Can You Understand Me?

How do we go about relating to another?
18 August 2020
Presented by Adam Murphy, Katie Haylor
Production by Adam Murphy.


a picture of a brain firing off electrical signals


This week, how do we understand each other? From infants to adults, what are the ways in which we relate to one another. Plus, in the news, the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, the perks of prosecco, and the pheromone that makes locusts swarm...

In this episode


Analysing the Russian COVID-19 Vaccine
Gordon Dougan, University of Cambridge

The coronavirus is continuing to dominate the headlines internationally; New Zealand broke its 102 day run of no local cases with the detection of a fresh outbreak mushrooming in Auckland; China claims to have detected traces of coronavirus on chicken imported from South America, triggering food safety concerns; and amidst it all, Russia announces the creation of a covid vaccine and floats a plan to start mass vaccinations within weeks. Russian President Vladimir Putin told a media conference that the new vaccine generates immunity lasting two years. Of course, announcements like these would normally be greeted with great enthusiasm, but some experts are alarmed that to have achieved what they claim to have done in such a short time, Russia must have been cutting corners, which could have consequences for safety. Chris Smith spoke to Gordon Dougan, who is a leading vaccinologist at the University of Cambridge…

Gordon - It wasn't a complete surprise, because we did know that Russia was developing a vaccine, and that they had hinted that they were moving forward into clinical trials. I guess the big surprise is some of the claims around how far they've got in the process. We all know that vaccine development takes a long time. It can take several years and even with shortcuts, two months or thereabouts is remarkable.

Chris - Do you have any knowledge of exactly what it is that they have constructed as their vaccine?

Gordon - We do know it's based upon an adenovirus. So this is a virus which is often used as a vector, and what it does, it actually a bit like a Trojan horse by bringing a component of the COVID-19 virus to present that to the human immune system.

Chris - Oh right. So it's a common cold type virus, that they've reprogrammed a bit. So it also looks a bit like COVID?

Gordon - Yeah. So what it really is, is it's a virus that would normally infect another animal, not necessarily human. When it gets into the human body, it cannot infect properly, but it can deliver a package, for example, a component of the COV-SARS-2 virus.

Chris - So what worries you then, given the headlines we've seen, given that Vladimir Putin says that they've already had approaches from 20 countries plus, who have commissioned them to supply a billion doses of this vaccine. As someone who has a long track record in successfully bringing vaccines into the clinical space, what's ringing alarm bells for you?

Gordon - Well, we've had a century of experience in developing vaccines. And what we've learned is the most important part of any vaccine is that it's safe. The second component of course, is that it protects against the disease. Safety tests themselves take time, there's a phase called preclinical, which means we do a lot of testing before the vaccine even gets into a human being. And then when it gets into a human being, we have to continue that testing and then eventually see whether the vaccine works. So the short timeline means the Russians must be compromising on safety. They cannot be absolutely sure that vaccine is going to be safe.

Chris - One commentator suggested that this, if they get it wrong, could backfire really quite seriously, because notwithstanding any damage that the vaccine itself might do, it might do damage to the image of a vaccine. And that might mean that even if people come along later with much more robust and safe vaccines, people will be very, very concerned about using them. And that may lead to poor uptake.

Gordon - Absolutely. So, as I said, safety is the key issue around vaccine development. And the danger is, that if we push forward and then create a vaccine that is already out there, and then we see these signals, it's already too late. Because you know, we then have to recall a vaccine and that would be very damaging.

Chris - The other interesting thing is that, people are questioning the ethics of what's been going on in Russia. You've got evidence that people who are involved in the trials are just testing it on themselves, testing it on family members, even one of Vladimir Putin's daughters is reputed to have received this vaccine.

Gordon - In the old day, people who developed a vaccine would often take that vaccine first, there was a tradition associated with that, but we've never considered immunising a family member. And so what we've developed again over the last century is a very strong, ethical framework, which in every single step in vaccine development, we adhere to ethical principles. So any straying, any movement away from that ethical framework that we accept and value is going to potentially lead to problems, even if the vaccine works.

Chris - Do you think we're putting perhaps too much emphasis on the role of a vaccine here? People are pinning too many hopes on a vaccine. Because if you look at the numbers for a rival virus like measles. Last year, measles caused about 10 million cases around the world. There are, I looked up the numbers of deaths, 150,000 people that we know of, died of measles last year. And there's a very good vaccine that prevents measles. Are we at risk of finding ourselves in the same situation with COVID as we do with measles?

Gordon - I think we could end up in that situation. Measles is a great example. I was in Madagascar last year and the whole hospital was full of vaccine preventable illnesses like measles. And so there's a problem in getting vaccines out there to either people who can't afford them and can't access them, or people who simply don't want to take vaccines. That's a challenge in itself, and what we really need to do with the COVID situation, is ask the question: If we're going to introduce a vaccine, who do we vaccinate? When do we vaccinate? And build up a program, which really starts off with a targeted vaccination program, then moves into more broader challenges of, would you vaccinate a whole population, for example.

