4% of people hear music in a completely different way — and it tells us something fascinating about the brain

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Taylor SwiftKevin Winter/Getty Images

Imagine stepping into a friend’s car, her favorite playlist pumping, only to be immersed in the sounds of hundreds of clanging pots and pans.

To an estimated 4% of the world, that’s what the stuff we call music sounds like.

These people are tone-deaf, a disorder known as congenital amusia. People who are really tone-deaf aren’t just bad at karaoke: They can’t pick out differences in pitch, the quality of music we’re referring to when we say something is "low" or "high."

Say you’re listening to your neighbor practice the piano, for example. In general, you could probably say whether the note you just heard was higher or lower than the one you heard before that.

People who are tone-deaf lack that ability. They still hear a difference, but they don’t process it the same way as someone who isn’t tone-deaf.

A world that sounds completely different

We talked to Marion Cousineau, a researcher at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research at the University of Montreal who spent years working with people with amusia (or "amusics") in the lab to get a sense of what the world sounds like to them.

Each person she’s talked to, Cousineau said, describes their amusia a little bit differently.

While some people hear clanging pots and pans, for example, others might hear sounds they find beautiful. In the lab, they find out if participants have amusia using a version of this test, which you can try online right now.

"We had a journalist once who came to the lab to do a piece on it once. He was crazy about music and was constantly going to shows and concerts. Then he took the test and found out he was amusic."

In other words, while some tone-deaf people might experience sound one way, others might experience it in a vastly different way.

amusic vs non-amusic brains neuroscience amusia tone-deafKevin Winter/Getty Images

Amusia runs in families

Exactly what causes tone-deafness is still somewhat mysterious, but researchers are finding some fascinating clues.

From studying families, for example, scientists have been able to conclude that it’s hereditary, meaning that if you have it, chances are higher that your children will too.

We also know that amusia is a type of agnosia, a word derived from Greek roots that together essentially mean "not knowing." Agnosias describe conditions characterized by an inability to connect your sensory input (what you’re seeing, hearing, or feeling) with your previous knowledge about the thing that you’re sensing.

Brains that don’t know they’re tone-deaf

A 2009 study got a bit closer to telling us what’s happening in the brain of a tone-deaf person when she or he listens to music and hears noise instead. For that study, two groups of volunteers — one with amusia and one without — were hooked up to an EEG so researchers could take a look at some of the electrical activity in different areas of their brains.

They had both groups listen to a series of notes in which one was out of key.

Each time the out-of-tune notes were played, the researchers saw specific and similar activity across the brains of both groups. In other words, it appeared that amusic or not, everyone’s brains were at least picking up on the mismatched sounds. But while both the non-amusics and amusics displayed similar brain activity in the first few milliseconds after hearing the sound, only the non-amusics displayed another smattering of activity a few hundred milliseconds later. This second burst of activity in people without tone deafness, the scientists reasoned, suggested that only the brains of people who were not tone deaf were communicating the harsh tune with a higher brain area, making them aware that they’d heard it.

In other words, the researchers suspect, while the brains of both groups had identified the harsh tune on some level, amusics were not aware that they’d done so.

"Their brains were picking it up," said Cousineau, "but they couldn’t say there was a change."

That idea has been bolstered by several other, more recent studies that suggest that amusics have weaker links between fronto-temporal brain areas, one of the regions we rely on to think critically and solve problems, and posterior auditory areas, important for processing sound.

What this growing body of work has shown is that in amusics, many aspects of the brain involved in experiencing music are working just as they should. But somewhere up the chain of command — between hearing a tune and processing it — something goes awry.

And this is responsible for the vastly different musical world that tone-deaf people experience.

"A lot of the people who’d come into the lab were told all their lives that they can’t sing, that there’s something wrong with them and that it’s their fault," said Cousineau. "But it isn’t their fault at all, and that’s what we were able to share with them."

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Science says that watching some TV shows can make you a better person

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From Netflix to HBO to broadcast networks, we live in the age of too much TV. But maybe all that screen time isn’t as bad as we think.

A new scientific study found that watching "award-winning TV dramas" can make you a better, more empathetic person.

Participants in the study watched dramas such as ‘Mad Men,’ ‘The Good Wife,’ and ‘Lost.’ Others watched non-fiction shows like "Shark Week." They were then shown 36 pairs of eyes and asked to identify the emotion in each pair.

