Sunday, 22nd October 2017
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Strange but - True!

By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. A "hot zone" in the dreaming brain shines a cool light on its hidden meaning. Explain, please.

A. Neuroscientist Benjamin Baird and consciousness expert Giulio Tononi and their team used scalp electrodes to record sleepers' brain waves via high-density electroencephalography, says Tanya Lewis in "Scientific American" magazine. They woke people at frequent intervals to ask if they’d been dreaming and what about, garnering about 1000 waking accounts. "The team identified a ‘hot zone’… near the back of the head, where low-frequency brain waves (linked to unconsciousness) decreased and high-frequency activity rose when people said they had been dreaming" ("Nature Neuroscience"). In another experiment, "the scientists predicted with 87% accuracy whether the participants were dreaming, and brain-wave activity in certain brain regions was linked to specific dream content, including locations, faces and speech." A potential next direction? Actually trying to predict dream content.

Q. Let’s hear it for the unexpected "marriage" of the eyes and the ears. Can you explain?

A. For the first time, researchers have discovered that "our eardrums appear to coordinate with our eyes to shift our hearing to the direction we are looking," perhaps helping determine which objects are making the sounds we hear, says Aylin Woodward in "New Scientist" magazine. When Duke University’s Jennifer Groh and her team inserted microphones into the ears of 16 people to study how their eardrums changed when their visual focus shifted, they detected changes in ear canal pressure probably caused by middle ear muscles tugging on the eardrum.

For example, when we look left, the drum in our left ear gets pulled farther into the ear and that of our right ear gets pushed out, before swinging back and forth a bit. Says Groh, "We think that before actual eye movement occurs, the brain sends a signal to the ear to say ‘I have commanded the eyes to move 12 degrees to the right.’"

Currently, hearing aids amplify all sound equally. But further study might lead to better devices able to match the brain of someone with normal hearing who can focus on one person talking while it ignores other nearby conversations.

Q. When do machines make a point of adopting good manners, sociability and patience? Just ask Spritebot.

A. Robots already perform many traditionally human tasks, from vacuuming to surgery, but Spritebot and his kind may soon become Grandma’s special helpers. Last year, IBM and Rice University unveiled the Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant (MERA), a customized version of Japan’s Pepper robot--an ivory-colored android about the height of a seven-year-old that’s already being used as a friendly assistant in Japanese stores and homes, says Catherine Caruso in "Scientific American" magazine. MERA, as an at-home companion for the elderly, "records and analyzes videos of a person's face and calculates vital signs such as heart and breathing rates…; it can even converse with a patient and answer health questions."

On a complementary front, roboticist Maja Matari and her team are designing socially assistive robots "that tap into human social dynamics to help seniors help themselves," from coaching them in physical therapy to aiding them in socializing with friends and family. Enter Spritebot, a one-foot-tall green owl robot that assists seniors in playing games with their children or grandchildren. "Researchers found that people talked to one another more and played games for longer when Spritebot was participating in, and moderating, their interactions."

As Matari points out, robots could also offer some benefits over their flesh-and-blood counterparts: "Machines are infinitely patient, they have [fewer] biases to begin with, and they have no expectations."

Q. Swimming, boating, and water-skiing are only a few of the many forms of "water fun." Why not just try the ultimate fun of walking on water?

A. The great Italian scientist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) once wondered whether we could do so "by donning elongated floats on our feet and using two poles for balance," say Matin Durrani and Liz Kalaugher in "Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life." His idea got no further than a few sketches. Even the intrepid German mathematician and physicist Theodor Kaluza, who, the story goes, taught himself to swim in his thirties by reading a book and succeeded at his first attempt in water, wouldn’t have been able to walk on water, no matter how hard he studied. The numbers tell the tale: To take advantage of water’s stretchy surface, he would have needed "shoes about a kilometer (over half a mile) in diameter."

Q. At the age of 7, Olava had feelings of rage and discomfort hearing other people eating. Over time, other triggers developed until she finally sought medical help, only to be laughed at. Was this truly a laughing matter?

A. Not if you’re one of the small number of people suffering from misophonia, perhaps caused by altered patterns of brain activity, says Tiffany O’Callaghan in "New Scientist" magazine. As neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran remarked, "Misophonia seems so odd that it’s difficult to appreciate how disabling it can be."

Though little studied thus far, Sukhbinder Kumar and his team at UK’s Newcastle University conducted a series of tests on those with and without severe misophonia and found that both groups had similar reactions to neutral and unpleasant sounds. However, sufferers, upon hearing trigger sounds, showed signs of the body’s fight-and-flight response, including increased heart rates. Brain scans of activated areas suggest that "the systems that normally influence what we pay attention to, and respond to emotionally, are disrupted in people with misophonia."

