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embodied cognition: common sense or something startling? part one – seeing red

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color-effects-on-people-8-638

Canto: So I’ve just read a book that details experiments highlighting the effects of, for example, colour, odour, physical comfort and ’embodied metaphors’ on mood, decision-making and creative thinking…

Jacinta: Embodied metaphors?

Canto: I’ll explain later, or not. What I want to do here is lay the groundwork for a future PD talk on how these findings can improve our educational settings and teaching.

Jacinta: So you’re saying our environment can be manipulated, perhaps, to bring out better results in students?

Canto: Yes, think about it. Will sitting in a soft chair help you to think more creatively or efficiently than sitting in a hard chair? Will standing or walking around improve your thinking? Don’t forget Harry Stottle and the Peripatetics. And can these effects be measured? What about the temperature of the room? The view from the window? Inside or outside?

Jacinta: Okay, so can you give me some solid research data on anything that can improve, say, test scores?

Canto: For a start, don’t ask females to indicate that they’re female on the test booklet when they’re sitting a mathematics test. Their results will be impaired. The very act of writing that they’re female apparently brings to mind the idea that girls can’t do maths. The same has been found with African-Americans and maths. This phenomenon is well known in the literature, and has been called stereotype threat.

Jacinta: Okay, but is this really an example of what you were talking about? I thought it was all about the effect of colour, temperature, lighting etc?

Canto: I’m talking about embodied cognition, or physical intelligence, and yes that research is an example – by getting someone to write their gender before sitting a test, it makes them more aware of their gender; their embodiment is brought to mind. But I’m going to give some quite striking examples of the influence of the colour red on test results. A team of American and German researchers conducted a number of experiments, the first involving 71 American undergrads. Each subject was tested individually. They were told they’d be given an anagram test, in which they had to unscramble sets of letters into words. These were of medium difficulty. After a practice run, the students were randomly divided into three groups. All students were given the same anagram tests on paper, with one difference – each participant was given a number, but with one group, the number was coloured red, with another the colour was green, with the third the colour was black. The number on the top of the paper was called to the subjects’ attention at the beginning of the test, with the excuse that this was necessary for processing. The difference in the test results was striking – those who saw a red number at the top of each page performed significantly worse than the green and black groups.

Jacinta: They saw red, and fell apart? But why would they do that? Has this study been replicated? Maybe the group with the red numbers were just bad at anagrams?

Canto: Good questions, and of course it’s the sort of study that could easily be replicated, but the results are in line with similar studies. Unfortunately I could only read a brief abstract of the original study as the detail is behind a paywall, but all these studies have been written about by Thalma Lobel in her book Sensation: the new science of physical intelligence, and, according to her, this particular study took into consideration the abilities of the groups and made sure that this wasn’t the cause of the difference. Also, the same researchers did a follow-up test in Germany, with altered experimental conditions. Instead of using anagrams they used analogy tests, such as:

legs relate to walk like:

1 tongue to mouth

2. eyes to blink

3. comb to hair

4. nose to face

Jacinta: Right, so the correct answer is 2, though it’s not the best analogy.

Canto: Well, eyes to see might be too easy. Anyway, 46 subjects were given 5 minutes to come up with 20 correct analogies. The analogies were presented on paper, each with a cover page. The subjects were divided into 3 groups and the only difference between the groups was the colour of the cover page. The first group had red, the second green, the third, white.  This time their exposure to the colours was shorter – only seconds before they were asked to turn the page, and they weren’t exposed to the colour during the test itself, after they’d turned the page. Still the results were much the same as in the first experiment – exposure to the red cover page resulted in poorer scores.

Jacinta: Sooo, red’s a colour to be avoided when doing tests. What about the other colours? Were any of them good for improving test scores?

Canto: No, not in these experiments. And again, Lobel assures us that the study controlled for the variable of differential ability. The researchers conducted other studies on a range of participants – using verbal and non-verbal (e.g. mathematical) tests, and the results were consistent – exposing subjects to the colour red, and making them conscious of that colour, resulted in poorer scores.

Jacinta: And they have no explanation as to why? Presumably it’s some sort of connotative value for red. Red is danger, red is embarrassment…

Canto: Nature red in tooth and claw – but red is also the heart, the rose, the Valentine. Red has all sorts of contradictory connotations.

