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Music: emotion by proxy

25 August, 2015 - 11:32

david-bradley-bowieI’ve always loved music, in the words of the song, “music was my first love”. From the time when I’d listen to my mother trilling the songs of Dusty Springfield on washday, to my Dad’s Big O and Frank Ifield impressions. From the time I had my first toy glockenspiel and a miniature guitar, through the time my little sister decided she didn’t want to learn to play guitar and I was riff happy to take the axe off her hands (still got it along with a few additions in the intervening four decades or so) to the present day and my deluded attempts to reinvent my middle-aged self as a hybrid of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel but without the masks, makeup and gold lame hotpants…

We talk about music evoking emotions, about moving pieces of music, and I remember as a small child being brought to tears by the theme tune to the French children’s drama about a small boy, Sebastian, and his a Pyrenean mountain dog Belle set in Belvédère in Alpes-Maritimes, that seemed to be repeated endlessly during the long school summer holidays.

In a classic TED Talk, conductor Benjamin Zander talks of one-buttock piano playing and has his captivated audience in tears explain the emotive power of Chopin’s use of chordal suspense and musical resolution in one of his preludes. Music captivates, fascinates, makes us cry, makes us laugh, rouses and arouses us, angers us, amuses us. And, that’s even before anyone has added any words to an instrumental piece and called it a song.

But, something about music bothers me. It’s an emotional placebo, isn’t it? Am I right? The emotions we feel when we listen to music, they’re real, but they are triggered by something that is somehow not real. A song that makes you cry is triggering something emotionally, but it’s not a genuine unhappy occasion that brings one to tears, it’s a succession of notes and chords, a tune, a melody… not a real sad “event”, it’s just noises. It’s not an incident, nor an accident the likes of which would make you truly sad. Accidents will happen as Elvis Costello taught us so evocatively, but what is it

that we are feeling when we listen to music that brings us to tears or makes us want to rhythmically jump for joy? I remember an interview with Phil Collins in which he mused that when you’re feeling sad you put on a sad song for the purposes of emotional reinforcement, I assume, he meant, again it’s as if we also want to bolster our emotions with the placebo-like trigger.

It may well be that a particular piece of music reminds us of something sad, something happy, or whatever emotion is being triggered, but what did the three-year old me watching Belle and Sebastian and listening to the theme music have to be sad about? What was that tune reminding me of? Why did it make me cry? It wasn’t the words, they were in French and I didn’t learn my “schoolboy French” with Mrs Nancarrow until I was…a schoolboy…several years later. Moreover, there are definitely cultural differences too and the dirges of western funeral music is in sharp contrast to the happy-sounding jangly bells and percussion of some Pacific cultures.

A new clue to help explain why music is emotional emerged this month from medical science because of renewed interest in the therapeutical potential of psychedelic drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). It is well known that LSD was widely used by artists and musicians in the 1950s and 1960s and one might imagine that it isn’t just Lucy in the sky that owes her existence to the substance (allegedly), but many other songs and concept albums and their covers! Now, a modern placebo-controlled study of whether or not LSD enhances the emotional response to instrumental music has shown in a small group of volunteer daytrippers that the drug apparently boosts emotions such as “wonder”, “transcendence”, “power” and “tenderness”. Given that other drugs can cause or “simulate” excitement (caffeine, cocaine, amphetamines), empathy (ecstasy), relaxation (cannabis), sensual pleasure (heroin, chocolate), depression and loss of inhibitions (alcohol) it’s perhaps not a shock that another drug can affect other emotions.

Mark Changizi in his book “Harnessed”, as I’ve discussed in the blog before (November 2011), suggests (I do believe) that music moves us because it hooks into a primitive part of our brain that hears sounds in terms of our fellow apes moving around and or predators and prey coming and going. The Doppler effect lets us know whether those heavy steps are running towards us or away. So, sounds might trigger primitive emotions by hooking into the fight or flight response and setting us up to lash out or run away, perhaps. While other sounds might be evocative of prey to be stalked or a mate to be wooed? Maybe too, there are noises of sadness that one might hear if someone is sick or dying.