Grain growing in a field

Stopping swarming locusts
Steven Rogers, University of Cambridge

Locusts are famous worldwide for forming giant swarms that devastate crops. Even in the Bible it tells how Moses unleashed them on the Egyptians, plunging the country into chaos. But the question is, where do these swarms come from, and what transforms what’s normally a solitary creature into a gregarious beast that migrates en masse to find and devour food? Scientists think that - for at least some types of locust - the answer is a chemical pheromone. The animals find it attractive, and when they’re exposed to it, they make more of it, triggering a positive feedback loop that culminates in a feeding frenzy. Eva Higginbotham asked Steven Rogers, who works on locusts but wasn’t involved in the present study, to take her through the findings...

Steven - Locusts are notorious for the amount of vegetation they eat, which commonly includes farm crops of all descriptions. The solitary locusts typically live in regions where there aren't many people, and there's not a lot of agriculture when they go into their gregarious phase and they start swarming, they leave these regions and go into areas where there's often quite substantial agriculture.

Eva - They can sort of, strip away all of the farmers hard work, and then continue moving on to another farm.

Steven - Absolutely. And it's one of the cruelties of locust swarms. The farmers in these adjacent regions to where the solitary locusts live are often farming environments, which are very marginal and difficult to work. And they may often go for themselves many years without a bumper harvest. With the same conditions, which promote locust swarm formation, are also those which are actually very good for farmers. Sometimes it's the case because they think, Oh, this is a great year, lots of crops. And then a locust swarm will sweep in and eat the lot. And what this paper does is identify a pheromone, which is a chemical signal, which acts as a stimulus to other locusts and draws them towards each other.

Eva - How did they find it?

Steven - So the first question they asked is: How do solitary and gregarious locusts differ in the sort of bouquet of smells they produce. They homed in on those substances where to gregarious produce more of these particular chemicals than solitary ones do. And they homed in on about maybe half a dozen different substances. And they then looked systematically at how each one of these chemicals affects the locusts in the laboratory and in the behavioral arena. So they had a box where half of which has got air which has got the chemical of interest being piped through to it, and the other end of the box has just got clean air being pumped through, and what they look to see is, well, where do locusts spend their time?

If a particular substance is attractive, then you would expect them to spend time in the area of this arena, where this smell is being produced. And doing that, they're able to identify a particular substance, which was attractive to locusts called 4-Vinylanisole, is produced by gregarious locusts only. It's not produced by solitude locusts at all. So a particularly interesting feature of this substance produced by gregarious locusts, the more of them there are in a group, the more each individual locust within it produces. So it ends up as being a snowball effect. If you like. And one of the difficulties we've had in the past, of trying to identify substances, which might be acting as these aggregating pheromones, is that normally, if you're a locust and you're producing a smell, why don't you just smell yourself? Having a situation where groups of locusts produce much more and are therefore smellier than anything you may produce on your own is actually critical to how this mechanism would work.

Eva - So now that we know what the substance is, what can we do with that information?

Steven - They could use it as an attractant and things like lures and traps. A key part of locust control is identifying where locusts are, where populations are building up, and at the moment, that means traipsing around looking in very remote places, trying to find these individual locusts. But if you've got a pheromone, this chemical, you can possibly draw the locusts towards you. Makes a sampling of locusts, and working out where they are and how many they are in a given region. It potentially makes it much easier to do.

A brick, modified to store power hooked up to a glowing LED. A second brick is cut in half to show the interior

Turning bricks into batteries
Julio D'Arcy, University of Washington St Louis

Red bricks are one of the world’s favourite building materials. Based on thousand year old technology, they’ve stood the test of time and barely changed. But now the humble house brick could be able to undergo a remarkable transformation - and turn into a battery! Research from Washington University, St Louis, and published in Nature Communications, has found a way to coat bricks with conductive polymers that link up with the red pigment inside the brick - which is iron oxide - and enable it to store electricity. Your home could potentially become its own power supply! Adam Murphy heard how they do it from the inventor Julio D’Arcy...

Julio - Bricks are actually porous. We could actually flow a gas inside those pores and that gas was able to react with a red pigment in the brick. We then were able to send a second gas inside the brick that transformed all the red pigment into a plastic that conducts electricity that is called PEDOT. This plastic is very special. It's not like the plastic bags that you buy at the supermarket. They actually have features at the nanoscale. So a brick once it's coated by our plastic, if you put it inside a microscope, it no longer looks like a brick. It actually is coated by all these little fibers that increase the surface area of the brick and are actually impregnated throughout all the pores. When you put all those things together, we were able to transform a brick into basically an electrode. And if you put two of them together, you build a battery or a supercapacitor.

Adam - And how do you get the power out again? Is it just a case of putting one electrode at one end of the brick and another electrode at the other end?