Jacinta: So isn’t it the way that red is seen in our culture? What about controlling for cultural connotations, however contradictory?

Canto: You mean trying it out in Outer Mongolia, or a remote African village? It’s a good point, but you know red is the colour of blood..

Jacinta: And of my life-producing vagina.

Canto: Yeah but look at the wariness with which women are treated for having one of those. Anyway I’m not sure they’ve done the study in those places, but they’ve varied the settings – labs, classrooms, outdoors – and the age-groups and the test-types, and the results haven’t varied significantly. And they did other tests to measure motivation rather than performance.

Jacinta: So you mean how seeing red influenced people’s motivation? Presumably negatively.

Canto: Yes. The same research team tried out an experiment on 67 students, based on the assumption that, if you’re an anxious or under-confident employee, you’ll knock on the boss’s door more quietly, and with fewer knocks, than if you’re a confident employee. That’s assuming you find the door closed, and you don’t actually know why you’ve been asked to see the boss. Reasonable assumptions?

Jacinta: Okay.

Canto: So here’s the set-up. The 67 students were told they would be taking one of two tests: analogies or vocal. The students were shown a sample question from each of the tests, to convince them of the process, though it was all subterfuge basically. They were given white binders, and asked to read the name of the test on the first page. They found the word analogies printed in black ink on a coloured rectangle. The colour was either red or green. Next they were asked to walk down the corridor to a lab to take the test. The lab door was closed, but it had a sign saying ‘please knock’. It was found that those who saw the test title on a red background consistently knocked less often and less insistently.

Jacinta: So they were de-motivated and made more anxious simply by this sight of red. Again, why?

Canto: Learned associations, presumably. Red with danger, with anger, with disapproval.

Jacinta: But – just seeing it on a binder?

Canto: That’s what the evidence says.

Jacinta: Okay – I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced, but all this is a bit negative. Granted we could avoid exposing students to red just in case it inhibits learning, but what about studies that show what might be done to improve learning? That’s what we should be aiming for, surely?

Canto: Okay, so now we’ve eliminated the negative, I promise to accentuate the positive in the next post.

Jacinta: Good, we really need to latch onto the affirmative, without messing with Ms In-between…

 

I like

I like

Written by stewart henderson

January 5, 2017 at 8:39 pm

bonobo society, sex and females

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sexual dimorphism - a difference on average, but massive individual variation

sexual dimorphism – a difference on average, but massive individual variation

Men are bigger than women, slightly. That’s how things evolved. It’s called sexual dimorphism. It happens with many species, the genders are different in size, shape, coloration, whatever. With humans there’s a size difference, and something of a shape difference, in breasts and hips, but really these aren’t significant. Compare, say, the deep-water triplewort seadevil, a type of anglerfish, in which the female is around 30 cms long, and the male a little over a centimetre. The difference in mass would be too embarrassing to relate.

Among our primate cousins the greatest sexual dimorphism, in size as well as other features, is found in the mandrills, with the male being two to three times the size of the females. In some gorillas there’s a substantial size difference too in favour of the males, and in fact in all of the primate species the male has a size advantage. But size isn’t everything, and the bigger doesn’t have to always dominate.

Female bonobos are smaller than the males, even more so than in humans, yet they enjoy a higher social status than in any other primate society, probably including humans, though it’s hard to compare, since humanity’s many societies vary considerably on the roles and status of women. So how have females attained this exalted status within one of the most highly socialised primate species?

Bonobos and chimpanzees are equally our closest living relatives. It isn’t clear when exactly they separated from each other, but some experts claim it may have been less than a million years ago. Enough time for them to become quite distinct physically, according to the ethologist Franz De Waal. Bonobos are more gracile with longer limbs and a smaller head, and they have a distinctive hairstyle, with a neat parting down the middle. They’re also more easily individuated by their facial features, being in this sense more like humans. And there are also major differences in their social behaviour. Male chimps are dominant in the troupe, often brutally so, whereas bonobo society is less clearly hierarchical, and considerably less violent overall. De Waal, one of the world’s foremost experts on both primates, became interested in bonobos primarily through studies on aggression. He noted that sometimes, after a violent clash, two chimps would come together to hug and kiss. Being interested in such apparent reconciliations and their implications, he decided to look at reconciling behaviours in other primates. What he discovered in bonobos (at San Diego Zoo, which in 1983 housed the world’s largest captive colony) was rather ‘shocking’; their social life was profoundly mediated by sex. Not that he was the first to discover this; other primatologists had written about it, noting also that bonobo sex was far more human-like than chimp sex, but their observations were obscurely worded and not well disseminated. There are other aspects of the physical nature of sexual relations in bonobos that favour females, such as female sexual receptivity, indicated by swelling and a reddening of the genital area, which pertains for a much longer period than in chimps. Female bonobos, like humans and unlike other primates, are sexually receptive more or less all the time.

