A Eurasian jay picks at a nut in northeastern Germany. Photo: Getty
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Jay joy: what it feels like for a bird

Attributing emotions to birds is not a flight of fancy. Emotions are a feature of evolution: they arose to help creatures navigate the world safely and with maximum reward.

What does it feel like to be a bird? Though this might be asked more often by children than by adults, it is a valid scientific question. In September, a Royal Society meeting on bird senses will seek an answer.

The aim of the gathering, in Buckinghamshire, will be to examine our understanding of how birds interact with the world – through all of their six (or more) senses – and even to gain insights into the kinds of emotional reactions they have to their surroundings.

Attributing emotions to birds is not a flight of fancy. Emotions are a feature of evolution: they arose to help creatures navigate the world safely and with maximum reward. Though it is hard to read joy in a jay, there is much evidence that birds experience negative emotions, at any rate, such as the expectation of harm or punishment. Though we might call it fear, we know nothing of a bird’s subjective state, so the scientists working in this field are reluctant to give it that label. Nonetheless, it is a useful area of research: further investigation might tell us things (things we might rather not know) about the state of mind of a battery hen.

The extra sense (or senses) available to birds are similarly tricky to explore. For instance, it is impossible for us to imagine what it is like to sense a magnetic field.

So far, mostly by playing tricks on robins, we have worked out that this sense requires certain inputs. It works only when the field has an intensity within a fairly narrow range. If the field is too strong, or too weak, the bird cannot navigate. The same problem arises if the sky is too light or too dark. The light at dusk, in which blue-green is the dominant colour, makes magnetic navigation easiest.

Most bizarrely of all, the light – for robins, at least – has to be seen with the right eye. Cover the left eye and a bird can still navigate. Swap the blindfold to the right eye and it will remain for ever lost. The best explanation at present for this set of working conditions involves some extremely intricate physics taking place in a robin’s retina – blue-green light seems to trigger changes at an atomic level in the right eye.

While we work out the details, there are plenty of other puzzles, such as what tastes good to a bird. Many animals have a smaller selection of taste receptors than human beings. Those that are exclusively carnivores don’t have sweet receptors. Giant pandas have a sweet tooth but are unable to register the taste of amino acids – also known (to us) as umami. Sea lions, dolphins and whales have lost a plethora of taste receptors and possibly have none left at all, so eating might be a purely functional, rather joyless activity for these creatures. Birds may be in a similar position. They have fewer taste buds than most mammals do, which suggests they don’t taste much at all.

Smell is another important sense for birds. Some sniff the air in order to find their way home. Homing pigeons deprived of their sense of smell are unable to navigate after release from an unfamiliar location. Others use smell to identify food sources.

More surprising is that birds can ascertain each other’s sex, species and identity just from its smell. Then there are the mate-attracting smells: crested auklets have a lemony smell that advertises their hygienic status. This citrus odour is associated with a resistance to infection by lice, a desirable trait in a potential mate.

So now we have the answer to the vexing question of how a bird smells – pretty good, sometimes. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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How Tetsuya Mizuguchi reinvented video games with his love of synaesthesia

The Japanese designer on using music, movement, art and colour to create truly pioneering games.

It has taken six months and communicating across three different time zones to finally speak to Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Somehow, we’ve finally managed to meet on a gloriously sunny afternoon in Brighton. It’s the best chance I’ll have to ask him something I’ve always wanted to know. But I didn’t want to be too rude.

“How do I ask whether you’ve taken any psychedelics?”

“You’re asking about getting high? I’m pretty normal,” replies the pioneering Japanese video game designer. But not before a burst of laughter.

Mizuguchi’s background is unusual for a games industry professional. Having graduated in media aesthetics from Nihon University in Japan, it wasn’t until he saw a photo of Nasa’s VIEW virtual reality (VR) headset that he decided to enter the gaming world by joining Sega in 1990. And this was Sega before they unleashed Sonic the Hedgehog into the world.


Nasa VIEW headset. Photo: Nasa

“We had a long, long history of 2D over 100 years, including movies, TV, games. Everything was 2D and squared,” says Mizuguchi, on the challenges he faced in his early years.

