Art and Architecture of the Gaze


I love science writing that’s told through the lens of something as ordinary as a walk around the block. Here, psychologist Alexandra Horowitz demystifies a phenomenon that’s puzzled me for a long time: eye contact. As is the theme throughout “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes,” she starts with an average stroll and, with the help of a companion (her son, a typographer, a geologist, etc.), settles into an extraordinary observation about what constitutes that stroll.

On this particular walk, Horowitz enters what she calls the “third dimension”: attention to the living, breathing people on the street. In this strangely private yet intimate ritual of public life, eye contact is a scientific phenomenon as much as it is a social one:

It could be a happy accident of pigmentation, this interest in each other’s eyes. The sclera of our eyes lost its dark coloration somewhere on the route between chimpanzee and human. With the whites of my eyes as a backdrop to my bright blue irises , the direction of my gaze suddenly becomes plainly distinct. I cannot avoid being spotted looking at you by turning to the side and sneaking a peek out of the corners of my eyes. (Not only can you see me looking, I would look sneaky.)

Even worse, as our ancestors came out of the trees and onto the plains, the entire shape of both our faces and our eyes changed. Our faces flattened: while the human face allows us to smush it fully against a windowpane or to receive a coating of pie from a pie tosser, the monkey’s face has a prominent snout, more like other mammals. The architecture of the human face is centered in the eyes, not the mouth of nose. Our cheekbones are conspicuously high—right below the eyes. The forehead and eyebrows complete the framing on the other side. Even the nose gets in the action, serving as an indicator of where our faces are pointing. Unlike most mammals, we have highly developed facial musculature, including around the eyes and even in the eye itself . What we lost in expressive potential when we lost tails is made up for by our ability to squint an ironic half smile—distinct from a full-bore joyous grin or grimace. Along the way, too, the shape of our eye opening got squashed, revealing more of the whites.

What pure disappointment these evolutionary developments might have been to their first bearers. Just when they thought that their attention was private, now everyone else could read it on their faces. It could be no worse if a Magic Marker raced a circle around your genitals when you felt attracted to someone, or you forehead scrolled the text rambling through your head in private thoughts.

Descriptions like this are so gratifying because they de-jargonize and humanize. Horowitz’s writing is evolution itself, pulling us into the story behind the art and architecture of the gaze. For a more thorough review of “On Looking,” head over to BrainPickings.

Photo Credit: Andrew Morrell Photography/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)


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How Early Onset Puberty is Changing the Liepzig Boys’ Choir


“As soon as a teacher has taken great care and pains to train a boy’s voice, it disappears.”

That’s 17th-century French vocal instructor Bénigne de Bacilly. He’s not the only choir director to have bemoaned the first crack in a pubescent boy’s voice. The director of the St. Thomas Boys Choir in Liepzig, Germany, certainly cares, too. At 801 years old, Georg Christoph Biller’s choir has a reputation to uphold—Johann Sebastian Bach served as its Thomaskantor, or choirmaster, from 1723 to 1750. Ever since then it’s reigned as one of the most prestigious boys’ choirs in the world. But now that Biller’s sopranos are dropping to tenors at an earlier age, he’s having to adjust lesson schedules, train the boys differently, and reevaluate the group’s sound as a whole. Using pharmacology to preserve their angelic voices is out of the question, says Michael Fuchs, the choir’s voice doctor. Here’s Elizabeth Weil writing for The New York Times Magazine:

Fuchs’s own voice broke in 1983, when he was a Thomaner, age 13. He liked the voice doctor of the choir then and decided to follow his career path. Now trim, goateed, in good shoes and fashionable eyeglasses, he’s among the world’s experts on the timing of voice break. Certainly nobody cares more. “We have a problem in the choir,” Fuchs said, when we met in his office at Leipzig University hospital, echoing concerns I heard time and again. “The balance is shifting. We have more men’s voices and fewer boys’ voices.” The obvious solution — starting boys in the choir at 8 instead of 9 — does not work. The choir tried, and the 8-year-olds couldn’t handle life in the alumnat, learning all the pieces and attending all the rehearsals. So the plan now is to squeeze every day out of the soprano voices. “We try to let the boys sing as long as possible without risking overloading the boys and damaging the voice,” Fuchs said. Many of the Thomaners hold Fuchs in mystical esteem, claiming he can predict to the day when their voices will break.

“Of course not the day,” Fuchs demurred, “but maybe two, three weeks.”