This isn’t to say that bonobos are oversexed, whatever that may mean. Sexual relations are far from constant, they are casual, sporadic and quickly done with. Often they’re associated with finding food, and it seems likely that sexual relations are used to reconcile tensions related to food availability and other potential causes of conflict.

So how does this use of sex relate to the status of females in bonobo society. I’ll explore this further in the next post.

bonobo relations - more than just sex

bonobo relations – more than just sex

Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2016 at 1:32 pm

movie review: Limi Girl – part one

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Limi-Girl-2014-4

Jacinta: Hurray we’re going to do a movie review.

Canto: Yes and it’s a beautiful, quiet and powerful Chinese movie, co-written and directed by Roy Cheung made in 2014 and set among the Limi people, an apparently rather impoverished tribal group in Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border. The Limi people have their own language, part of the Tibetan group, but the film is in Mandarin, not surprisingly, as Limi is spoken by only around 30,000 people.

Jacinta: It’s certainly an affecting movie about the trials and tensions of a very basic rural life, the generational changes, the lure of the city, the yearning for something more, the pull of home and safety… it’s a universal story of tradition versus change, and the heartache of those torn between.

Canto: So the film, which is available on youtube, starts as the central character, Xiumei (Shi Yan), returns to her home village from studying in the town of Shifang, in neighbouring Szichuan Province, much to the delight of her little ‘sister’ Gaidi. But Xiumei hasn’t returned in triumph, she’s ‘dropped out’, and the village women have gathered to taunt her about her failure. Her humiliated father is forced to apologise and promises to pay back the money he’s borrowed for his daughter’s education.

Jacinta: And when we first see Xiumei she’s in city clothes, unlike the village women and girls, who all wear the same outlandish pillowy head-dresses and navy blue robes. The village huts are of rickety logs and thatch, set in a landscape of rock-strewn hills and streams. Physically beautiful, it’s clearly a tough environment for eking out a living.

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Canto: Xiumei comes to her doorway and confronts her critics. From the conversation we learn that she has given up college because she wants to be a dancer, though it’s confusing – she promises to repay the money, she promises to return to college, she’s defiant and angry. She retreats inside, and Gaidi comes in to comfort her, and to ask if she’s heard any news from Szichuan about her (Gaidi’s) parents.

Jacinta: So Gaidi isn’t actually Xiumei’s sister, but possibly a cousin, who’s in the care of Xiumei’s parents – another burden for this poor couple.

Canto: Xiumei hasn’t any news and can only show the girl a postcard of Shifang, which she stares at sadly. In the next scene, in a beautiful mountain shrine, Xiumei is back in traditional dress, burning incense to the Buddha along with Gaidi and the village women. She asks to be blessed to go to college again, while Gaidi prays to be reunited with her parents in Szichuan. Then we follow a bus rolling along a mountain road. Inside the bus, a young man, Heigo, is returning to the village. His mother is in the local hospital and he’s returning from Guangdong to check on her… or so it seems.

Jacinta: And in these scenes we see again the rugged beauty of the landscape, a contrast to the unhappy yearnings of the humans. Guangdong by the way is a coastal province bordering Hong Kong and Macau, well to the east of Yunnan.

Canto: So we find out about Heigo through another passenger who greets him, and tells him laughingly that his mother has tricked him – she’s just luring him home to marry his ‘childhood sweetheart’, Shugio – as has always been intended. Heigo looks annoyed and asks after Xiumei – he’s heard she’s back. His friend, though only wants to talk of his Heigo’s coming wedding to Shugio, and how lucky he is.

