Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Museum shows 116-year-old orange

Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 October 2007, 10:51 GMT
Museum shows 116-year-old orange
The 116-year-old orange
The pips can be heard rattling when the orange is shaken
A dried-up orange from the lunchbox of a miner fatally injured on the day he was due to eat it has gone on display in a Staffordshire museum.

The fruit belonged to Joseph Roberts who was injured in an explosion at a Stoke-on-Trent colliery in 1891.

It had been kept by his family but has been donated to the Potteries Museum.

Spokeswoman Deb Klemperer said it may just be a piece of dried fruit but the story behind it made it an amazing piece for the museum.

Underground blasting

She said Mr Roberts, 37, of Hanley, had taken it to work at the Racecourse colliery in Etruria for his lunch on 19 February.

Unfortunately, he was badly injured when underground blasting at the colliery went wrong.

He died in hospital leaving a wife and six children.

The lunchbox was one of his effects handed back to his family, who kept it.

Now his great-granddaughter Pam Bettaney has donated it to the museum.

The orange is completely blackened and dried out - the pips can be heard rattling when it is shaken.

"His death was just one of many of the tragedies of the time. He was just one of many who died while working down the mines," Ms Klemperer said.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

THE Right Brain vs Left Brain test

THE Right Brain vs Left Brain test ... do you see the dancer turning clockwise or anti-clockwise?

If clockwise, then you use more of the right side of the brain and vice versa.

Most of us would see the dancer turning anti-clockwise though you can try to focus and change the direction; see if you can do it.

uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies

uses feeling
"big picture" oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can "get it" (i.e. meaning)
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
risk taking

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Human species 'may split in two'

Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2006, 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK
Human species 'may split in two'
Different human sub-species predicted by Dr Oliver Curry
Humanity may split into an elite and an underclass, says Dr Curry
Humanity may split into two sub-species in 100,000 years' time as predicted by HG Wells, an expert has said.

Evolutionary theorist Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics expects a genetic upper class and a dim-witted underclass to emerge.

The human race would peak in the year 3000, he said - before a decline due to dependence on technology.

People would become choosier about their sexual partners, causing humanity to divide into sub-species, he added.

The descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative and a far cry from the "underclass" humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures.

Race 'ironed out'

But in the nearer future, humans will evolve in 1,000 years into giants between 6ft and 7ft tall, he predicts, while life-spans will have extended to 120 years, Dr Curry claims.

Physical appearance, driven by indicators of health, youth and fertility, will improve, he says, while men will exhibit symmetrical facial features, look athletic, and have squarer jaws, deeper voices and bigger penises.

Women, on the other hand, will develop lighter, smooth, hairless skin, large clear eyes, pert breasts, glossy hair, and even features, he adds. Racial differences will be ironed out by interbreeding, producing a uniform race of coffee-coloured people.

However, Dr Curry warns, in 10,000 years time humans may have paid a genetic price for relying on technology.

Spoiled by gadgets designed to meet their every need, they could come to resemble domesticated animals.

Receding chins

Social skills, such as communicating and interacting with others, could be lost, along with emotions such as love, sympathy, trust and respect. People would become less able to care for others, or perform in teams.

Physically, they would start to appear more juvenile. Chins would recede, as a result of having to chew less on processed food.

There could also be health problems caused by reliance on medicine, resulting in weak immune systems. Preventing deaths would also help to preserve the genetic defects that cause cancer.

Further into the future, sexual selection - being choosy about one's partner - was likely to create more and more genetic inequality, said Dr Curry.

The logical outcome would be two sub-species, "gracile" and "robust" humans similar to the Eloi and Morlocks foretold by HG Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine.

"While science and technology have the potential to create an ideal habitat for humanity over the next millennium, there is a possibility of a monumental genetic hangover over the subsequent millennia due to an over-reliance on technology reducing our natural capacity to resist disease, or our evolved ability to get along with each other, said Dr Curry.

He carried out the report for men's satellite TV channel Bravo.

Evolution's human and chimp twist

Last Updated: Thursday, 18 May 2006, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Evolution's human and chimp twist
Skull of Toumai (Nature)
The new finding raises questions about the Toumai fossil from Chad
Humans and chimpanzees may have split away from a common ancestor far more recently than was previously thought.

