Are classical music competitions judged on looks?

Looking at the evidence behind a recent news story

The headlines

The Los Angeles Times: People trust eyes – not ears – when judging musicians

Classic FM: Classical singers judged by actions not voice

Nature: Musicians’ appearances matter more than their sound

The story

If you wanted to pick out the musician who won a prestigious classical music competition would you listen to a clip of them playing or watch a silent video of them performing the same piece of music?

Most of us would go for an audio clip rather than video, and we’d be wrong. In a series of experiments, Chia-Jung Tsay from University College London, showed that both novices and expert musicians were better able to pick out the winners when they watched rather than listened to them.

The moral, we’re told, is that how you look is more important than how you sound, even in elite classical music competitions.

What they actually did

Dr Tsay, herself a classically trained musician, used footage from real international classical music competitions. She took the top three finalists and asked volunteers to pick out the real winner – with a cash incentive – by looking at video without sound, sound without video, or both.

Over a series of experiments she showed that people think that audio will be more informative than video, but actually people are able to pick the real winner when watching video clips. But they aren’t able to do this when listening to audio clips (these test subjects only perform at the level of chance). The shocking thing is that when people get sound and video clips, which notionally contain more information, they still perform at chance. The implication being that they would do better if they could block their ears and ignore the sound.

Follow up experiments suggested that people’s ability to pick winners depended on their being able to pick out things associated with “stage presence”. A video reduced to line drawings, designed to remove details and emphasise motion, still allowed people to pick out winners at an above chance rate. Another experiment showed that asking people to identify the “most confident, creative, involved, motivated, passionate, and unique performer” tallied with the real winners.

How plausible is this?

We’re a visual species. How things look really matters, as everyone who has dressed up for an interview knows. It’s also not uncommon for us to be misled into believing that how something looks isn’t as important as it really is (here’s an example: judging wine by the labels rather than the taste).

What is less plausible is the spin put on the story by the headlines. We all know that looks are important, but how can they really be more important than sound in a classical music competition? The most important thing really is the sound, but this research resonates with a popular cliché about how irrational we are.

Tom’s take

The secret to why these experiments give the results they do is in this detail: the judgement that people were asked to make was between the top three finalists in prestigious international competitions. In other words, each of these musicians is among the best in the world at what they do. The best of the best even.

In all probability there is a minute difference between their performances on any scale of quality. The paper itself admits that the judges themselves often disagree about who the winner is in these competitions.

The experimental participants were not scored according to some abstract ability to measure playing quality, but according to how well they were able to match real-world competition outcome.

The experiments show that matching the judges in these competitions can be done based on sight but not on sound. This isn’t because sight reveals playing quality, but because sight gives the experimental participants similar biases to the real judges. The real expert judges are biased by how the performers look – and why not, since there is probably so little to choose between them in terms of how they sound?

This is why the conclusion, spelt out in the original paper, is profoundly misleading: “The findings demonstrate that people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgements about music performance”. It remains completely plausible that most of us, most of the time, judge music on how it sounds, just like we assumed before this research came out.

In ambiguous cases we might rely on looks over sounds – even the experts among us. This is a blow to musicians who thought it was always just about sound – but isn’t a revelation to the rest of us who knew that when choices are hard, whether during the job interview or the music competition, looks matter.

Read more

The original paper: Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance. Tsay, C-J (2013), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Special mention for the BBC and reporter Melissa Hogenboom who were the only people, as far as I know, who managed to report this story with an accurate headline: Sight dominates sound in music competition judging

The interaction between the senses is an active and fascinating research area. Read more from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the Univeristy of Oxford and Cross-modal perception of music network at the University of Sheffield

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

What makes the ouija board move

The mystery isn’t a connection to the spirit world, but why we can make movements and yet not realise that we’re making them.

Ouija board cups and dowsing wands – just two examples of mystical items that seem to move of their own accord, when they are really being moved by the people holding them. The only mystery is not one of a connection to the spirit world, but of why we can make movements and yet not realise that we’re making them.

