Author Archives: Merry Chen

T-Rex of Spring

In Paris, I witnessed my first professional ballet performance with Le Lac des cygnes, or Swan Lake, performed by the Universal Ballet company.

Both the dancing and the music were incredibly beautiful, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the grace of the dancers and the harmony of the music.

Which is why I can understand how audiences in the 1900s must have been shocked after listening to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring right after a delightful traditional ballet like Swan Lake. In class, we learned about how Stravinsky’s orchestral and ballet piece debuted in 1913, surprising audiences and causing such strong emotions that in early performances the audiences actually began rioting in the theater. If you listen to it yourself, you can understand how the melody is the furthest from graceful or traditional—if you can even locate what you think is the melody, that is. Personally, I found it very uncomfortable to listen to at first, and I felt my heart rate pick up slightly—and I have heard a lot of weird things! Even though audiences were scandalized when it first came out, by 1981 this piece was popular enough to be incorporated into a famous animated movie called Fantasia, where it was paired with the animations of the Big Bang, dinosaurs fighting in the rain, and then their extinction. (My description doesn’t do it justice, so check out an excerpt here)

Screenshot from the dino fight

The reason why I found this interesting is that I have a crippling fear of dinosaurs–even though I should be an adult, I am still terrified of creatures that no longer exist on this planet and that I will never encounter. But this had me wondering: like many other people, I watched all the Fantasia movies when I was younger. Could my fear of dinosaurs stem from the fact that as a child, I watched this Rite of Spring segment and was scared by the music, but then associated it with what I was seeing on the screen—dinosaurs? Or in the words of Wong et al. (2019), “How does a stimulus never associated with danger become frightening?”

In their recent study, they discuss the concept of how your sensory and emotional experiences share common elements that can overlap. Their example is of a hiker in a rainforest: on the first day, the hiker hears an unfamiliar sound and sees an unfamiliar animal. If the next day the hiker sees that unfamiliar animal on a poster labeled “extremely dangerous”, then when the hiker hears that unfamiliar sound, they may become scared even though they were never directly conditioned to be afraid of the sound. To investigate this phenomenon, they tested how rats can integrate a “sound-light” memory with a “light-danger” memory. They did this by mimicking the hiker scenario: they first exposed the mice to a sound and a light, then a light and a shock, followed by the official testing of the sound and light separately to observe the fear response in the mouse.

They found that the mice showed fear in response to the sound, even though the sound was never associated with shock. In addition, they discovered that this process of association likely takes place in the perirhinal cortex, as rats who were damaged in this area of the brain were not able to associate the sound with danger. They concluded that stimuli could be associated together in a fear memory network, and that memories stored in one region of the brain can be retrieved with information elsewhere in the brain in a process called “memory-chaining” (Wong et al., 2019). It would be helpful, however, if they had done more testing to see whether this effect is observed for all associations, or whether there are some situations where this associative “memory-chaining” does not occur.

Furthermore, another study by Soeter and Kindt (2015) presented data that also supports this conclusion, but specifically investigating reconsolidation of memories—a critical aspect of memory formation and retrieval. They viewed any fear memory as a “flexible representation of the original learning experience”, and therefore tested what types of cues could trigger fear memory. They found that even abstract cues that are not directly associated with a potentially dangerous stimulus could trigger reconsolidation of memories (Soeter & Kindt, 2015), which provides another perspective towards fear learning and fear associations. These studies were particularly interesting as their results have implications in conditions such as anxiety disorders, as they often involve learned fear associations. By understanding the connections and conditions for consolidation and retrieval of these fear memories, the foundation of knowledge for future research grows and can lead to the development of potential therapies.

I’m still not sure about whether my fear of dinosaurs were from my association of the fear I felt hearing the Rite of Spring and seeing the dinosaurs, but with this study it seems like it could be possible. Still, definitely staying away from any Jurassic Park remakes for now!


Soeter M, Kindt M (2015) Retrieval cues that trigger reconsolidation of associative fear memory are not necessarily an exact replica of the original learning experience. Front. Behav. Nerosci. 9:112.

Wong FS, Westbrook RF, Holmes NM (2019) ‘Online’ integration of sensory and fear memories in the rat medial temporal lobe. eLife. 8:e47085.

Image 1 taken by me

Image 2 from

Image 3 from Wong et al (2019)

Wait for It

As an avid concert-goer, I am no stranger to long lines and long wait times. Now that I am a tourist, I have become even more familiar with the unavoidable exasperation of hanging out with dozens of other tourists as we wait for the airplane, on the escalators, in the metro, or at the tourist attraction.

