Category Archives: Neuroscience

Lust for Answers

This past weekend, our group went to Provence, a province in southeast France, and visited the city of Arles where Vincent van Gogh lived for two years painting some of his most famous works such as Yellow House, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and Bedroom in Arles.

A map of some of the locations in Arles where van Gogh painted some of his most famous works.

Before going there, we saw in class the movie, Lust for Life, a 1950’s biographical movie about Vincent van Gogh’s life highlighting his interactions with other painters, his family, and his surroundings (Lust for Life – Trailer, n.d.). The movie touches on Van Gogh’s lifelong mental strife showing that while we revere him as an artistic genius now, very few people understood him including himself.

It seemed the depression that Van Gogh experienced subsided according to his letters to his family and friends, but in the movie, they show the manic way he painted constantly covered in paint and obsessed with catching the light to paint landscapes and field laborers. When the fall and winter came around, he could not go outside expressing how he felt trapped. His condition worsened where outside painting did not work anymore leading up to him to cut off his ear with a variety of possible reasons that no one could confirm. He eventually was admitted to a hospital where his hallucinations continued with blocks of time missing from his memory and his alcohol abuse addressed. He still continued to paint famous pieces such as The Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles 1889 that are preserved to this day.

A picture at the hospital courtyard where van Gogh was attempted to after cutting off his ear.

We looked at his doctor’s notes categorizing his condition as epilepsy because of his ongoing non-lucid episodes, so we started looking into different mental conditions that related back to the ones we know today as major depression disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and more. This eventually led us to see what type of treatments would be available for the people with dementia praecox: a term coined by Emil Kraepelin to describe lesions in the cerebral cortex that mild dementia (Adityanjee et al., 1999). I couldn’t find much in terms of treatment, but it got me thinking about what we have today to help alleviate the effects of mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression. As well as my interest being piqued through exploring Van Gogh’s life, there is a high probability I will see these novel practices implemented in the future.

The School of Nursing at Emory does a good job of teaching us the evidence-based practices that we follow for patient safety and comfort, but the patients have the autonomy in most cases to deny treatment, do something different than recommended to treat their ailments , or ask about new upcoming treatments. Because of this, it is important to know recent research about various types of treatment practices to be better support the patients.

van Gogh’s self portrait fading away during the Atelier des Lumieres of all of his works.

One that was really interesting to find out was the possible implementation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to help treat neurodegenerative diseases as well as mental health disorders. It is a growth factor that is used in neurogenesis or the formation of new neurons which is not common for adults; in most of the brain, there are no new neurons created from the ones at birth, but there are some brain areas that still have new neurons created which is where growth factors like BDNF are used those new neurons (Bathina and Das, 2015). This is also used for synaptic plasticity in which there is a consistently strong or diminished communication between the neurons depending on how strength and importance of the signal is between the two neurons (“What Is Synaptic Plasticity?”). There is also evidence that a depleted amount of the class of factors BNDF belongs to can possibly be an indicator for neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disorder and Alzheimer’s (Bathina and Das, 2015). While BNDF has the ability for synaptic plasticity, a study done with mice found that inhibition of one of the receptors BNDF can bind to shows a decrease in long term depressive behaviors without affecting its synaptic plasticity function in other brain areas (Woo et al., 2005). Researchers also theorize that people with reduced BDNF levels might have a decreased synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus which prevents the body from going back to homeostasis taking them out of their stress related depressive states (Phillips, 2017). The second type of receptors that BDNF does the opposite effect by producing synaptic plasticity; this receptors’ activation and an BDNF increase is seen in the presence of certain antidepressive pharmacologic therapies (Phillips, 2017).This is now being used as an indicator for future drug therapies as a measure of effectiveness.

A watercolor painting I did in class depicting the sensory neurons in the eye.

Going away from the pharmacological side, I started to think about Van Gogh and how his art was a source of peace and strife for him. At some point, painting couldn’t help in him in the way it did before. This is not to discredit the effects that art and other alternative therapies have on supporting those with symptoms similar to his; a study had 58 patients diagnosed with schizophrenia do art therapy twice a week for twelve weeks (Montag et al., 2014). They found that those who had committed to the program had less negative symptoms which include a loss of interest and a lower affect as well as less positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as auditory hallucinations compared to the control group who did not receive the art therapy (Montag et al., 2014)  (“Symptoms,” 2017). This support the idea that Van Gogh’s art was a therapeutic event for him up until everything became too much. It’s fascinating to how we reverie Van Gogh’s coping mechanism after his death with his few family and friends supporting his ability to paint. It makes you think about those that we have forgotten about who are tucked away in our society creating the next artistic masterpiece of our time.




Adityanjee, Aderibigbe, Y. A., Theodoridis, D., & Vieweg, W. V. R. (1999). Dementia praecox to schizophrenia: The first 100 years. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 53(4), 437–448.

Bathina, S., & Das, U. N. (2015). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications. Archives of Medical Science: AMS, 11(6), 1164–1178.

Lust for Life – Trailer. (n.d.). Lust for Life – Trailer. Retrieved from

Montag, C., Haase, L., Seidel, D., Bayerl, M., Gallinat, J., Herrmann, U., & Dannecker, K. (2014). A Pilot RCT of Psychodynamic Group Art Therapy for Patients in Acute Psychotic Episodes: Feasibility, Impact on Symptoms and Mentalising Capacity. PLoS ONE, 9(11).

Phillips, C. (2017). Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, Depression, and Physical Activity: Making the Neuroplastic Connection. Neural Plasticity, 2017.

Symptoms. (2017, October 23). Retrieved June 10, 2019, from website:

What is synaptic plasticity? (2016, November 22). Retrieved June 9, 2019, from

Woo, N. H., Teng, H. K., Siao, C.-J., Chiaruttini, C., Pang, P. T., Milner, T. A., … Lu, B. (2005). Activation of p75NTR by proBDNF facilitates hippocampal long-term depression. Nature Neuroscience, 8(8), 1069–1077.

Picture #1: [Screenshot of the walking tour of Van Gogh’s art in Arles]. Retrieved from

Picture #2 and #3: Taken by me

Picture #4: Painted and picture taken by me

The Music of the Metro

Paris is a unique city experience unlike any other I’ve partaken in. So many sites to visit, places to eat, districts to explore…how can one possibly get to them all? Simple: the Metro! Paris has an extensive metro system that covers any point you could ever want to visit. Atlanta may be fantastic in other respects, but the MARTA is definitely not set up for the burdens of massive public transportation. Riding the Metro daily to and from class was an entirely new process for me to get used to, from the rapidly closing doors to complete lack of personal space. Attached here is a picture of me in front of the station for the Balard train at the ACCENT center stop, Ledru Rollin.