“I suppose I might suggest they’re real emotions, albeit evoked by a fictional human mover,” Changizi told me this week. Music equates to emotion for so many of us, we love it, cannot live without it, are desperate to hear and make new music as well as keen to listen on repeat to old favourites and golden oldies. And, yet…while the emotions feel so real, they’re not as authentic as the emotions we feel when faced by those incidents and accidents, when times are good or bad, happy or sad. Maybe “emotional placebo” is not quite the right phrase, although music is not only emotional but often healing too, an emotional rescue, you might say. It’s a stimulus that tugs at our heart’s different strings by proxy. Perhaps music is working like a kind of emotional synesthesia. Just as those with that condition can hear colors, smell textures, for instance, perhaps music (which really is just sounds) is stimulating the emotion centers in the brain as if it is a real happy, sad or other happening that we are experience and triggering the same response.

Changizi offers an additional insight, “Is a television show a proxy stimulus? Are the emotions resulting from TV fake?” he asks. Where I argue that music is more abstract than that, he suggests that, “Music is just more abstract fiction than television. But still amounts to a stimulus which seems to your brain like a story of an individual moving around you doing stuff. But a more emotional story, not with the people talking.”

Whatever the answer, I’d just like to say thank you for the music and put another record on.

The Mighty Fall by Dave Bradley

An abridged version of my blog post appeared first in a Materials Today comment piece.

Original source: Music: emotion by proxy by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

Nettle stings

22 August, 2015 - 09:05

Wellcome Images describes its 100,000 strong collection of high-resolution images as “one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections”. You cannot deny that making a nettle sting the subject of a photo is an unusual thing to do:


The image above is a colourised scanning electron micrograph of the sting cells of a nettle leaf (Urtica dioica). The stings themselves are hollow spikes of silica (sand/glass) that snap easily when your bare knees or other body part brush against the leaves. The stinging contents of the spikes are released from a bulb at the base and contain formic acid (same as ant venom), histamine (also in wasp stings and the same inflammatory chemical released by our bodies when we have allergies), acetylcholine and serotonin (neurotransmitters that stimulate our nervous system), a chemical concoction that is the perfect recipe for pain.

There is no evidence that rubbing a dock leaf on a nettle sting has anything more than a placebo effect, but that can be sufficient when it is temporary, acute pain anyway!

As I’ve discussed before on Sciencebase, nettles are the only plant on which brush-footed butterflies will lay their eggs.

Original source: Nettle stings by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs


11 August, 2015 - 18:16

A conducting wire that can be stretched to 14 times its original length has been developed by scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas, US. They say it could find use in flexible electronics devices and artificial muscles, as well as other devices such as giant deformation strain sensors.

You can read my full news story about this in Chemistry World

Original source: Super-elastic by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

Goodbye, Hello Google+

8 August, 2015 - 08:38

UPDATE: Still not quite out of the door, I’ve umbuttoned my coat and sat back down to have a cuppa and a slice of cake with the various people who didn’t wish me on my way…so, whatever Google actually does with G+ in the long run, I’ll sit a spell…

I have been on Google+ from week 1, as with all their other services, I hankered after an invitation to get started as soon as they were announced and did my best to make something of each of them. Indeed, I had 16000+ people circling me on G+ as of this morning and more than half a million views. Little engagement though, very few comments and rarely a share over those four years, which suggests to me either that my content is just too boring for people to comment or else they weren’t really there in the first place (I do hope it’s the latter or I’ve been peening in the wind this last quarter century!)


But, I have other evidence beyond my content. I looked at some stats for one of the big outlets and they were seeing thousands of reads/likes on Facebook for each article, a mere dozen or two on Twitter, but just one or two individuals on G+. The outlet is big and I mean big, so one would expect decent stats for all social media and that should include G+ but it simply doesn’t. G+ was meant to be more than Facebook, it was always less, despite “Hangouts”.