Jacinta: So this is how it’s shaping up, an inter-generational contest. The main characters in the film are the young – Xiumei and Heigo, and Shugio, Heigo’s intended, and little Gaidi. Heigo has been tricked into returning, and Xiumei is under pressure…

Canto: Heigo gets off the bus before it reaches the village. He’s clearly thoroughly peed off, but while he sits muttering by a brook, Shugio arrives on a motorbike. A strange sight, in her traditional costume. She’s annoyed that she had to come all this way to meet him, having heard from his friend that he got off the bus early. And Heigo is annoyed too and reluctantly goes back with her to the village.

Jacinta: Yes, he sees Shugio as part of the family group colluding to entrap him. The motorbike, I think, is an interesting symbol. It testifies to the rough terrain, more easily negotiated on a motorbike, but it’s also the only motorised object, the most advanced piece of technology in the movie.

Canto: Along the road to the village, with Heigo driving, they encounter Gaidi, with Xiumei carrying a heavy basket. Gaidi hails Heigo, her ‘cousin’. He greets her happily, but is particularly keen to chat with Xiumei. He follows her up the hill, while impatient Shugio calls him back. Xiumei’s response to him is cool but friendly enough, and she allows him to accompany her, while irritated Shugio drives off with Gaidi as pillion.

Jacinta: He clearly fancies her.

Canto: Yes but her views aren’t so clear. So Shugio and Gaidi arrive at Shugio’s mother’s house – she’s weaving, a bridal costume perhaps – but she’s disappointed to find Gaidi arriving instead of Heigo.

Jacinta: This is a confusing scene. She asks Gaidi, ‘where’s your cousin’, meaning Heigo, and Gaidi says, according to the subtitles, ‘cousin is taking sister Xiumei away on a motorbike’, which is either untrue or nonsensical.

Canto: Yes, there’s only one motorbike in the movie, and Shugio was riding it. If Gaidi is lying, it’s not to keep Xiumei out of trouble. It doesn’t make sense. Anyway, Shugio’s mother scolds Gaidi and tells her she’s not to see Xiumei again.

Jacinta: From this scene we realise that Gaidi lives with Shugio and her mother.

Canto: In the next scene, Heigo is punting Xiumei along in a boat on the river.

Jacinta: Being very helpful – he was last seen carrying her basket for her.

Canto: Their conversation here is revealing. Heigo asks why she didn’t answer his many letters. She says she didn’t want to distract him from his work, and he responds that his work, as a supervisor, is utterly boring. She changes the subject, asking him about his ‘wife’, Shugio, and of course he responds that she isn’t his wife – yet.

Jacinta: Yes and there’s nothing apparently coquettish about this reference. She seems to be reminding him about his commitment.

Canto: Which seems a bit harsh. We don’t know if he’s ever made a commitment, it all seems to be about family assumptions. Anyway, Xiumei next praises Shugio’s cleverness and hard work. Certainly not encouraging his attentions. The scene ends strangely, as Heigo takes up a sorrowful song, cheerfully sung by washerwomen on the bank. It’s a song of lovesickness, and Heigo howls…

Jacinta: So ends the first part. It looks like it’s going to be a long review.

Screenshot 2016-06-10 16.04.49

Heigo joins in the song

 

Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2016 at 4:28 pm

night flight to Dubai

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imageIf you’ve come here looking for Bondesque hijinks click off now. The plane was a Boeing 777, with I think 10 passengers abreast, 3x4x3 with 2 aisles. I take this from Dr Google as much as from unreliable memory, there are apparently many ways of fitting out a 777. Our seating was on the left side facing forward, my TC had the aisle seat, I took the centre, and the window seat was taken up by a late-comer, who thus dashed our hopes of moving up one and gazing into the outer dark. This gangly young Englishman’s trials in clambering over and around us to get to his seat were a promise of discomfort to come.

It was a 14-hour flight to Dubai, starting at around 2200 but due to time zones and date-lines etc we’d be arriving at 0530 the next morning. As mentioned, I’ve had plenty of advice about pills or treatments for whatever might ail me on the flight but in truth I prefer remaining unmedicated as far as possible, and in my sixtieth year I’m pretty well drug-free, if you except life’s absolutely necessary pleasures, caffeine and alcohol, and I’m ever alarmed by and resistant to the collections of meds many of my peers feel forced to take against Alzheimer’s, anaemia, angina, anxiety, apnoeia, arthritis and let’s not get started on the rest of the alphabet. So all I took was some nasal spray and chewing gum as a defence against ‘plane brain’, aka aerosinusitis, and this worked a treat.

