Pianist Plays Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Ravel & Debussy for Blind Elephants in Thailand

Romsai the elephant wore a red rope around his neck to warn approaching humans that he was a danger to both them and elephants. A dark patch on his head from a temporin secretion indicated that he was in the musth cycle, which only heightened his aggression. His mahouts at the ElephantsWorld sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, Thailand observed that the old, blind elephant was growing more dangerous with age.

And yet, he is the personification of sweetness, as pianist Paul Barton serenades him with a performance of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, repeating the melody section several times “as he seems to like it.”




In lieu of applause, Romsai places his trunk over the top of Barton’s upright piano again and again, in no way aggressive, more the gesture of a grateful audience member.

As Barton, a Yorkshireman who went to Thailand over twenty years ago for what he thought would be a short piano teaching stint only to wind up marrying a local artist and animal rights activist, said in an interview with YourStory:

All animals like music. Dogs, cats, etc. But elephants are the closest to human beings in the sense that they have the same neurons in the brains as us. Also they have a very good memory. If you are treated badly as a child, you are going to remember that all your life. It’s the same with elephants. The elephant shares that part of the brain with us which has flashbacks. They can never forget the terrible things they have seen and suffered… If you play classical music to an elephant, something soft and beautiful, something that human beings have been listening to for hundreds for hundreds of years, something that is timeless—and you play that to an elephant that is blind and they've never heard music before—the reaction is priceless. There is a special bond between you and the elephant. You are communicating with them in a different language. That language is neither ours nor theirs. There is something infinitesimally wonderful in a piece of Beethoven that connects me to that elephant and that feeling is otherworldly.

The impulse to play live concerts for Romsai and other blind sanctuary dwellers was partly born from seeing the positive effect music had on some blind children with whom Barton worked.

He also wanted to make amends for the deforestation of the elephant’s homeland, and the way the teak industry exploited their labor. It was while thus employed that many of them suffered scratched corneas and other eye injuries that blinded them, rendering them doubly vulnerable when the Thai government enacted a ban on commercial timber logging in 1989:

The elephant has worked for humans for too long. It was used in wars, it was used to deforest its own home. What is the little thing I can do as a human to say sorry, for my species for what we have done to them? I'll carry this heavy thing myself and play some music for the elephant while it is having some breakfast.

Removed from the plush seats of a concert hall, Ravel feels right at home. A rooster crows, a nearby child pipes up, and Romsai wanders in and out of the frame, at times appearing to keep time with his trunk.

Cicadas underscore Schubert’s Serenade.

Another ElephantsWorld resident, Lam Duan's (aka “Tree with Yellow Flowers”) stillness as she listens to Bach is reminiscent of Barton’s first musical outing with the elephants:

Elephants eat a lot of food. A lot. It is exhausting trying to procure that much food for so many elephants. When an elephant gets to eat, it’s a bit like a dog. A dog will eat its food so quickly because it’s not sure if it will ever eat again. And elephants are the same. Once they get their hands on some juicy leaves, they will eat and eat and nothing can tear them away from their food. That morning I brought the piano in early to the sanctuary. Pla-Ra was taken to a field full of juicy bamboo shoots and she began eating with a single minded dedication. I started to play Beethoven and she stopped eating. There was this half eaten bamboo shoot sticking out of her trunk while she stared at me. That was a reaction never seen before. An elephant stopped eating because of music.

Barton’s latest recording features 80-year-old Ampan, blind in one eye and near blind in the other, enjoying Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

Support Paul Barton’s Patreon here. Learn about volunteer opportunities or make a donation to ElephantsWorld here

via Laughing Squid

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Sitting Is The New Smoking: An Animated Explanation

In recent years, sitting has become the new smoking. "Past studies have found," declares a 2014 article in The New York Times, "the more hours that people spend sitting, the more likely they are to develop diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, and potentially to die prematurely — even if they exercise regularly." What's the science behind this alarming claim? The animated TED-ED video (watch above) begins to paint the picture. But it doesn't get into the latest and perhaps most important research. According to science writer Gretchen Reynolds, a recent Swedish study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that when you sit all day, your telomeres (the tiny caps on the ends of DNA strands) get shorter. Which is not a good thing. As telomeres get shorter, the rate at which the body ages and decays speeds up. Conversely, the study found "that the telomeres in [those] who were sitting the least had lengthened. Their cells seemed to be growing physiologically younger."