It seems to me like G+ is going the way of so many other Google “services” when the company finally realises that its attempts to emulate the success of other sites isn’t working out so well. Remember Google Wave, iGoogle, Orkut, Knol, Google Reader, Google Buzz etc? No? Well I was there when those started and had high hopes for them but they were all ultimately consigned to the web 2.0 scrapheap. Google recently announced that it would no longer oblige users to have a G+ account to use other services as it had before. It’s the first hint from them that things aren’t perhaps going as planned.

Anyway, I duly announced that I was not going to share anything new on G+ from now on and got more comments on that post than I’d had on any other for quite some time, ironically enough. Generally, I’d say passive-aggressive responses effectively saying “so long” and allusions to my being part of the problem for G+ by disconnecting. Hey guys, there was no need to kick me out of the door just because I reached for my coat…couldn’t you have offered me another cuppa and a slice of cake? I am not really having second thoughts though, give it six months and you will remember this conversation with a nod when Google makes the announcement but I’ll just not be there to bother saying, “I told you so!”

As an aside: This from John Brandon in Inc echoes the impression I got from the people who commented on my grabbing my coat: “The popular view on Google+ is that it will soldier on and possibly even rebound. I don’t think so. When Google closes a door, they rarely open a window. The reason they are splitting up these services is because they want to save their investment in them and salvage the code before shuttering Google+ once and for all.”

Original source: Goodbye, Hello Google+ by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

A triple A-side meta single

4 July, 2015 - 10:24

UPDATE: My triple-A-sided single is now an 8-track

Obviously, a good old-fashioned circular slice of polyvinyl chloride, PVC, or just vinyl to audiophiles, is a disc, two sides, A and B, sometimes labelled A and A…but what if you want three sides? Is it possible to have a hyper-disk with an extra groovy surface? In reality, maybe not. In virtuality…

Life, Love and Lonicera by Dave Bradley

Life, Love and Lonicera: My triple A-side single featuring a Pseudo Gabriel pastiche “Push the Button”, my feverish asthmatic falsetto in the mock jazz of “Wild Honeysuckle” and the slow build and gospelesque break of “Burning Out” featuring original lyrics by my good friend and singing partner JH Livingstone.

Original source: A triple A-side meta single by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

George’s Gentle Geordie Geography

30 June, 2015 - 17:47

The Geordie geography of TV’s George Gently (which has been on for years) is quite amazing…I watch it because it’s filmed in the land of my birth. But, Scene 1 might be in a children’s home in Teesside (which they spell Teeside), next scene is Gently, who’s based in Durham, which is on the Wear, nipping down to said kids’ home with sidekick mod copper John, then they’re back in time for Gently to quickly get to South Shields only it isn’t South Shields (on the Tyne), which they call “Shields”, it’s Seaton Sluice, which is back over the Tyne and further North. Then they’re driving into somewhere they said was Whitley Bay, but there are grassy sand dunes and it’s so obviously Druridge Bay (where they didn’t build a nuclear power station, I was at the punk protest gig in 1977!).

Next, they’re in Cullercoasts, where I grew up, but it’s not, it’s somewhere near Roker, and so on and so forth, until Gently, case solved is standing knee deep in his waders flyfishing on a wear (against fishing rules, I think) in the shadow of Durham Cathedral (his favourite building).

Somehow they span three counties, three rivers, and at least a hundred different attempts at an authentic Geordie accent and all the while not once mentioning The Toon, Mac’ems, or the name of the place they’re actually meant to be stationed in. Oh, and they never have scenes where they are driving for more than a few seconds, presumably for fear of framing modern street furniture, like that enormous CCTV pole outside the Spanish City in S02E03.

