Author Archives: Camden John MacDowell

Blame it on the Music

This past week I got to immerse myself in the most distinctly French experience I’ve had since arriving in Paris – le festival de musique – a festival that’s essentially a giant excuse for everyone in France to leave work early, throw back a few drinks and enjoy music on every street corner, bar, park, and metro station in the city.

It was an amazing day, night, and morning.

There was such a diversity of interesting music – a solo guitarist playing tunes from “dirty dancing” to a bunch of kids, two dueling DJs (the one with a portable smoke machine won), a couple of Rastafarian reggae singers on the RER train, and even a man playing a collection of giant bells on truck bed outside Notre Dame. Just as interesting was the diversity of behavior amongst those listening to the music, specifically their drinking behavior.

Being the upstanding, responsible, academic individual that I am, I used my scientific observation abilities to hone in on the type and amount of alcohol being consumed by the groups listening to each genre of music. I then used this data to make educated decisions about which music attracted the most degenerate groups so that I could join them avoid them. 

NBB students enjoying the portable smoke machine.

Most of the Parisians seamed to be keeping their drinking in check. Those listening to the blues street musicians were sipping on wine and beer, the large group around the truck-bell musician was doing the same, and not surprisingly, the kids surrounding the solo-guitarist weren’t tossing back too many brews. The dueling DJs were a different matter though, and I had to unfortunately dedicate more time there to document the significantly larger quantities of wine consumed by the audience – at one point I even saw a flask and a mini-keg!

I witnessed the most alcohol consumption later that night though, when I followed the deep boom of a bass to a large dubstep-rave outside the Odeon metro station. As I approached the mass of people jumping in synchrony to the deafening music it quickly became apparent that these festival-goers had traded their wine for many liters of flavored vodka.

This sparked my curiosity, why were some groups heavier drinkers than others? Was there something about dubstep and the DJ-house music that caused those listening to drink more? There was a significantly higher percentage of young people at the rave but that doesn’t necessarily account for why they were drinking hard alcohol while the college-aged kids elsewhere were drinking beer and wine. I needed to do some research.
The Effect of Noise on Taste 

The truck bell choir. Definitely the most interesting instrument of the night!

In 2011, an article published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, looked at the effect of music and noise on how 80 college-aged individuals perceived the taste of alcohol (Stafford et al., 2012).

The study was pretty simple. When each participant entered the lab they were blindfolded and given a set of four different solutions (bitter, sour, sweet, and salty) to taste so that they had a baseline to compare against for the rest of the experiment. The students then put on headphones and were divided into four groups. One group had house music played in both ears, another had a news article being read in both ears, a third had music playing in one ear and the article in the other, and a fourth heard neither noise. The members of each group were then given alcohol of varying concentrations (with mixers) and asked to rate the level of sweet/bitter/sour/salty taste and overall strength of the alcohol in each drink (on a scale of 1-100).

Before we evaluate the results it’s important to first think about how the researchers controlled for external factors that might affect the data (like different alcohol preferences in the subjects, mood at the time of the study, type of music they normally listen to, etc.). It appears that the researchers did account for most of these issues, and they chose students with standard alcohol habits, no known taste aversions, and who were in average moods. They also chose the music genre and alcohol mixers based off of an initial study of the preferences of ten students. However, it would have been great to see the house music compared to other genres like jazz and country to make sure that the data wasn’t genre-dependent.

The results showed that those listening to music in both ears actually found the alcoholic drinks significantly sweater than the other three groups. Additionally, the ability to discern between the different strengths of alcohol was significantly lower in the music/news and only-music individuals than the other two groups, a result that has been shown in other papers (Seo et al., 2012). The fact that music only appeared to effect sweetness perception and none of the other three tastes is especially interesting because on average, the sweater alcohol, the more it gets consumed (Lanier et al., 2005). 

How does this all occur in the brain?

Location of Odeon rave!

There are very few articles that show how music affects taste perception in the brain. One thing that is somewhat similar is a process known as sensory deprivation. In sensory deprivation, one sense in eliminated and because of that another sense gets stronger. A perfect example of this would be how blind individuals often have a very good sense of touch. It’s been shown that the louder a noise the more it inhibits a person’s ability to distinguish taste (Woods et al., 2011). The music at the rave was much louder than anything I had heard at the festival, so maybe the reverse of sensory deprivation was occurring. Perhaps the Parisians’ sensory systems were so over-stimulated by the loud music that they were less able to perceive the alcohol concentration, leading to the consumption of more and harder alcohol. Additionally, the music might have made the vodka taste sweeter, making it even easier to drink. This is primarily speculation though, and lack of concluding evidence makes it difficult to know exactly what was happening in the brain. Perhaps I will have to conduct a research study of my own to determine the regions of the brain involved, as well as the effect of different music genres on alcohol perception. I wonder if any Emory students would volunteer for such a tasking experiment!