A detailed analysis of human and chimp DNA suggests the lines finally diverged less than 5.4 million years ago.

The finding, published in the journal Nature, is about 1-2 million years later than the fossils have indicated.

A US team says its results hint at the possibility that interbreeding occurred between the two lines for thousands, even millions, of years.

This hybridisation would have been important in swapping genes for traits that allowed the emerging species to survive in their environments, explain the scientists affiliated to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the Harvard Medical School.

And it underlines, they believe, just how complex human evolution has been.

"This is a hypothesis; we haven't proved it but it would explain multiple features of our data," said David Reich, assistant professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School and an author on the Nature paper.

"The hypothesis is that there was gene flow between the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees after their original divergence.

"So, there might have been an original divergence and a separation for long enough that the species became differentiated - for example, we might have adapted features such as upright walking - and then there was a re-mixture event quite a while after; a hybridisation event," he told the Science in Action programme on the BBC World Service.

Gene swapping

Humans and chimps contain DNA sequences that are very similar to each other; the differences are due to mutations, or errors, in the genetic code that have occurred since these animals diverged on to separate evolutionary paths.

By analysing where these differences occur in the animals' genomes, it is possible to get an insight into the two species' histories - the timing of key events in their evolution.

Scientists have been able to do this for some time but the recent projects to fully decode the two primates' genomes have provided details that have taken this type of study to a more advanced level.

The US investigation indicates the human and chimp lines split no more than 6.3 million years ago and probably less than 5.4 million years ago.

It is a problematic finding because of our current understanding of early fossils, such as the famous Toumai specimen uncovered in Chad.

Toumai (Sahelanthropus tchadensis) was thought to be right at the foot of the human family tree. It dates to between 6.5 and 7.4 million years ago. In other words, it is older than the point of human-chimp divergence seen in the genetic data.

"It is possible that the Toumai fossil is more recent than previously thought," said Nick Patterson, a senior research scientist and statistician at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and lead author on the Nature paper.

"But if the dating is correct, the Toumai fossil would precede the human-chimp split. The fact that it has human-like features suggests that human-chimp speciation may have occurred over a long period with episodes of hybridisation between the emerging species."

Commenting on the research, Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, told the Associated Press: "It's a totally cool and extremely clever analysis.

"My problem is imagining what it would be like to have a bipedal hominid and a chimpanzee viewing each other as appropriate mates, not to put it too crudely."

Evolution reversed in mice

Last Updated: Monday, 7 August 2006, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Evolution reversed in mice
A mouse (Image: Petr Tvrdik, University of Utah )
The mouse looks the same but has an ancient gene
US researchers have taken a mouse back in time some 500 million years by reversing the process of evolution.

By engineering its genetic blueprint, they have rebuilt a gene that was present in primitive animals.

The ancient gene later mutated and split, giving rise to a pair of genes that play a key role in brain development in modern mammals.

The scientists say the experiments shed light on how evolution works and could lead to new gene therapy techniques.

"We are first to reconstruct an ancient gene," said co-researcher Petr Tvrdik of the University of Utah. "We have proven that from two specialised modern genes, we can reconstruct the ancient gene they split off from.

"It illuminates the mechanisms and processes that evolution uses, and tells us more about how Mother Nature engineers life."

Brain development

The study, published in the academic journal Developmental Cell, involved a suite of genes involved in embryonic development.

It gives a real example of how evolution works because we can reverse it
Prof Mario Capecchi

Until about 500 million years ago, early animals had 13 such Hox genes. Then each gene split into four, making 52 genes.

Over the course of evolution, further mutations occurred, and some genes became redundant and disappeared, leading to today's tally in mammals of 39 Hox genes.

The Utah team looked at two of these genes; Hoxa1, which controls embryonic brain development, and Hoxb1, which plays a key role in the development of nerve cells that control facial expressions in animals.

Hybrid gene

The Utah pair combined critical sections of each gene, reconstructing a gene similar to its equivalent some 530 million years ago.

The hybrid gene is not completely identical to the ancient one, but the scientists say it performs essentially the same functions.