Pictured above: the Balard Metro station as I wait for the next upcoming train three minutes away.

One of the first things I noticed about Metro riding was the efficiency; the doors closed so quickly after each person, I was shocked no one got stuck! As I got used to the train, I observed a noise that is played in front of every door right before it closes to alerts passengers that the door is closing. This noise is poignant and cutting, eliciting a harsh auditory reaction that informs passengers to stay clear of the area. As you hear it, you register that it is loud and unpleasant. What interested me so much is how this closing noise utilizes tonal dissonance to be more brash and effective. Attached below is an audio recording of the noise, taken during my morning commute (it may not open in Chrome, but it works in other web browsers).–mZPmrnmW2g42v8B_1V6CJ7B2vPkn5R/view?usp=sharing

This simple use of two tones causes such a visceral reaction for a reason; the frequencies of pitch and how they travel to the brain. Two pitches that are half or eight steps apart affect the same area of the basilar membrane, a structure located in the cochlea that is responsible for converting sound waves into nerve impulses that head to the brain. This joint stimulation results in beating (roughness in the basilar membrane) at a frequency that is determined by the difference between the two frequencies of the initial pitches (Johnson-Laird 2012). The clash between these almost-identical frequencies interact with one another to make a warbling, distorted sound.

This can be defined as a harmonically incongruous combination of notes, which is one that does not conform to the rules of harmony. The response to this in the brain is called the early right anterior negativity (ERAN); this event-related potential component occurs at an early latency, is prominent over anterior regions of the scalp, and tends to be lateralized to the right side. The amplitude of this response is modulated directly by attention and is more prominent in those with a familiarity towards music. An experiment was done observing harmonically incongruous chords in the context of a melodic sequence of chords and is shown in the figure below. Harmonically incongruous chords result in an attenuated response of neuronal firing when the tonal discord is in different positions (Positions 3, 5, 7) in the melodic phrase (Leino 2007). The hemispheric lateralization of the ERAN response is visible in the Position 3 example. In Position 7, the incongruous chord occurs at the end and elicits the strongest response and the greatest difference in neuronal firing rates.

Shows the difference in neuronal firing rates in specific areas of the brain during harmonically congruous and incongruous chords,

Of course, every individual has a different level of pitch identification. Absolute pitch refers to the phenomenon of identifying any pitch without given an external reference. Even during our pitch identification process, we activate the auditory cortex, prefrontal cortex, and certain parietal regions of the brain (Brauchli 2019); yet, we are not all as heavily invested in pitch as a musical function. Why is the ability to identify harmonic versus dissonant sounds in everyday life even important? Besides the tones used in music, language lends itself to a variety of colorful tones and variations in pitch. We use pitch in everyday conversation with specific inflection; for example, a rising pitch at the end of a sentence is often used to indicate a question. On the Metro, this understanding is important because it allows us to register a harmonically incongruous sound like the door closing and turn that into information: the train will soon close the doors. A small part of the everyday Parisian experience, yet an important one nonetheless. Maybe this is something you have yet to notice about the Metro experience, but it is fascinating regardless!

Aliyah Auerbach

Brauchli, C., Leipold, S., & Jäncke, L. (2019). Univariate and multivariate analyses of functional networks in absolute pitch. NeuroImage, 189, 241-247. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.01.021

Jonhson-Laird, P. N., Kang, O. E., & Long, Y. C. (2012). On Musical Dissonance. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 30(1), 19-35.

Leino, S., Brattico, E., Tervaniemi, M., & Vuust, P. (2007). Representation of harmony rules in the human brain: Further evidence from event-related potentials. Brain Research, 1142, 169-177. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2007.01.049

dancing around the world

Ballet. Tap. Jazz. Hip-hop. Ballroom. Contemporary. The list of dance styles goes on. The uniqueness of this art form unifies people across the world. The mere fact that I have traveled across the world and yet feel at home when I see the dancers perform speaks volumes to how unifying it is.

The fluid and intentional motions in contemporary paired with an intense emotional story characterizes the grace behind this style of dance. During the Fli dance spectacle in Paris, I was really reminded of how the style contemporary covers so many different aspects of dance. The combination of technique from ballet to the street steps of hip-hop in this performance really resonated with me. I remember when I would dance, contemporary was one of my favorites because of the style variation. This style pulls in aspects of almost all styles of dance to create an unique and open array of dance moves. One dance could incorporate numerous hip-hop moves and another could integrate jazz and ballet, but they are both constituted as contemporary. During this spectacle, all I could think about was how much I missed dancing up on a stage in front of numerous people.


A few days later we also saw a hip hop dance battle take place in the streets of Paris. I was ecstatic for this because hip-hop is my absolute favorite dance style! I think my favorite part aside from the dancing was that I was able to teach Dr. Frenzel a little about the different styles within hip-hop and how each dancer was incorporating different styles during their respective battle. We talked about how hip-hop has a rich history with high amounts of integrated technique from popping, break dancing, whacking, and more! As I was standing there watching these amazing dancers, I wanted to just scream out to cheer them on, and I would have loved to join them out on the floor, but the highly intoxicated man went ahead and did that for me. He was kind escorted away after his hilarious interruption.


The big take away from watching these dancers was their ability to move. I stood there and wondered, “How could I ever do that? Because I surely cannot even think about attempting some of these moves.” Since I have devoted my life to science since college has started, watching the dancers made me think of how their sensorimotor system works in producing dance moves. Their specificity and texture of movement holistically defines how dance is such an intricate art form. These artists really must have some enhanced connectivity that aide their precise, synchronized movement to the rhythm of the music.

One study in 2015 took the idea that musicians improved motor, perceptual, and sensorimotor skills compared to controls and applied it to dancers (Karpati et al., 2015). The dancers and musicians participated in different perceptual and sensorimotor tasks to determine who performed better in these tasks, ultimately measuring increased sensorimotor ability. The results showed that dancers showed better results in a dance imitating task while musicians performed better in a rhythm synchronization task, concluding that each artist has specialized sensorimotor skills (Karpati et al., 2015).