Those who watched the fictionalized dramas did much better on the test.

So next time somebody tells your that TV melts you brain, don’t listen.

Story by Ian Phillips and editing by Chelsea Pineda.

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The First Private Mission to the Moon Is Planned to Launch in 2017

from Gizmodo http://ift.tt/1JS4OdY

The First Private Mission to the Moon Is Planned to Launch in 2017

A private team from Israel has become the first to secure a launch contract to loft a rover into space and, with any luck, on to the moon in the second half of 2017.

SpaceIL has signed a deal with California-based Spaceflight Industries which will see it launch its craft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher. The deal is the first verified launch contract to be made by any of the teams competing in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, which promises $30 million to the first private organization to land on the moon.

SpaceIL’s craft won’t be alone in the Falcon 9, though. It’ll sit in a capsule shared by a selection of satellites that aren’t headed to the moon. When the containing capulse separates, SpaceIL’s craft will be released and it will use “advanced navigation sensors to guide it to the lunar surface, with engineers in a mission control room standing by to remotely send commands and corrections as needed.”


If SpaceIL achieves the feat, it won’t be the only first it manages. Only three countries have ever landed a rover on the Moon: the United States, Russia, and China. If its attempt succeeds, you could add Israel to the list.

SpaceIL, a non-profit, is largely funded by private donors, who have so far contributed $50 million to its cause. Winning the XPRIZE may be somewhat of a help, then. To actually achieve that, the team — or one of the other hopefuls — must land their craft on the moon, explore at least 500 meters of its surface, and then transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth. By December 31st 2017. It looks like they’re cutting it fine.

Image by SpaceIL

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Scientists to bypass brain damage by re-encoding memories

from Latest Science News — ScienceDaily http://ift.tt/1FGdtVz

Researchers at USC and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have developed a brain prosthesis that is designed to help individuals suffering from memory loss.

The prosthesis, which includes a small array of electrodes implanted into the brain, has performed well in laboratory testing in animals and is currently being evaluated in human patients.

Designed originally at USC and tested at Wake Forest Baptist, the device builds on decades of research by Ted Berger and relies on a new algorithm created by Dong Song, both of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. The development also builds on more than a decade of collaboration with Sam Deadwyler and Robert Hampson of the Department of Physiology & Pharmacology of Wake Forest Baptist who have collected the neural data used to construct the models and algorithms.

When your brain receives the sensory input, it creates a memory in the form of a complex electrical signal that travels through multiple regions of the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. At each region, the signal is re-encoded until it reaches the final region as a wholly different signal that is sent off for long-term storage.

If there’s damage at any region that prevents this translation, then there is the possibility that long-term memory will not be formed. That’s why an individual with hippocampal damage (for example, due to Alzheimer’s disease) can recall events from a long time ago — things that were already translated into long-term memories before the brain damage occurred — but have difficulty forming new long-term memories.

Song and Berger found a way to accurately mimic how a memory is translated from short-term memory into long-term memory, using data obtained by Deadwyler and Hampson, first from animals, and then from humans. Their prosthesis is designed to bypass a damaged hippocampal section and provide the next region with the correctly translated memory.

That’s despite the fact that there is currently no way of "reading" a memory just by looking at its electrical signal.

"It’s like being able to translate from Spanish to French without being able to understand either language," Berger said.

Their research was presented at the 37th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society in Milan on August 27, 2015.

The effectiveness of the model was tested by the USC and Wake Forest Baptist teams. With the permission of patients who had electrodes implanted in their hippocampi to treat chronic seizures, Hampson and Deadwyler read the electrical signals created during memory formation at two regions of the hippocampus, then sent that information to Song and Berger to construct the model. The team then fed those signals into the model and read how the signals generated from the first region of the hippocampus were translated into signals generated by the second region of the hippocampus.

In hundreds of trials conducted with nine patients, the algorithm accurately predicted how the signals would be translated with about 90 percent accuracy.

"Being able to predict neural signals with the USC model suggests that it can be used to design a device to support or replace the function of a damaged part of the brain," Hampson said.

Next, the team will attempt to send the translated signal back into the brain of a patient with damage at one of the regions in order to try to bypass the damage and enable the formation of an accurate long-term memory.

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The above post is reprinted from materials provided by University of Southern California. The original item was written by Robert Perkins. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Making batteries with portabella mushrooms

from Latest Science News — ScienceDaily http://ift.tt/1PM0Usc

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside Bourns College of Engineering think so.