Julio - That's it! That's how you do it. Just like you would do with a battery. So the bricks themselves would have to have wires and the wires can be inside the walls and those wires would, you know, you would put a socket on the wall cause that's how we, that's how we connect our devices. Um, yeah, they would use cables. You would have cables that run to the solar cells that bring the electricity down to the bricks. And then the bricks themselves could be connected in series or parallel. But that unit of bricks would have two cables, a positive cable and a negative cable, that would allow an electrician to basically connect it to a socket. And then you can connect your electrical devices.

Adam - And would there be any danger say of someone leaning against this wall and zapping themselves?

Julio - That's a really good question. And so, yeah, the idea is that you do not want to touch the electrodes of a battery. You do not want to touch the electrodes of the wall. And that's okay. That's not a problem, because when you engineered these bricks into a device that stores energy, you don't have to put the coating facing towards the inside of the house. So most houses, there's always a gap in the walls. And in that gap that allows you to basically flip the bricks around and have the coating facing towards the inside of the wall. Our bricks are also coated by a protective layer of epoxy that we tested and is completely insulating. And it protects anyone that would touch the brick. The amount of energy that's stored is very little at this moment, but if we store more energy, yeah, we would continue to put protective layers on the surface of the bricks. Just like a battery when you buy it, it's inside a housing, a metal housing, or, you know, sometimes batteries come in a plastic housing. In this case, we're thinking a plastic housing would work as we demonstrated epoxy, five minute epoxy, works really good with our bricks, for protecting the brick from, uh, transmitting electricity, protecting the brick from being affected by water. Our work demonstrates that if you take our bricks and you coat them in an epoxy, you can actually submerge them in water and they continue to deliver energy because their entire system is just protected by the epoxy.

sparkling wine

The power of prosecco
Hal Wilson, Cambridge Wine Merchants, Clare Bryant, University of Cambridge

The 13th of August marked the most important day in the calendar year - National Prosecco Day! And in honour of this special occasion, Eva Higginbotham made the great sacrifice of spending an afternoon sampling prosecco at the Cambridge Wine Merchants with founder Hal Wilson and scientist and local wine expert Clare Bryant, to learn about the science of sparkling wine.

Eva- It is an extremely hot August day. And I am here in the Cambridge Wine Merchants, ready to celebrate national Prosecco day. And with me, I have Hal Wilson.

Hal - I'm the managing director and original founder of Cambridge Wine Merchants.

Eva - Wonderful. And I also have with me, friend of the show, Claire Bryant. Hi Claire. So we are here to talk about the science of sparkling wine and to start off with, how do we actually make regular wine in the first place?

Hal - We ferment ripened grapes with either natural or innoculated yeast. It works its magic and terms of the sugars in the juice into alcohol.

Eva - So what does fermentation actually mean? What is the biological process of fermentation?

Claire - So it's where the natural sugars are converted to alcohol with a side product of carbon dioxide. So it's literally a yeast driven reaction where the alcohol is the beneficial off-product of it. But the balance that you get within a wine will depend upon the fruit and the sugars, along with the CO2 in sparkling wine, give it its flavour.

Eva - And we're going to be trying some sparkling wines today.

Hal - Safely, but with some ceremony, always a good idea to hold the cork and the rotate bottle. [pop!]

Eva - Oh, lovely foam there. All right guys. Cheers. Very tasty. Claire, what do you think?

Claire - Delicious prosecco through and through! Absolutely light frothy, delicious, fruity. Prosecco is made with a single grape. So the flavour is always very, very distinctive.

Eva - How do you actually make fizzy wine, fizzy?

Hal - So basically after a first fermentation, you have a still wine. What we do is re-ferment that wine by the addition of more yeast and more sugar. There's very little sugar left in the wine after the first fermentation. Now you can either put that into a single bottle and that's the single bottle that you will buy and pour into your glass, which we might call, but we might get sued for it, the Champagne method, or you can put that liquid and the sugar yeast solution into a large tank. Um, both of them will be under pressure during that secondary fermentation. And the CO2 has nowhere to go except back into the liquid. Then you will finish the production by adding sugar to make it however you want your wine to end up. And put the cork in and basically bottle it and have it ready for sale.

Eva - Apart from when you drink something fizzy, you obviously have the touch sensation on your tongue of the fizzing and the bubbling up against, up in your mouth, does having the CO2 in there change anything else about the flavour?

Claire - So the CO2 can alter the flavor of the wine. It's supposed to. The bubbles and the bubbling effect through the wine is supposed to make the wine taste much better. The base wines are actually quite acidic and the bubbles are well known as enhancers of flavour.

Hal - And in fact, it's one of the great marketing triumphs of Champagne that they've made a fairly ordinary based wine into something that's quite magical.