Building off of this study, another study conducted research to investigate if dancers with prolonged training have improved functional connectivity in the cortico-basal ganglia loops. (Li et al., 2015). Series of fMRI scans showed that long-term dancers (10 year or more) have increased functional connectivity densities (FCD) in the primary somatosensory and motor cortices which are involved in motor execution and learning. Additionally, increased FCD were found in the cortico-basal ganglia loops which indicate improved motor coordination and integration. There was also a significant increase of FCD in the putamen, which is implicated in the rhythm of dance involving controlled, metric movements (Li et al., 2015).  This study further implicated that dancers do have enhanced function in brain regions that are involved with sensorimotor function.

Although there is not much extensive research in this field, especially pertaining to dance, I agree with the fact that dancers have enhanced connectivity in sensorimotor brain regions to facilitate the movement that is being learned and executed. Maybe next time I see street dancers I’ll join in! Or maybe I’ll just stick to going to the studio to dance!


Karpati, F. J., Giacosa, C., Foster, N. E. V., Penhune, V. B., & Hyde, K. L. (2016). Sensorimotor integration is enhanced in dancers and musicians. Experimental Brain Research, 234(3), 893–903.

Li, G., He, H., Huang, M., Zhang, X., Lu, J., Lai, Y., … Yao, D. (2015). Identifying enhanced cortico-basal ganglia loops associated with prolonged dance training. Scientific Reports, 5(1).

All images were taken by me.


Where is the Spicy Food in Paris?

On every street in Paris, there are three things you are certain to find: a boulangerie (or two or three), some sort of bistro/brasserie/café, and a Franprix (my personal favorite, a small-scale grocery store). Clearly, cuisine is central to Parisian life. And often, the options boil down to baguettes, wine, and cheese.

a typical boulangerie (“Savouries Counter – La Renaissance Patisserie” by avlxyz is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

As a lover of spicy foods, I was at a bit of a loss. After about a week into my stay in Paris, I was ready to reintroduce some of the essential components of my normal diet—mainly, I’m referring to chili paste and other spices. Perusing the Franprix directly below my apartment, I was shocked to see that there was only one option for hot sauce. Not only this, but every café and restaurant I had been to showed no promise of the tongue-scorching, eye-watering foods I love. So I had some questions: why do I enjoy spicy foods so much? How are they registered in my brain? Is there a certain part of my brain—specifically for processing spicy taste sensations–that is more active for me than for a French person?

my chili paste from Franprix (Personal Image)

Before attempting to tackle any of these questions, let’s first explore how our brains perceive sensory information from the world around us.
The five basic senses–sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch–all have particular areas of the brain (in the bumpy outer layer called the cortex) devoted to receiving signals from our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin, respectively. The area of the brain that registers taste is called the gustatory cortex.

Basic taste perception  (Image from Frontiers for Young Minds)

Nestled in taste buds scattered about the surface of the tongue, special receptor cells interpret chemical stimuli as sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. From there, signals are sent to sensory neurons and into the brain through cranial nerves (Breslin and Spector, 2008). Spicy foods are detected a bit differently than other tastes, since these signals involve pain receptors (Immke and Gavva, 2006). But, recent neuroscience research has been determined that these signals still activate the gustatory cortex, so they count as a legitimate tastes (Rudenga et al., 2010)! Therefore, it seems that French cuisine is indeed missing an entire taste sensation, and it happens to be the one that is my favorite.

Taste bud (Image from

Now that we’ve legitimized these piquant flavor sensations, let’s dive deeper into the neuroscience behind them.

While scientists still don’t understand exactly how taste perception works, it is clear that capsaicin (the chemical responsible for the spicy qualities of many of my favorite foods) actually results in unique brain responses. Unlike the other tastes, spicy sensations are often accompanied by the release of endorphins (explaining how they can be perceived as pleasurable) and activation of the autonomic nervous system. This unconscious system of bodily regulation is responsible for the perspiration, higher body temperature, and a faster heart rate associated with “hot” foods (McCorry, 2007).

In a 2015 study entitled “The Brain Mechanisms Underlying the Perception of the Pungent Taste of Capsaicin and the Subsequent Autonomic Responses,” Kawakami et al. (2015) investigated how these bodily responses happen after someone eats spicy food. The authors knew that the gustatory cortex (consisting of the middle and posterior short gyri, or M/PSG, of the insular cortex) must somehow be in communication with the brain area controlling autonomic system responses (the anterior gyrus of the insular cortex, or ASG). But, it wasn’t clear how this communication was happening.

In order to test this, the researchers administered three different taste solutions (spicy, salty, and neutral) to twenty human study participants. As the subjects tasted the solutions, the researchers took a look at their brain activity.
The method they used to analyze brain activity is called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This produces high-resolution images of the brain while it is in action. Blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) signals show where oxygenated blood is being used, indicating which regions are using up the most resources (Logothetis, 2003).

The ASG and M/PSG (Image from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal, Kawakami et al., 2015)

After performing this test, the researchers compared the brain images from the subjects. Their main findings were that there was coordination between the activity of the M/PSG and the ASG when people eat spicy foods. This could mean that these two brain areas are syncing up in order to produce symptoms like sweating and a quickened heartbeat after spicy food is consumed. Moreover, these results support the findings of another study done with mice, which concluded that cells in the ASG and M/PSG synchronize their activity patterns when capsaicin is tasted (Saito et al., 2012).
Kawakami et al. (2015) also found that the ASG was even more active than the M/PSG in response to capsaicin. Not only that, but both brain regions were significantly more active in response to capsaicin compared to the other solutions!

In sum, this study and previous work has helped to explain how the brain registers the taste of “hot” foods in the gustatory cortex and coordinates it with autonomic nervous system activation. However, the researchers only tested three taste sensations, and clearly, there is still much to be discovered about how the neuroscience behind gustation. Future work will likely take a closer look at the connection between the ASG and the M/PSG, possibly providing more insight into why some people (like me) find these mildly painful sensations more enjoyable than others.

   Baguettes are a staple in the                   Parisian diet (“Bag It” by Very Quiet is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the meantime, perhaps knowing that eating spicy foods more fully engages the brain will inspire the French to literally “spice up” their diets and rethink that bland baguette, or at least offer more options in their grocery stores. That would make this hot sauce-lover very happy, and it would add a whole new dimension to French cuisine!



Breslin, P.A., Spector, A.C. (2008). Mammalian taste perception. Current Biology. 18:R148-155. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.12.017.

Immke, D.C., Gavva, N.R. (2006). The TRPV1 receptor and nociception. Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology. 17:852-591. doi: 10.1016/j.semcdb.2006.09.004.

