Laughter And Curiosity – Birkbeck Science Week

Birkbeck Science Week has now come to a close, and what an exciting week it’s been. Birkbeck has gained internationally recognized excellence in a number of scientific fields, and it was a treat to be able to see this on display.

Dr Tim J. Smith from the Department of Psychological Sciences began the series with ‘Attention Machine: The science of cinematic perception’ on Monday. Participants were able to become both scientist and subject whilst watching one of the trippiest films I’ve ever seen, The Fountain.

The event had a double focus: testing and demonstrating how filmmakers create shots and scenes in order to keep our attention by manipulating our gaze, whilst also investigating how the use of mobile phones in a cinema is received by other cinema goers. Filmmakers today tend to keep shots very short, rarely lasting more than 2-3 seconds to keep our gaze in the centre of the screen. It was encouraging to find out that the cinema still retained a certain amount of sanctity as far as mobile phone use was concerned, remaining a big no no for most people.

A log of viewers gaze points shown as a heat map (courtesy of Tim J. Smith)
A log of viewers gaze points shown as a heat map. (Courtesy of Tim J. Smith)

Tuesday started with a tour of the Department of Biological Sciences’ electron microscopy lab. This new technology puts Birkbeck at the tip of cutting edge science and enables researchers to study cells closer than ever before and in much greater detail. We saw, for example, how electron microscopes could magnify a red blood cell by up to 132,000 times so that we could see not only the details of the cell but also the malaria parasites this sample had been infected with.

It’s not only malaria parasites that biologists can see in greater detail. Birkbeck has been at the forefront of research into cell-attacking proteins. These are proteins that essentially punch a hole through a cell’s membrane, leaving it open to infection. In the talk that followed the lab tour, Dr Helen Saibil detailed how a team of researchers, using electron microscopy, had been able to see for the first time how proteins can do this.

A cell that has been attacked by a protein called Perforin. The turret at the top of the cell is the protein. (Source: Nature, 2010)
A cell that has been attacked by a protein called Perforin. The turret at the top of the cell is the protein. (Source: Nature, 2010)

Fortunately, it is not just the cells we need that get attacked. As Dr Saibil revealed, the body also produces natural killer cells as part of its innate immune system. These killer cells use the exact same punching-method to destroy infected and tumorous cells as part of an ongoing arms race.

Science Week continued on with more interesting talks and events. Professor Karen Hudson-Edwards gave a talk on ways in which Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science are investigating geochemical pollution from mine waste, and looked at ways the mining industry needs to manage this.

On Wednesday, Professor Martin Eimer looked at the complex ways in which the brain achieves facial recognition, and Dr Alan Lowe continued the theme of investigating cells by looking at ways in which researchers are now able to visualize the inner workings of a living cell.

Thursday kicked off with the second lab tour of the event, this one at the Birkbeck-UCL Centre for Neuroimaging (BUCNI) lab, which looked at the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners that the Department of Psychological Sciences use to image the human brain. MRI allows neuroscientists to image brain activity as well as brain structure without having to use invasive surgery or radioactive materials, and enables several centres of brain research within the School of Science to conduct its work.

One of these centres is the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) whose BabyLab has been exploring the cognitive development of babies. Dr Esha Massand from CBCD started Thursday’s talks on babies with a look at what infants with Down Syndrome can tell us about dementia. In people with Down Syndrome, the APP gene which contributes to plaques and tangles associated with dementia is over-expressed so that by the time they reach the age of 30-40, they exhibit Alzheimer’s brain pathologies. However, not all individuals with Down Syndrome go on to develop dementia. BabyLab has been studying babies with Down Syndrome to try to uncover what risks and protective factors may exist in the brain, so that in the future early interventions can be made.

It seemed only fitting, however, to end Science Week with two talks, focusing on curiosity and baby laughter. Katarina Begus, a PhD student at BabyLab, spoke about the research that the lab has been undertaking to test for babies curiosity. The research found that babies have a strong tendency to try to interact with adults who are most likely to satisfy their curiosity by, for example, naming the things that a baby points at.

A curious child inspects pet dog. (Source: depositphotos)
A curious child inspects pet dog. (Source: depositphotos)

Katarina also left an open question to us that sent a warning about the future of curiosity. By asking us to write a question on a piece of paper that only we individually probably knew the answer to, and then passing it to the person next to us, she was able to demonstrate just how important it was to us to find out the answers. When then asked to rate from 1-10 how much we wanted to know the answer (10 being very much, 1 being not at all), my neighbour and I both put 9. It was clearly important, and in fact other neurological research has shown that curiosity in adults elicits the same response from the brain as when we yearn for chocolate, nicotine or sex.

However, with information so accessible now it has become necessary to ask: What will happen to curiosity? Is there an incentive to remember when even infants know you can get the information you need on your phone? No one really knows the answer to these questions but Begus reminds us that greater knowledge can help protect against dementia and she finishes by imploring the audience to never stop being curious.

If curiosity is the first message from Science Week, the second is to laugh together. Dr Caspar Addyman gave the final talk, on the surprisingly serious science of baby laughter. He asked us to keep in mind a quote from Victor Borge who said: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Dr Addyman’s initial research into a largely overlooked but defining characteristic of babies has highlighted several very important qualities that incentivise laughter.

The two YouTube clips below, which Dr Addyman has shown on his BabyLaughter blog were favourites from his talk.

Laughter is essentially a social process. For babies it not only encourages parents to spend time with them, but is a way for parents and babies to give each other their fullest attention. It is also a powerful learning tool. As Dr Addyman says: ‘babies are little scientists; they have to teach themselves an awful lot of stuff.’ And the most important thing for any human to learn is how to understand other people. Laughter, and the ability to make others laugh is one of the best tools that babies have in order to do this.

Keep laughing, and always be curious!

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