Eva - Claire, people often say that when you drink fizzy wine, you get drunk quicker. And they also say actually that the hangover is worse. Is there any science behind either of those? Yes. So firstly, you tend to drink Champagne on an empty stomach. It means that your stomach's empty, it's ready and waiting to absorb anything you put in it. And so the wine will get absorbed across your stomach lining very quickly, but the Champagne bubbles actually have an enhanced effect to make you take up more of the alcohol into your blood. And that's because the bubbles are made of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide, we think, causes increased blood flow to the gut. The more blood flow you've got across your gut mucosa, the more absorption that will happen. So in fact, there was a really nice study done where they got some people to drink two glasses of Champagne, and then five minutes later they measured the blood alcohol. And so after two glasses of Champagne, your blood alcohol was about 0.54 milligrams. Okay. Now the driving limit is 0.8 milligrams. Okay. But if you do the same as still wine, the alcohol level was about 0.3 milligrams. So drinking Champagne, it's almost double the amount of alcohol uptake that you get. The bad hangover I don't know, but I must admit I do have a bad hangover if I've drunk Champagne on an empty stomach, but I think it's the empty stomach rather than anything else that's the problem.

Eva - So Hal, why do we drink Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, out of flutes? So those different shaped wine glasses. Rather than a regular wine glass, or a mug as I might in my house!

Hal - I would not recommend a mug because what you're missing out on is looking at the bubbles and the idea of a tall glass is you've got more chance to see those bubbles rise. And I think that is most of the story.

Claire - But there is a key point, your glass needs to be clean because if you've got any residual soap, then it flattens the Champagne or the sparkling wine very quickly. And the reason for that is that the soap provides a surface tension that attracts the bubbles and the bubbles then pop.

Eva - Okay, good to know. Do you have any tips for choosing a good one? Hal?

Hal - If you prefer your wine dryer, look for a brut Prosecco. Price is most people's guide. I would probably advise people not to go for the very cheapest in the shop.

Eva - I would never...

Hal - Although I quite understand it. So just go for an honest £11 bottle, and I think you'll have some quality. And in Champagne, buy the most expensive champagne you can afford. You will like it more, but there are some deals out there.

Eva - Fantastic. I'll drink to that. Thanks guys. Cheers.

 picture of a smiling baby

22:05 - Baby's first understandings

How do we come to understand the people around us?

Baby's first understandings
Sarah Gerson, University of Cardiff

How do we come to understand things at all? How does a baby begin to grow and process information that lets them understand the world around us? Well, Sarah Gerson from the University of Cardiff joined Adam Murphy and Katie Haylor in the studio to talk about exactly that...

Sarah - It's a really good question because of course babies can't tell us what they're thinking, which makes it a little bit more difficult than just asking an adult what they're thinking about. So over the years, we've come up with a lot of really technical and controlled techniques to figure out what a baby's thinking based on very simple processes. So things like where they're looking, how long they're looking at things and what they're doing. So do they imitate what someone else is doing? Do they copy the goal of someone's behavior? Do they look at what they're doing at the time that they're doing it? Or did they predict what that person's going to do next?

Adam - And then using those techniques, how do we then learn to understand the world around us? What kind of things have you found?

Sarah - Yeah, so we've looked at a few different ways that infants first come to understand other people, their goals and their actions, and some of the most important things involve their experiences in the world. So as infants become able to produce more actions themselves, for example, they learn to understand that other people have goals when they perform those actions.

Adam - What kind of experiments do you run to learn that kind of thing?

Sarah - An example of this was a study that I did - too many years ago now - with three month old infants, and at three months of age infants aren't really able to kind of control their actions very well yet. But we gave these three month olds what we called sticky mittens. So we put little mittens on their hands that had Velcro on them and we gave them toys that also had Velcro on them. So this allowed these three month olds to move around those toys in a way that was kind of intentional and goal directed. So this gave them their first opportunity with performing these kinds of actions that they could control themselves. And then we tested their understanding of someone else's reaching action in what we call a visual habituation paradigm that's based on how long infants watched different events. And what we found was that when infants had this experience, just a few minutes really, of performing these object directed actions themselves, they then understood those actions as goal directed when they saw someone else performing a reaching action, more so than if they had just watched someone perform those actions without gaining that experience themselves.

Adam - So it's sort of a case of monkey-see-monkey-do in a way, if we see someone do a thing and then we do it ourselves, we understand it better

Sarah - Quite a bit. It works kind of in both directions. So we talk about imitation as being really important. So infants and children will often copy what they see adults doing, but in some cases they often need to perform an action themselves before they can understand what an adult does in order to copy it.

Adam - And then as we start to get older, what kind of milestones do we hit in terms of understanding the world? Like, you know, baby's first understanding of a sentence kind of thing.

Sarah - Yeah. So one of the classic ones we talk about in terms of social cognitive development - so understanding other people - is something called false belief and classically, this has been thought to emerge around four years of age. Although there's some evidence that this might be the case younger now. And what it involves is children understanding that other people have knowledge, beliefs, and thoughts that might differ from our own. So you can imagine that if you kind of play tricks on a child, they have to know that you know something they don't know, and you get all these kinds of levels of understanding. And by about four years of age, classically children are thought to be able to recognise that someone can believe something different from themselves and have a different knowledge state.

Adam - How does that work before that then, do they think everyone around them is just bigger hairier versions of them?