The phenomenon is called the ideomotor effect and you can witness it yourself if you hang a small weight like a button or a ring from a string (ideally more than a foot long). Hold the end of the string with your arm out in front of you, so the weight hangs down freely. Try to hold your arm completely still. The weight will start to swing clockwise or anticlockwise in small circles. Do not start this motion yourself. Instead, just ask yourself a question – any question – and say that the weight will swing clockwise to answer “Yes” and anticlockwise for “No”. Hold this thought in mind, and soon, even though you are trying not to make any motion, the weight will start to swing in answer to your question.

Magic? Only the ordinary everyday magic of consciousness. There’s no supernatural force at work, just tiny movements you are making without realising. The string allows these movements to be exaggerated, the inertia of the weight allows them to be conserved and built on until they form a regular swinging motion. The effect is known as Chevreul’s Pendulum, after the 19th Century French scientist who investigated it.

What is happening with Chevreul’s Pendulum is that you are witnessing a movement (of the weight) without “owning” that movement as being caused by you. The same basic phenomenon underlies dowsing – where small movements of the hands cause the dowsing wand to swing wildly – or the Ouija board, where multiple people hold a cup and it seems to move of its own accord to answer questions by spelling out letters. The effect also underlies the sad case of “facilitated communication“, a fad whereby carers believed they could help severely disabled children communicate by guiding their fingers around a keyboard. Research showed that the carers – completely innocently – were typing the messages themselves, rather than interpreting movements from their charges.

The interesting thing about the phenomenon is what it says about the mind. That we can make movements that we don’t realise we’re making suggests that we shouldn’t be so confident in our other judgements about what movements we think are ours. Sure enough, in the right circumstances, you can get people to believe they have caused things that actually come from a completely independent source (something which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has reflected on the madness of people who claim that it only started raining because they forget an umbrella).

You can read what this means for the nature of our minds in The Illusion of Conscious Will by psychologist Daniel Wegner, who sadly died last month. Wegner argued that our normal sense of owning an action is an illusion, or – if you will – a construction. The mental processes which directly control our movements are not connected to the same processes which figure out what caused what, he claimed. The situation is not that of a mental command-and-control structure like a disciplined army; whereby a general issues orders to the troops, they carry out the order and the general gets back a report saying “Sir! We did it. The right hand is moving into action!”. The situation is more akin to an organised collective, claims Wegner: the general can issue orders, and watch what happens, but he’s never sure exactly what caused what. Instead, just like with other people, our consciousness (the general in this metaphor) has to apply some principles to figure out when a movement is one we’ve made.

One of these principles is that cause has to be consistent with effect. If you think “I’ll move my hand” and your hand moves, you’re likely to automatically get the feeling that the movement was one you made. The principle is broken when the thought is different from the effect, such as with Chevreul’s Pendulum. If you think “I’m not moving my hand”, you are less inclined to connect any small movements you make with such large visual effects. This maybe explains why kids can shout “It wasn’t me!” after breaking something in plain sight. They thought to themselves “I’ll just give this a little push”, and when it falls off the table and breaks it doesn’t feel like something they did.

This is my column for BBC Future from a few weeks back. The original is here. It’s a Dan Wegner tribute column really – Rest in Peace, Dan

The curious relationship between truth and madness

I’ve got an article in The Observer on the misunderstood relationship between truth and madness.

The definition of a ‘delusion’ has just been changed so it no longer has to be considered a ‘false belief’.

It turns out that this issue turns up regularly in world events, owing to the sad tendency for whistle-blowers to be ‘accused’ of being ‘mentally ill’ when others don’t like what they’re saying.

It’s not clear who forcibly sedated her in 1972. It’s not certain that she was admitted to a psychiatric ward in the following year. What’s definite though is that many people thought she was mad as she ranted about conspiracies in the White House during eccentric phone calls to the press. Questions about Martha Beall Mitchell’s sanity were encouraged by the Nixon administration, who consistently briefed against her and probably had her medicated against her will. But ultimately her claims were proven correct when the Watergate scandal broke.

It’s worth bearing in mind that we’re not talking about the everyday use of the term ‘delusion’ (typically meaning mistaken) but the psychiatric definition which describes intensely held beliefs that are impervious to reality.

They are fascinating in many ways but, as the article discusses, they do not necessarily mean that the person is wrong.
 

Link to Observer article on truth and delusion.

The uncertain dance of the spoken word

Stanford Magazine has a wonderful article by a writer who relies on lip-reading and experiences speech through this subtle movement-based language.