Kawakami, S., Sato, H., Sasaki, A.T., Tanabe, H.C., Yoshida, Y., Saito, M., Toyoda, H., Sadato, N., Kang, Y. (2015). The brain mechanisms underlying the perception of pungent taste of capsaicin and the subsequent autonomic response. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 9:720. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00720.

Logothetis, N.K. (2003). The underpinnings of the BOLD functional magnetic resonance imaging signal. Journal of Neuroscience. 23:3963-3971. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.23-10-03963.2003.

McCorry, L.K. (2007). Physiology of the Autonomic Nervous System. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 71:78.

Rudenga K., Green B., Nachtigal D., Small D.M. (2010). Evidence for an integrated oral sensory module in the human anterior ventral insula. Chemical Senses. 35:693–703. doi: 10.1093/chemse/bjq068.

Saito, M., Toyoda, H., Kawakami, S., Sato, H., Bae, Y.C., Kang, Y. (2012) Capsaicin induces theta-band synchronization between gustatory and autonomic insular cortices. Journal of Neuroscience. 32:13470-13487. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5906-11.2012.

Images (in order of appearance):


Hyperlinked Videos/Sites:

Have you pharma-seen the Parisians?

Usually when I’m walking through the streets of Paris, I have my phone clutched in my hand with my eyes glued to Google Maps on my screen. Fortunately, now that over a week has passed and I actually know the route from the metro stop to our apartment, I am able to familiarize myself with the different stores and boutiques that we stroll past every day. One symbol that has caught my eye repeatedly is a green glowing cross. It signals a “pharmacie” here in Paris. During our ten-minute commute, we walk past not one, not two, but four pharmacies.

The four pharmacies we pass by every day

French pharmacies are a bit different than the usual CVS that we go to in America. Similar to the states, pharmacies are the place Parisians go to when they need to get some over-the-counter drugs, medicine, or antibiotics. But one can also visit a pharmacie when they need high quality cosmetics, hygiene, and beauty products. The shelves are lined with expensive-sounding brands in beautiful glass bottles, yet the prices for most products are around the same cost as my lunch. As a self-proclaimed “skincare junkie”, I was in absolute awe at not only the affordability of the products, but also at the wide variety and novelty of it all. By our fourth day in Paris, my skin had already started breaking out, and I set out to buy some new items to add to my skincare routine.

Left: the inside of a parapharmacie; Right: my personal purchases, 10/10 recommend

Based on the high prevalence of pharmacie locations, it is no surprise that the French value their skincare. The French standard of beauty seems like it is not the same as Americans, illustrated by a simple search on Youtube on “French versus American makeup”. It is evident by the thumbnails that the French embrace an aesthetic that is much more natural, understated, and effortlessly chic. In order to achieve that, they focus on a flawless base achieved by skincare. Just after a few days of observation, my fellow female classmates and I have all shared the same sentiment: “How do the French have such nice skin? How are French girls so pretty?” As I have made it my personal goal to get even an inch closer to the unattainable “French-girl beauty”, I started to think about how the brain perceives beauty and attractiveness in human faces.

Youtube search results of “French versus American beauty”

Human faces are one of the most interesting visual stimuli that we perceive on a daily basis. Each unique face can convey information about a person, including their age, sex, and emotional state. The ability of our brain to take this information and process it within milliseconds plays a critical role in our day-to-day social interactions. There is evidence that supports the face-specificity hypothesis, which states that humans have specialized cognitive and neural mechanisms that are dedicated to the perception of faces (Kanwisher & Yovel, 2006). Previous studies have shown that the brain uses at least three cognitive domains in deciding the value of attractiveness: the occipital and temporal lobe to process face views, the inferior occipital gyri which perceives facial features, and the fusiform face area (FFA) which receives that information and plays a key role in facial recognition (Yarosh, 2019).

A meta-analysis study conducted by Bzdok et al. gathered multiple studies that investigated the neural correlates of evaluating facial attractiveness. When analyzing the fMRI experiments on attractiveness judgments, it was seen that facial beauty might be evaluated in the orbitofrontal cortex, which in a nutshell is responsible for cognitive decision-making, according to reward value. Additionally, it was found that the amygdala detects the socio-emotional value, or the “beauty”, of the sensory stimuli that we come across visually and aurally. The combination of these results suggests that there is a general role of the reward circuitry in social judgments. (Bzdok et al., 2011). Essentially, this study was able to show that the assessment of beauty in our brains deals with reward stimulation, and that attractiveness is a social marker of long-evolutionary success, a.k.a. having more kids. Having a lot of children holds high socio-emotional value.

Unsurprisingly, the judgement of attractiveness across men and women is quite similar. A study that covered 919 studies and over 15,000 observers reported that people agree, both within cultures and across cultures, who is attractive and who is not (Langlois, et al. 2000). Six-month-old infants even gaze longer at faces judged by adults as “attractive” and spent less time looking at faces that were judged as not attractive (Ramsey, et al. 2004). This data suggests that judgments of physical attractiveness are somehow hard-wired in human genetics, and the actual neural circuitry that takes place within the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala back up those claims. Hopefully, with a bit of luck and some extra French skincare, six-month-old infants will take a longer look at me. In the meantime, here are some locations where YOU can pick up from quality skincare products! Just look at how many locations there are!


Bzdok, D, Langner R, Caspers S, Kurth F, Habel U, Zilles K, Laird A, Eickhoff SB (2011) ALE meta-analysis on facial judgments of trust-worthiness and attractiveness. Brain Struct. Funct 215: 209–2231

Kanwisher N, Yovel G (2006) The fusiform face area: A cortical region specialized for the perception of faces. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B 361:2109–2128

Langlois J, Rubenstein A, Larson A, Hallam M, Smoot M (2000) Maxim or Myths of Beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychol. Bull 126: 390–423

Ramsey J, Langlois J, Hoss R, Rubenstein A, Griffin A (2004) Origins of a stereotype: Categorization of facial attractiveness by 6-month-old infants. Dev. Sci 7: 201–211.

Yarosh, DB (2019) Perception and Deception: Human Beauty and the Brain. Behavioral sciences 9: 34

Puis-je prendre votre commande?

Puis-je prendre votre commande? – Can I take your order?