Several years ago, KQED radio in San Francisco aired a program dedicated to this question, featuring medical and ergonomics experts. To delve deeper into it, listen below.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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A Shazam for Nature: A New Free App Helps You Identify Plants, Animals & Other Denizens of the Natural World

Do you ever long for those not-so-long-ago days when you skipped through the world, breathless with the anticipation of catching Pokémon on your phone screen?

If so, you might enjoy bagging some of the Pokeverse’s real world counterparts using Seek, iNaturalist’s new photo-identification app. It does for the natural world what Shazam does for music.

Aim your phone’s camera at a nondescript leaf or the grasshopper-ish-looking creature who’s camped on your porch light. With a bit of luck, Seek will pull up the relevant Wikipedia entry to help the two of you get better acquainted.




Registered users can pin their finds to their personal collections, provided the app’s recognition technology produces a match.

(Several early adopters suggest it’s still a few houseplants shy of true functionality…)

Seek’s protective stance with regard to privacy settings is well suited to junior specimen collectors, as are the virtual badges with which it rewards energetic uploaders.

While it doesn’t hang onto user data, Seek is building a photo library, composed in part of user submissions.

(Your cat is ready for her close up, Mr. DeMille…)

(Ditto your Portobello Mushroom burger…)

Download Seek for free on iTunes or Google Play.

via Earther/My Modern Met

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

This Is Your Brain on Exercise: Why Physical Exercise (Not Mental Games) Might Be the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Sharp

brain exercise

In the United States and the UK, we've seen the emergence of a multibillion-dollar brain training industry, premised on the idea that you can improve your memory, attention and powers of reasoning through the right mental exercises. You've likely seen software companies and web sites that market games designed to increase your cognitive abilities. And if you're part of an older demographic, worried about your aging brain, you've perhaps been inclined to give those brain training programs a try. Whether these programs can deliver on their promises remains an open question--especially seeing that a 2010 scientific study from Cambridge University and the BBC concluded that there's "no evidence to support the widely held belief that the regular use of computerised brain trainers improves general cognitive functioning in healthy participants..."




And yet we shouldn't lose hope. A number of other scientific studies suggest that physical exercise--as opposed to mental exercise--can meaningfully improve our cognitive abilities, from childhood through old age. One study led by Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois, found that children who regularly exercise, writes The New York Times:

displayed substantial improvements in ... executive function. They were better at “attentional inhibition,” which is the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand ... and had heightened abilities to toggle between cognitive tasks. Tellingly, the children who had attended the most exercise sessions showed the greatest improvements in their cognitive scores.

And, hearteningly, exercise seems to confer benefits on adults too. A study focusing on older adults already experiencing a mild degree of cognitive impairment found that resistance and aerobic training improved their spatial memory and verbal memory. Another study found that weight training can decrease brain shrinkage, a process that occurs naturally with age.

If you're looking to get the gist of how exercise promotes brain health, it comes down to this:

Exercise triggers the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which helps support the growth of existing brain cells and the development of new ones.

With age, BDNF levels fall; this decline is one reason brain function deteriorates in the elderly. Certain types of exercise, namely aerobic, are thought to counteract these age-related drops in BDNF and can restore young levels of BDNF in the age brain.

That's how The Chicago Tribune summarized the findings of a 1995 study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine. You can get more of the nuts and bolts by reading The Tribune's recent article, The Best Brain Exercise May be Physical. (Also see Can You Get Smarter?)

You're perhaps left wondering what's the right dose of exercise for the brain? And guess what, Gretchen Reynolds, the phys ed columnist for The Times' Well blog, wrote a column on just that this summer. Although the science is still far from conclusive, a new study conducted by The University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that small doses of exercise could lead to cognitive improvements. Writes Reynolds, "the encouraging takeaway from the new study ... is that briskly walking for 20 or 25 minutes several times a week — a dose of exercise achievable by almost all of us — may help to keep our brains sharp as the years pass."

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

via New York Times

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Infographics Show How the Different Fields of Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics & Computer Science Fit Together

Ask anyone who's pursued a career in the sciences what first piqued their interest in what would become their field, and they'll almost certainly have a story. Gazing at the stars on a camping trip, raising a pet frog, fooling around with computers and their components: an experience sparks a desire for knowledge and understanding, and the pursuit of that desire eventually delivers one to their specific area of specialization.

Or, as they say in science, at least it works that way in theory; the reality usually unrolls less smoothly. On such a journey, just like any other, it might help to have a map.