Lines at Versailles

Lines at Versailles (If you want to see the full video)

However, even though I am familiar with—and expect—the wait, sometimes I look around and wonder what possesses us humans to be willingly (perhaps begrudgingly) shepherded like cattle to arbitrary waiting spaces for what are often ridiculously long periods of time. There have been times that I have waited in line longer than the actual event I went to go experience: for one of the concerts I went to I waited in line from 4PM when the actual event was more around 8-11PM. For me, it was absolutely worth the wait (and the blisters); however, I admit I can see how to an outsider my behavior must seem incredibly irrational. In Europe, the lines have continued to remain an expected aspect in my life; at Versailles, we waited almost two hours to enter the Palace, and according to some people that wait time was not too bad. No one likes waiting—it is a universally hated experience—so what is the social role of waiting? What compels the people who, like me, are willing to wait these absurdly long times?

Wiesel and Freestone (2019) discuss the practicalities of queues and their implications on wider social systems. In their research, they focus specifically on queuing in urban areas, where material resources may be scarce and allocative measures are necessary. Especially in a city like Paris, I have found that I have had to wait in line for the elevator in our building, the cashier at the boulangerie, the turnstiles at the metro—the list goes on and on. Wiesel and Freestone suggest that queues can help build trust in the surrounding strangers and the structural norms of the city; following the “rules” can be seen as an “indicator of integrity” (Giddens 1991), while breaking the rules and “cutting” others can erode social trust and solidarity and increase anxieties about social disorder due to the diversification particularly present in cities like Paris.

Meanwhile, on a neurobiological level, recent research from Miyazaki et al. give evidence for a “model of waiting” that relies on the neurotransmitter serotonin to mediate whether we continue to wait or not based on probability of getting reward and timing of receiving reward. Previously, other researchers have shown that activating more serotonin release in the dorsal raphe nucleus in mice brains will enhance their waiting times for rewards (Fonseca 2015), while lesioning or destroying those neurons will make the mice more impatient (Miyazaki 2012).

Dorsal raphe nucleus

This article builds upon that idea and considers specific parameters when that serotonergic effect is optimized. Using optogenetic stimulation—or using light to activated increased serotonin release in the brain—they found that in order for increased serotonin to increase wait times, the subject must be fairly confident that the reward will happen in the future. In addition, if the reward was very certain to occur, then the effect is more enhanced when the subjects could not predict when the reward would occur.

Their reasoning is that when the timing is more uncertain, it becomes harder to “reject the possibility that the reward may still come” (Miyazaki et al 2018). Though it used to be believed that serotonin works to alter the perception of time, the researchers in this study did not find a consistent pattern of evidence that shows that. Instead, they propose that serotonin may work emotionally to bias us to more positive outcomes and keep us hopeful that the reward will come soon. Specifically, serotonin may help to mediate between the negative experience we have while waiting in the queue and the positive expect beliefs we have about what we are waiting for. While some of their evidence to support their claim could be strengthened—for example, more data to determine how exactly they are determining whether the mice have a “high confidence” in future rewards—their research provides useful insight into the potential role of serotonin in our emotional decision-making.

What does this mean for me while I’m waiting in line? I probably won’t be able to stop being bored, and it’s not like I can stimulate my own neurons to release more serotonin. But between the idea of “building trust” between me and the other Parisians and knowing that there is a neurobiological basis for our willingness to be patient, I know that my wait will be worth it.



Fonseca MS, Murakami M, Mainen ZF (2015) Activation of dorsal raphe serotonergic neurons promotes waiting but is not reinforcing. Curr. Biol. 25:306–315.

Giddens A (1991) Modernity and Self-identity. Cambridge. 88.

Miyazaki K, Miyazaki KW, Yamanaka A, Tokuda T, Tanaka KF, Doya K (2018). Reward probability and timing uncertainty alter the effect of dorsal raphe serotonin neurons on patience. Nature Communications.

Miyazaki KW, Miyazaki K, Doya K (2012) Activation of dorsal raphe serotonin neurons is necessary for waiting for delayed rewards. J. Neurosci. 32:10451–10457.

Miyazaki K, Miyazaki KW, Doya K (2011) Activation of dorsal raphe serotonin neurons underlies waiting for delayed rewards. J. Neurosci. 31:469-479.

Ryan G, Hernandez-Maskivker G, Valverde M, Pamies-Pallise M (2018) Challenging conventional wisdom: Positive waiting. Tour. Manag. 64:64–72.