"What we have done is essentially go back in time to when Hox1 did what Hoxa1 and Hoxb1 do today," said Mario Capecchi, professor of human genetics at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

"It gives a real example of how evolution works because we can reverse it."

Tiny fossils reveal inner secrets

Last Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006, 17:51 GMT 18:51 UK
Tiny fossils reveal inner secrets
By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

The exact moment when a 550-million-year-old cell began to divide has been captured in an exquisite 3D image.

The picture is one of a series taken by researchers examining ancient fossil embryos from Guizhou Province, China.

The specimens, described in the journal Science, are the oldest known examples of fossil embryos, and shed light on the early evolution of complex life.

Scientists used an advanced X-ray technique to peer inside the balls of cells to reveal the structures inside.

"We have been able to tease apart every structure, geological or biological," said Professor Phil Donoghue of the University of Bristol in the UK and one of the team which worked on the 162 pristine specimens.

Digital probe

The tiny fossils are part of South China's Doushantuo Formation, a limestone bed deposited between 635 and 551 million years ago that contains layers composed almost entirely of fossil embryos.

The team behind the research believes the fossils are the developing offspring of extremely primitive sponge-like creatures.

It is amazing that such delicate biological structures can be preserved in such an ancient deposit
Shuhai Xiao
Virginia Tech

To resolve the delicate internal structures, the scientists used a technique known as microfocus x-ray computed tomography (microCT). The method allowed the team to construct 3D images of the tiny fossils.

Computer software was then used to analyse individual cells.

"We digitally extracted each cell from the embryos and then looked inside the cells," said Shuhai Xiao of Virginia Tech University in the US.

Inside, the team found kidney-shaped structures that it believes could be nuclei or other subcellular components.

"It is amazing that such delicate biological structures can be preserved in such an ancient deposit," said Professor Xiao.

In some four-celled embryos, each cell had two of the kidney-shaped structures, suggesting they were caught in the process of splitting prior to cell division.

Explosion of life

Although the bed is packed full of the tiny fossils, the team has been unable to find any adult specimens.

Previous research has suggested that the embryos were the product of complex animals, the ancestors of modern organisms.

Ammonite fossils
Theory holds that complex life "exploded" after the Cambrian

If true, this would suggest that complex multi-cellular life got started much earlier than previously thought, prior to the "Cambrian Explosion" 542 million years ago.

At this time, fossils record a dramatic change in animal diversity with many of today's modern groups suddenly making an appearance.

Some researchers believe that the Cambrian Explosion marked the emergence of modern animal life. Although complex animals had started evolving before 542 million years ago, their development accelerated at this point.

Others maintain that complex animals lived long before this event and that the period just marks a time of exceptional fossil preservation.

The Doushantuo Formation is important because it gives a window into the time leading up to the Cambrian and the new analysis goes some way towards resolving the dispute.

Unique insights

Using the microCT technique to analyse late-stage embryos, with up to 1,000 cells, the team was able to gain insights into the creature that produced them.

This work provides a constraint on when advanced groups evolved,
Phil Donoghue
University of Bristol

Although the cells show some modern traits, they crucially lack others.

"Even in these late-stage embryos, there is no evidence of the formation of a tissue layer," said Dr Donoghue.

"You would expect to see that in modern embryos, even those of sponges."

The team believes the cells probably came from extremely simple creatures.

"They would have developed into sponge-like creatures, but more primitive," said Dr Donoghue.

If right, this means that the Cambrian Explosion theory for the origin of complex animal life would still stand.

"This work provides a constraint on when advanced groups evolved," Dr Donoghue said.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Balkan heartbreak a hit in Berlin

Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 October 2007, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
Balkan heartbreak a hit in Berlin
Wedding dress (photo courtesy of Zvonimir Dobrovic)
One woman donated her wedding dress to the exhibition
A travelling exhibition devoted to the theme of failed relationships is proving a hit in Berlin.

The Museum of Broken Relationships asks people in the cities it visits to donate mementos of everything from short flings to painful divorces.

Originating in Croatia, the show has visited Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia and has amassed more than 300 exhibits.

Berliners have donated more than 30 objects, including a wedding dress and an axe used to break an ex's furniture.

Zvonimir Dobrovic is organising the Berlin show in the Tacheles arts centre, a former squat in the heart of the city.

