Do high fives help sports teams win?

Hugs. High fives. Fist bumps. Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychology professor, examined NBA games to see if there is a relationship between a team’s success and how often they touch.

FEATURING: Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley
and founding faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley

The research highlighted in this video has been supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Fetzer Institute, and the John Templeton Foundation.

The Science of Folding Clothes

Getting your clothes to fit neatly inside a suitcase can sometimes be struggle, but robotics engineers at UC Berkeley can help you out.

They’ve come up with an efficient way to fold a variety of clothes into neat little rectangles. These techniques are intended to help a new generation of robots take on a monotonous household chore: folding laundry.

Using cameras and shape recognition software, the robot is able to assess the best way of folding each piece of clothing based on the shape of it.

The key to improving robots is in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Robots can only do what their programming tells them to do — and often can’t adapt to new or unique circumstances.

For example, you can program a robot to fold a shirt, but if you throw in a shirt with buttons on the opposite side, the robot may not be able to adapt to the new situation and fold it.

The UC Berkeley engineers are trying to develop robots that don’t rely on such specific programming.

Learn more about these techniques for folding clothes

How songbirds may help build a better hearing aid

Untreated hearing loss can have devastating and alienating repercussions on a person’s life: isolation, depression, sapped cognition, even dementia.

Yet only one in five Americans who could benefit from a hearing aid actually wears one. Some don’t seek help because their loss has been so gradual that they do not feel impaired. Others cannot afford the device. Many own hearing aids but leave them in a drawer. Wearing them is just too unpleasant.

“In a crowded place, it can be very difficult to follow a conversation even if you don’t have hearing deficits,” says UC Berkeley neuroscientist Frederic Theunissen. “That situation can be terrible for a person wearing a hearing aid, which amplifies everything.”

Imagine the chaotic din in which everything is equally amplified: your friend’s voice, the loud people a few tables over, and the baby crying across the room.

In that scenario, the friend’s voice is the signal, or sound that the listener is trying to hear. Tuning in to signal sounds, even with background noise, is something that healthy human brains and ears do remarkably well. The question for Theunissen — a professor who focuses on auditory perception — was how to make a hearing aid that processes sound the way the brain does.

“We were inspired by the biology of hearing,” Theunissen said. “How does the brain do it?”

Songbirds excel at listening in crowded, noisy environments

Humans aren’t the only ones able to hone in on specific sounds in noisy environments. For the past two years, Theunissen and the graduate students in his lab have studied songbirds, which are especially adept at listening in crowded, noisy environments.

By looking at songbird brain imagery, the researchers now understand how chatty, social animals distinguish the chirp of a mate from the din of dozens of other birds.

They were able to identify the exact neurons that tune into a signal and remain tuned there no matter how noisy the environment becomes. These neurons shine what Theunissen calls an “auditory spotlight” by focusing in on certain features or “edges” of a sound. Imagine you are looking for your cellphone on a table covered with objects. In the same way that your eye can find for a specific rectangular shape and color, your ear searches for and finds certain pitches and frequencies: the sound of a friend’s voice in a restaurant.

“Our brain does all this work, suppressing echoes and background noise, conducting auditory scene analysis,” Theunissen says.

A Proof of Concept Commercialization Gap grant from UC Research Initiatives in the Office of the President provided the critical funding the lab needed to take the discovery one giant step farther.

Read How songbirds may help build a better hearing aid →

Why are human faces so unique?

What’s in a face? The amazing variety of human faces — far greater than that of most other animals — is the result of evolutionary pressure to make each of us unique and easily recognizable, according to a new study out of UC Berkeley.

Behavioral ecologist Michael J. Sheehan explains that our highly visual social interactions are almost certainly the driver of this evolutionary trend. Many animals use smell or vocalization to identify individuals, making distinctive facial features unimportant, especially for animals that roam after dark, he said. But humans are different.

In the study, Sheehan and coauthor Michael Nachman asked, “Are traits such as distance between the eyes or width of the nose variable just by chance, or has there been evolutionary selection to be more variable than they would be otherwise; more distinctive and more unique?”

As predicted, the researchers found that facial traits are much more variable than other bodily traits, such as the length of the hand, and that facial traits are independent of other facial traits, unlike most body measures. People with longer arms, for example, typically have longer legs, while people with wider noses or widely spaced eyes don’t have longer noses. Both findings suggest that facial variation has been enhanced through evolution.

“Genetic variation tends to be weeded out by natural selection in the case of traits that are essential to survival,” Nachman said. “Here it is the opposite; selection is maintaining variation. All of this is consistent with the idea that there has been selection for variation to facilitate recognition of individuals.”

Human faces are so variable because we evolved to look unique

Making Huge Strides for Mobility

This exoskeleton, developed by UC Berkeley professor Homayoon Kazerooni and his team, helps people suffering from spinal cord injuries to walk again.

“Many paraplegics are not in a situation to afford a $100,000 device, and insurance companies don’t pay for these devices,” Kazerooni said. “Our job as engineers is to make something people can use.”

To make his exoskeleton affordable, he used the simplest possible technology: a computer and batteries in a backpack, actuators at the hips, and a pair of crutches with buttons that activate an exoskeleton that fits around the legs. The crutches provide stability, an important consideration for paraplegics navigating streets and sidewalks.

“The key is independence for these people,” he said. “I want them to get up in the morning and go to work, go to the bathroom, stand at a bar and have a beer.”