In the nearly two weeks that I have been in Paris, I have eaten many local cuisines. Baguettes. Croissants. Cheese. Baguettes. Macarons. Pasta. Pizza. And yes, more Baguettes. Conveniently for me, I live right above Le Fils de Boulanger which means most mornings I get a croissant and apple juice on my way to class. For lunch, I usually stop in the first boulangerie that catches my attention and order a baguette sandwich. Dinner is usually a toss-up, meaning it could be anything from another sandwich from a nearby café, pizza from the nearest Italian restaurant, or a quick grab dinner from Franprix. While I do love the food that Paris has to offer, every now and then I have a craving for food from home, whether it’s a burger and fries, a tex-mex burrito, or a steak dinner on occasion. It wasn’t necessarily because I was sick of the pasta, cheese, or bread (especially since it would take a lot for me to get sick of bread), it felt more like I just wanted something that was familiar to me. Don’t get me wrong, France is a beautiful and amazing country with great food, it just sometimes feels exhausting being submerged in a culture that is not your own. From the language barrier to the different social norms to the different food experience, I realized that the reason that I was craving food from home wasn’t that I desperately wanted a McDonald’s cheeseburger, it was just that I wanted a moment of familiarity in an environment that is highly unfamiliar.

My go-to breakfast place, Le Fils de Boulanger, in the 15th Arrondissement

The few times that I have eaten American food since being abroad, I noticed that I became more relaxed than I was previously. This may be due to the fact while I am in a new environment abroad, I have a slight amount of natural stress that comes with being abroad, not to mention also taking classes for my major at the same time. This stress can cause changes within a person’s prefrontal cortex, specifically, stress can cause dendritic expansion into one’s orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is involved in saliency of a reward or punishment (B. McEwen, 2012). Since a person’s saliency of reward is affected when the individual is stressed out, it is possible to see how a rewarding experience, such as eating familiar foods, may cause an increased pleasurable effect on emotion. Stress can also cause activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. When a person feels stressed, neurons in the hypothalamus release corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which leads to the stimulation of the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol (M. Stephens and G. Wand, 2012). Additionally, another recent study determined that comfort food can dampen the activity of the HPA axis (A. Tomiyama et al., 2011). The HPA axis usually increases activity in stressful environments, meaning that by eating foods that are of a familiar comfort can decrease the activity of the HPA, leading to decrease in any feelings of stress. This finding makes my observation that after eating American food that is familiar to me, I feel more relaxed, makes biological sense as I am impacting the activity of my HPA axis.

Outline of the HPA axis and how it acts in regards to stress.

Back home in Alabama, I am rarely inclined to stop at a McDonald’s for lunch and only during exam weeks do I ever crave a 10-piece McNugget. So why would I choose to eat at one of the most popular fast food chains in the U.S. while spending only six weeks in Paris, France, surrounded by local restaurants that may only be experienced here? While eating this fast food isn’t necessarily an overly pleasurable memory back home, it certainly evokes familiar emotions that remind me of late night runs with friends to get food on the way back from studying in the library or to take back dinner for a movie night in my apartment. According to a study by B. Ford and M. Tamir, if there is any quality to a familiar emotion that makes it desirable, then the familiarity of those emotions would be positively associated with wanting to experience those emotions (2014). So looking back at me and my craving for familiar food, it now seems that one of the reasons I indulged in American food abroad is to elicit familiar emotions that would ease the stress of being in a new environment. Moral of the story: enjoy the food that Paris has to offer, but don’t feel guilty for eating foods that are still found at home, it’s just one way to have familiarity in an unfamiliar environment.

The multiple McDonald’s locations in Paris, France.

Works Cited:

Ford, B. Q., & Tamir, M. (2014). Preferring familiar emotions: as you want (and like) it?. Cognition & emotion28(2), 311–324. doi:10.1080/02699931.2013.823381

McEwen, B. S. (2012). Brain on stress: how the social environment gets under the skin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(Supplement 2), 17180-17185.

Stephens, M. A., & Wand, G. (2012). Stress and the HPA axis: role of glucocorticoids in alcohol dependence. Alcohol research : current reviews34(4), 468–483.

Tomiyama, A. J., Dallman, M. F., & Epel, E. S. (2011). Comfort food is comforting to those most stressed: evidence of the chronic stress response network in high stress women. Psychoneuroendocrinology36(10), 1513-1519.

Image 1 – Le Fils de Boulanger, taken from

Image 2 – HPA axis (2017), taken from

Image 3 – screenshot of google maps

The Real Art Connoisseurs

Coming to Paris the first thing I noticed was the architecture. As an architectural studies minor, I love seeing new styles of building and the effects they have on how we perceive a city. Just from the buildings, Paris is already classier than any city I’ve been to in the U.S. I was even told that the reason most apartment buildings don’t have air conditioning is because Parisians don’t want to mar the beautiful façade of the buildings with ugly air conditioning units (I don’t disagree with this decision).

Classy Parisian apartment building

Not only is the architecture beautiful in Paris but also the artwork in the plethora of museums. Just in this first week I’ve visited three museums: the Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre. Each one is always filled with people admiring the artwork. The interesting aspect about art is that its beauty is subjective and intangible, and yet, it is relatable to many. After all, there is a reason that 10.2 million people visited the Louvre in 2018 (taking into account the fact that some people go just to say they’ve gone). This absurd number of people has me thinking, is there a way to detect the real art connoisseurs from the charlatans who only go to the museums for the Instagram post?

Entrance to the Louvre, designed by I.M. Pei

One way to answer this question is to find evidence that there is a difference in brain activity between art experts and non-experts when viewing a piece of art. Such a study was done by Kirk et al. in which the authors asked architects and non-architects to rate the aesthetic value of building images while fMRI studies tracked neural activity (Kirk et al., 2009). Before this study, it was already

The ACC and OFC are involved in processing reward

known that brain areas that are active in processing reward such as the striatum, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) are also active when perceiving visual aesthetics such as paintings (Vartanian and Goel, 2004). Because of this, Kirk et al. focused on fMRI studies of these brain locations in architects and non-architects to see if there was a difference in neural activity. It should be noted though that other areas such as the parahippocampal gyrus are activated during visual perception and judgement of value, but are not explicitly studied in this experiment (Chatterjee and Vartanian, 2016).