"It's such a nice, simple idea, because everyone can relate to it," he told the BBC News website.

Bike (photo courtesy of Zvonimir Dobrovic)
I left on a scorching summer's day - I thought going on foot or taking a tram would be incredibly stupid - so I got on the bike

"It's not pretentious, it's interactive, a place where people can present their own stories and compare them to others."

Members of the public are asked to give or donate an object, along with a short description of what it means to them, the time of the relationship, and where they are from.

"Even if the objects seem ordinary the stories are very individual and they make the exhibition come alive," Mr Dobrovic said.

"People really enjoy being here, we get couples who spend a long time here, looking and laughing and hoping it never happens to them, and then people who've just broken up who want to tell us their stories," he added.

Cathartic effect

The idea was born when two Zagreb artists, Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic, split up and wanted to do something creative with the pain they were feeling.

"The exhibition comes from a sincere, universal experience and helped us in our break-up process", Ms Vistica told the BBC News website.

Handcuffs (photo courtesy of Zvonimir Dobrovic)
Some of the objects donated are ordinary, some more unusual

The artists decided to collect the objects left over from their relationship and put them on display and asked their friends to do the same.

Ms Vistica says the exhibition can have a therapeutic effect.

"The normal impulse is to destroy the mementos of a relationship in order to recover, but we thought of using creativity to overcome the pain of the experience and also remember the joy those objects once held for us," she said.

The cathartic effect is evident in some of the descriptions accompanying the objects.

One woman donated an axe and described chopping up the furniture of her cheating female lover.

"The more her room filled up with chopped up furniture, the more I started to feel better. Two weeks after she was kicked out she came to take the furniture. It was neatly arranged into small heaps and fragments of wood."

After Berlin the exhibition travels to Belgrade, Skopje and Stockholm and there are plans for possible shows in Tokyo, New York and Sao Paulo.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Students to be given own minister

Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 October 2007, 23:12 GMT 00:12 UK
Students to be given own minister
students chatting
Students are to have an independent forum to air their views
Students in England are to have their own government minister and a national forum to influence university policy.

Lord Triesman will be the first "minister for students" - with specific responsibility to speak up for higher education students.

There will also be an independent National Student Forum which will advise ministers on student issues.

"Student juries" will be convened in five locations before Christmas to inform its work.

There are 2.3 million students in the UK - and the latest figures from the university admissions service published this week showed a further rise in numbers entering higher education.

Consumer students

Lord Triesman, a former head of the AUT lecturers' union, will be responsible for establishing a dialogue with students about their experience of higher education.

The Universities Secretary, John Denham, says it would put "students' voices at the heart of government".

The newly-designated minister will also have to engage with students as consumers - with increasing pressure from fee-paying students to make sure that university courses are value for money.

Student welfare officers have reported a growing trend for students to see themselves as customers - threatening legal action if they feel that universities are failing to deliver adequate courses.

The announcements have been welcomed by the National Union of Students.

"For far too long students have been out in the cold when it comes to decisions about their futures," says union president, Gemma Tumelty.

"We're delighted that the government is willing to listen to the voice of the learner in its approach to education."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Should it be Burma or Myanmar?

Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
Should it be Burma or Myanmar?
The Magazine answers...

Protesters in Philippines
'Burma' to the pro-democracy camp
Protest marches in Burma have entered a ninth day. But why is the country not known in the UK by its official name, Myanmar?

The eyes of the world's media are focused on Rangoon, where tensions are rising in the streets, yet news organisations and nations differ in what they call the country.

The ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Rangoon also became Yangon.

It's known as Myanmar in many countries and at the UN
But the UK doesn't recognise the legitimacy of the regime that changed the name
The Adaptation of Expression Law also introduced English language names for other towns, some of which were not ethnically Burmese.

The change was recognised by the United Nations, and by countries such as France and Japan, but not by the United States and the UK.

A statement by the Foreign Office says: "Burma's democracy movement prefers the form 'Burma' because they do not accept the legitimacy of the unelected military regime to change the official name of the country. Internationally, both names are recognised."

It's general practice at the BBC to refer to the country as Burma, and the BBC News website says this is because most of its audience is familiar with that name rather than Myanmar. The same goes for Rangoon, people in general are more familiar with this name than Yangon.