Until new treatments or coping strategies are developed, Olava and others like her might utilize earplugs or try to mask the offending sounds.

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Waterford Today weekly horoscopes

Wednesday 27th September - Tuesday 3rd October

Aries 21st March-21st April

Your focus will shift towards relationships this week Aries, not necessarily romantic, any personal relationships with family, friends and work colleagues could come under the microscope now as you weigh up what you put into them and what you get back in return. It’s a not a ‘tit-for-tat’ thing, it’s recognising where you’re spending your energy wisely and where it’s being frittered away. Make time for people who make time for you.

Taurus 22nd April-21st May

Stress is not always a bad thing Taurus, sometimes it’s a catalyst for change! Sometimes we need to be made uneasy to shift us out of our comfort zone towards bigger and better things. It could be financial pressure which prompts us to go for a promotion or a better paying job. It could a relationship that becomes toxic prompts you to strike out on your own. Stress can present us with opportunities to get rid of what is not working in our life.

Gemini 22nd May-21st June

Asking a Gemini not to be reactive is like asking a bird not to fly. The tendency to immediately react is directly linked to the speed at which most Gemini’s think and operate. The advice then this week, is at least to try to slow down in all areas of your life but in particular in the mental processing department. Take some long walks in nature, have a bath, do some gentle or restorative yoga or take up meditation, anything that cultivates ease and letting go.

Cancer 22nd June-22nd July

There will be changes of some sort on the cards for your work place this week Cancer. Whether its a renovation or a relocation it’s bound to stir up a bit of stress as you try to maintain some kind of order to keep projects online and on time while all this goes on around you. Rest assured it will all be worth it in the end and the final result will be a much improved atmosphere in which to be creative and productive.

Leo 23rd July-23rd August

A certain amount of anxiety may surround you now Leo as you begin to fret about everything from health to finances to how you’re going to fit everything you need to do into the amount of time available. Communications may seem a bit awkward now too and you may feel as if you just don’t have the time or energy to deal with certain people. The best way to get through it is one step at a time, one job at a time, one conversation at a time.

Virgo 24th August-23rd September

Sometimes we talk a good game Virgo but this week it’s important to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk! Someone will be all too ready to point the finger if you don’t! This goes double for anything you put on social media! Watch your finances, don’t spend more than you have and definitely avoid the temptation to take a punt on what seems like a quick buck or a sure thing - they don’t exist!

Libra 24th September-23rd October

This week there’s a good chance you’ll be taking a long hard look at yourself and your life so far. Everything will come under the microscope, from your image/appearance, your health, diet and fitness, your work life, home life and social life. It could that something has recently unsettled you and prompted you to make changes in certain areas and that’s a great thing, (even if it’s a little uncomfortable) - self improvement begins with self awareness.

Scorpio 24th October-22nd November

You may find yourself feeling restricted this week Scorpio, whether that’s physically because of injury or illness, financially due to unexpected outgoings or a general tightening of the belt or emotionally as you feel you can’t really convey what’s going on inside you. Whatever area of your life this manifests in, for now just keep a low profile and know that once the situation changes you’ll be able to put it all right.

Sagittarius 23rd November-21st December

You could be feeling pretty social this week Sagittarius and relish the opportunity to get out and party with your peers. You’re happy to take others along for the ride too and it seems people just can’t get enough of you, whether at work, or at home. Optimistic by nature, people are drawn to your particular take on things and you could find yourself in the role of counsellor on a few occasions. Counsel wisely then!

Capricorn 22nd December-20th January

This is one of those periods where, finally, the fruits of your labour make themselves apparent. Recognition from colleague and bosses, which you my feel is long overdue, finally arrives. You could be proven right in an ongoing situation which you had all but given up on being resolved. Stay grounded and practical throughout it all, even if you’re feeling a little smug inside!

Aquarius 21st January-19th February

It’s a big picture kind of week for a lot of Aquarians, and there’s a lot of talk about travel and broadening of horizons. Anything related to adventure and foreign connections are well starred now. Relationships too can really flourish now as feel yourself getting ever closer to your special someone. Single? Keep your eye out for chance encounters at travel agents or exotic venues.

Pisces 20th February-20th March

Something that has been hanging over you for a long time eventually comes to an end. It could be a relationship that has been waning for years finishes, it could be paperwork arriving regarding separation or divorce. It could even be news of a relative who has been ill for years and who has passed away. It’s likely to be one of those occasions that leaves you incredibly sad but also slightly relieved at the same time. Take time to process your feelings properly and in a healthy fashion.

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