Eleven architects/grad or postgrad architecture students and 13 undergrad/grad students with no formal art-related education were asked to rate the level of aesthetic appeal for 168 building images by pressing buttons 1 (lowest appeal) to 5 (highest appeal) while in the fMRI scanner. Results showed that there was a significant increase in ACC and OFC activity in architects compared to non-architects when asked to make an aesthetic judgement of the building (Kirk et al., 2009). These results are controlled by data that show no significant difference in neural activity when architect and non-architect were asked to make an aesthetic judgement on a neutral stimulus such as a face (Kirk et al., 2009). Thus we know that the difference in neural activity in the ACC and OFC is due to the judgement of buildings specifically. Interestingly enough, other areas of the brain active during reward that are predicted to also be active during aesthetic judgement such as the nucleus accumbens show no significant difference in activation between architect and non-architect during building aesthetic evaluation (Kirk et al., 2009). Overall, we can conclude that the anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex have different neural activities in art experts vs non-experts when asked to judge the beauty of an artwork.

So what does this mean in terms of differentiating the connoisseurs from the charlatans? Essentially there is no real way to tell the difference without access to fMRI scans of everyone’s brains, since behavior in making aesthetic judgements (such as reaction time in aesthetic judgement) is not significantly different between experts and non-experts when viewing a piece of art (Kirk et al., 2009). So good news for us charlatans, no one will be exposing us anytime soon during our next museum visit!


Chatterjee, A., & Vartanian, O. (2016). Neuroscience of aesthetics. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 172-194.

Kirk, U., Skov, M., Christensen, M. S., & Nygaard, N. (2009). Brain correlates of aesthetic expertise: A parametric fMRI study. Brain and Cognition, 69, 306-315.

10.2 million visitors to the Louvre in 2018. (2019, January 3). Retrieved from

Vartanian, O., & Goel, V. (2004). Neuroscience correlates of aesthetic preference for paintings. NeuroReport, 15(5), 893-897.




What Happens to Olivier Giroud’s Brain after He Broke my Heart?

On Wednesday night, along with some friends, I went to the Mazet bar in the 6th Arrondissement of Paris to watch some soccer.

The Mozet (61 Rue Saint-André des Arts, 75006 Paris)

It was the night of Europa League final and two rivalries from London, Arsenal and Chelsea were facing each other. Being a huge Arsenal fan since middle school, I was very nervous about the game. Olivier Giroud, a French footballer who plays as a forward for Chelsea broke the deadlock after half time by scoring a header that ultimately led to Chelsea winning the Europa League this season. At the end of the game, I felt disappointed and miserable looking at the scoreboard, Chelsea 4 – 1 Arsenal.

Embed from Getty Images

As an amateur soccer player myself, I know in order to score such a header, both power and precision during the impact with the ball are crucial. Though it may seem effortless when a professional footballer heads the ball, it is in fact quite painful for a non-athlete like me who do not know how to control a header well. Being a neuroscience student, this got me thinking that perhaps there are some negative consequences to the brains as these professional soccer players head the ball almost every single day, both on-pitch and off-pitch.

I first heard about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the 2015 movie starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu. Dr. Omalu first found CTE in American football players when he performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002 (Omalu et al., 2005).

This disease has been observed in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma and symptoms include memory disturbances, behavioral and personality changes, parkinsonism and speech and gait abnormalities (McKee et al., 2009). Currently, CTE has been associated with several pathological hallmarks. One of them is neurofibrillary tangles of tau deposition, which is as a marker of Alzheimer’s Disease (McKee et al., 2009). In other words, the protein tau becomes abnormal and is now unable to carry out its normal job to facilitate forming microtubules (Kadavath et al., 2015), the “conveyor belt” of nerve cells.

So, does heading in soccer lead to this disease? This is a tough question to answer. The main reason is that CTE does not have a definite diagnosis prior to autopsy. Therefore, there is a very limited study sample to test this question and we have to rely heavily on case studies. One famous case was Brazilian captain and two-times FIFA world cup winner, Hilderaldo Bellini. With no history of concussion, he died at the age of 83 and examination by the doctor revealed widespread CTE (Grinberg et al., 2016).

Bellini has a statue at the entrance of Maracanã, one of the most important soccer stadiums in the world. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

One neuroimaging study has identified thinning of the cerebral cortex in former professional soccer players when compared against former non-contact athletes. The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of neural tissue of our brain and is involved heavily in memory, attention, perception, etc. (Penfield & Rasmussen, 1950). The authors have also found that thinning of the cortex was tied to how many times the players have headed the ball in their career. Cortical thinning was also related to a decrease in cognitive performance and hence concluded that maybe these “sub-concussive head impact” of headings in soccer are not so good at all (Koerte et al., 2016). However, one thing to note is that a self-report survey was used to obtain a rough estimate of how many times the players headed the ball in their career. As a result, the exact forces and the exact frequency of heading the ball were not considered (Koerte et al., 2016).

Prof Henrik Zetterberg is a world-leading expert in developing biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease and whom my lab at Emory had the honor to collaborate in several studies. He did a study to look at the evidence in neurochemical fluctuations immediately after study participants head the balls. Results demonstrate that headings in soccer do not have a short-term biochemical sign of neuronal injury.  They have further suggested that the effect of heading in soccer seems to be quite different from that caused by head punches in boxing (Zetterberg et al., 2007).

After looking at a case study, an imaging study, and a neurochemical study, it seems that both positive and negative findings exist. A review of the current scientific literature demonstrates that the effects of heading the ball and connection to CTE remain inconclusive (Grinberg et al., 2016). Though there is evidence of a relationship between heading and abnormal brain structure, most data is still preliminary (Rodrigues, Lasmar, & Caramelli, 2016). As for now, it is not yet the right time to think about banning heading the ball completely in soccer. It’s a great part of this sport that as soccer fans we all love. However, I think the recommendation by the U.S. Youth Soccer is very valid. Only kids after age 10 should be taught heading and heading in game should be delayed until they have both the skill and physical maturity (Nitrini, 2017). If you are a parent ready to take your child to their soccer game this weekend, maybe consider this advice.