In the years before the boys hit puberty, Fuchs saw them every three months to record growth, hormone levels and voice. He played for me recordings of one boy speaking and singing the same passage of a choral piece every year from age 11 to 14. Even to my untrained ear, the differences over time sounded stark, the boy’s voice becoming richer and fuller until the day it shattered. Mining data from the recordings, Fuchs constructs scatter plots showing changes over time in jitter (variation in pitch), shimmer (variation in loudness), noise component (breathiness) and range. All this data provides context so that he can distinguish what is causing flaws in a boy’s voice. “Is it a cold? A problem of singing technique? Voice break can sound like laryngitis.”

Weil beautifully portrays the way these nuances in biology and anatomy have a direct affect on the culture and function of an 800-year-old institution. It always astounds me, too, when writers sculpt pivotal scenes out of the tiniest details.  Take this description of Fuchs threading a miniature camera through a boy’s noise and into his larynx so he can observe the vocal anatomy as the boy sings:

The videos are intimate and alarming — the vibrating glottis, the gaping trachea: Jonah’s view from inside the whale. “That red is the leading edge of cells growing,” Fuchs said, pointing to a vocal fold on his computer screen. “Can you hear how it’s not possible to bring the vocal cords into good vibration?” he added during a particularly scratchy patch. “If this were from overstress and not voice break, you would see it on the surface. Like if you went to the forest to cut wood. You’d have nodules on your hands and edema. Stress on the vocal cords looks the same.”

There you have it. The mechanics of puberty, working itself out slowly but surely in the delicate timbre of a child’s larynx. Amazing.

Photo Credit: “St. Thomas’ Church, leipzig (choir)” Zarafa / Wikimedia Commons

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“The Voice of Perfect Imperfection”


I hadn’t heard of Maria Callas until this week, when Google paid tribute to her colorful, other-worldly voice by featuring her in Monday’s Google Doodle. One of the things I read about Callas was that critics often attribute her artistic decline to the wide-ranging stylistic abilities that made her famous in the first place (she was equally adept at singing Wagner as she was Bellini). Sound strange? It’s because the physics involved in transitioning between vocal “dialects” and techniques puts a strain on the voice. 

Conrad Osborne tells NPR:

“It’s very unusual to combine those two ways of singing and to extend the range over that wide of a compass,” Osborne says. “And if your structural technique — I’m talking about the way the voice is balanced and structured so that when you throw a lot of energy into it, the way an athlete does, the coordinations that respond are balanced and efficient — isn’t true all the way up and down that very wide range, then you’re inviting some trouble.”

I’d be interested in a more comprehensive analysis of different singer’s voices mapped against the range of their repertoire.

Photo Courtesy Flickr / cliff1066™ (CC BY 2.0)


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Remembering Doris Lessing


This is my rather mangled copy of Doris Lessing’s “Briefing For a Descent Into Hell,” which I read during my first semester of college. It was a dramatic experience on several fronts. After devouring its pages in our campus café, I remember stuffing it—along with a leaky water bottle—into my backpack and shuffling home, only to find the book  drenched and covered in smeary ink blotches later that evening. The incident shook me up a little; I didn’t like seeing the pages of my existential journey warped, damp, and drooping. My friends graciously helped me dry it with a hair dryer, but the damage had been done. My book was a crumpled mess.

The other reason “Briefing” was a dramatic experience was because it made me angry. The story’s central character is Charles Watkins of Cambridge University, a patient at a mental hospital, whose psychological journey through space is much more appealing than the novel’s external reality. I was angry because of the way the story ended, and the way Watkins was treated, and because at the heart of things, I really just wanted Dr. Watkins’ world to be true. That kind of literary desperation—the need for personal validation and affirmation within the confines of a novel—was a kind of high for me. So there it was—I was angry, thrilled, joyous, and defiant all at the same time.

On Sunday, when I heard that Doris Lessing had died, I remembered “Briefing” as well as “Martha Quest,” the only other book of hers I’d read. And I reflected on how both of these books made me feel at this fragile time in my life. If I were to read “Briefing” now, I would probably think about it much more scientifically; I would appreciate its ideas but I probably wouldn’t get as swept up in them as I did then. And “Martha Quest”? Today, I’d probably focus a little less on the content of Martha’s character and instead concentrate more on the way Lessing constructs her words, her thoughts, and her feelings.

That said, I don’t think I’ll read these books again. Doris said it well herself:

“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag-and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you. ”

And that’s what I remember of “Briefing” and “Martha Quest”—they got under my skin, they meshed well with my own patterns of thought. They were perfect for the 18-year-old I was, and they encouraged me to be more of the 18-year-old that I was. How does a writer pull that off so beautifully? I don’t know, but I thank her for it.