I didn’t sleep a wink in those 14 hours, though my reliable but argumentative TC insisted I had some winks, possibly as many as 40. Of course I was wide awake as I could possibly be for the take-off, but I mustn’t exaggerate my terror, it was nothing compared to the Mad Mouse. What made sleep impossible was the discomfort, the novelty and the anticipation, a mèlange of unbeatable distractions. My window-side neighbour was asleep within minutes of take-off, which didn’t stop him jabbing and kicking me when he shifted positions. There was a dearth of space between me and the seats in front and I felt timid about leaning my seat back too far. As time went by I became obsessed with my legs, which didn’t have room to straighten. I tried pushing my arse right back in the seat, I raised it up awkwardly, but just couldn’t get my angles right. My TC on seeing me squirm suggested I take some exercise in the aisle, as per the advice of all experts, but I perversely refused such an easy solution, and didn’t leave my seat until just before touch-down. Which turned out to be one of the highlights of the flight – possibly the longest pee in my peeing career.

Of course it’s hard to look back over so many years of peeing and pick out some, or any, of the great ones, and in any case peeing is such a subjective thing. For example, we’ve all experienced the agony of desperately needing a pee but being nowhere near a publicly sanctioned pee-place. In such circs your distressed state will disable you from conducting pee-stream studies of any kind; the last thing on your mind will be your PB in this activity. I’d go so far as to say that the physical release, the sense of near-weightless joy caused by these outpourings has been probably my most spiritual/religious experience. A true feeling of Salvation, as far from mere bean- or pee-counting as can be had.

Anyway what was intriguing about this mighty slash after 13 hours or so of being plied – necessarily, given the arid aircraft atmosphere – with coffee, fruit juice, and more pure unadulterated water (my least fave drink) than I usually consume in a month, was that, until my legs finally communicated to me that they really had to be stretched, I felt no great urge to relieve myself. Even after several minutes of quite exhilarating straightening and muscle-rubbing in the aisle, my loo visit seemed more after-thoughtful than necessary, so I was in a kind of neutral, clear-headed state when I observed my pee go on and on, leading me to thoughts of PBs and such. If it wasn’t my longest ever, was it in my top 10 (or top 5 if it was in the top half of the 10)? How could I tell? Clearly there is one pee I’ve had in my life that is my longest. Is this in any sense important? Well, maybe. Interesting, certainly. Though on reflection it isn’t so much the longest but the largest by volume that’s important* (or merely interesting) for presumably sometimes the pee runs more feebly than at others; the valve, so to speak, being plus ou moins open – constricted or dilated due to the vagaries of the weather, state of health, age perhaps or even just state of mind. Maybe one day scientists will hatch a device to be implanted in the midriff to measure the highs and lows of pee-flow. Maybe they already have, it wouldn’t suprise me, the utility of such is clear. But it would also allow some champion to claim the Biggest Pee, another entry to add to the Guiness Book of Perhaps Not so Pointless Records. And as I sat back in my now more comfy seat readying myself for Dubai, I thought of another perhaps not so pointless PB that I might just have broken, in that at some point during this flight I may have reached a higher distance above sea-level than ever before. Now how could that be monitored in our monitor-loving age? But then again, sea levels rise and fall, so….

Dubai lights. We watched the perfect landing on the screen before us. The airport was pale in the breaking dawn and glittering with artificial light. There were planes everywhere. Already it was 28 degrees outside.

 

*Just as the Nile is the longest river but the Amazon is by far the largest by volume. The Amazon wins.

TRIP HIGH/LOWLIGHTS

– The food was plentiful, varied and delicious IMHO, and the service was excellent, under sometimes difficult conditions.

– You need to see things from a baby’s perspective. As they’ve not yet developed sophisticated means of either conveying or receiving info, their instinct is to make as much noise as possible to make absolutely sure that others know they’re suffering horrendous agonies or experiencing the most frabjous joy. So nature has furnished them with the most impressive noise-making equipment for this purpose. It’s highly adaptive, another fine example of evolution at work. Ear plugs next time, though simple perspective taking can be sufficient.

– Not having a tech-savvy 13-y-o as my TC it took most of the flight to work out the functioning of the on-board entertainment (the first 2 hours just to get the headphones plugged in and operational). The movies were mostly boorish but I found one, Carol, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel I actually read some 20 years ago, a book/film about longing, desire and hope, regardless of sexual preference really, very much the sort of thing I’m drawn to. Reminds me of my fave Jane Austen novel, Persuasion. Highly recommended – I got teary. Fine performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Also recalls to my mind my fave line from the KJ Bible, perhaps my fave line in all litt: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’.

