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Everyday science

Everyday science

Making navigation apps safer, singing lights up the brain

25 Feb 2022 Hamish Johnston
Photo of road traffic
Safety first: a study has shown how navigation apps can choose safer routes. (Courtesy: iStock/fermate)

With its combination of narrow roads and hills, Bristol in the UK isn’t the easiest place to drive, but after living here for 25 years I am pretty good at getting around. I have noticed that sometimes the driving routes suggested by apps like Google Maps are not the routes that I would naturally take. Some roads I avoid because parked cars make them very difficult for two-way traffic and other routes involve tricky (and sometimes dangerous) junctions that I would rather avoid.

So as an experienced driver, I often don’t take the shortest route. Now, researchers at Texas A&M University have backed up this strategy in a study of the effect of navigation systems on safety in four regions of Texas. They found that always suggesting the fastest routes to motorists increases the risk of accidents by 23% – while reducing journey times by just 8% – when compared to safer routes.

Dominique Lord and Soheil Sohrabi evaluated the safety of routes by looking at accident history, traffic density and road characteristics such as the physical layout of junctions and the number and width of lanes in a road. Based on their findings, they have suggested a way that navigation systems could consider safety as well as journey time. They describe their research in Transportation Research Part C.

Singing in the brain

I’m one of those people who can’t sing and won’t sing, so I was very interested to read about research on the neurology of singing that has been done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sam Norman-Haignere (now at the University of Rochester) and colleagues have found a population of neurons in the brain that lights up when we hear singing, but not other music.

The team used electrocorticography to study the electrical activity of neurons in the auditory cortex, which is part of the brain’s temporal lobe that processes sound. They found that these neurons responded to a specific combination of voice and music – but not to instrumental music nor non-musical speech.

Electrocorticography involves placing electrodes inside the skull, so it is not usually used in scientific studies. In this case, however, epilepsy patients who were being monitored by the technique prior to surgery volunteered to take part in the MIT study. The 15 participants listened to 165 sounds and a statistical analysis of their responses revealed a neural response pattern that occurred only when the subjects heard singing. The researchers believe that this part of the brain may be responding to interaction between words and perceived pitch before sending information to other parts of the brain for further processing.

You can read more in “Singing in the brain

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