Rachel Kolb skilfully describes how this works, and more importantly, feels.

The part where she describes how she experiences accents is just amazing:

Accents are a visible tang on people’s lips. Witnessing someone with an accent is like taking a sip of clear water only to find it tainted with something else. I startle and leap to attention. As I explore the strange taste, my brain puzzles itself trying to pinpoint exactly what it is and how I should respond. I dive into the unfamiliar contortions of the lips, trying to push my way to some intelligible meaning. Accented words pull against the gravity of my experience; like slime-glossed fish, they wriggle and leap out of my hands. Staring down at my fingers’ muddy residue, my only choice is to shrug and cast out my line again.

The full article is highly recommended. Both fascinating and wonderfully written.
 

Link to ‘Seeing at the Speed of Sound’ (via and thanks to @stevesilberman)

The rise of everyday neuroscience

I’ve got a feature article in The Observer about how our culture has become saturated with ‘neuroscience talk’ and how this has led to unhelpful simplifications of the brain to make the same old arguments.

This is often framed as a problem with ‘the media’ but this is just the most obvious aspect of the movement. Actually, it is a cultural change where the use of a sort of everyday ‘folk neuroscience’ has become credible in popular debate – regardless of its relationship to actual science.

Folk neuroscience comes with the additional benefit that it relies on concepts that are not easily challenged with subjective experience. When someone says “James is depressed because he can’t find a job”, this may be dismissed by personal experience, perhaps by mentioning a friend who was unemployed but didn’t get depressed. When someone says that “James is depressed because of a chemical imbalance in his brain”, personal experience is no longer relevant and the claim feels as if it is backed up by the authority of science. Neither usefully accounts for the complex ways in which our social world and neurobiology affect our mood but in non-specialist debate that rarely matters. As politicians have discovered it’s the force of your argument that matters and in rhetorical terms, neuroscience is a force-multiplier, even when it’s misfiring.

The article discusses how this popular neuroscience talk is being used and why is remains popular.

The piece was influenced by the work of sociologist Nikolas Rose who has written a great deal about how neuroscience is used to understand and manage people.

If you want to go in further depth than The Observer article allows I’d recommend his paper ‘Neurochemical Selves’ which is available online as a pdf.

A new book of his came out last week entitled ‘Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind’ which looks fascinating.
 

Link to Observer article ‘Our brains, and how they’re not as simple as we think’.

2013-01-25 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The interesting concept of a ‘possession trance disorder’ diagnosis is discussed by Neurocritic.

BBC News video reports on how Brazil is considering a law to forcibly remove crack addicts from the street into rehab.

Goodbye PDD-NOS, hello Social Communication Disorder. A sneaked-out DSM-5 change for the autism spectrum is covered by Cracking the Enigma.

Nature reports that Henry Markham’s Human Brain Project which is supposedly aiming to ‘simulate the human brain’ (but actually, isn’t) gets kazillion dollar funding.

The DSM-5 will cost $199 a copy, reports DSM-5 in Distress. That’s like 50c a diagnosis.

Brighton Science Festival has a fantastic day on the Science of Sex on 9th February.

China’s One Child Policy may have altered the personality of a generation according to research reviewed by the Nodes of Ranvier blog.

Time magazine on how the tactics used in ‘troubled teen’ reality TV programmes are know to make adolescents worse.

Is there a right age for first sex? an interesting study is briefly covered by Providentia.

Discover Magazine reports that data storage in DNA has become a reality. Sony to sue RNA strands for piracy.

A new Nature NeuroPod has hit the wires. Psychology and Sherlock Holmes, movement and memory.

Colossal has some wonderful abstract 3D sculptures that transform in cylindrical mirrors. Have to be seen.

Compare and contrast: high heels make women’s walk more attractive to males / historically women adopted high heels from male fashion to masculinise their outfits. Found: an evolutionary psychology infinite loop!

BBC Column: when you want what you don’t like

My BBC Future column from Tuesday. The original is here. It’s a Christmas theme folks, but hopefully I cover an interesting research area too: Berridge, Robinson and colleagues’ work on the wanting/liking distinction.

As the holiday season approaches, Tom Stafford looks at festive overindulgence, and explains how our minds tell us we want something even if we may not like it.

