Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Experimenting with sound

I occasionally buy a copy of New Scientist if I am on holiday or about to get on a train. It’s written in terms simple enough for a layman like myself to understand and there’s usually some article or other about sound. I took one to Cambridge the other day (where it felt like a comic) and was disappointed to find almost nothing about sound save for one brief item.

I assume you are familiar with Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs. He rang the bell, the dogs came and he fed them. He did this for a number of days and then rang the bell and, when they came, he didn’t feed them although they salivated expectantly. The dogs had been conditioned by the bell. Any caveman who ever befriended a dog could have predicted that result.

Pointless or not, Pavlov’s work should have made the following research, reported in New Scientist, November 21st, unnecessary. In the 1970s a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania played two different sounds to 1,800 three year olds on the island of Mauritius. One of the sounds was always followed by a loud, frightening noise. The noise had such an effect on the children that, on hearing the sound that preceded it, the children would sweat with apprehension. Somehow (and we’re asked to take this as a given) the researcher measured the amount each child sweated every time they heard the warning sound.

Fast forward thirty years or so and we find that perhaps there was a point to the experiment after all. It transpires that of the children involved in the experiment 137 went on to gain criminal records. All of these children sweated significantly less than others of similar race and gender. So we have a link between an early fearlessness in the face of loud noises and criminal behaviour. Of course the report begs so many questions. What did other fearlessly sweat-free three year olds go on to become? Astronauts? Heavy Metal musicians? And were there no three year olds back home in Philadelphia? Were their parents more expensive to buy off or was Mauritius simply a pleasant place to go for a working holiday?

Before you rush to try any of this at home, just remember that that was the 1970s. Try something similar today and it may be the last time you are allowed to work with children (or animals). Content yourself with watching today’s shop assistants, force fed the saccharin Christmas hits of yesteryear on a continuous loop, turn into tomorrow’s homicidal maniacs.


  1. I occasionally ask shop assistants if they're not driven mad by the musak, and they tell me that after a while they don't hear it.

    Now I wonder what would happen if we repeatedly followed the musak with, say, the fire alarm going off :)

  2. Hmm... I like the way your mind works. Apparently they're looking for a new kommondant at Guantanamo (something to do with a recent 'regime change'). I'll put in a word for you if you like.

  3. I have set up the experiment here using a baking tray and rollng pin and it looks like Jed will go on to rob banks.