Zapping Your Brain Enhances Your Love of Classic Art

New Scientist • 31 October 2013

Sparking interest. Researchers at the University of Milan found that lightly stimulating the prefrontal cortex area with an electrical current enhanced subjects' appreciation of art. "The effect of stimulation was subtle, but still pretty remarkable considering the participants were basically just putting a battery on their head," says a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Read on for more on the nascent field of neuroaesthetics research.

Apparently it is possible to account for taste, as this study demonstrates by drawing a connection between art appreciation and neural stimulation. These results are part of the new field of neuroaesthetics, which studies the "interplay between brain activity and artistic taste." Reading this article calls to mind similar developments in economics, where "neuroeconomists" are using neuroscience to better understand how brain processes influence decision-making. Likewise, the emerging field of "neuromarketing" explores how the brain physically reacts to advertising or products. Based on current trends, a neuroscience degree may be the best preparation for a career in art, economics, or marketing! (Lavoie)

Why H Is the Most Contentious Letter in the Alphabet

The Guardian • 4 November 2013

H as in . . . 'Enry 'Iggins? Michael Rosen's recent book, Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, describes the role the letter "H" has played in political and class divisions, from Roman times to the Norman Conquest to modern society. Check out this fascinating history of "H" and find out why "[n]o other letter has had such power to divide people into opposing camps."

I'm a huge devotee of words, letters, good grammar, languages, lexicography, and all else associated with language and writing . . . so I've been trying, unsuccessfully, to find a way to like this article. I love the notion of studying the history of each letter of the [contemporary English-language] alphabet, but if H is Rosen's most interesting example, I don't think I'll be buying the book. The Normans' word "hache" is "probably" the source of our "hatchet" because the lower-case H "looks a lot like an axe"? Egad. I notice that he doesn't use "harmony" as one of his examples. And does the fact that H is silent in Spanish mean that Spanish speakers avoid conflict? Or that it's pretty much nonexistent in French means that their culture is even more conflict averse? (Dooley)

Who Counts? Grappling with Attendance as a Proxy for Impact

Museum 2.0 • 16 October 2013

More art than science. Measuring museum attendance can be an arbitrary exercise, says museum director Nina Simon. After all, whom do you count? People who attend an opening for the food? Children dragged kicking and screaming by their parents? "Probe too deeply and the question gets absurd," says Simon. "The more important question is not WHO counts but WHAT counts . . . What is meaningful in the context of achieving our mission? That's the number we should be capturing."

This is an issue that will resonate in many corners of the libraries, archives and museums (LAM) topography. The author uses the analogy of a shoe store to demonstrate how a museum director (or staff at any organization offering programs and services) might think through and develop use metrics that actually shed light on how well the organization is fulfilling its mission. Obviously the mission of a shoe store is not merely to get people into the store; less obvious is the fact that simply selling shoes is also not the mission. The real mission of the shoe store is to cultivate relationships with customers that result in them returning to that same store whenever they want to buy more shoes. The key, according to the author, is to develop a meaningful "conversion ratio" that measures impact in each program area or service offering of an organization. Often there are two levels of impact: sparking interest, and sustaining it. So in the shoe store example, there are two conversion ratios: one in ten people who walk into the store buy shoes (sparking); 20% of those who buy come back to buy more (sustaining). In other words, as a baseline, a store would need to attract fifty visitors in order to develop one long-term customer. The author offers several good examples of "conversion ratios" for museum programs. The comments section includes a fascinating account of how the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra used a similar approach to measuring the success of its efforts to become one of the three greatest orchestras in the world. It might be interesting to apply this thinking to, say, your own special collections unit. (Massie)

Master of Many Trades

Aeon Magazine • 4 November 2013

Paean to polymaths. British poet Robert Twigger makes his case for polymathics, a new field of study that would mesh physical sciences with artistic capabilities to create well-rounded humans adept at innovative problem solving. He argues that monopathy, which encourages focusing on ever narrower sub-fields, reflects the 19th and 20th century requirements of factory jobs and academic posts, but has resulted in tunnel vision just when we need panoramic perspective.

Although few of us can aspire to be another Leonardo de Vinci, the poster child for polymathics, we all can strive to learn new things and become more well-rounded. Now we know there's a neurological reason why people can stay mentally active into their 90s—not doing crossword puzzles, but acquiring new interests. It would seem that innovation is a great side benefit, beyond developing "a better sense of proportion and balance." It strikes me that a number of my OCLC colleagues are in fact polymaths! No wonder they're so engaging. (Smith-Yoshimura)

Why You Can't Stop Checking Your Phone

The Boston Globe • 6 October 2013

Driven to distraction. A federal survey shows that 94% of Americans agree that texting while driving should be illegal but an alarming number do it anyway. Read on to learn why the act of driving makes users even more likely to engage with their smartphones and why the habitual behaviors leading to this "national epidemic" are so difficult to change.

The link to Werner Herzog's short film on YouTube—about lives lost and changed forever in accidents caused by texting—stopped me in my tracks. The film is devastating. This article summarizes the science and concludes that a minimum of 25% of crashes involve drivers talking and texting on cell phones. We cannot punish and legislate away the "habit" of filling the silences and gaps in our lives with screens. In this case, however, the need to connect ("the human condition") is killing people and wrecking lives. (Schaffner)

Above the Fold Quiz

According to an item in this week's News and Views section, how will domain experts benefit from contributing their research to VIAF in the form of authority data?

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