– Camden MacDowell


Works Cited

Lanier, S. A., Hayes, J. E., & Duffy, V. B. (2005). Sweet and bitter tastes of alcoholic beverages mediate alcohol intake in of-age undergraduates. Physiology &Behavior, 83(5), 821–831.

Stafford L., Agobiani E., Fernandes M. (2012). Effects of noise and distraction on alcohol perception. Food Quality and Preference 24: 218-224

Seo H., Hahner A., Gudziol V., Scheibe M., Hummel T. (2012). Influence of background noise on the performance in the odor sensitivity task: effects of noise type and extraversion. Exp Brain Res 222:89-97

Woods, A. T., Poliakoff, E., Lloyd, D. M., Kuenzel, J., Hodson, R., Gonda, H., et al.(2011). Effect of background noise on food perception. Food Quality and Preference 22(1), 42-47 

Poisoning Pigeons in the Park

We’ve now been in Paris for close to three weeks. It’s a wonderful city, and I’ve enjoyed so many terrific experiences since we arrived: long, sunny walks along the Seine from the Louvre Museum to the Eiffel Tower, terrific concerts by countless street musicians, and many delicious French crepes and baguettes! However, there’s one part of Paris that is slowly pecking away at my enjoyment of the city – Pigeons. 

Paris isn’t quite as famous for its pigeons as other large cities like New York and London, but their presence is certainly noticeable – especially if you attempt, as I did, to eat a fresh baguette under the statue of Charlemagne at Notre Dame, an area where the pigeon density rivals that of the tourists. As soon my first breadcrumb dropped, I was surrounded and bombarded by more birds than I could count. This happened again at Tuileries Garden, and yet another time on the Cite Universitaire campus.

Even when I’m not eating baguettes the pigeons seek me out. While relaxing in a small urban park near the Bastille I was lucky enough to receive a pigeon “deposit” on my pant’s leg, followed by another on my chest and a third that landed on my shoulder, narrowly missing my right ear. I can see one such gift being an accident, but three in a row makes me think that these pigeons might have a vendetta against me for the bird research I do back at Emory.

It turns out that I’m not the only one who’s annoyed with Paris’s bird problem. For many years the city has pigeon-proofed historical buildings by placing spikes on all the ledges where the birds might land. Additionally, in 2008 Paris officials set out to curb the pigeon population by building nesting-lofts throughout the city and then sterilizing the eggs while the birds were out feeding (bloomberg). Given my recent experiences, these attempts don’t appear to be working and so I looked into another possible method of population control – feeding the birds poison-laced food.

I was curious about how effective poisoning would be. Do the birds learn to avoid dangerous food? And if so, how quickly does this avoidance behavior develop, especially if that food had a distinct taste or smell associated with it?

How quickly do pigeons learn to avoid poison?

A map of the places I've had run-in with pigeons

In 1999 a study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology looked exactly at how quickly pigeons learn to avoid poisonous-food and the effect of hunger on the amount of toxic food they ingested (Pascual et al., 1999).

The study used four groups of eight pigeons. Two of these groups were given as much food as they wanted (ad libitum) for the 6 days leading up to testing while the other two groups were deprived of food. The researchers did two experiments. First they offered seeds laced with the sulfurous-smelling toxin fonofos to one of the ad libitum groups and one of the deprived groups for 6 straight hours. The birds were videotaped throughout the test, and eating behavior was measured by the amount of food eaten as well as the rate at which it was consumed. The second experiment, using the remaining two bird groups, was very similar but the food was offered first for 2 hours followed by a half-hour break, and then for an additional four hours. While not much different then the first experiment, this test showed whether the birds were able to remember that the food was dangerous when exposed to it a second time.

On average, it only took the birds 6 minutes to learn to avoid the food and all of the pigeons from experiment two still avoided the food after a half-hour break. Five of the birds from the food-deprived group did die and the authors attributed this to the fact that these birds ate huge amounts of food in the first six minutes. This is interesting because it suggests that the ability to develop avoidance behaviors is dependent on time, not on the amount of food eaten. Additionally, the video recordings showed reactions (head shaking, food-spitting, vomiting) during the first six minutes, which confirmed that the food was unpleasant to the birds. Given the size of the Parisian pigeons that have harassed me so far, I doubt any of them are food deprived, so unfortunately poisons (or at least poisons that have odor or taste like fonofos) would not be effective.