Sarah - It's a really good question. They start to understand some things about how people differ from them earlier. So we know for example, by about 18 months of age, they know that not everyone likes the same things as them. So there's a classic study where infants are given for example, goldfish crackers, which are really popular in the US, and broccoli. And almost all toddlers prefer the goldfish crackers to the broccoli. But they meet an experimenter who tells them that she likes the broccoli and not the goldfish crackers, and really young infants will still give her the goldfish crackers, assuming that's what she wants, because why wouldn't she, that's what they want! But by 18 months or so, infants recognise that someone might like something different from them. And so they give her the broccoli knowing that that's what she wants. So they start to slowly understand how people differ from them, but it gets increasingly complex as they get older.

Katie - Sarah, can I just jump in with a question? Does this relate in any way to empathy or understanding someone's point of view, you know, when little ones are so little.

Sarah - Yeah, absolutely. So understanding other people's thoughts is a lot like understanding other people's emotions, right? And so you can't understand that someone feels different from you before you can understand that they might think or know something different from you. So they tend to emerge around the same time. And there's a lot of research looking at whether and how they're related in children.

Adam - And then knowing all these things and doing all these experiments, can you diagnose any difficulties these children might go on to have?

Sarah - Yeah. So the most classic example of this is autism spectrum disorder, which is known to have what we call social communicative disorder, or problems with these kinds of skill sets. And so we can see if children don't perform as well on these, this might be a sign that they have issues on this kind of spectrum of disorders.

Katie - Sarah, just going back to the milestones thing - I'm trying to separate in my head understanding of language from understanding of tone of voice, even when infants can't understand the words, I guess they pick up on tone, right?

Sarah - Yeah, absolutely. We actually just did some research on this at Cardiff University last year, looking at whether infants can recognise what we call controlling or supportive tones in speech toward them. But really classic research that's been replicated a lot of times looks at the fact that infants prefer what we call infant directed speech. So sometimes people refer to this as 'motherese' where it's kind of exaggerated and high pitched that people almost automatically use when they're talking to infants or even pets sometimes. And we know that infants can tell the difference and prefer to listen to this kind of tone, more so than what we call adult directed speech, so kind of how we're talking now, really early in life. So they can tell the differences in tone before they understand what the words are that are involved in that.

Katie - I'm really reassured that you said that because I've just got two kittens and I'm always kind of making goo-goo noises at them and I thought 'oh, do they find that really annoying?' But what you're saying is infants do like that kind of communication.

Sarah - At least the human infants! I don't know if anyone knows about the animals, but I know that my dog is really annoyed now that I have a human child, because we use the same voice with them both.

a close up of someone with their hand to their ear, trying to listen

Learning to listen
Richard Mullender, Listening Institute

As adults, the first component of understanding someone is actually paying attention to what they’re saying. But how does one listen correctly? Just memorise every word someone is saying? Well, Katie Haylorwas joined in the studio by Richard Mullender, from the aptly named Listening Institute, and has spent years as a London detective and hostage negotiator. He spoke with Katie about how to listen...

Richard - The reason I know this is because often when I start a course or I go to a conference, the first question I ask them is to teach me to listen. And all you get is this massive silence. No one really knows what it is to listen. Most of us have been taught the active listening skills, which is to nod your head, which keeps the person talking, to summarise, or to ask open questions. But if you think about it, nodding your head is nodding your head, it doesn't help your listening. Asking an open question is talking and summarising back what you've been told, again is talking. So most of us don't really know how to listen.

Katie - How do you go about listening - well say, to me, how do you go about listening well?

Richard - Well first and foremost you have to know what your outcome is. So when I was speaking to Adam and he phoned me up, I pretty quickly picked up that his outcome was to work out whether or not I'd be any good on this radio show. And so therefore he's listening for all sorts of signals. For me, if I'm in a conflict situation, a crisis situation, I'm listening for the facts. So I want to know what the facts are. I listen for the emotions, tone of voice. I'm listening for motivators, values, and beliefs. What do they stand for? Currency, which is what makes you tick? What makes you work? Why do we enjoy your work? And then finally the benefits, where do you see the benefits? So you need to be listening for all of those things. And that's really difficult in one person, because at the same time you're listening for all of those things you've also got to respond to the other person. And that's why in the hostage negotiation world, we work in teams of four and only one person talks. And everybody listens.

Katie - That's an awful lot of information to be processing as you're having a conversation.

Richard - Yeah. I mean, if you're having a conversation, a general conversation, so you're in a bar or something like that, we don't listen at all. What we do is we hear, and that's fine, and that's just general chit chat. If you're in a crisis situation, or if you're trying to work out the questions you're being asked, et cetera like that, then you need to really think about why is this person asking that question? And how can you interpret it? I mean, the reality is we have to come down to four things. I have to listen to you, I have to interpret what you're saying to me, I then have to check my assumptions. And then if I can do that, I understand you. And if I understand you, then I can persuade you. So listen, interpret, understand, persuade.

