Tag Archives: Recognition

Your brain only needs 0.1 to 0.3 seconds to recognize a familiar song

It only takes your brain a fraction of a second to recognize a familiar song, new research reports.

Image credits Miguel Á. Padriñán.

Researchers at the UCL Ear Institute, perhaps taking inspiration from game shows such as ‘Name That Tune’, wanted to find out just how fast our brains can respond to familiar music. It’s pretty fast.

As fast as sound

The team worked with an experimental group consisting of five men and five women. Each of them had provided the team with a list of five songs that were familiar to them. The team then picked one of these songs, matched it to a tune that was similar in terms of tempo, melody, harmony, vocals, and instrumentation (but which was unfamiliar to the participant).

Each participant was then asked to listen to 100 snippets, each lasting less than a second, of the familiar and the unfamiliar song in random order. The researchers monitored each participant using electro-encephalography (EEG) imaging, which records electrical activity in the brain, and pupillometry, a technique that measures pupil diameter as a measure of arousal.

The team explains that familiarity is a multifaceted concept and that, for their study, they instructed participants explicitly to select songs that evoke positive feelings and memories. This means that part of what the team studied here is recognisability, and partly emotional engagement and affect.

It took participants’ brains about 100 milliseconds (0.1 seconds) to recognize a familiar song after first hearing it; the average recognition time was between 100ms and 300ms, the team explains. Recognition of a song was judged based on rapid pupil dilation (likely caused by increased arousal associated with the familiar sound) and cortical activation related to memory retrieval.

A control group consisting of international students — who were unfamiliar with all the songs — used in the trial didn’t show either of these signs of recognition.

“Our results demonstrate that recognition of familiar music happens remarkably quickly,” says Professor Maria Chait, senior author of the study.

“These findings point to very fast temporal circuitry and are consistent with the deep hold that highly familiar pieces of music have on our memory.”

Most of us see music as art, entertainment, a hobby, and not much beyond that. However, the team says that understanding how our brains recognize familiar tunes can help us devise therapeutic interventions for patients that may otherwise be beyond our help. For example, dementia patients seem to have well-preserved memories of music, even if their memory is otherwise faulty — understanding what makes music different in this case can help us pinpoint the causes of dementia.

Some limitations of the study include this bleed-through between recognizability and emotional engagement, manual selection of the songs due to technological limitations, and the use of a single ‘familiar’ song per subject; this latter one likely limited the demands on the memory processes studied, they explain.

The paper “Rapid Brain Responses to Familiar vs. Unfamiliar Music – an EEG and Pupillometry study” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Jackdaws can distinguish ‘dangerous’ people from friendly ones

The results of a new study suggest that jackdaws, a relative of the crow, can learn which humans are ‘safe’ and which are ‘dangerous’.

Image credits John Haslam / Flickr.

The birds use cues from their fellows to learn which humans are to be seen as a threat, reports a team from the University of Exeter. Furthermore, they are able to recognize individual people and react to them based on their perceived threat level.

Cawing murder

“One of the big challenges for a lot of animals is how to live alongside humans,” said lead author Victoria Lee, a Ph.D. researcher at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“People can provide some benefits, such as the food at bird feeders, but in some cases humans are also a threat.

The crow family of birds, to which the jackdaw (Coloeus monedula) belongs, is known for its intelligence. Crows can make and use tools, recognize our faces, and are quite good with puzzles. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s allaboutbirds, “crows have more than 20 calls,” with the most common being “a harsh caw” which can take many different meanings depending on its quality or length.

Jackdaws themselves resemble crows but have distinctive gray neck plumage and irises. There are four subspecies of Jackdaw. All are loud, boisterous and live in relatively small groups but are very social. They’re also able to learn from the group which humans to hide from, the findings suggest.

Lee’s team worked on three sites in Cornwall (34 Jackdaw nest boxes) during the 2017 breeding season. One of the researchers put on a mask and came close to their nests while the rest of the team played recordings of either ‘scold calls’ or ‘contact calls’ (the latter of which suggests no threat).