But look in a Lonely Planet guidebook to Asia and the country can be found listed after Mongolia, not Brunei. The Rough Guide does not cover Burma at all, because the pro-democracy movement has called for a tourism boycott.

There are various ways
'My' may be 'mee' as in 'street' or 'my' as in 'cry'
And stress can be on the first, second or third syllable

So does the choice of Burma or Myanmar indicate a particular political position?

Mark Farmener, of Burma Campaign UK, says: "Often you can tell where someone's sympathies lie if they use Burma or Myanmar. Myanmar is a kind of indicator of countries that are soft on the regime.

"But really it's not important. Who cares what people call the country? It's the human rights abuses that matter.

"There's not a really strong call from the democracy movement saying you should not call it Myanmar, they just challenge the legitimacy of the regime. It's probable it will carry on being called Myanmar after the regime is gone."

Colloquial name

The two words mean the same thing and one is derived from the other. Burmah, as it was spelt in the 19th Century, is a local corruption of the word Myanmar.

They have both been used within Burma for a long time, says anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics.

Question Mark - from original architect's doodle design for BBC TV Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines
"There's a formal term which is Myanmar and the informal, everyday term which is Burma. Myanmar is the literary form, which is ceremonial and official and reeks of government. [The name change] is a form of censorship."

If Burmese people are writing for publication, they use 'Myanmar', but speaking they use 'Burma', he says.

This reflects the regime's attempt to impose the notion that literary language is master, Mr Houtman says, but there is definitely a political background to it.

Richard Coates, a linguist at the University of Western England, says adopting the traditional, formal name is an attempt by the junta to break from the colonial past.

The UN uses Myanmar, presumably deferring to the idea that its members can call themselves what they wish
Richard Coates, Linguist
"Local opposition groups do not accept that, and presumably prefer to use the 'old' colloquial name, at least until they have a government with popular legitimacy. Governments that agree with this stance still call the country Burma.

"The UN uses Myanmar, presumably deferring to the idea that its members can call themselves what they wish, provided the decision is recorded in UN proceedings. There are hosts of papers detailing such changes. I think the EU uses Burma/Myanmar."

Other countries to rename themselves like this include Iran (formerly Persia), Burkina Faso (Upper Volta) and Cambodia (Kampuchea).

"They've substituted a local name for an internationally acknowledged one for essentially nationalistic and historical reasons."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Vatican archive yields Templar secrets

Last Updated: Monday, 15 October 2007, 10:53 GMT 11:53 UK
Vatican archive yields Templar secrets
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Men on horseback dressed as Crusaders
The Knights Templar were disbanded in the 14th Century
The Knights Templar, a military order of the Roman Catholic Church, are back in the news again, almost 700 years after they were suppressed by papal edict.

They were originally formed to protect Christians in the Holy Land during the early Crusades.

The Templars are the stuff of legend, and their exploits have provided the plots for many films and popular novels.

The Knights, who wore a distinctive white mantle decorated with a red cross, became very wealthy, owned property all over Europe and the Middle East, and started up a primitive international banking system.

They caused deep controversy, even in their own time. They helped to finance wars waged by several European monarchs.

Some believe the Templars were the custodians of the fabled Holy Grail.

Disentangling fact and fiction about them is difficult.

In France, a Grand Master of the Order and other knights were burned alive by order of King Philip IV, after the Order was accused of heresy, blasphemy and sexual misconduct.

Faithful reproduction

Now the Vatican has decided to shed some new light on this often obscure period of late medieval history.

To the delight not only of scholars but also of Templar buffs around the world, who have been captivated by Dan Brown's stories, they are publishing facsimile reproductions of the original account in Latin of the investigation and trial into the alleged misdeeds of the Knights Templar. It took place in Rome between 1307 and 1312.

The document, known as the Chinon parchment, shows that Pope Clement V found the Templars not guilty of heresy, but guilty of other lesser infractions of Church law. Nonetheless he ordered the disbandment of the order.

The Vatican's Secret Archives, one of the world's great repositories of historical documents, is selling a limited edition of 800 numbered copies of the Chinon parchment.

