sensorimotor and cognitive areas: in the first experiment, empathy was primarily correlated with activity in supplementary motor area (SMA), inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and insula; in Experiment 2, empathy was mainly correlated with activity in prefrontal, temporo-parietal and reward areas. Taken together, these findings reveal the interactions between bottom-up and top-down mechanisms of empathy in response to musical sounds, in line with recent findings from other cognitive domains.

Music is a portal into the interior lives of others. By disclosing the affective and cognitive states of actual or imagined human actors, musical engagement can function as a mediated form of social encounter, even when listening by ourselves. It is commonplace for us to imagine music as a kind of virtual “persona,” with intentions and emotions of its own (Watt and Ash, 1998; Levinson, 2006): we resonate with certain songs just as we would with other people, while we struggle to identify with other music. Arguing from an evolutionary perspective, it has been proposed that the efficacy of music as a technology of social affiliation and bonding may have contributed to its adaptive value (Cross, 2001; Huron, 2001). As Leman (2007) indicates: “Music can be conceived as a virtual social agent … listening to music can be seen as a socializing activity in the sense that it may train the listener’s self in social attuning and empathic relationships.” In short, musical experience and empathy are psychological neighbors.

The concept of empathy has generated sustained interest in recent years among researchers seeking to better account for the social and affective valence of musical experience (for recent reviews see Clarke et al., 2015; Miu and Vuoskoski, 2017); it is also a popular topic of research in social neuroscience (Decety and Ickes, 2009; Coplan and Goldie, 2011). However, the precise neurophysiological relationship between music processing and empathy remains unexplored. Individual differences in trait empathy modulate how we process social stimuli—does empathy modulate music processing as well? If we consider music through a social-psychological lens (North and Hargreaves, 2008; Livingstone and Thompson, 2009; Aucouturier and Canonne, 2017), it is plausible that individuals with a greater dispositional capacity to empathize with others might also respond to music-as-social-stimulus differently on a neurophysiological level by preferentially engaging brain networks previously found to be involved in trait empathy (Preston and de Waal, 2002; Decety and Lamm, 2006; Singer and Lamm, 2009). In this article, we test this hypothesis in two experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In Experiment 1, we explore the neural correlates of trait empathy (as measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index) as participants listened to isolated instrument and vocal tones. In Experiment 2, excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked/disliked, unfamiliar liked/disliked) were used as stimuli, allowing us to examine correlations of neural activity with trait empathy in naturalistic listening contexts.
News Article Reporting the Research

Milla Bengtsson, People With Higher Empathy Process Music Differently In The Brain, Reliaware, June 12, 2018. From the article:
Individuals who deeply grasp the pain or happiness of others also differ from others in the way their brains process music, a new study by researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas and UCLA suggests.

The researchers found that compared to low empathy people, those with higher empathy process familiar music with greater involvement of the reward system of the brain, as well as in areas responsible for processing social information.