Read more

The Frog of War

When biologist Tyrone Hayes discovered that a top-selling herbicide messes with sex hormones, its manufacturer went into battle mode:

In 2001, seven years after joining the biology faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, Tyrone Hayes stopped talking about his research with people he didn’t trust. He instructed the students in his lab, where he was raising three thousand frogs, to hang up the phone if they heard a click, a signal that a third party might be on the line. Other scientists seemed to remember events differently, he noticed, so he started carrying an audio recorder to meetings. “The secret to a happy, successful life of paranoia,” he liked to say, “is to keep careful track of your persecutors.”

Three years earlier, Syngenta, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world, had asked Hayes to conduct experiments on the herbicide atrazine, which is applied to more than half the corn in the United States. Hayes was thirty-one, and he had already published twenty papers on the endocrinology of amphibians. David Wake, a professor in Hayes’s department, said that Hayes “may have had the greatest potential of anyone in the field.” But, when Hayes discovered that atrazine might impede the sexual development of frogs, his dealings with Syngenta became strained, and, in November, 2000, he ended his relationship with the company.

Read more →

Herding cells…with electricity!

Herding cells
Herding cells

Researchers at UC Berkeley have managed to use an electric field to herd a flock of cells.

At the moment, It’s still a very blunt tool, but the scientists hope it can be refined and used to help wounds heal. This is an exciting step in the direction of “smart bandages” — using an electrical stimulation to help heal wounds. (The researchers used the epithelial cells, the same cells that bind together to form skin, kidneys and other organs.)

Electricity has been used before to direct individual cells (the technical term for this is galvanotaxis), but how it influences the collective motion of cells was still unclear.

“The ability to govern the movement of a mass of cells has great utility as a scientific tool in tissue engineering,” said study senior author Michel Maharbiz, UC Berkeley associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences. “Instead of manipulating one cell at a time, we could develop a few simple design rules that would provide a global cue to control a collection of cells.”

Read more →

Building robots to land on Saturn’s moons

Building robots to land on Saturn’s moons

Landing an unmanned robot on another planet can be quite a feat and can end up being quite a complex process.  Scientists want to make this process easier but also allow us to explore worlds that are currently too difficult to land on.

UC Berkeley professor Alice Agogino is working with doctoral students to build what are known as tensegrity robots.  Essentially, these are robots built with a series of rods and tension wires that protect the delicate scientific instruments in the middle.

The structure allows for both flexibility and strength while navigating a rugged environment — for example, landing on a planet’s rocky surface. These robots can explore places that are currently inaccessible to wheeled rovers such as rocky cliffs, which are rich in geological data due to the exposed rock.

Currently, NASA researchers are working on a prototype to one day land on places such as Titan – one of Saturn’s moons.  Scientists are interested in this moon because it has a thick atmosphere with flowing liquids on the surface and is often referred to being the most earthlike world in our solar system.

Read more about this technology 

The science of love …and why some couples last for life.

[Listen to Robert Levenson’s full interview with Science Today.]

Love can be a battlefield. So what makes a successful relationship?

Psychologist Robert Levenson (known for his work on the “marry me” gene) and his team at UC Berkeley had a hunch that the key to a relationship’s stability was the ability to deal with conflict.

So they gathered 156 middle-aged couples who had been married a long time. Every five years, these couples came to the lab and the researchers watched them interact and resolve arguments (while monitoring different physiological markers):

“When we started, we were convinced that it was all going to be about regulating the husband’s [emotional] temperature because men tend to get uncomfortable with conflict and want to solve it quickly. That was our hunch, but it turned out to be just the opposite. Couples who seemed to get happier over the 20-year study were those who could regulate the wife’s emotions.” [1]

The interesting thing was that it didn’t matter how quickly the husband cooled down after an argument, but it made a lot of difference how quickly the wife cooled down.

So is this a gender thing? Levenson isn’t certain that the results indicate gender differences.  The BIG caveat is that this is only a group of 156 couples (of a particular place and generation, with particular educational, ethnic, and religious backgrounds):

“In these groups there tends to be a confounding of gender with power.  So in many of these marriages the husband has more power.  In the older group they may have that because they’re the one who is more likely to have had a career.

And so we’re often not sure with these kinds of findings whether it has to do with women or it has to do with the person in the relationship who has less power.”

Levenson has also done research with same-sex couples (some of the only studies of this kind). In male/male and female/female couples, he noticed a similar pattern where the more powerful person ended up looking like the male in heterosexual relationships. Power and the desire to change a relationship were more powerful factors than a person’s gender.

The person with less power tends to want more change in the relationship. They tend to be more frustrated and less satisfied when the issues they raise aren’t resolved. ”It would be quite reasonable to think that the less powerful person would be the one for whom cooling down would be more critical,” he explains.

Universitium ofium Californium Berkelium…?

 Picture 2013-07-30 at 9.55.10 AM

UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs have discovered a total of 22 elements on the periodic table.

Scientific American just recently published a great interactive version of the periodic table of elements.  When clicking on each element the user can learn obscure facts about each element’s discovery.  “Berkelium” reads:

In 1950 The New Yorker sarcastically remarked that Glenn T. Seaborg’s team had missed a chance to have four elements in a row named “universitium,” “ofium,” “californium” and “berkelium.” The team replied it did not want to risk naming the first two elements universitium and ofium lest the East Coast beat them to naming the next two “newium” and “yorkium.”