Grinberg, L. T., Anghinah, R., Nascimento, C. F., Amaro, E., Leite, R. P., Martin, M. d. G. M., . . . Nitrini, R. (2016). Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Presenting as Alzheimer’s Disease in a Retired Soccer Player. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD, 54(1), 169-174. doi:10.3233/JAD-160312

Kadavath, H., Hofele, R. V., Biernat, J., Kumar, S., Tepper, K., Urlaub, H., . . . Zweckstetter, M. (2015). Tau stabilizes microtubules by binding at the interface between tubulin heterodimers. 112(24), 7501-7506. doi:10.1073/pnas.1504081112 %J Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Koerte, I. K., Mayinger, M., Muehlmann, M., Kaufmann, D., Lin, A. P., Steffinger, D., . . . Behavior. (2016). Cortical thinning in former professional soccer players. 10(3), 792-798. doi:10.1007/s11682-015-9442-0

McKee, A. C., Cantu, R. C., Nowinski, C. J., Hedley-Whyte, E. T., Gavett, B. E., Budson, A. E., . . . Stern, R. A. (2009). Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Athletes: Progressive Tauopathy After Repetitive Head Injury. Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology, 68(7), 709-735. doi:10.1097/NEN.0b013e3181a9d503 %J Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology

Nitrini, R. (2017). Soccer (Football Association) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy: A short review and recommendation. Dementia & neuropsychologia, 11(3), 218-220. doi:10.1590/1980-57642016dn11-030002

Omalu, B. I., DeKosky, S. T., Minster, R. L., Kamboh, M. I., Hamilton, R. L., & Wecht, C. H. (2005). Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player. Neurosurgery, 57(1), 128-134. doi:10.1227/01.NEU.0000163407.92769.ED %J Neurosurgery

Penfield, W., & Rasmussen, T. (1950). The cerebral cortex of man; a clinical study of localization of function. Oxford, England: Macmillan.

Rodrigues, A. C., Lasmar, R. P., & Caramelli, P. (2016). Effects of Soccer Heading on Brain Structure and Function. 7(38). doi:10.3389/fneur.2016.00038

Zetterberg, H., Jonsson, M., Rasulzada, A., Popa, C., Styrud, E., Hietala, M. A., . . . Blennow, K. (2007). No neurochemical evidence for brain injury caused by heading in soccer. British journal of sports medicine, 41(9), 574-577. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2007.037143

Images Citation

Regan, Michael (2019). Olivier Giroud of Chelsea scores his team’s first goal.    [Photograph], Retrieved 21:08, June 4, 2019, from

File:Estátua do Bellini2.jpg. (2017, December 31). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 21:08, June 4, 2019 from

Louis XIV’s Crib Was Cool, But Those Flowers Though

Now coming up on two weeks into my stay in Paris, I’m amazed at how much art seeing (and walking!) opportunities there are across the city. I went to the Palace of Versailles  this past weekend and learned a little bit more about myself in the process. The overall aesthetics of some of the rooms, like the Hall of Mirrors, were breathtaking. Throughout my time in France, the distinct architecture of everything still astonishes me. The fact that people could see a vision that combined order and beauty is a testament of the human ability. However, even though the palace exemplified all of these things with the added adventure of getting around, I still found myself more at peace and grounded in the presence of flowers. In a larger than life palace with years of French history intertwined in it, it was nothing compared to the gardens, random buildings’ intricate flower arrangements across town, and especially the unique paintings of gorgeous flower bouquet and sceneries that truly made me stop and smell the roses.

A random but greatly appreciated restaurant I came across while walking the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in the 5th Arrondissement of Paris.

I couldn’t imagine why the Palace didn’t resonance with me as much as moving through a museum did; it was kind of a museum in some respects. My sister was shocked to learn I didn’t have plans to go to the Palace before this past weekend. It had been one of her favorite places in France, and she expected me to have the same experience. Surprisingly, I didn’t get that overwhelming feeling of wonder and disbelief at the magnitude  that she and some of the people at the palace had. So, I started to research why do people have different aspects artistic expression that resonances with them more than others and came across the world of neuroaesthetics.

A map of the extensive grounds in the Palace of Versailles.

Neuroaesthetics is this field in neuroscience where researchers are trying to figure out what neural connections activate and interact while someone is having an aesthetic experience that causes joy or disgust (Belfi et al., 2019). The greater question of this field is exactly the question I was trying to answer: what makes something more appealing to one person opposed to another? The field has a large reach with questions like why humans  chose the mates that we do, why we decide on one consumer product over the other, and perception’s effect on how we communicate (Chatterjee and Vartanian, 2014).

Neuroaesthetics continues to shine light on subjects such as what neural networks are involved when we view visual art. One study did this looking at how perception paintings as aesthetically pleasing or not affected what brain networks and structures were activate or deactivated (Belfi et al., 2019). Previous research found that the default mode network (DMN) was active when the person viewed artwork they thought was more moving, so the study recorded the DMN with fMRI processing as participants examined 90 paintings at various time lengths (Vessel et al., 2012) (Belfi et al., 2019). They found more DMN activation while the participants viewed a painting they thought was aesthetically pleasing compared to non-aesthetically pleasing works (Belfi et al., 2019). More DMN activation could lead brain system to associate a pleasing reward to the stimulus leading to a strong emotional response (Belfi et al., 2019).

So, while the Palace was objectively amazing to witness in real life, my perception of the art was not as high as the ones in the Musee D’Orsay leading me to some conclusions that my DMN could have been less active.

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. My favorite part of the entire experience with the sunlight glittering on the chandeliers.

The museum experience is also a big determinate when viewing art as well. One study had a group of people examine art in a museum in Vienna and in a computer program to see if the way in which people received art would change their perception of it and their memory of the art (Brieber, Nadal, and Leder, 2015). Those that experienced the art through the museum had better recall of the art they saw and found the art to be more “arousing and pleasing” (Briber, Nadal, and Leder, 2015). So, there is the possibility that, in addition to a pretty weak DMN response, actually being in a museum where I expected to see this great art colored my perception of the paintings there compared to the palace’s paintings. The palace’s paintings I saw was great, but the palace did not support the type of art enjoying experience that a museum did. The participants in the study could stop and absorb a work as much as they wanted to much like my experience in the Musee D’Orsay: wandering around not knowing which work would capture me (Briber, Nadal, and Leder, 2015). This might have made the difference in my perception of the Palace as a whole.

It is pretty cool that even though we have the same brain systems activated with the aesthetically pleasuring figures, our internal states as well as the manner in which we consume art affects what we consider to be life changing pieces of art. I didn’t expect to stumble upon a whole section of neuroscience that I never encountered before to understand why Louis XVI’s chambers did not stimulate my DMN as much as Monet’s 1878 Chrysanthemums painting could.

Monet’s Chrysanthemums painting done in 1878. One of my many favorites by my favorite artist.

