Picture yourself sitting in a Zen garden, surrounded by low, rounded bushes and gravel raked into rippling swirls. Now imagine standing in front of a brutalist building, all straight lines and sharp edges. If you think you’d feel more relaxed in the Zen garden, there could be a low-level perceptual reason — one that could explain everything from why you’re far more likely to find a jagged script on the cover of a death metal album than on a romance novel, to why clouds and lullabies seem to go together.
The new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that we automatically associate variations in one particular property of images or sounds with variations in levels of emotional arousal. This gives us an instinctive understanding, just from the tone of someone’s voice or watching their movements, of whether they are angry or sad, excited or calm. But it seems that these associations between perception and emotion are so automatic and fundamental that we apply them to inanimate objects, as well.
A newborn baby knows almost nothing about the world it comes into. To make sense of the onslaught of incoming sensory information, she or he must start to notice meaningful patterns and categorise them: that particular combination of visual data signifies a “face”, for example, while that noise is a “voice”. As the authors of a new paper in Developmental Science point out, “without this fundamental categorisation function, our nervous systems would be overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of our experience.”
It had been thought that infants form these categories using information from just one sense, whichever is the most relevant. Following this account, the category of “faces” results from an accumulation of visual information about what faces look like. However, an intriguing new study, involving four-month-old infants and their mothers’ smelly t-shirts, suggests that babies’ early acquisition of the faces category is a truly multi-sensory process.
Philosophers and mathematicians have long held that maths can be aesthetically pleasing. “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty,” wrote Bertrand Russell, while Carl Friedrich Gauss proclaimed that “The enchanting charms of this sublime science reveal themselves in all their beauty only to those who have the courage to go deeply into it”.
But a study published recently in Cognition suggests that even those whose lives don’t revolve around logic and numbers also have an appreciation for mathematical “beauty”. People tend to see similarities between mathematical proofs and certain paintings or pieces of music, the study finds, suggesting we all share an intuition for the aesthetics of mathematics.
You spend about 10 per cent of your waking hours with your eyes shut, simply because of blinking. Every few seconds, each time you blink, your retinas are deprived of visual input for a period lasting anywhere between tens to hundreds of milliseconds (500 milliseconds is equivalent to half a second). You don’t usually notice this because your brain suppresses the dark spells and stitches together the bursts of visual information seamlessly. But these dips in visual processing in the brain do have an impact: a new study in Psychological Science finds that, in an important way, they cause your sense of the passing of time to stop temporarily.
We often think of sleep as a chance to switch off from the outside world, leaving us blissfully ignorant of anything going on around us. But neuroscience research has shown this is a fantasy – we still monitor the environment and respond to particular sounds while we’re sleeping (at least in some stages of sleep) – a fact that will be unsurprising to anyone who has woken up after hearing someone say their name.
Now a study published in Nature Human Behaviour has revealed more about the brain’s surprisingly sophisticated levels of engagement with the outside world during sleep. Not only does the sleeping brain respond to certain words or sounds – it can even select between competing signals, prioritising the one that is more informative.
For most of us, it is difficult to imagine what it must be like to be a synesthete – that is, someone who experiences a crossing over of their senses, such as seeing sounds as colours, or perceiving shapes as having tastes. However, according to a new study in Consciousness and Cognition, it is actually relatively easy for people with normal perception to have a synesthetic experience (of the sound-to-vision variety). It merely takes a few minutes of visual deprivation, followed by a visual imagery task. The findings are not merely intriguing – and a fun idea for a psychology class experiment – they also have a bearing on the main theories for how synesthesia occurs.
Think about the concepts of “red” and “justice” and you’ll notice a key difference. If you’re sighted, you’ll associate “red” most strongly with the sensory experience, which relates to signals from cone cells in your eyes. “Justice”, in contrast, doesn’t have any associated sensory qualities – as an abstract concept, you’ll think about its meaning, which you learnt via language, understanding it to be related to other abstract concepts like “fairness” or “accountability”, perhaps. But what about blind people – how do they think about “red”?
A brain-imaging study of 12 people who had been blind from birth, and 14 sighted people, published recently in Nature Communications, shows that while for sighted people, sensory and abstract concepts like “red” and “justice” are represented in different brain regions, for blind people, they’re represented in the same “abstract concept” region.
We’re taught from an early age that it is polite and assertive to look people in the eyes when we’re talking to them. Psychology research backs this up – people who make plenty of eye contact – as long as it’s not excessive – are usually perceived as more competent, trustworthy and intelligent. If you want to make a good impression, then, it’s probably a good idea to meet the gaze of the person you’re talking to. However, following this advice is not necessarily straight-forward for everyone. It’s well-documented that mutual gaze can be emotionally intense and distracting, even uncomfortably so for some.
If this is your experience, you may welcome a study published recently in the journal Perception that documents a phenomenon known as the “eye contact illusion” – put simply, we are not that good at telling whether an interlocutor is looking us in the eye or not. In fact, we tend to think they are, even when they’re not (a bias that is magnified after we’ve been rejected). Thanks to this illusion, you can give the impression of making eye contact simply by ensuring you are looking in the general direction of your conversant’s face.
How accurately or not we are able to judge the size of our own bodies and specific body parts is an important topic in clinical psychology because a distorted body image is thought to play part in eating disorders, body dysmorphia and other related conditions. However, research has until now been limited in always involving one- or two-dimensional judgments, with volunteers asked to estimated the length of various body parts, for instance, or asked to judge which of various 2-dimensional visual depictions of their body is most accurate. In reality, of course, we don’t just have a sense of how our body looks in two dimensions from the outside but also how it feels from the inside, including how much space it occupies.
A new study published in Cortex is the first to examine how accurately people of healthy weight can estimate the volume of their entire body and specific body parts. Renata Sadibolova at Goldsmiths, University of London, and her colleagues write that “these findings … highlight the importance of studying the perceptual distortions ‘at the baseline’, i.e., in healthy population, given their potential to further elucidate the nature of perceptual distortions in clinical conditions.”