Enter the work of science writer and physicist Dominic Walliman, whose animated work on the Youtube channel Domain of Science we've previously featured here on Open Culture. (See the "Related Content" section below for the links.)

Walliman's videos astutely explain how the subfields of biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and computer science relate to each other, but now he's turned that same material into infographics readable at a glance: maps, essentially, of the intellectual territory. He's made these maps, of biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and computer science, freely available on his Flickr account: you can view them all on a single page here along with a few more of his infographics..

As much use as Walliman's maps might be to science-minded youngsters looking for the best way to direct their fascinations into a proper course of study, they also offer a helpful reminder to those farther down the path — especially those who've struggled with the blinders of hyperspecialization — of where their work fits in the grand scheme of things. No matter one's field, scientific or otherwise, one always labors under the threat of losing sight of the forest for the trees. Or the realm of life for the bioinformatics, biophysics, and biomathematics; the whole of mathematics for the number theory, the differential geometry, and the differential equations; the workings of computers for the scheduling, the optimization, and the boolean satisfiability.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Map of Biology: Animation Shows How All the Different Fields in Biology Fit Together

Of all the science classes required throughout primary and secondary school, most students seem to like biology the best. Maybe, dealing as it does with such familiar things as plants, animals, and human beings, the popularity of biology has to do with its clear relevance to their life — or more to the point, to life itself. But any biology-loving youngster who decides to go take their studies more deeply into their favorite subject must sooner or later make a difficult choice: what kind of biology will they focus on? Biophysics, cellular biology, ecology, environmental biology, biomechanics, molecular biology, biochemistry, evolutionary biology... the list seems endless.

So instead of looking at the world of biology as a list, why not look as it as a map? Domain of Science, the Youtube channel previously featured here on Open Culture for their map of mathematics, map of physics, map of chemistry, and map of computer science, have just recently put together one for biology, a video tour of which appears above.




It begins with "the most basic unit in the foundation of all life," the cell, continues on to molecular, chemical, and physical processes, then to genes, populations, anatomy, the immune system, genetic engineering, paleontology, and even the search for life in outer space, with many other stops along the way besides.

"If there's one word that describes biology, it's complexity," says series creator and narrator Dominic Walliman. "There's a huge amount we still don't understand about how life works, how it started, and how it ended up with intelligent apes like us who are able to look back and try and work out. I feel like we'll be making new biological discoveries for many, many years to come." Encouraging words for those students now considering going into one of the many biological sciences, although they'll still have to decide exactly which biological science to go into — bearing in mind how many of those subfields have yet to emerge. It doesn't take that intelligent an ape to understand that, before long, biology's going to need a bigger map.

You can purchase Domain of Science's maps as posters here.

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Free Online Biology Courses 

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Meet Mandy Harvey, the Deaf Singer Songwriter Who Performs Barefoot & Feels the Music Through Vibrations in the Ground

Attractive young female singer-songwriters who shuck their shoes onstage sometimes find that this small attempt to pass themselves off as folksy and “real” has the opposite effect.

Mandy Harvey, however, is above reproach. The deaf singer-songwriter performs barefoot out of necessity, using her unclad soles to pick up on the vibrations of various instruments through the floorboards. It allows her to keep time and, in so doing, helps her to stay emotionally connected to the other musicians with whom she’s performing, as she told NPR earlier this year, when she was one of 10 finalists on America's Got Talent.

“I’ll feel and concentrate on the drums through the floor, through my feet and then the bass through your chest,” she said in an interview with Colorado Public Radio. “And then if a saxophone player is next to me then it will be on my arm. So you just designate different parts of your body so you can concentrate on who’s playing what and when.”




Born with near perfect pitch and a connective tissue disorder that impaired her hearing, she was able to pursue her love of music by relying on hearing aids and lip reading until 18, when she finally lost her hearing for good, as a freshman Vocal Music Education major at Colorado State University.

While she has never heard fellow songbirds Adele or Taylor Swift, she has gotten over the stage fright that plagued her when she still retained some hearing. Vocally, she turns to muscle memory and visual tuners to see her through.

Her talent is such that some listeners are convinced her deafness is a publicity stunt, a misperception that eats at Wayne Connell, founder of the Invisible Disabilities Association, a non-profit with whom Harvey is active:

We've created an idea [of] how people are supposed to look when they're broken and so when you don't fit that imaginary mold, then it's a trick, or you're a liar — or you're not really broken, so you shouldn't be doing certain things.

See Harvey performing barefoot at the Kennedy Center on the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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