Wiesel I, Freestone R (2019) Queue City: Authority and trust in the waiting line. Geoforum. 100:229-235.

Images 1 taken by me, 2 and video by Alyssa Kim.

Image 3: Valdemiro Carlos Sgarbieri

Image 4: Courtesy of OIST

Catching the Blues

Known for having the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, the Musee d’Orsay gave us an opportunity to view the impressionist paintings we had read so much about in class in person. The museum was filled with statues, furniture (?) and more paintings than I could count.

Including this masterpiece, which is one of my favorite paintings.

The moment I entered the museum, I headed straight for those famous impressionist paintings. Rows upon rows of paintings filled the gallery as I joined the people milling by. Not wanting to get too close to the crowd around the paintings, I initially decided to look casually at the beautiful scenery of landscapes or normal people out for an afternoon walk. I found myself being drawn to some of Monet’s works; his paintings all seemed to share a common theme of loose, delicate brushstrokes and unsaturated, pastel colors.

Le Givre (1880)

Tempest, the Coast of Belle-Île (1886)

Woman with Parasol (facing left) (1886)

I enjoyed looking at them because it gave me such a sense of calmness, as I let my eyes take in the subtle flecks of colors and light. Soon, one among them in particular caught my eye.

Camille Monet sur son lit de mort 1879)

Monet’s 1879 painting, Camille sur son lit de Mort, or Camille on her Deathbed, gives the audience a sense of Monet’s melancholy emotions for the death of his wife. The brushstrokes used for both these paintings all work together in harmony, in one given direction, to draw the viewer’s gaze down and to the right. When viewing this painting, I also noticed myself subconsciously tilting my head a little bit to my right, contemplatively. The features of his wife can be made out and seems at peace—almost as if she was asleep, as the cliché goes—but when looking at the lights and colors in the painting I was suddenly brought to mind of feelings of not only serenity, but also a deep sadness as it brought to mind a memory of one of my close relatives who had recently passed away as well before this trip. One could say that it was the similar situations of the subjects of the painting that triggered my own memory, but I was feeling a certain weight and despondency even before I knew what the painting was of—I felt that something about the mood that the painting evoked with its colors and textures was able to influence my own emotions and memory.

Emotion has been widely known to be influenced by color, and this concept has been applied to various studies. For example, color cues can affect the chemosensory perception of foods and drinks we consume, through an implicit connection with emotion. Gilbert et al found that people have “pre-existing expectations” regarding what their food and drinks should look and taste like, and that this expectation is modulated by how the color or appearance of these foods makes them feel (2016). In a study closer to home, it was shown that different colors in learning environments could also influence student moods and subsequently their learning performance. As expected, paler colors and colors towards the bluer end of the spectrum increased the students’ feelings of relaxation and positivity. However, they also found that more vivid colors such as red and yellow increased heart rate and helped to focus attention, resulting in higher comprehension test scores (Al-Ayash et al, 2015).

A recent study by Lisa Wilms and Daniel Oberfield published in 2017 expanded on that study, looking at how all the perceptual dimensions of color (hue, saturation and brightness) could also lead to changes in an individual’s emotional state, as measured by arousal and valence.

Valence/Arousal Model

They found that bright, saturated colors induced higher arousal (as measured by heart rate and skin conductance) and valence (associated positive feelings) in the viewers, especially colors closer to red on the color spectrum compared to blue or green. In addition, achromatic colors such as white, grey, and black, caused a short-term decrease in heart rate, and vice versa for the chromatic colors. This was the first study that not only considered the actual hue of the colors, but also how the saturation and brightness of the colors interacted to produce a more nuanced response (Wilms and Oberfield, 2017). This was significant especially in terms of Monet, as he tended to use many different colors—his color palette was in no way wholly monochromatic, if you look closely—but the colors were very unsaturated and more muted. He also used a lot of achromatic colors, especially white and grey. According to Willms, both of these factors would have caused the viewer to feel lower valence (less pleasurable emotions) and more calm, which could have led to what I was feeling that day when viewing that painting.



Al-Ayash A., Kane R.T., Smith D., Green-Armytage P. (2015). The influence of color on student emotion, heart rate, and performance in learning environments. Color Research and Application. 41:196-205.

Gilbert A.N., Fridlund A.J., Lucchina L.A. (2016). The color of emotion: a metric for implicit color associations. Food Quality and Preference. 52:203-210.

Wilms, L. & Oberfeld, D. (2018). Color and emotion: effects of hue, saturation, and brightness. Psychological Research. 82: 896.

All images taken by me; June 2019.