It is good though…I love the authenticity of the interiors, all that bevelled glass and kitsch ornaments…and it certainly beats Heartbeat. Next week, Sciencebase dissect’s Vera’s “Geordie accent” and her eternal penchant for the Rendezvous Cafe…

Original source: George’s Gentle Geordie Geography by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

100 songs

30 June, 2015 - 10:15

Having mentioned 100 million chemicals just now, be sheer chance, I noticed that “Push the Button” stacks up as my 100th original tune on SoundCloud. It’s part of the double A-side “single” – Life Love, and Lonicera, which includes my big time Pseudo Gabriel sledgehammer of a song, “Push the Button” and Wild Honeysuckle which features my feverish festival falsetto, songs of sexuality on steroids…but NOT NSFW ;-)

Life, Love and Lonicera by Dave Bradley


We know it's all electrified and open to abuse But schmooze it up, confuse it up it is the only muse Push the button!

Original source: 100 songs by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

100 million chemicals

30 June, 2015 - 09:06

One little bit of chemistry news that I always try to cover are the milestones as the Chemical Abstracts Service announces the next “round number” in its database of chemical structures. It was September 2007 when I mentioned their reaching 50 million structures, but I am fairly sure I wrote about their 10 millionth in newscientist back in the early 1990s…

This week, CAS announced the 100 millionth chemical substance in its registry in the service’s 50th anniversary. That is quite astounding, 100 million chemicals! On average a new substance registered every two and a half minutes since 1965, although three quarters of the entries were added only in the last decade.


The 100 millionth (entry references CAS RN 1786400-23-4) is a drug for acute myeloid leukaemia, developed by Coferon in Stony Brook, New York, USA.

Original source: 100 million chemicals by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

Dexter on the Rocks

10 June, 2015 - 15:52

A fascinating paper highlighted in F1000 Prime suggests that powdered tomato (the red-coloured lycopene in it, actually) has a protective effect on a liver diseased by alcohol. Specifically, “dietary tomato powder inhibits alcohol-induced hepatic injury by suppressing cytochrome p450 2E1 induction in rodent models.” So if you’re a boozed up critter it might help. What I am waiting with baited breath to see are the tabloid headlines when they get wind of this research:

Bloody Mary cures ailing liver

That kind of thing…


This from the paper’s abstract:

Chronic and excessive alcohol consumption leads to the development of alcoholic liver disease (ALD) and greatly increases the risk of liver cancer. Induction of the cytochrome p450 2E1 (CYP2E1) enzyme by chronic and excessive alcohol intake is known to play a role in the pathogenesis of ALD. High intake of tomatoes, rich in the carotenoid lycopene, is associated with a decreased risk of chronic disease.

Of course, the paper says nothing of the sort wrt the Bloody Mary, it just hints at a component of tomato powder having a putatively beneficial effect on liver enzymes in a laboratory animal. I gave it a tweet and Justin Brower aka Nature Poisons, a forensic toxicologist and organic chemist, offered up the idea of a powdered Bloody Mary made from “powdered alcohol” and powdered tomato, he called it “The Jane Doe Bloodstain”, to which I then offered the hashtag Dexter. Thus, was born the ultimate boozy liver scientist’s cocktail: A Dexter on the
Rocks. Watch out for the gory end of season finale…cheers!

CC “Bloody Mary” photo by

Original source: Dexter on the Rocks by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

Dave Bradley Photography

5 June, 2015 - 13:22

There are countless sites for depositing and sharing one’s photos online. Mine are scattered across Flickr, 500px, Facebook, Google+, FineArt, Instagram and various others as well as on my Imaging Storm Photography website.

Original source: Dave Bradley Photography by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

Allergy myths debunked

5 June, 2015 - 08:49

Here’s a very quickfire summary of an excellent article by Sally Bloomfield of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, published in The Conversation.


  • Fewer childhood infections does not lead to more allergies
  • Our modern “obsession” with cleanliness is not to blame for more people having allergies
  • Being less hygienic will not reverse the allergy trend
  • Synthetic chemicals are not to blame for allergies

On that latter issue about “synthetic” chemicals Bloomfield makes a very important point that the public should know:

Many people believe that ‘man-made’ chemicals are more likely to cause allergic reactions, leading to many synthetic substances in products being replaced by ‘atural alternatives’. However, the most common allergic reactions are to naturally occurring allergens, in foods such as eggs, milk and nuts, in common garden plants such as primroses and chrysanthemums, and things in the environment such as pollen, dust mites and pet dander. Some natural replacements for synthetic substances could actually increase the risk of allergic reactions.

