Science Saturday

Ben, you’re always running here and there
You feel you’re not wanted anywhere
If you ever look behind
And don’t like what you find
There’s one thing you should know
You’ve got a place to go
(you’ve got a place to go)

 —from the movie Ben, 1972

Oh, rats.And that place would be China. According to National Geographic News, more than two billion—that’s right, billion with a “b”—rats have been living around Dongting Lake. The rats were flushed out of their holes around the lake when the Yangtse River flooded last month. Since then, farmers living around the lake, China’s second largest, have been overwhelmed and have resorted to using everything from poison to hammers to kill them. “There are so many rats that you can kill three of them with one [strike],” National Geographic quoted Tan Lulu as saying.

The neurological explanation for air guitar behavior: mirror neurons. In this April 2007 chat between neuroscientist Daniel Levitin and musician David Byrne in the wonderful Seed magazine, Levitin explains how playing air guitar is really no different than “monkey see, monkey do”:

They [mirror neurons] were first discovered in Italy where a laboratory was recording from a cluster of neurons in monkeys’ brains. There was a monkey who was just sitting aside waiting his turn, watching another monkey reach for a banana and then peel it and eat it. And a clever technician noticed the cell recordings from this monkey and that his motor cortex was going crazy—the part of his brain that would be active if he were actually reaching for something and peeling it back.

…They eventually replicated it with a number of different things, and it turned out that they had discovered what are now called, loosely, mirror neurons: neurons that mirror the activity of others.

Byrne and Levitin talk about a variety of other music-related brain issues, including : which came first—music or language (my money’s on music), and how our brains recognize music patterns that a computer can’t.

Check out Seed Salon for other fascinating, cross-disciplinary discussions between scientists and novelists, musicians, filmmakers, philosophers, and more.

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