It is printed on synthetic parchment, comes complete with a reproduction of the original papal wax seal, and is packaged in a soft leather case together with a scholarly commentary.

Each copy will cost just over 5,900 euros ($8,000; £3,925).

Lucky find

Rosy Fontana, spokesperson for Scrinium, the publishing and merchandising company handling the sale, says one copy will go to Pope Benedict XVI while most of the remaining 799 copies of this luxury limited edition have already been reserved by libraries and collectors around the world.

Scrinium has already published two other digitally mastered and hand-finished collections of colour reproductions of precious documents from the Secret Archives.

The Chinon parchment was recently rediscovered by Barbara Frale, a Vatican historian who works in the Secret Archives.

She says she stumbled across the document in a box containing other papers five years ago, having been lost for centuries after it was wrongly catalogued.

The document is half a metre (20 inches) wide by two metres long - the size of a small dining table.

According to Ms Frale, one of the accusations against the Templars was that they practised blasphemous initiation rites such as spitting upon the cross.

They justified this, according to the document, by claiming this was part of a ritual of obedience in preparation for possible capture by Muslim armies.

King's secrets

Both the Vatican's Secret Archives, and its adjoining Library (at present closed to scholars while it undergoes restoration) are housed in Renaissance buildings not far from the Sistine Chapel.

Together, the two collections of books, manuscripts, and letters cover tens of kilometres of shelf space, much of it underground for security reasons and to protect the archive against fire.

The official archives of the Holy See were systematically organised for the first time only in the 17th Century.

In the early days of the Church, popes did preserve manuscripts concerning their reign. But the fragility of papyrus documents used before the invention of paper, and the frequent changes of residence of popes before the 11th Century, means that most of the earliest Church archives have been lost.

Among other treasures from the Archive, sometimes shown to VIP visitors, are letters from King Henry VIII of England to Anne Boleyn, his future wife, stolen from London by a Vatican spy to provide evidence of the King's disloyalty to Rome. There is also correspondence between Lucrezia Borgia and her father Pope Alexander VI.

There are no immediate plans for the publication of any of these unique documents.

Look of fear sparks fast reaction

Last Updated: Sunday, 14 October 2007, 04:56 GMT 05:56 UK
Look of fear sparks fast reaction
Male face showing fear
Individuals respond most quickly to a fearful expression
A look of horror will grab the attention of those around you faster than a smile, US research shows.

Individuals react more quickly to a fearful expression than to faces showing other emotions such as joy, a study in the journal Emotion found.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University found the same speedy reaction to fear when only the eyes were visible.

It is thought the brain has evolved to react more quickly to potentially threatening situations

The brain responds very quickly to all facial expressions - at a speed of less than 40 milliseconds.

So to assess if certain emotions prompt a faster reaction, the researchers had to slow down the speed at which volunteers became aware of facial expressions.

Male face showing joy
A happy face prompted the slowest reaction time

Volunteers looked through a viewer which flashed a black and white, quick-changing pattern to one eye and a static image of a face to the other eye.

The flashing image had the effect of slowing down the speed at which the individual noticed the face.

Quick response

Participants became aware of a fearful expression far faster than a neutral or happy face.

Reaction to happy faces was consistently slower than for the other expressions looked at.

The fast reaction to fear was the same if the whole face was visible or just the eyes.

It is thought an area of the brain called the amygdala can process simple visual signals bypassing the normal visual processing pathway.

Dr David Zald, associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee said: "We believe that the brain can detect certain cues even before we are aware of them, so that we can direct our attention to potentially threatening situations in our environment."

Male face showing a neutral expression
Neutral expressions also produced slower responses than fear

He added there was other evidence showing the eyes were an important part of the picture.

"Fearful eyes are a particular shape, where you get more of the whites of the eye showing.

"That may be the sort of simple feature that the amygdala can pick up on, because it's only getting a fairly crude representation."

He added that the brain may react to happy faces slowly because they signal safety and do not require immediate attention.

The team are now planning to do a similar study to look at the response to anger.

Dr Bahador Bahrami, associate researcher in the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London said the findings were very interesting but not unexpected.

"It's quite well accepted that fearful faces have a special significance.

"And other imaging studies have shown the brain responds more strongly to fear, so this is consistent with that finding."