Ah, Christmas, the season of peace, goodwill and overindulgence. If this year is like others, I’ll probably be taking up residence on the couch after a big lunch, continuing to munch my way through packets of unhealthy snacks, and promising myself that I’ll live a more virtuous life once the New Year begins.

It was on one such occasion that I had an epiphany in the psychology of everyday life. I’d just finished the last crisp of a large packet, and the thought occurred to me that I don’t actually like crisps that much. But there I was, covered in crumbs and post-binge guilt, saturated fats coursing through my body looking for nice arteries to settle down on. In an effort to distract myself from the urge to reach for another packet, I started to think about the peculiar psychology of the situation.

Every bite seemed essential, but in a way that seem to suggest I was craving them rather than liking them. Fortunately for my confusion (and my arteries), there’s some solid neuroscience to explain how we can want something we don’t like.

Normally wanting and liking are tightly bound together. We want things we like and we like the things we want. But experiments by the University of Michigan’s Kent Berridge and colleagues show that this isn’t always the case. Wanting and liking are based on separate brain circuits and can be controlled independently.

To demonstrate this, Berridge used a method called “taste reactivity“, in effect, recording the faces pulled when animals are given different kinds of food. Give an adult human something sweet and they’ll lick their lips. This might sound obvious, but when you take it to the next level in terms of detail and rigour you start to get a powerful system for telling how much an animal likes a particular type of food. Taste reactivity involves defining the reactions precisely – for example, lip-licking would be defined as “a mild rhythmic smacking, slight protrusions of the tongue, a relaxed expression accompanied sometimes by a slight upturn of the corners of the mouth” – and then looking for this same expression in other species. A baby human can’t tell you they like the taste like an adult can, but you can see the same expression. A chimpanzee will do the same with a sweet taste. A rat won’t do exactly the same thing, but they do something similar. By carefully observing and coding the facial expressions that accompany nice and nasty tastes, you can tell what an animal is enjoying and what they aren’t.

Pleasure principles

 

This method is a breakthrough because it gives us another way of looking at how non-human species feel about things. Most animal psychology uses overt actions – things like pressing levers – as measures. So, for example, if you want to see how a reward affects a rat, you put it in a box with a lever and give it food each time it presses the level. Sure enough, the rat will learn to press the lever once it learns that this produces food. Taste reactivity creates an additional measure, allowing us insight into how much the animal enjoys the food, as well as what it makes it want to do.

From this, the neuroscientists have been able to show that wanting and liking are governed by separate circuits in the brain. The liking system is based in the subcortex, that part of our brain that is most similar to other species. Electrical stimulation here, in an area called the nucleus accumbans, is enough to cause pleasure. Sadly, you need brain surgery and implanted electrodes to experience this. But another way you can stimulate this bit of the brain is via the opioid chemical system, which is the brain messenger system directly affected by drugs like heroin. Like brain surgery, this is also NOT recommended.

Wanting happens in nearby, but distinct, circuits. These are more widely spread around the subcortex than the liking circuits, and use a different chemical messenger system, one based around a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Surprisingly, it is this circuit rather than the one for liking which seems to play a primary role in addiction. For addicts a key aspect of their condition is the way in which people, situations and things associated with drug taking become reminders of the drug that are impossible to ignore. Berridge has hypothesised that this is due to a drug’s direct effects on the wanting system. For addicts any reminder of drug taking triggers a neural cascade, which culminates in feelings of desire, but crucially, without needing any actual enjoyment of the drug to occur.

The reason wanting and liking circuits are so near each other is that they normally work closely together, ensuring you want what you like. But in addiction, the theory goes, the circuits can become uncoupled, so that you get extreme wanting without a corresponding increase in pleasure. Matching this, addicts are notable for enjoying the thing they are addicted to less than non-addicts. This is the opposite of most activities, where people who do the most are also the ones who enjoy it the most. (Most activities except another Christmas tradition, watching television, where you see the same pattern as with drug addictions – people who watch the most enjoy it the least).

So now you know what do when you find yourself chomping your way through yet another packet of crisps over the holiday period. Watch your face and see if you are licking your lips. If you are, perhaps your liking circuits are fully engaged and you’ll be happy with what you’ve eaten when you’re finished. If there’s no lip-licking then perhaps your wanting circuits are in control and you need to exercise some self-restraint. Perhaps after the next mouthful, though.