The first thing I learned in Paris…

Before I left, I probably heard my parents say, “be careful of the pickpockets in France!” more than a hundred times. But I’ll admit, I didn’t really take it to heart. After all, it’s not like this is my first time in a foreign city, and I felt confident in my ability to manage myself—until one of my roommates told me how she had gotten pickpocketed coming right off the metro from the airport. On the first day!

With crowds like this though, are you surprised?

I was shocked, but I still naively believed I would be okay. If anyone tried to reach into my pockets I would definitely feel it, I thought.

Then came Day 2. As my friends and I were walking to a group picnic at the Eiffel Tower—in fact, just as we were about to pass our own apartment on Avenue de Suffren—a man on the phone suddenly dropped a bunch of coins onto the ground right in front of me. This drew my attention as I sidestepped to the right and kept walking, even commenting that I should have stopped to help him pick up the coins. Suddenly, one of my friends turned and whispered that she thought she saw another guy pass to my right and take his hand out of my pocket. I immediately patted my pockets and realized my phone was gone! Instantly I felt my heart rate pick up as I turned and ran after the guy to confront him, and later on his partner too.

The downsides of living right next to the Eiffel Tower: the tourists lure more pickpockets!

Pickpockets are known for taking advantage of inattentional blindness, a phenomenon that you may have even seen in the famous “gorilla” study (video linked here) that showed the extent of how much our perception can be manipulated by directing our attention towards certain things (Simons and Chabris, 1999). You have probably also experienced this in your daily life: for example, as a pedestrian, you are more likely to notice the other pedestrians walking around you or the smell of the coffee shop you’re passing by; as a driver though, you probably wouldn’t notice any of that, but rather notice things like traffic lights, speed limits, and other cars. Even though the pedestrian and the driver have the same things in their environment, the brain filters and processes them differently. A recent publication found that human subjects were more likely to notice unexpected objects in close areas with some risk detected and fail to notice similar objects in areas where there was no threat detected (Wood and Simons, 2019). For me, the first man who dropped his change on the ground immediately diverted my attention–both visually and aurally–to the situation on my left, which I had identified as more of an immediate risk to me than the man on my right, which I had not even noticed passing by me (even though he was wearing a bright blue shirt).

They also suggest that it is not only the context of what is around you, but also how you can interact with those objects that influence how you focus your attention (Wood and Simons, 2019). Even though both subjects in the environment were younger men, I was forced to interact with the man who dropped his coins to step out of the way, right into the proximity of the pickpocket who I was not forced to engage with and so did not pay any attention to, allowing him to slip his hand into my pocket.

However, now that I reflect on my actions in response to the theft, I also see where I may have acted a little irrationally. After I told my parents that night, they did give me an angry lecture, but more about my decision to chase after someone who could possibly be dangerous (in my defense, what else could I have done? Flag down a police officer with my non-existent French skills?)

I’d argue that my actions may have to do with the idea that under acute stress, people seem to make more instinctive, less logical decisions. In dangerous situations, animals may show signs of sympathetic nervous system activation (the “fight or flight” response) including increased heart rate, sweating, and respiration (Graham, 1953)—all of which I experienced. There also seems to be two decision-making pathways that evolved in the brain: one, a fast, automatic processing that relies mostly on instinct and involuntary habits, while the other is slower and requires more effortful, goal-directed cognition (Yu, 2016).

A basic schematic of the idea Yu is adapting her model from.

In her “stress induced deliberation-to-intuition” model, Yu proposes that under high pressure situations, people tend to fall back on emotional or innate responses to make decisions—going with your “gut”—rather than higher-order analytic reasoning (2016). In that split second that I realized my phone was gone, my mind blanked and my instincts told me to chase after the person and get it back. Had I hesitated, I may have thought about potential dangers and other alternatives I could have done, in order to determine the best way forward. But in the end, I was able to get my phone back, so lesson learned!



Graham B.F. (1953). Neuroendocrine components in the physiological response to stress. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 56(2):184–199.

Simons D. J., Chabris C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception 28, 1059–1074. doi:10.1068/p2952

Wood, K., & Simons, D. J. (2019). The spatial allocation of attention in an interactive environment. Cognitive research: principles and implications4(1), 13. doi:10.1186/s41235-019-0164-5

Yu R. (2016). Stress potentiates decision biases: A stress induced deliberation-to-intuition (SIDI) model. Neurobiology of stress3, 83–95. doi:10.1016/j.ynstr.2015.12.006

Image 1 taken by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Image 2 taken as a screenshot from Google maps

Image 3 taken from Peter Fisk