Sensory Science Research

150 years of Kiwi science - 10 big moments

April 5, 2017

Our research community tonight gathers in Wellington for a gala dinner celebrating 150 years of our leading body for science and the humanities, the Royal Society Te Aparangi. Science reporter Jamie Morton looks at 10 highlights in its history.



Modern songs made for shorter attention spans - study

April 5, 2017

Don't bore us, get to the chorus.

That's a greatest hits album by Swedish pop rock duo Roxette, but is also seems to be the mantra for modern day pop music - which has dramatically cut its intros compared to 1980s power ballads.

A new study from Ohio State University looked at the evolution of top 10 chart-topping hits from 1986 to 2015 and found some stark changes - big hair and fashion aside.

The intros to songs, which used to average around 20 seconds in the mid-80s, are now only around five seconds long.

Song tempos are also getting faster, with an average increase of 8 percent; song titles aren't as length either with a trend toward using just one word.

Study author Hubert Léveillé Gauvin, a music theory doctoral student, puts that down to shorter attention spans and the need for musicians to grab fickle listeners' attention in the age of streaming.

"It's survival of the fittest: Songs that manage to grab and sustain listeners' attention get played and others get skipped. There's always another song," Mr Léveillé Gauvin says.

"If people can skip so easily and at no cost, you have to do something to grab their attention."

He says the difference between mid-80s songs and today's songs is "insane" - a 78 percent cut - but "makes sense".


Reference: Hubert Léveillé Gauvin. Drawing listener attention in popular music: Testing five musical features arising from the theory of attention economy. Musicae Scientiae, 2017; 102986491769801 DOI: 10.1177/1029864917698010


How your daughters future doors may already be closed by the time she is six

March 31, 2017

Imagine you are reading a story to a child; the story goes something like this:

There is one person at work who is really, really smart. They can figure out how to do things quickly, they come up with answers much faster and better than anyone else.

Now imagine telling this story:

There is one person at work who is really, really nice. They like to help others with their problems, they are friendly to everyone.

At the end of the story, you show pictures of adult males and females to the child and ask them which person they think was being described.

What gender do you think they would pick for each story?

This exact experiment was carried out alongside a series of others as part of a recent study published in the journal Science. The scientists found that a child’s perception of brilliance goes through dramatic changes between ages 5 and 7.

After the story, the five year olds associated brilliance with their own gender at roughly equal levels. Just one year later, the 6 year old girls were significantly less likely than the boys to associate brilliance with their own gender. By the age of 7, when given a choice of toys to play with, the majority of the girls chose not to play with games labelled for ‘really, really smart children’.



Worried about shark attacks or terrorism? Here's how to think about the real risk of rare events

March 30, 2017

The world can feel like a scary place.

Today, Australia's National Terrorism Threat Level is "Probable". Shark attacks are on the rise; the number of people attacked by sharks in 2000-2009 has almost doubled since 1990-1999. Travellers are at a high risk of getting the Zika virus in places where the disease is present, such as Brazil and Mexico.

However, despite their tragic outcomes, these events are all extremely rare.

Since 1996, only eight people have been killed by terrorism attacks in Australia. There have been 186 shark attacks in the 20 years from 1990 to 2009. Best estimates indicate that only 1.8 people for each million tourists would have contracted Zika at the Rio Olympics.

To be fair, it is extremely difficult to judge the incidence of rare events. Decision scientists study rare events by bringing people into the lab and asking them to make choices. For example, in their Nobel Prize-winning work, researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky had people make choices between two options: one safe, one risky.



New Device Could Help Improve Taste of Foods Low in Fat, Sugar, and Salt

September 29, 2016

Scientists may be closing in on a way to let consumers savor the sweet taste of cake, cookies, and other culinary delights without the sugar rush.

In preliminary tests using a new device developed in-house that allows them to screen for odor compounds in real foods, they have isolated several natural aromatic molecules that could be used to trick our brains into believing that desserts and other foods contain more fat, sugar, or salt than they actually do.

“Most consumers know that they should be eating more healthful foods made with reduced amounts of fat, sugar, and salt. But this is problematic because these are the very ingredients that make many of the foods we like taste so delicious,” says Thierry Thomas-Danguin, PhD. “Based on our lab work, we’ve come to believe that aromas can help compensate for the reduction of fat, sugar, and salt in healthful foods and make them more appealing to consumers.”