Katie - Oh, okay. Because I was going to ask you once you've got the measure of me, and it sounds like you have, how do you go about applying it? But I think you've kind of just said how you'd apply it, right?

Richard - Yeah. I mean, I've got to work you out, or whoever the person is you're talking to, you've got to work them out. You've got to get inside their heads. So often we're told 'you need to understand people' and that's great, but how do you do it? I mean, that's the worry isn't it? People keep telling me to do stuff like - I don't know if you've told your children, if you've got children, you've told your children to concentrate. Try and teach them to concentrate, it's really difficult. And yet we say this, we use this language all the time. So for us, it's about clarity and I'm going to listen really carefully to what you tell me. I'm thinking, that's what you mean by it. And then I'm going to test that out by saying, I get the impression, this is what you mean. And then you'll either tell me I'm right or I'm wrong. And either way I'll find out, which then gives me understanding. And the moment I understand you, then of course I can persuade you. The difficulty we have is that we believe that we can walk in someone else's shoes and we can't. Every single person is unique. And I have to listen to you to work you out. Just because we have the same situation, yeah, we can have similar emotions and go through similar feelings, but the impact on different people is different. And therefore we have to work everyone out. And you do that by listening, you can never ever do it by talking to someone.

Katie - It sounds like you can glean quite a lot of information about a person by listening to them. What have you picked up about me and Adam from the way we speak?

Richard - The way you speak? I wouldn't be listening to the way you speak, I'd be listening for the words you use. I mean, it's the words that give people away. People say 7% of communication is in the word spoken and 38% is in the tone of voice and 55% is in body language. Well, you know, that's got to not be true, because I can't see you and you can't see me. So you've got no idea about my body language and yet we're having a perfectly good conversation. So the key for everything is the words. And what you need to understand is that you have no control of what comes out of your mouth unless you're under pressure. The moment you come under pressure, then you think if I want to find out more about you then I've just got to get you relaxed. If I get you relaxed, you'll talk, because your subconscious takes over.

Katie - What about in a high stakes situation or say in a mild conflict, say you, I dunno, have a disagreement with a family member or something. Do you have any general tips on how we can just listen better?

Richard - Yeah. Well I think right from the outset, there's two things. I mean, there's always two situations. The first one is, do they want to talk to you or do you want to talk to them? If you want to talk to them, then you've got to give them a reason why they should answer the question. You know, the reason I'm asking this question is because I feel that there's something going on and I'm not sure what is, and I'm worried about it. And, you know, I don't want to break up our relationship or whatever that is. You know, you can kind of make up a whole introductory sentence, but you've got to tell them why they should be talking to you. If they come to you to talk to you then and they stop talking and you can say, well look, you came to me, what do you want to tell me? And then you have to listen. But the real key is take your time. Listen carefully. If someone is angry, by the way, if you've got someone who's angry, you need to raise your energy. Don't lower your energy. I think the big mistake people go is 'I'm going to stay calm until you calm down'. That's not going to happen. And they'll get more angry. If you've got someone who is shouting at you, then you have to raise your energy. It doesn't mean you shout back. It doesn't mean you get angry. You just say 'look, I really want to help you. And I really want to do the best for you. But at the moment I can't because you're shouting at me.' You'd be surprised, they calm down very quickly.

A picture of someone talking, drawn on a blackboard

Second languages can twist perception
Manon Jones, Bangor University

It’s not just the words we use that can impact how we understand the world around us, the language that we use can have its own, surprising impact, as Adam Murphy’s been finding out from Manon Jones, from Bangor University...

Adam - The languages we speak can impact the way we understand the world. In my limited experience, for example, Irish people are less likely to just say yes or just say no, because Irish has no words for yes and no; you respond with the verb "I did" or "I didn't". But just how deep can this change be? Manon Jones from Bangor University told me how much our perceptions can change based on the languages we speak.

Manon - At the very basic perceptual level it's being shown by one of the professors, Professor Guillaume Thierry, in our lab that you actually perceive colours differently depending on how you categorise them in your native language. So Greek speakers will see the colours dark blue and light blue differently because they have two distinct colour terms for those shades of blue, whereas the same doesn't apply to green. And obviously in English we just use light blue and dark blue, and so the same doesn't apply. So actually what you can show with this methodology is that Greek speakers will actually see those colours differently, as though they are two distinct colours, whereas English speakers don't. The language that you speak and the terminology that you use seem to shape even perceptual experiences. So in our lab we've measured the brain's electrical activity to examine how bilinguals interpret the meaning of sentences differently, depending on which of their two languages the sentence is in. We had them read Welsh and English sentences that were culturally relevant, or ones that were just general knowledge about the world; and found that a Welsh sentence about Wales enabled them to access the meaning more quickly, but for the exact same information in English - so translation equivalents of those sentences - this didn't happen. And it also didn't happen for general knowledge either. So we didn't find that distinction between the two languages.

Adam - And it's not simply speaking a different language that changes you. Your perceptions can change between the different languages if you speak more than one.