If you want to learn more about the neuroaesthetics, Anjan Chatterjee is a cognitive neuroscientist that specializes in neuroaesthetics with research on how “certain configurations of line, color, and form” affect what humans consider to be beautiful (“Anjan Chatterjee: How your brain decides what is beautiful | TED Talk,” n.d.) . He talks all about his study in this 2016 Ted Talk.

From what I’ve learned in my research, your surroundings have just as much to do how you perceive the beauty as your brain networks do. Appreciation of art is never linear, so even if something doesn’t elicit a strong DMN engagement, it’s can still be a great experience, nonetheless.

Next stop, fingers crossed, the Catacombs!


Anjan Chatterjee: How your brain decides what is beautiful | TED Talk. (n.d.). Retrieved June 4, 2019, from

Belfi, A. M., Vessel, E. A., Brielmann, A., Isik, A. I., Chatterjee, A., Leder, H., … Starr, G. G. (2019). Dynamics of aesthetic experience are reflected in the default-mode network. NeuroImage, 188, 584–597.

Brieber, D., Nadal, M., & Leder, H. (2015). In the white cube: Museum context enhances the valuation and memory of art. Acta Psychologica, 154, 36–42.

Chatterjee, A., & Vartanian, O. (2014). Neuroaesthetics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(7), 370–375.

Vessel, E. A., Starr, G. G., & Rubin, N. (2012). The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6.

Image #2: [Screenshot of the grounds at the Palace of Versailles]. Retrieved from,2.1106368,15z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x538fcc15f59ce8f!8m2!3d48.8048649!4d2.1203554

Image #1, #3, and #4 were taken by me

How many Ph.D.’s does it take to make Chocolate?

If you ever want to see students and professors alike act like children, take them to a chocolate factory. When we went to the Chocolate Museum last week, I could not contain myself. I started jumping up and down for a solid ten minutes and could not hide away my huge smile. I ate bits and pieces of chocolate that fell into our table until my stomach hurt. And I made everyone laugh when I spilled chocolate on myself.

Ecstatic in my chocolate fantasy.

We got a demo on how to prepare milk chocolate. Milk chocolate requires a colder temperature than dark chocolate (closer to room temperature). So we had to pour the chocolate unto the table and move it around with two spatulas. The Chocolate Museum speaker’s quick moves reminded me of an artist painting fast yet ever precise brushstrokes.


chocolate demo


I remembered reading an earlier year’s blog post on chocolate (Bouguyon, 2015) before coming to Paris, so as I saw the demo, I knew that moving chocolate around was harder than it seemed. Hence why I was not surprised when some of my classmates struggled to move the chocolate around fast enough. I was quite surprised (and quite amused), however, at how much Dr. Frenzel and Rachel struggled at. I thought that all that pipetting and fine movements done in experiments were going to help, but it seemed like two Ph.D.’s could not keep up with the chocolate maker!

Chaos happens when you take these two out of the classroom.

The presenter’s directions caught my eye, as he said “scrape the smaller spatula on the bigger one.” So what separated his movements from the rest of ours? I hypothesized it had something to do with not only his years of experience, but also at how he looked at the task itself. He differentiated his hand movements on the basis of the size of the tool each hand held….

And that is how I ran into a study titled “Object Properties and Cognitive Load in the Formation of Associative Memory during Precision Lifting” that looks at how the size of an object and our memory of its previous use influences how we lift it up (Li et al., 2009).

In this study, researchers studied how we associate how an object looks (its size or color) to how much it weighs. Associative memory is “the ability to learn and remember the relationship between two unrelated items” (Suzuki, 2015). So we form associative memories when we learn to associate a small spoon as relatively lightweight, for example.

Researchers assigned 40 volunteers to one of four groups: color cue single task (CCS), color cue dual task (CCD), no cue (NC), or size cue (SC). Cue here implies that after a few trials, you will learn to associate an object’s feature (color, size, or neither) with its weight. In the color cue dual task, apart from associating the color of an object with its weight, participants also performed a memory task between lifting objects.

Participants had to lift three objects that weighed either 580 or 280 grams and were either green or blue colored. Two objects had the same size but different weights (580 or 280 grams), while two of the same objects had a different size but same color.

Objects had to be lifted with three fingers (thumb, index, and middle finger), since that way objects are all grasped at around the same angle (2.3 Task). There was a sensor inside each object that measured the force (horizontal and vertical, in Newtons) and acceleration (m/s) at which each object was picked up (2.2 Apparatus).

Figure 1 (Li et al., 2009). Diagram of the objects and force measurement device used.


Participants heard a tone to indicate they had to lift the object as fast as they could. Four seconds later, they had to put the object back down. Each participant completed 2 trials (color, size, or no cue lifts) of 18 times each (36 total).

To study how much force the participants estimated they needed to lift each object, researchers calculated how much force was exerted during the first 70 ms of an objected being lifted. Since it is so early in the process of lifting an object, this short timespan tells researchers more about how much force participants though they needed. For example, has it ever happened to you that you imagine an object is heavier than it actually is? So at first you do an awkward movement where you exert more force than you actually need to (take that to be the first 70ms researchers are analyzing). Quite quickly though, you realize that the object isn’t as heavy as you first thought and exert less force than you did during those first milliseconds (hence why researchers did not look at how much force participants exerted overall or later on during those 4s).

Figure 5 (Li et al., 2009). Y-axis (label not provided) measures average grip force (N).

Researchers found that participants relied the most on size to estimate how much force to use when lifting an object with unknown weight (Fig. 5). Put another way, they showed the most difference in how much force they used when picking up objects of different sizes. Results also showed that participants learned to associate, to a lesser extent, an object’s color with its weight (Figure 5).

So this study suggests that our lovely Ph.D.’s can someday also succeed at mixing chocolate just as well as the museum speaker could. All they might need could be some more practice, so they too can learn to associate how much force they should use when using the small and big spatula.

And just to make you jealous, I will let you know that I am writing this while having the best hot chocolate in all of Paris at Café de Flore. If you come to Paris, do not leave without trying it!

Truly a must-have in Paris!



Bouguyon, K. (2015). Making Chocolate like a Pro | NBB in Paris. Retrieved June 26, 2017, from

Li, Y., Randerath, J., Bauer, H., Marquardt, C., Goldenberg, G., & Hermsd?rfer, J. (2009). Object properties and cognitive load in the formation of associative memory during precision lifting. Behavioural Brain Research, 196(1), 123–130.

Suzuki, W. (2015). Associative Learning and the Hippocampus. Retrieved June 26, 2017, from

Pictures taken by writer, with consent of persons depicted. June 2017.