As we begin to close out the days of 2021, it’s only natural to take a look back at the year that’s about to end and dream of what we’d like to see change and what we hope will happen in 2022.
Throughout 2021, we continued to struggle with a pandemic that doesn’t seem to have any intentions of going away, watched prices on goods and services soar, and endured product shortages. But we also rediscovered how indomitable the human spirit is and how easy it is to find some bright spots even in the darkest moments.
My two wishes for 2022 are that we all try to refocus on what’s truly important in our lives and that we recognize that we’re all tied together on this swirling, blue dot of a planet.
In that spirit, I’m thinking that the theme of this end-of-year letter to you is “the nature that we share”—human nature and Mother Nature—or, put another way, “the other lives that live alongside.”
Let me explain.
If you have ever lived with dogs or cats, you know that they focus their attention on a novel sound by moving their ears toward it. Many other animals—including antelopes, cattle, deer, goats, horses, rodents, sheep, swine and various species of monkeys—also use this technique. But what hasn’t been known until now is that humans, too, have this capability.
We adults sometimes ask children to “perk up their ears,” meaning that we want them to listen intently. We never seriously thought, however, that kids could literally move their ears in the way that a cat, dog or horse does. But the fact is, they do.
Publishing their results in the journal eLife, researchers at the Systems Neuroscience and Neurotechnology Unit in Saarland, Germany, have shown that the muscles around the human ear become active as soon as new, unusual or goal-relevant sounds are perceived. By measuring electrical signals in the muscles of the vestigial motor system in human ears, the scientists discovered that we make minute, unconscious movements of our ears that direct them toward a sound that has caught our attentions. This is because it’s very likely that humans still possess a rudimentary orientation system that tries to control the movement of the pinna (the visible outer part of the ear). Despite becoming vestigial about 25 million years ago, this system still exists as a “neural fossil” within our brains. The question why pinna-orienting was lost during the evolution of the primate lineage has still not been completely resolved.
The researchers were able to record the electrical activity of the muscles that control the tiny, generally invisible, movements of the pinna by attaching sensors to a subject’s skin, a technique known as surface electromyography. Two types of attention were examined. To assess the reflexive attention that occurs automatically when we hear unexpected sounds, the participants in the study were exposed to novel sounds coming at random intervals from different lateral positions while they silently read monotonous textbooks.
To test the goal-directed attention that we show when actively listening, the participants were asked to listen to a short story coming from one laterally positioned speaker, while ignoring a competing tale from a speaker located on the opposite side. Both experiments showed that muscle movements in the vestigial pinna-orienting system indicate the direction of our auditory attentions.
To better characterize these slight movements of the ear, the scientists also made high-definition video recordings of the study subjects during the experiments. The subtle movements of their ears were made visible by applying computer-based, motion-magnification techniques. Depending on the type of aural stimulus used, the researchers were able to observe different upward movements of the participants’ ears, as well as variations in the strength of the rearward motion of their pinnas’ upper-lateral edges.
The authors of the study say that their results show that electromyography of human ear muscles offers a simple means of measuring auditory attention. The technique has potential for several interesting applications, including developing better hearing aids. Such devices would be able to amplify the sounds that the wearers are trying to hear, while suppressing the noises that they are trying to ignore. The devices would function in a way that reflects users’ auditory intentions. The hearing aids would almost instantaneously register and interpret the electrical activity in the ear muscles, then a miniature processor would gauge the direction the users are trying to focus on and then adjust the gain on the device’s directional microphones accordingly.
I’m using the ear study, of course, to bring up a larger point: that is, that as we contemplate what we wish for in 2022, I want us to remember that we have more in common with the other animals on Earth than we ever imagined.
The Earth hosts an abundance of life-forms, from well-known animals and plants to small, inconspicuous ones, such as archaea, bacteria and viruses. These organisms are fundamentally different all the way down to the cell level.
Or so scientists thought.
In the past, researchers were mainly interested in the DNA of various life-forms; for example, how much genetic material humans share with different animals. However, with advancements in the technology used for studying organisms at the molecular level, researchers have turned to proteins, the “workhorses” of the cell.
Recently, an international team of researchers analyzed and compared the proteins of 100 animal, bacterial and plant species in the largest mapping of proteins ever to be conducted across different species. They used an advanced technology, mass spectrometry, to study all 100 species.
Their results—a data set of eight million points with 53 million interconnections—was published in the scientific journal Nature in June 2020. They showed that all these life-forms have a few common characteristics. One of them is that a large share of their proteins focuses on metabolism and maintaining a protein balance, called homeostasis. Another common attribute is that most of the proteins help to generate energy, even though the ways in which this is done—from carbohydrate burning to photosynthesis—differ.
Now, if you would, I’d like you to watch the short video below, titled Sir David Attenborough: For All Nature. There’s a line in it that I think should be on our minds as we cautiously wade into 2022: “Darwin revealed that all species evolved over time to best exploit the conditions in which they live. He further realized that these conditions are not simply those of geography and climate, but also their relationship to other lives that live alongside.”
My wish for you this New Year’s is to let the borders and lines that you think exist between us and “the others” dissolve. Sometimes, the world pivots, and there’s no going back to the way things once were. This moment in this new world of ours is novel, and we need to direct our attentions to it; to “perk up our ears,” so to speak. We need to get to know it, make room for it—and then try to leave the world in a better condition for those who come after us.
Because we all have a lot more in common than we ever dreamed.
Wishing you a healthy and more caring 2022,