While this article clearly documented the development of avoidance behaviors and specifically showed that internal state (such as hungry/not hungry) did not affect the rate at which these behaviors we were created, it did not discuss how these behaviors are mediated in the brain.

How is avoidance mediated in the brain?

A pigeon posing in front of the Eiffel Tower. A perfect summary of my experiences so far in France.



Most research in avoidance behavior concentrates on the role of a small almond-shaped region in the bottom-middle of the brain called the amygdala, which is thought to mediate avoidance behavior development (Davis, 1992). How exactly it does this is still being debated but the majority of articles suggest that the amygdala helps consolidate a memory associated with an unpleasant experience like eating food that makes you feel sick (Smith et al., 2001). More specifically, some research has shown that it plays a role in the initial acquisition of the memory (Wiliskey et al., 2005). Even though these studies were not done in pigeons, we can use can use them to predict what might have occurred in the pigeon experiment. When the pigeons first ate the fonofos food and experienced the unpleasant side effects, it’s possible that their amygdalae were activated and that a connection between the food and the effects was formed. However, this connection in the brain probably was not strong enough to cause avoidance after just one exposure to the food, so it took multiple exposures over the course of six minutes. Even though the food-deprived pigeons ate more, it’s possible that they didn’t avoid the food any faster than the ad libitum group because their hunger took priority and inhibited the avoidance behaviors from forming (Gilette et al., 1999).

Unless the Parisian pigeons have faulty amygdalae, which I highly doubt, I will unfortunately have to come up with another way to control their population. Perhaps, a poison that doesn’t have any smell or immediate unpleasant effects associated with it? Or maybe the best option is just to take all of my baguette eating indoors. Regardless, it does not appear that I will be poisoning Parisian pigeons anytime in the near future. Now that you’ve finished the post I recommend that you click on the following link and enjoy a 3 minute tune by 1960s comedian Tom Leher, it applies nicely.


– Camden MacDowell


mmm... tasty pigeon lunch! Literally the taste of revenge!


Works cited:

Davis M. (1992) The role of the amygdala in fear and anxiety. Annual Review Neursci 15:353-375

Gillete R., Hatcher N., Huang R., Moroz L. (1999). Cost-benefit analysis potential in feeding behavior of a predatory snail by integration of hunger, taste, and pain. PNAS 97: 3585-3590

Pascual J., Fryday S., Hart A. (1999) Effects of Food Restriction on Food Avoidance and Risk of Acute Poisoning of Captive Feral Pigeons from Fonofos-Treated Seeds. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 37: 115-124

Smith DM., Freeman JH., Gabriel M., Monteverde J., Schwartz E. (2001) Lesions in the central nucleus of the amygdala: discriminative avoidance learning, discriminative approach learning, and cingulothalamic training-induced neuronal activity. Neurobiol Learn Mem 76: 403-25

Wilensky A., LeDoux J., Schafe G. (2005) Amygdala Modulates Memory Consolidation of Fear-Motivated Inhibitory Avoidance Learning But Not Classical Fear Conditioning. The Journal of Neurosci 20: 7059-7066


Want to Remember Paris? Take a Nap!

Since arriving in Paris I have immersed myself in a lesser-known aspect of French culture – Naps. 

While not as famous as the country’s delicious food and fine wine, the French nap, particularly when enjoyed on the banks of the Seine River or on a bus ride through Loire Valley, is a key part of the French lifestyle. In fact, napping is so important to the French that recently their minister of health, Xavier Betrand proposed that they schedule Spanish-esque siestas into the normal workday to increase napping-opportunities. He even suggested that these siestas count as paid work hours!

So, with much determination, I have subjected myself to a grueling routine of daily naps, often conveniently located at some of Paris’s most beautiful landmarks. But unfortunately this napping regime takes time, and since I’m not receiving health minister Betrand’s proposed nap-time monetary reimbursement, I needed to do some research to see if my dedication to the French culture was worth the time away from my neuroscience studies.

It turns out that napping could very well be helping my academics! There have actually been many research studies that show significant increases in ability of individuals to remember facts when they take a brief nap after learning new information. 

So what is a nap?

View of the Seine from behind Notre Dame. Location of a wonderful nap in the sun.

In order to understand the research behind nap-improved memory, it’s important first that we briefly define different sleep stages, and the different types of naps associated with each.

Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (NREM): NREM sleep is comprised of 4 stages. Stage N1 is the drowsy period right at the onset of sleep. N1 is often associated with body twitches and the ability to still be somewhat aware of your surroundings. The second stage, N2, is when your muscles relax and you lose all awareness of your surroundings. This stage occupies about 40% of total sleep time. The final two stages of NREM, N3 and N4, are the deepest sleep stages and are often termed slow-wave-sleep because of their distinct shape when recorded on a electrocephologram (a machine used to measure electrical activity in the brain).

Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM): As the name suggest this sleep is often accompanied by rapid eye movements. Additionally, when you wake yourself up by kicking or swinging your arm it most likely occurred during REM sleep.

Long Naps: Naps that last longer than 40 minutes. Includes all stages of NREM and REM sleep. Because long naps include deep sleep phases, they are often associated with sleep inertia upon waking (the groggy-feeling where it’s difficult to get fully awake).

Short Naps: Naps between 10-40 minutes. Commonly called “power naps,” these naps normally just include stages N1 and N2, however they can include N3 if approaching 40 minutes in length. 

Ultra Short Naps: These are naps as short as 5 minutes and normally are just stage N1.

The science behind the French-nap 

Students napping on a bus ride to Loire Valley

Since sleeping between class or on a bench amongst the hubbub of tourists and street vendors doesn’t lend itself well to long naps, the majority of my sleep has been limited to 6-40 minute intervals. Interestingly, there was a study recently published in the Jounral of Sleep Research that looked at this exact length of nap and it’s effect on the ability of 18 college-age individuals to remember a list of words (Lahl et al., 2008).

The study was pretty simple, each student was given a list of thirty adjectives and told to memorize as many of them as possible. At the end of two minutes the lists were taken away and the students were broken up into 3 sleep-groups. One group was allowed to sleep for 5 minutes, another for an average of 35 minutes, and a third was not allowed to sleep at all. After 60 minutes, each student was asked to repeat the adjectives they could recall from the list. The number they remembered was recorded and averaged with the other’s in their sleep-group. This experiment was done twice more with the same students, once a week after the first test, and then again another week later. To make sure the experiment was accurate they used different word lists each time and also rotated which group slept for 6 min, 35 min, or not at all. By the end of the experiment each student had been in each sleep-group once.

The results of this experiment are great news for the French-nap! It turns out that those who took a short nap were able to remember on average 1.2 more words than those who didn’t sleep at all and students who took long naps where able to remember an average of 2.2 more words than their non-sleeping peers. While 1-2 words might not seam like a huge difference, it is considered statistically significant because of the small number of total words in each list (30 words). Also, many other sleep-memory experiments have shown similar results thus helping to confirm the data from this study (Tucker et al., 2006).

Some additional experiments have been done to show exactly how this memory-improvement occurs. When you sleep, your brain doesn’t “shut-down” like many people believe; instead parts of the brain ramp up their activity. One of these areas, the hippocampus, has been shown to be a key part of the memory-forming networks in the brain (Gorfine et al., 2007). Increasing the activity of the hippocampus during sleep is a way for our brains to rehearse the events we recently experienced, thus strengthening the connections between neurons that solidify those memories in our brain. Short bursts of sleep, such as my French-naps, are thought to specifically help in the formation of factual memories. Additional research has shown that another part of the brain, the orbitofrontalcortex, might help the hippocampus in the formation and storage of these memories (Lesburgures et al., 2011). However, this research is very recent and the connection between sleeping and its effect on the orbitofrontalcortex needs to be studied in future experiments. Until then, I’m happy to know that I now have a scientifically proven excuse to nap across Paris – I’m activating my hippocampus and helping store all of the material learned in class that day. Next stop, a nap beneath the Eiffel tower!

– Camden MacDowell

On of my many ultra short naps in the ACCENT center where we have our classes. My hippocampus is hard at work.

Works Cited

Gorfine T, Yeshurun Y, Zisapel N (2007) Nap and melatonin-induced changes in hippocampal activation and their role in verbal memory consolidation. Journal Pineal Research 43: 336-342.

Lahl O, Pietrowsky P, Wispel C, Willigens B (2008) An ultra short episode of sleep is sufficient to promote declarative memory performance. Journal of Sleep Research 17: 3-10.

Lesburgures E, Alaux-Cantin O, Bontempi B, Gobbo A, Hambucken A, Trifilieff P (2011) Early tagging of cortical networks is required for the formation of enduring associative memory. Science 331, 924-928.

Tucker M., Chaklader A, Fishbein W, Hirota Y, Lau H, Warnseley E (2006) A daytime nap containing solely non-REM sleep enhances declarative but not procedural memory. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 86: 241-247