They have created a new type of lithium-ion battery anode using portabella mushrooms, which are inexpensive, environmentally friendly and easy to produce. The current industry standard for rechargeable lithium-ion battery anodes is synthetic graphite, which comes with a high cost of manufacturing because it requires tedious purification and preparation processes that are also harmful to the environment.

With the anticipated increase in batteries needed for electric vehicles and electronics, a cheaper and sustainable source to replace graphite is needed. Using biomass, a biological material from living or recently living organisms, as a replacement for graphite, has drawn recent attention because of its high carbon content, low cost and environmental friendliness.

UC Riverside engineers were drawn to using mushrooms as a form of biomass because past research has established they are highly porous, meaning they have a lot of small spaces for liquid or air to pass through. That porosity is important for batteries because it creates more space for the storage and transfer of energy, a critical component to improving battery performance.

In addition, the high potassium salt concentration in mushrooms allows for increased electrolyte-active material over time by activating more pores, gradually increasing its capacity.

A conventional anode allows lithium to fully access most of the material during the first few cycles and capacity fades from electrode damage occurs from that point on. The mushroom carbon anode technology could, with optimization, replace graphite anodes. It also provides a binderless and current-collector free approach to anode fabrication.

"With battery materials like this, future cell phones may see an increase in run time after many uses, rather than a decrease, due to apparent activation of blind pores within the carbon architectures as the cell charges and discharges over time," said Brennan Campbell, a graduate student in the Materials Science and Engineering program at UC Riverside.

The research findings were outlined in a paper, "Bio-Derived, Binderless, Hierarchically Porous Carbon Anodes for Li-ion Batteries," published in the journal Scientific Reports. It was authored by Cengiz Ozkan and Mihri Ozkan, both professors in the Bourns College of Engineering, and three of their current or former graduate students: Campbell, Robert Ionescu and Zachary Favors.

Nanocarbon architectures derived from biological materials such as mushrooms can be considered a green and sustainable alternative to graphite-based anodes, said Cengiz Ozkan, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering.

The nano-ribbon-like architectures transform upon heat treatment into an interconnected porous network architecture which is important for battery electrodes because such architectures possess a very large surface area for the storage of energy, a critical component to improving battery performance.

One of the problems with conventional carbons, such as graphite, is that they are typically prepared with chemicals such as acids and activated by bases that are not environmentally friendly, said Mihri Ozkan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Therefore, the UC Riverside team is focused on naturally-derived carbons, such as the skin of the caps of portabella mushrooms, for making batteries.

It is expected that nearly 900,000 tons of natural raw graphite would be needed for anode fabrication for nearly six million electric vehicle forecast to be built by 2020. This requires that the graphite be treated with harsh chemicals, including hydrofluoric and sulfuric acids, a process that creates large quantities of hazardous waste. The European Union projects this process will be unsustainable in the future.

The Ozkan’s research is supported by the University of California, Riverside.

This paper involving mushrooms is published just over a year after the Ozkan’s labs developed a lithium-ion battery anode based on nanosilicon via beach sand as the natural raw material. Ozkan’s team is currently working on the development of pouch prototype batteries based on nanosilicon anodes.

The UCR Office of Technology Commercialization has filed patents for the inventions above.

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Secret chambers found in King Tut’s tomb, say archaeologists

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Evidence has been found of "two hidden chambers" behind the painted walls of King Tutankhamun’s resting place, say experts—and one of them could be the tomb of Queen Nefertiti.

Egypt’s antiquities minister, Mamdouh Eldamaty, told Ahram Online that he and British archaologist Nicholas Reeves have found that the tomb’s ceiling extends behind the northern and western walls. Radar scans are being made to confirm whether there are indeed voids behind the walls indicative of hidden chambers, and results are expected to be announced on November 4.

In August Reeves published a paper suggesting the western and northern painted walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb have secret passageways leading to two chambers, one of them containing the remains of Nefertiti — queen of Egypt and the chief consort and wife of the monotheistic King Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s father. … Eldamaty told Ahram Online he now thinks it very likely there are hidden chambers, but disagrees with Reeves when he says they could house the crypt of queen Nefertiti.

This would be a great plot for another film in the The Mummy franchise: "You fool, Reeves! I warned you she must not be awoken!" shrieked Eldamaty.