“Scold calls are antipredator vocalizations given by jackdaws to recruit others to mob a predator,” the paper notes.

The second phase of the experiment had the researcher (with the mask) return to the nests after some time, and see if there was a difference in their behavior. There was. The birds that had heard scold calls returned more quickly to their nests than the others.

Jackdaws that were played scold calls when first seeing the masked researcher returned to their nest quicker (in 53% of the initial time), while birds that heard contact calls took relatively longer (63% of the initial time) on average. The team notes that the calls did not appear to influence how long birds took to enter their nest box, or how long they spent inside, only how quickly they returned to them.

“Being able to discriminate between dangerous and harmless people is likely to be beneficial, and in this case we see jackdaws can learn to identify dangerous people without having had a bad experience themselves,” Lee explains.

The paper “Social learning about dangerous people by wild jackdaws” has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Kid on the beach.

All two-year-olds seem to sound pretty much the same to adults

Adults are very bad at distinguishing between the voices of two-and-a-half-year-olds, new research finds.

Kid on the beach.

“I just feel like I haven’t found my own voice, ya know?”
Image via Pixabay.

Caring for young children is often a stressful experience. But it doesn’t seem like our brains want to help lighten our burden either, a team from the University of Toronto (UoT) found. According to them, adults have a much harder time distinguishing between the voices of young children (two-and-a-half-year-olds) than between the voices of other adults.

Who said that?

“What we found with two-and-a-half-year-olds is that it’s amazingly hard for adults to identify who’s talking,” said Angela Cooper, a postdoctoral researcher at the UoT, and co-author of the research.

Cooper worked with professor Elizabeth K. Johnson and postdoctoral researcher Natalie Fecher (both at the UoT) for the study. The first step was to create an interactive game — it involved an alien — that required the player to say out loud 32 common words like tree, dog, ball, or elephant. Fifty native English-speaking two-and-a-half-year-old children from the Toronto area were presented with the game, which allowed the researchers to capture recordings of their speech. The children’s mothers were also asked to record the same words.

Later, undergraduates at the UoT (aged 18-25) were asked to listen to 80 pairs of words spoken by 20 of the children. The undergrads had to indicate whether the words were spoken by the same (or a different) child. They also performed this task for 20 of the adult voices.

Turns out that we’re not too good at telling the voices of preschoolers apart. Participants were only able to correctly distinguish between two different children 40% of the time. In contrast, they correctly identified different adult voices 65% of the time.

“I find it particularly interesting that the participants’ ability to identify adult voices was not related to their ability to identify children’s voices,” Cooper said. “You’re maybe using different information or you’re processing things slightly differently when you’re listening to an adult voice versus when you’re listening to a child’s voice.”

In the second stage of the study, the team put the undergrads through a training session. Participants were asked to listen to a recording that included four child voices and four adult voices. It was successful to some extent — while the students did get better at identifying different voices, the effect was more pronounced for adult voices.

“Part of this training process is retuning what speech cues we need to pay attention to,” Cooper said. “Often children have particular mispronunciations.”

“Some kids will say ‘poon’ instead of spoon, or elephant becomes ‘ephant’. We might be actually cuing in to which child makes different kinds of errors.”

The team is now preparing a series of follow-up studies where they will use pupillometry (a measure of pupil dilation) to quantify how much mental effort goes into differentiating between the voices of two-and-a-half-year-old children. In the meantime, the team hopes all the confused, exhausted parents the world over manage to hang in there.

“What I’d like to say to parents is that with exposure it does get easier over time,” Cooper said.

The findings will be presented as a poster at the Acoustical Society of America’s 176th Meeting, held in conjunction with the Canadian Acoustical Association’s 2018 Acoustics Week at the Victoria Conference Centre in Victoria, Canada, from the 5th to the 9th of November.