Works in Progress

By Emily Mullin

illustration of sound wave over ancient greek inscription

A glimpse at ongoing faculty research

illustration of sound wave over ancient greek inscription

What Does the Ancient World Sound Like?

Historians have long studied what the past looked like—from its natural geography to its man-made architecture. But what did an ancient city sound like? Professor Shane Butler, chair of the Department of Classics and Nancy and Robert Hall Professor of the Humanities, is trying to find out by revisiting Latin literature and searching for clues in the texts.

Butler’s project started in 2010, when he organized a conference at the University of California, Los Angeles on senses in antiquity beyond visual perception. Classics scholars gathered to share their research and ideas on the textures, tastes, smells, and sounds of the ancient world.

Butler says the conference explored both “the stuff we can’t smell, taste, hear, or touch anymore” and the “things that do survive.”

From there, Butler got a contract with a publisher to compile a book based on the topics discussed at the conference. Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses, edited by Butler and Alex Purves, associate professor at UCLA, came out in 2013.

Butler is now focused on exploring the soundscapes of the ancient world. A book on that topic, co-edited by Butler, called Sound and the Ancient Senses, will come out later this year. Butler says he is rereading ancient Latin poetry and paying close attention to its sound.

“All language has sonorities,” Butler says. “Ancient literature maximizes these. Even ancient prose is very musical in this way.”

Poetry also contains patterns of sound, and plays such as Oedipus Rex have musical lyrics preserved in the text. Studying the sound of ancient poetry and song lyrics gives clues to how people spoke and what music may have sounded like thousands of years ago.

While Butler is taking a low-tech approach to recreating sounds of the ancient world, other researchers are going the high-tech route. A group of German scholars has created a digital reconstruction of a Roman forum to figure out what orators’ voices would have sounded like in the center of Roman public life.

Butler says modern society can learn a great deal from the ancient senses. “The 21st century suffers from sensory overload, but we’re also sensorially deprived at the same time,” Butler says, noting that many sensations we experience today are in the form of too much information and data.

He hopes his work examining ancient soundscapes will help people better engage with objects of the past, such as those displayed in museums, to provide more meaning and value.

—By Emily Mullin

Pay Attention!

Scientists have known for years that if you pay attention while doing something—such as driving or taking a test—your performance will be better.

It’s an obvious connection. Shreesh Mysore, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, is interested in what is happening at the cellular level when the brain is focused. Research has shown that the neurons in a person’s brain fire in different patterns when someone is paying attention to an object or task compared with when they are not. What’s astounding, Mysore says, is that in these studies, nothing changes in the physical world; it is the person’s attention that changes.

What intrigues Mysore is how the brain makes selections among multiple options to determine what to pay attention to—such as which voice it pays attention to in a crowded room. Known as the cocktail party effect, this is the phenomenon of being able to focus your auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out all the other things around you.

“We have no idea how the brain actually chooses one among many possibilities. That is the central question we are asking,” Mysore says.

The brain’s ability to pay attention and appropriately make selections among many choices of stimuli is critical for socializing and carrying out daily tasks. Scientists know that abnormalities in this ability are present in several psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia. Mysore’s lab is studying owls and mice to understand the specific neural circuits involved in attention and selection.

“Our hope is that this will lead to specific hypotheses about what goes wrong with attention in the different psychiatric disorders,” Mysore says.

For example, Mysore says he thinks his team has identified one of potentially many core elements of control in the midbrain, a small central part of the brainstem. He says this bit of brain circuitry works similarly to a dial with different settings. If you were to turn the dial in one way, the deficits found in ADHD would appear.

Mysore hopes his work will lead to the discovery of neural pathways that could be targeted with drugs to treat dysfunction in attention and selection.

—By Emily Mullin

Tensions in Telecommunications

In Victorian England, in the late 1800s, a new communication society was burgeoning. Great Britain had established an extensive telegraph system, and information was moving faster than ever before. Telegraphs were expensive and a luxury only the elite could afford. But these vast communication networks relied on lower-class workers to operate them.

History Assistant Professor Katie Hindmarch-Watson‘s work examines this period of rapid telecommunications development and how it led to tensions between the upper-class users of this new technology and the working class of telegraph boys, telegraphists, and eventually telephone operators, who were essential to building the country’s vast telegraph and telephone exchanges.

“This is a moment in which British hegemonic power is at its peak. The telegraph network emanating out of London is at the center of a global telegraph network,” says Hindmarch-Watson, who is working on a book that examines telecommunications, gender, and labor from 1870 to 1916 in the British capital.

Telegraph workers—and later telephone operators—were vital to Britain’s information system, but they were marginalized, underpaid, and often treated liked automatons despite their proximity to private and often sensitive information, says Hindmarch-Watson. Up until the 1930s, telegraph and telephone systems were used predominantly by members of the government, military, aristocracy, and the business community.

The aspiring working-class people who became telecommunications operators and messengers learned to read and translate text, fostering a new intimacy with elite information networks but driving the value of telegraphic transcriptions down. Friction between classes also led to gendered differences in labor between men and women, and even a thriving prostitution ring run by wealthy men soliciting teenage male telegraph workers.

As the telephone began replacing telegraph systems at the beginning of the 20th century, companies expanded on the cost-saving expediency of hiring female workers and created an almost exclusively female body of telephone switchboard operators.

In the modern digital age, information can be shared and transmitted at an unprecedented speed. But many parts of the world still lack reliable phone and internet access, a reminder of the “unevenness of technological development,” says Hindmarch-Watson.

—By Emily Mullin