Creative Commons photo by peapodlabs

Original source: Allergy myths debunked by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

Skipping breakfast – good or bad?

3 June, 2015 - 14:35

Is skipping breakfast bad for you? Back in the 1970s, there was a campaign that led with the line “go to work on an egg”, but that was just a promo for the egg marketing people, or was it? The so-called “health” and “lifestyle” magazines often splash with the idea that you must have a good breakfast as it “sets you up for the day” and helps avoid snacking during the rest of the day, controls sugar spikes, helps metabolism, all that kind of tosh.


About a year ago British tabloids got hold of a story claiming that brekkie isn’t the most important meal, it was a tiny trial and the news stories were dismantled by NHS Choices’ “Behind the headlines“. On several occasions prior to that there were news reports that regularly skipping breakfast leads to a greater risk of having a heart attack in men. And before that claims that missing breakfast when you’re a child can increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life. And, then there was the question of the big breakfast and whether skipping breakfast leads to our seeking out fatty foods later in the day. Again media stories critiqued by the NHS (follow those links).

The NHS site has some recipes for people who feel they ought to have breakfast but cannot face the traditional breakfast fare first thing in the morning. WebMD reckons breakfast is important. As does Johns Hopkins in some advice for students. Similar fodder on the Mayo Clinic site. But for every dozen breaskfast recipes mentioned on the web, every 365 breakfast bars unwrapped, there seems to be at least one citation of some study or another that suggests skipping breakfast is not bad for you, may well do you good, or perhaps not, who knows, definitely maybe!

It would be nice if there were a simple answer. And, perhaps there is: eat when you’re hungry, get plenty of fresh air and exercise, drink enough water so that you don’t feel thirsty and avoid the real nasties: tobacco smoke, drunk drivers and (when you’re really ill) quacks such as homeopaths.

CC “Full English Breakfast” photo by homard

Original source: Skipping breakfast – good or bad? by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

Science journalist smiles

29 May, 2015 - 15:43

Moody freelance science journalist, David Bradley (aka sciencebase) famed for his depressing social media avatar and miserable lack of photogenicity, cracked the lens today when his daughter snapped a few photos of him pensively and pointlessly propped up against the headstock of his Fender Telecaster Guitar. In one of 27 headshots, Bradley is actually seen to be smiling at the camera. The photograph has now been quickly uploaded to the Gravatar servers, and used to replace his Twitter avatar and his Facebook profile photo before his mood changes. There were three seconds of absolute stunned silence across the whole of social media and in science laboratories the world over as a mark of respect. Frontpages have been held…


Original source: Science journalist smiles by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

Dave Bradley Music

24 May, 2015 - 21:12

dave-bradley-mood-music-square-200pxIn case you didn’t know, I’m a science journalist by day, a photographer on my days off and a musician by night. Been fretting guitar strings since I was about 12 years old, but only in recent years have I performed live and written and recorded complete, original songs.

My music – originals and covers available on: iTunes, BandCamp, Spotify, Google Play, Youtube, ReverbNation, SoundCloud, Tradiio, Gumroad, Beat100Spotify and other outlets including Pandora, Deezer, Rdio, Amazon mp3, Loudr, MixCloud.

dave-bradley-musicHere’s a very short list of a few of musicians, bands and artists I admire: Athlete, The Beatles, bigMouth, Blur, David Bowie, Kate Bush, Crowded House, The Cure, John Denver, Doves, Editors, Elbow, Fred’s House, Peter Gabriel, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Manic Street Preachers, Van Morrison, Gerry Rafferty, R.E.M., Nile Rodgers, Rush, The Smiths, James Taylor, U2, Neil Young, there are many others. I’ve been told that I occasionally sound like a Geordie Glenn Tilbrook (that’s according to the Manchedelic Roger Waters better known as Dek “MonoStone” Ham), and sometimes George Harrison, Steely Dan, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Sting and David Bowie, Stephen Stills…I can dream, can’t I?