Couldn’t settle to anything else much, though I did find a silly thriller very much starring Olga Kurylenko, the Most Beautiful Woman Who Has Ever Lived according to my ever-changing judgment (OK is always more than OK, I like to say), but not even her loveliness and her formidable ball-breaking superhero role could force me to see the shamefully silly shenanigans to the end. Better to watch L’Annulaire again, and again.

– Aerosinusitis. I did feel a painful buid-up after take-off but then came a sudden but sort of slow uncorking and brightening of sound, rather pleasurable, and I had no further problems on the outbound flights.

 

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm

this one’s for the birds

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clevercrow1

Canto: If anybody doesn’t appreciate the beauty and complexity and general magnificence of birds they should pee off and never darken this blog again.

Jacinta: Right. Now what brought that on, mate?

Canto: Oh just a general statement of position vis-à-vis other species. Charles Darwin, an old friend of mine, was pretty disdainful of human specialness in his correspondence, but he kept a low profile – on this and everything else – in public. I want to be a bit more overt about these things. And one of the things that really amazes me about birds, apart from their physical beauty, is how much goes on in those teeny noggins of theirs.

Jacinta: Yes, but what really brought this on? I haven’t heard you rhapsodising about birds before.

Canto: You haven’t been inside my vast noggin mate. Actually I’ve been taking photos – or trying to – of the bird life around here; magpies, magpie-larks, crows, rainbow lorikeets, honeyeaters, galahs, corellas, sulphur-crested cockies, as well as the pelicans, black swans, cormorants, moorhens, coots and mallard ducks by the river, not to mention the ubiquitous Australian white ibis and the masked lapwing.

Jacinta: Well I didn’t know you cared. Of course I agree with you on the beauty of these beasties. Better than any tattoo I’ve seen. So you’re becoming a twitcher?

Canto: I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ve been nurturing my fledgling interest with a book on the sensory world of birds, called, appropriately, Bird sense, by a British biologist and bird specialist, Tim Birkhead. It’s divided into sections on the senses of birds – a very diverse set of creatures, it needs to be said. So we have vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and that wonderful magnetic sense that so much has been made of recently.

Jacinta: So we can’t generalise about birds, but I know at least some of them have great eyesight, as in ‘eyes like an eagle’.

Canto: Well, as it happens, our own Aussie wedge-tailed eagle has the most acute sense of vision of any creature so far recorded.

Jacinta: Well actually it isn’t ours, it just happens to inhabit the same land-form as us.

Canto: How pedantic, but how true. But Birkhead points out that there are horses for courses. Different birds have vision adapted for particular lifestyles. The wedge-tail’s eyes are perfectly adapted to the clear blue skies and bright light of our hinterland, but think of owl eyes. Notice how they both face forward? They’re mostly nocturnal and so they need good night vision. They’ve done light-detection experiments with tawny owls, which show that on the whole they could detect lower light levels than humans. They also have much larger eyes, compared with other birds. In fact their eyes are much the same size as ours, but with larger pupils, letting in more light. They’ve worked out, I don’t know how, that the image on an owl’s retina is about twice as bright as on the average human’s.

Jacinta: So their light-sensitivity is excellent, but visual acuity – not half so good as the wedge-tailed eagle’s?

wedge-tailed eagle - world's acutest eyes

wedge-tailed eagle – world’s acutest eyes

Canto: Right – natural selection is about adaptation to particular survival strategies within particular environments, and visual acuity isn’t so useful in the dark, when there’s only so much light around, and that’s why barn owls, who have about 100 times the light-sensitivity of pigeons, also happen to have very good hearing – handy for hunting in the dark, as there’s only so much you can see on a moonless night, no matter how sensitive your eyes are. They also learn to become familiar with obstacles by keeping to the same territory throughout their lives.

face of a barn owl - 'one cannot help thinking of a sound-collecting device, quoth researcher Masakazu Konishi

face of a barn owl – ‘one cannot help thinking of a sound-collecting device’, quoth researcher Masakazu Konishi

Jacinta: So they don’t echo-locate, do they?