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November 20, 2013 · 4:58 am

Can We Foster Appreciation For Uncertainty?


Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9, published a fascinating column today on what she’s calling the “valley of ambiguity.” Her hypothesis, in short, is that two kinds of stories go viral: memes (simple, highly shareable units of information), and truth-telling vessels that reveal hidden facts about our world. A valley dips below these two mountains, where human implications are uncertain and where scientific discoveries are of nebulous consequence. The “valley of ambiguity”: writers want to go there, but often don’t. That’s because stories on either side of the valley encourage ownership, Newitz argues:

To share a story is in part to take ownership of it, especially because you are often able to comment on a story that you are sharing on social media. If you can share a piece of information that’s an absolute truth – whether that’s how to uninstall apps on your phone, or what the NSA is really doing – you too become a truth teller. And that feels good. Just as good as it does to be the person who has the cutest cat picture on the Internet.

It’s not that the under-hyped stories don’t get read. It’s just that we don’t measure our success by them:

I know for certain that there are plenty of stories that get read, but not shared. I have seen the statistics on io9’s back end. But when we measure a story’s success by virality, which is what we must do in the age of social media, the content of our popular culture changes. We measure success by what people aren’t afraid to share with their neighbors, rather than what people will read on their own.

Frankly, I don’t want to be part of a society that values certainty over ambiguity so vocally. If we read content that’s open to interpretation—if we enjoy content that leaves forces us to ask questions rather than get cozy with answers—I would argue that we need to be sharing it, too. We need to be telling each other about these stories, because an article that lives in the valley of ambiguity is also a channel—a passageway—to new ways of thinking and seeing. And even though sharing these stories more often probably won’t level the terrain, at least we’ll be aware of the need for new measures of “success.” Otherwise the intellectual community that Kathryn Schulz so eloquently described could become a falsehood, a poor reflection of what our communities (whether scientific, political, educational, artistic, etc.) truly value. Answers are wonderful, but we can get there only by asking questions, and by wading through the murky waters coursing downhill. Interestingly, Newitz’s column itself is open to interpretation, and didn’t offer any solutions or irrefutable truths. Even more interestingly, that’s what prompted me to continue the discussion.

Photo Credit: Flickr/davidyuweb (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Some Thoughts on Blindness


Last week I published my first full-length feature for NOVA Next on bat-inspired echolocation devices for the visually impaired. I’m very proud of this piece—not only because it was my science writing debut, but also because the process of writing it was so illuminating. It was as though a halo had formed around the core of the story; blindness, I realized, is so much more than a physiological condition. It’s also about perspective, privilege, perception, diversity, and delusion. With so many ideas swirling around in my head, I had more material to work with than I could actually incorporate into the piece.

And maybe that’s a good thing. My article referenced just a sliver of the research that’s being done in the fields of neurobiology, bioacoustics, and perception. For me to address some of my marginal questions would be to consign myself to many more months’ digging. Still, I was intrigued. I learned to see blindness as a realized metaphor as well as something akin to autism in one specific way: both kinds of people cannot access—to varying degrees—a certain category of human experience [Nautilus]. For autistic people, this is sometimes referred to as “mindblindness” or “context blindness”; for blind people, this is simply the inability to see with one’s eyes. Granted, scientists have documented an association between the two conditions, at least in infants and children. In a review of Linda Pring’s Autism and Blindness: Research and Reflections, Stefano Palazzi writes:

There are similarities between the neurodevelopmental regression (setback) experienced by blind and often multi-functionally impaired infants and those who are going to be retrospectively diagnosed with autism.

Rebecca Andrews and Shirley Wyver put it this way in another study:

For many of the children who are blind and who also display features of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) it is possible that their characteristics, while being representative of ASD, actually follow a different pathway to those children who have ASD and are sighted. It is proposed that these children should be viewed as having specific features rather than being a part of the collective of ASD.

Regardless, one point I make in my article is that there are all different types of people, and so any scientist or engineer building a device to help the blind community will need to acknowledge that sight and non-sight are two separate but equal ways of perceiving the world.  A powerful and worthwhile bio-inspired device would harness the beauty of those underprivileged perspectives and elevate them to a more functional and efficacious level, rather than annihilate them.

