The astonishing vision & focus of Namibia’s nomads + Why fireworks scare some dogs

Why Fireworks Scare Some Dogs but Not Others

EXCERPT: Dogs are known for their olfactory prowess, but sound also dictates their experience of the world. Dogs hear more than twice as many frequencies as humans, and they can also hear sounds roughly four times further away. Reacting to every sound would demand too much energy, and so dog brains must determine which sounds are significant and which can be tuned out. This “auditory flexibility” is especially important for working dogs; for example, lives depend on the ability of military dogs and detection dogs to remain calm despite the loud sounds and explosions they may encounter.

On the other hand, evolution has trained most animals, including dogs, that avoiding a perceived threat is worth it for overall survival, even if, as in the case of fireworks, the threat doesn’t end up being real. “From a biological perspective, it pays to err on the side of running away even when it’s not necessary. So why does my dog have a tendency to be anxious? Well that’s a normal trait,” says Daniel Mills [...] For some dogs, early life conditioning can make the difference in their sensitivity to sound.

[...] Dogs that have little to no negative associations with loud sounds can still be found cowering during a storm, while others who had a scary early experience can learn, often through counterconditioning and desensitization, to overcome the fright. One explanation for this can be found in temperament. Unlike personality and mood, which are more fluid emotional states, temperament is a deeper, more hardwired system affected by genetics and early development. Temperament is shaped by epigenetics, or the way an animal’s genes are influenced by external factors, and this can play a significant role in the dogs’ inherent predisposition to stress, anxiety and fear. For example, studies in humans and animals show that mothers who experience high levels of stress during pregnancy can pass on a propensity for anxiety to their young via the stress hormone cortisol... (MORE - details)

The astonishing vision & focus of Namibia’s nomads

EXCERPT: The Himba people of Namibia can see fine details and ignore distraction much better than most other human beings – a finding that may reflect the many ways that modern life is changing our minds and abilities.

[...] The first hints that modernisation could change our vision came from the Victorian anthropologist WHR Rivers, who explored the islands of the Torres Strait, between Australia and Papua New Guinea at the turn of the 20th Century. As he met the locals [isolated from outside world], he offered them various sensory tests, including the following phenomenon, known as the Muller-Lyer illusion.

[...] In reality, the lines are exactly the same, but if you ask people to estimate their size, most Westerners claim that the second line (with the 'feathers' pointing outwards) is around 20% longer than the top line. During his expedition to the Torres Strait, however, Rivers found that the locals were far more accurate – they just didn’t seem to be as susceptible to the illusion. The anthropologist later repeated the experiment on the Toda people of southern India, finding exactly the same effect, and the same result has since been found in many other pre-modern societies, including the San people of the Kalahari Desert.

It’s a profound finding, showing that even the most basic aspects of our perception – which you may assume to be hardwired in the brain – are shaped by our culture and surroundings. [...] Such studies, comparing different cultures, had been few and far between, however. As I have previously explored in another article ... most psychological studies have tended to use Weird (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) participants, using experiments on American undergraduate students to represent the whole of humanity. But Jules Davidoff at Goldsmith’s University in London, UK, has bucked this trend, and his studies of the Himba offer some striking evidence that many more factors ... may be influencing our perception... (MORE - details)

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