Manon - A followup study we did actually showed that bilinguals can even start denying the truth in one of their languages but not the other, which is quite a peculiar split, if you like, in the person's cognition. So when we presented sentences to them that express positive or negative sentiments about their culture, what happens is they'll accept it's truth, they'll accurately judge it as correct in the native language, but when the same information is presented in the second language they deny it. So bilinguals seems to be more honest basically in their native language, but in the second they can protect themselves from difficult truths that they might find quite unpalatable. So some of these other studies that tie in with our results have shown that if you give people difficult decisions, like fictitious scenarios - say, you can save one person or 200 people from a runaway train - they make more rational decisions in the second language, but more emotional and fairly irrational decisions sometimes in the native language. There are some other studies out there showing that the native language promotes cultural biases actually against an outgroup. Cultural bias can even be made stronger if you induce the bilingual into a negative mood; then they're more likely to categorise outgroup names as negative as well, so they're more likely to be basically expressing a cultural bias against an outgroup, and conversely showing a positive bias towards their own group. It widens that discriminatory gap.

Adam - Which I thought was a little insidious.

Manon - It is a bit insidious, yeah. And obviously this is lab-based work, but all the stuff that we do in the lab is obviously very tightly controlled. And it's a way of showing, at the micro level, what's happening out in the wild in societies; and so we can extrapolate, to a certain extent, how these cultural biases and prejudices arise.

A cartoon genderless CGI figure with a blank speech bubble above their head

The power of body language
Harry Witchel, Brighton and Sussex Medical School

Language is all well and good, but not all of how we communicate is through verbal language.  Lot of it is non-verbal communication, or body language. Harry Witchel, lecturer in physiology from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School joined Adam Murphy and Katie Haylor to talk about the body language we do day-to-day, and how the current pandemic is affecting it...

Harry - Hi, Adam. I'd say that nonverbal communication is extremely important as part of our communication repertoire. I'm not really talking about gestures that substitute for language, but rather how gestures and facial expressions contribute to both the meaning of words that we say, and also to the small gestures of courtesy. So there are many social situations associated with what I would call acknowledgement, recognition, and hierarchy. The classic examples are when you would say "sorry", "thank you", or "please"; or any time, say you go into a shop and you are buying something, there would be little gestures that you would make that would be really important to make that go smoothly. There are many such signals that we take for granted. Every culture has these signals, although the form that these signals take will vary from culture to culture.

Adam - And how has the pandemic been getting in the way of that?

Harry - The pandemic has had a profound impact on what people can do in terms of nonverbal behaviour. Obviously people can't get close, they can't make little small gestures of touching; all sorts of other gestures are interrupted. But the most obvious thing concerns face masks. Now for people who are hearing impaired or deaf, having face masks that are completely opaque makes it impossible for them to actually do lip reading, which is really profoundly problematic. And at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, we actually have had discussions about this with a staff member who is so - hearing impaired. So it is a big deal. But it's also really important for people who are 'traditional hearing' like us. We think that there's enormous amounts of signals that are communicated by smiling, and particularly social smiles; these are all these little gestures that help us to jog along.

Adam - What kind of gestures are you referring to there?

Harry - Okay, well why don't we talk about a little bit about things like social smiles. Real smiles involve both the eyes and the mouth; so the eyes crinkle in the outer corners because of a muscle called orbicularis oculi, and the lips get pulled back and up by muscles called the zygomaticus major. So eyes and lips are really important in natural smiling. Now in Anglophone cultures we tend to use mouth-only smiles a lot, in which only lips are smiling but not the eyes. Some people call these social smiles, and they are brief but extremely important signals in the way we express courtesy. For example, when you're buying stuff in a shop, when you exchange people, you might meet the eyes of the shopkeeper and smile at them. It's a small courtesy. But without these small gestures social interactions feel wrong; they can almost feel abrupt or brusque, even rude sometimes.

Adam - I've noticed stuff like that as well; when I walk into Tesco with my mask on and I smile at the security guard, but with the mask it just looks like I'm staring them down and I get really worried about what they're thinking. So is there anything I can do, or we should do, to alleviate that?

Harry - It's really amazing you should talk about this; this idea that when we lose the ability to communicate with our mouths and when we can't approach people, we suddenly lose a whole aspect of the way that we normally treat others with respect. And what I've noticed in Brighton is there's a little two-step that people do these days to make up for the fact that they're now wearing masks, and that we have all of these pandemic-based social rules. The first is: when people see each other and they acknowledge each other, instead of approaching, they actually take a little tiny step backward, as a representative that "I'm not going to come close to you and touch you". Then what they'll do is they might nod once - a little tiny nod - and then they'd mix that with an eye smile; that is, they'll crinkle up their eyes, the corners of their eyes, just slightly, as if they were smiling for real; but it's actually a social smile but with eye action. It's really quite interesting the way people are doing this in Brighton.