Another aspect of blindness that I found incredibly interesting was a topic that Jeff Migliozzi, the students’ English teacher at Perkins, brought up with me in conversation: sex education. He’s done webcasts on the topic before and it, too, deals with issues of expression, perception, and identity. The concept blew my mind. How do you go through puberty without some sort of visual understanding of what’s going on to your own body? How are love and physical attraction different for members of the blind community? So many questions to explore. Let me know what you think—either about this post or my article—and leave a message in the comments section!

Photo Credit: kalexanderson/Flickr (CC)

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The Primal Science of Sound, Seamus Heaney Style


If you haven’t noticed already, I’m extremely sensitive to sound. I spend a lot of time listening to my environment and wondering what motifs other people pick up on, what personal associations spring to the fore,  and what evolution has done to our bodies’ acoustic sensibilities. The ear worms that plague me hardly ever take the form of full melodies; rather, sound arrives in rivulets—five or six notes at a time, usually from a gnarly passage of a classical etude or a chromatic riff in a symphony.

But sound isn’t just about music. It’s about history and persuasion (cue MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, via Smithsonian); it’s about science (cue dozens of journal articles about the relationship between sound and cognition); it’s about religion (cue our tendency to mythologize sound)… and so on. Above all, though, sound is about attention. And since attention attenuates, it gives birth to the possibility of quality thought and action across all of those categories. The way we engage with sound both throughout our lives and in our daily affairs, then, really matters! George Prochnik writes in a New York Times op-ed that quiet is required for serious thinking and that early humans developed instinctual responses to sound in order to survive. And a new study [Science Friday] published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that what we see actually affects what we hear when we listen to a musical performance—demonstrating that our judgment of sound is related to external factors.

Here’s my takeaway. Sound isn’t just a physical “thing.” Its organization actually stirs the conditions necessary for certain kinds of thought. It influences ideas and inspires them.  And when we allow ourselves to see those connections, we have a better relationship with the world around us. With that in mind, I was very happy to see that the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney opened his 1995 Nobel Laureate address [full text] with a similar idea.

Heaney begins by noting that when he was young, he and his siblings took in acoustic information as children often do—with curiosity, and without deliberation:

In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.

They listened to the radio with the same level of curiosity—as though the politicized voices emanating from the speaker were a part of nature, too. It didn’t really matter what the voices were saying; instead, it was the experience of absorbing those sounds that prompted Heaney’s “journey into the wideness of language”:

But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signalling too. When a wind stirred in the beeches, it also stirred an aerial wire attached to the topmost branch of the chestnut tree. Down it swept, in through a hole bored in the corner of the kitchen window, right on into the innards of our wireless set where a little pandemonium of burbles and squeaks would suddenly give way to the voice of a BBC newsreader speaking out of the unexpected like a deus ex machina. And that voice too we could hear in our bedroom, transmitting from beyond and behind the voices of the adults in the kitchen; just as we could often hear, behind and beyond every voice, the frantic, piercing signalling of morse code.

We could pick up the names of neighbours being spoken in the local accents of our parents, and in the resonant English tones of the newsreader the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions, the numbers of planes lost and of prisoners taken, of casualties suffered and advances made; and always, of course, we would pick up too those other, solemn and oddly bracing words, “the enemy” and “the allies”. But even so, none of the news of these world-spasms entered me as terror. If there was something ominous in the newscaster’s tones, there was something torpid about our understanding of what was at stake; and if there was something culpable about such political ignorance in that time and place, there was something positive about the security I inhabited as a result of it.

The wartime, in other words, was pre-reflective time for me. Pre-literate too. Pre-historical in its way. Then as the years went on and my listening became more deliberate, I would climb up on an arm of our big sofa to get my ear closer to the wireless speaker. But it was still not the news that interested me; what I was after was the thrill of story, such as a detective serial about a British special agent called Dick Barton or perhaps a radio adaptation of one of Capt. W.E. Johns’s adventure tales about an RAF flying ace called Biggles. Now that the other children were older and there was so much going on in the kitchen, I had to get close to the actual radio set in order to concentrate my hearing, and in that intent proximity to the dial I grew familiar with the names of foreign stations, with Leipzig and Oslo and Stuttgart and Warsaw and, of course, with Stockholm.

I also got used to hearing short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from BBC to Radio Eireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin, and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world beyond. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot.

I don’t profess to know much about Seamus Heaney—in fact, I hadn’t even heard of him until the day he passed away last week. But to me, that last line says it all—his journey into the wideness of language occurred before he knew anything of dogma or history or literature. Maybe that’s what a poet laureate does so well—he brings a nation back to the world of sound, before things got complicated. Before language meant so much.

Photo Credit: Burns Library, Boston College/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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