Original source: Dave Bradley Music by David Bradley.

Categories: Science Blogs

Venus and beers

21 May, 2015 - 10:42
Once you’ve had yer fill…it’s time to head for the chippy but snapping, en route, the crescent Moon and Venus watching dispassionately from the Heavens over the annual Cambridge Beer Festival on Jesus Green. Just out of shot was also the planet Jupiter, all three first lights of the night sky as far as my […]

Venus and beers is a post from the science blog of science journalist, photographer and musician David Bradley
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How not to have a middle age stroke

13 May, 2015 - 09:34

The number of middle-aged men and women suffering a cerebral stroke has apparently risen significantly in the last decade or so. It seems that the press release from the Stroke Association making this pronouncement which has been widely reported almost verbatim by the media is based on NHS hospital admission statistics, which could have all kinds of biases and errors. I couldn’t find an actual peer-reviewed research paper to support the numbers and neither could Adam Jacobs the stats guy. It may well be just scaremongering by the media and it’s sure to boost charitable donations and raise awareness, but it’s also scary for anyone in middle age, scary enough to get you worrying and raise your blood pressure. That said, there are certain lifestyle choices that medical research suggests increase the risk of stroke, whether this latest media frenzy is based on published science or not, and so some advice on reducing one’s risk might be useful.

Thankfully, The Guardian has a nice howto on lowering your risk of suffering this often life-changing and sometimes lethal cardiovascular event.


Basically, it boils down to this:

  • Stop smoking
  • Exercise, but don’t overdo it, avoid straining
  • Cut your calorie intake, eat smaller portions (obesity and diabetes increase risk)
  • Eat a lot less salt, avoid shop-bought bread, for instance
  • If you drink alcohol, spread it over the week rather than binging
  • Don’t use illicit recreational drugs, including so-called “legal” highs like ecstasy, flakka and cat
  • De-stress, seek help for depression
  • Monitor your own blood pressure at home and see your doc if it’s consistently higher than about 140/85

    I’d add another piece of advice…don’t ignore a “mini-stroke” (transient ischaemic attack (TIA)), temporary blackouts and such, if you have weird symptoms (dropping your coffee cup, slurred speech, confusion, disorientation that passes after a moment and isn’t due to alcohol use, see your doc urgently)

    How not to have a middle age stroke is a post from the science blog of science journalist, photographer and musician David Bradley
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Categories: Science Blogs

Flakka and bath salts

13 May, 2015 - 08:56

Alpha-PVP (α-pyrrolidinopentiophenone, alpha-PVP) is a synthetic stimulant of the cathinone class; the street drug – commonly known as flakka – is chemically similar to the illegal high MDPV (bath salts), but lacks the 3,4-methylenedioxy motif; the same difference that distinguishes methamphetamine (meth) from MDMA (ecstasy). Hype in the media have alluded to flakk leading to extreme violence, paranoid psychoses, compulsive nudity and “zombie-like” behaviour and worse. Now, researchers at The Scripps Research Institute in California have demonstrated that alpha-PVP appears to be as potent a stimulant, and therefore as addictive, as MDPV. (News source)

flakka-bad“There have been assertions that flakka is somehow worse than MDPV, but this study shows that the two are very similar,” explains Scripps’ Michael Taffe. “That doesn’t mean that flakka use is ‘safe’. Our data show that flakka is as potent as MDPV, making it a very good stimulant, arguably with worse addiction liability than methamphetamine.”

Research Blogging IconAarde, Shawn M., et al. “In vivo potency and efficacy of the novel cathinone α-pyrrolidinopentiophenone and 3, 4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone: self-administration and locomotor stimulation in male rats.” Psychopharmacology (2015): 1-11.

Flakka and bath salts is a post from the science blog of science journalist, photographer and musician David Bradley
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