Adam - Harry, I've been doing the same thing, because I realised that I actually wasn't smiling as much as I would do otherwise, so I've really tried to exaggerate smiles, like you said with how I'm crinkling my eyes. It suggests that communication can be quite adaptable, doesn't it? Nonverbal communication.

Harry - Yeah, you're absolutely right. Nonverbal communication is really adaptable. Every culture has elements of nonverbal communication, but that nature, the specific gestures of nonverbal communication, are very variable. Now that said, there are six basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, fearful, disgust, surprise. These kinds of emotions are expressed fairly consistently on the face. But that said, the way that we express other emotions like love, like humour, you know, exasperation; there are all sorts of different emotions, and those are all culturally determined, and they can actually be individually or contextually determined as well. So there are vast opportunities for changing the way we communicate at a nonverbal level.

Katie - I just wanted to ask you quickly about not communicating in person, but say if you're, I don't know, talking to someone on a video call or something, it can be - I find - quite difficult to communicate well sometimes. Do you have any tips for how to communicate nonverbally in a positive way?

Harry - It's really interesting how computers... a lot of my laboratory work concerns how computers interfere or change the way communication is mediated. So when you talk to people on the phone, sometimes people will gesture even though they can't possibly see you. In a video call it's not really possible to gesture properly. You can't really approach the screen or anything like that. Instead, what you have to do is look towards your camera so that it looks like your eyes are looking at them. That's a really important thing, because often people position their cameras in the wrong place; so they're looking at their screen so they can see the other person, not realising that the other person cannot see their eyes. So that's the first thing, is just looking at the camera to make sure that people know that you're looking at them, and that you really are interested in them. The other thing is giving people the time to communicate; that is, giving them a tiny bit of extra space, because we can't have small turn-taking gestures. It's really difficult to do that on a computer. You might have noticed that it's very difficult for different little groups of people to pair off; it's almost like one of these really boring parties where five people are sitting in a circle and only one person can talk at a time. And that's a real challenge. It really involves a lot of eye contact, and knowing how and when you're supposed to speak up.

Adam - And can you manage that, given that there's generally a delay in Zoom? I find that you get these phases where everyone just talks on top of each other.

Harry - Absolutely. It's amazing. I spend a lot of time saying, "sorry," and "gentlemen first"; you know, that sort of thing. But I think if you really want to get your thing together, you can actually be quite polite and say, "ah, well, what I was going to say," and then you can actually push forward. It's really interesting because if everybody goes at the same time and then everyone backs off at the same time, nothing happens. So you have to be really prepared sometimes to go forward. Although my first instinct is to let the other person go first.

Two blue sign waves superimposed on top of one another

QotW: Do we process sound or light faster?

Lionel wanted to know whether we process sound or light faster, so Eva Higginbotham’s been keeping her eyes and ears out for the answer...

Eva - I put the question to Brian Moore at the University of Cambridge, who’s an expert on hearing.

Brian - All of our sensations lag behind the time when the stimulus (like a light or a sound) reaches our sense organs, in this case eyes or ears. This happens partly because of the time it takes for the signal from your eyes or ears to reach the brain and partly because the brain takes time to process the signal to decide what it is. The time lag is usually at least 200 ms (one fifth of a second). In other words, the concept of “the present” is an illusion, as you are always operating at a slight lag.

Eva - That’s my excuse for next time I miss the ball playing tennis… But what do we process faster, sound or light?

Brian - When an object emits a sound and a light simultaneously, the light reaches our eyes slightly before the sound reaches our ears (because light travels faster than sound). Then, the brain appears to delay the perceived timing of the light relative to that for the sound, so that the two are perceived as roughly synchronous. So, when you look at someone’s face when they are talking, their lips appear to move synchronously with the sounds that they are producing. The farther away the talker is, the more the visual signal has to be delayed by the brain relative to the sound to achieve the appearance of the mouth moving at the same time as the sound you’re hearing. In other words, the brain compensates for the perceived distance of the source.

Eva - When put side by side, we react faster to a sudden sound than we do to a sudden visual cue. This is why the Olympics use a starting gun to signal the start of a race. It’s thought that we evolved this way as sound served as a really important detection system for predators that wanted to make us their dinner. However, this doesn’t account for Lionel’s experience of perceiving the light as coming on before he hears the sound.

Brian - This might be because the perceived timing of visual and auditory events can also be influenced by the actions that led to those events. Because you clap to activate the sensor and produce the light, your brain might interpret the clap as the cause of both the light and the sound, and “expects” the two to occur at the same time. However, because light travels faster than sound, the light reaches your eyes before the sound reaches your ears, and this makes the light appear to start slightly before the sound.

Eva - So it sounds like it’s some sort of combination effect from the fact that light travels faster than sound, and that you, Lionel, are the one making the sound. Might be worth getting a friend to clap with your back turned and see if you get the same result! Next week, we’ll be answering this question from Jonathan.

Jonathan - When you stir a bucket of water, I know the water is pushed to the outside, however, why do any particles end up the centre after the water has finished spinning? I have asked my Dad, but he doesn't know.


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