Canto: No, though researchers now know of a number of species, such as oilbirds, that do. Barn owls, though, have asymmetrical ear-holes, one being higher in the head than the other, which helps them to pinpoint sound. It was once thought that they had infra-red vision, because of their ability to catch mice in apparently total darkness, but subsequent experiments have shown that it’s all about their hearing, in combination with vision.

Jacinta: Well you were talking about those amazing little brains of birds in general, and I must say I’ve heard some tales about their smarts, including how crows use cars to crack nuts for them, which must be true because it was in a David Attenborough program.

Canto: Yes, and they know how to drop their nuts near pedestrian crossings and traffic lights, so they can retrieve their crushed nuts safely. The genus Corvus, including ravens, crows and rooks, has been a fun target for investigation, and there’s plenty of material about their impressive abilities online.

seeing is believing

seeing is believing

Jacinta: So what other tales do you have to tell, and can you shed any light on how all this cleverness comes in such small packages?

Canto: Well Birkhead has been studying guillemots for years. These are seabirds that congregate on cliff faces in the islands around Britain, and throughout northern Europe and Canada. They’re highly monogamous, and get very attached to each other, and thereby hangs another fascinating tale. They migrate south in the winter, and often get separated for lengthy periods, and it’s been noted that when they spot their partner returning, as a speck in the distance, they get highly excited and agitated, and the greeting ceremony when they get together is a joy to behold, apparently – though probably not as spectacular as that of gannets. Here’s the question, though – how the hell can they recognise their partner in the distance? Common guillemots breed in colonies, butt-to-butt, and certainly to us one guillemot looks pretty well identical to another. No creature could possibly have such acute vision, surely?

Jacinta: Is that a rhetorical question?

Canto: No no, but it has no answer, so far. It’s a mystery. It’s unlikely to be sight, or hearing, or smell, so what is it?

Jacinta: What about this magnetic sense? But that’s only about orientation for long flights, isn’t it?

Canto: Yes we might discuss that later, but though it’s obvious that birds are tuned into their own species much more than we are, the means by which they recognise individuals are unknown, though someone’s bound to devise an ingenious experiment that’ll further our knowledge.

Jacinta: Oh right, so something’s bound to turn up? Actually I wonder if the fact that people used to say that all Chinese look the same, which sounds absurd today, might one day be the case with birds – we’ll look back and think, how could we possibly have been so blind as to think all seagulls looked the same?

Canto: Hmmm, I think that would take a lot of evolving. Anyway, birds are not just monogamous (and anyway some species are way more monogamous than others, and they all like to have a bit on the side now and then) but they do, some of them, have distinctly sociable behaviours. Ever heard of allopreening?

Jacinta: No but I’ve heard the saying ‘birds of a feather flock together’ and that’s pretty sociable. Safety in numbers I suppose. But go on, enlighten me.

Canto: Well, allopreening just means mutual preening, and it usually occurs between mates – and I don’t mean in the Australian sense – but it’s also used for more general bonding within larger groups.

Jacinta: Like, checking each other out for fleas and such, like chimps?

Cant: Yeah, though this particular term is usually reserved for birds. Obviously it serves a hygienic purpose, but it also helps calm ruffled feathers when flocks of colonies live beak by jowl. And if you ever get close enough to see this, you’ll notice the preened bird goes all relaxed and has this eyes half-closed, blissed-out look on her face, but we can’t really say that coz it’s anthropomorphising, and who knows if they can experience real pleasure?

Jacinta: Yes, I very much doubt it – they can only experience fake pleasure, surely.

Canto: It’s only anecdotal evidence I suppose, but that ‘look’ of contentment when birds are snuggling together, the drooping air some adopt when they’ve lost a partner, as well as ‘bystander affiliation’, seen in members of the Corvus genus, all of these are highly suggestive of strong emotion.

Jacinta: Fuck it, let’s stop beating about the bush, of course they have emotions, it’s only human vested interest that says no, isn’t it? I mean it’s a lot easier to keep birds in tiny little cages for our convenience, and to burn their beaks off when they get stressed and aggressive with each other, than to admit they have feelings just a bit like our own, right? That might mean going to the awful effort of treating them with dignity.

Canto: Yyesss. Well on that note, we might make like the birds and flock off…

how the flock do they do that?

how the flock do they do that?

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2015 at 12:06 pm