He was tasked with creating one of the first powerful 3D games, Sega Rally, which upon its release in 1994 was unlike anything the industry had seen. It would later influence many other arcade racers for years to come, including Gran Turismo and the Colin McRae Rally series.

However, after one sequel in 1998, Mizuguchi headed for Zurich, where a music festival made him realise the new potential of powerful, modern games by combining visuals, music and player input into one reactive loop.

“I went to the party at night and it was a thousand people not dancing but moving,” he recalls. “The music changed, the sounds changed, the movement changed and the colours changed. I watched from the view and I remembered the word synaesthesia.”

From that moment, he focused primarily on music games, releasing Space Channel 5 (and its sequel), Rez, Lumines and Child of Eden. Despite the critical success of each title, Rez is the game that continues to live on, from its first release on the Dreamcast back in 2001 to a VR-enabled update last year known as Rez Infinite.

You play as a virus flying through the inside of a supercomputer tasked with saving an all-powerful AI named Eden, while fending off attacks from firewalls. The buttons you press, the enemies you attack and the environmental changes all feed into the multisensory game-playing experience.

Rez Infinite via GIPHY

Although it sounds like a bizarre idea for a video game, there’s no denying Rez is a moving, out-of-this-world experience. Mizuguchi reflects on whether anyone outside of Japan could have produced the game. “When I made Rez, we were talking about that all the time. It should be timeless, placeless, cultureless. So we asked what is the deep, deep point of the human being, what is our basic instinct?”

Mizuguchi is an innovative auteur in the same class as fellow game designers such as Hideo Kojima, Sid Meier and Shigeru Miyamoto, who created the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda franchises.

Despite his love of music across many genres, and being a writer and producer for songs and videos (such as those featured in Rez’s spiritual successor Child of Eden), he doesn’t label himself as a musician or game designer, but a “technologist” and “futurist”.

“Technology makes people hunger,” he declares. “I think we are in a transition. I think in ten or 20 years people… won’t be so closed. VR is closed. It’s going to open soon, with talking and mixing with each other. I believe it’s going to get us back to being much more human.”


Tetsuya Mizuguchi talking about synaesthesia. Photo: Emad Ahmed

It’s quite an achievement for a designer to have transferred so fluidly and successfully to different gaming technologies over the years, from 2D to 3D, portable gaming, high definition visuals and now VR. It’s something he says is important for everyone in the industry. “All the time, I have a big influence from new technologies.”

Mizuguchi looks at the PSP handheld console I place on the table at the bustling hotel restaurant. “When I first got this, Ken Kutaragi [known as ‘The Father of the PlayStation’] said, ‘this is an interactive, 21st century Walkman’, and that was the first time I can bring games outside. Music like this, anytime, anywhere, any style.”

This gave him the idea to create Lumines, the music-based handheld puzzle game. “And with Kinect technology, what kind of game can you play? Oh, I want to play like a conductor.” Here, he’s referencing Child of Eden, which gives players the option to use the Xbox’s body-tracking camera instead of the standard button-bashing fare.

Mizuguchi is always thinking about creative design in this holistic way. “I love to combine many elements, the music, the storytelling, many things, as one architecture. I don’t care about the genre, I want to create a fresh new thing. Also, I want to break something,” he laughs.

I share with him a story of my first visit to London’s Tate Modern where I decided to stroll through one of the gift shops and amuse myself with the quirky ornaments being offered to the public. But as I was leaving, a stunning piece of artwork on the wall caught my eye. The Nineties vibe it was radiating was part of the appeal, so you can imagine my shock when I learned it was in fact painted in 1925. It was abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky's Swinging. I bought a print. It’s the same artist I later realise has inspired Mizuguchi all these years, after first seeing Kandinsky’s Red Square in Moscow.



Swinging and Red Square in Moscow by Kandinsky. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

“I love artists from a hundred years ago, I love their concepts,” he responds, explaining how he draws inspiration from them – so much so that he credits Kandinsky at the end of Rez Infinite.

“They have the same kind of image and I’m always thinking about the same dream. Now we have technology, so I believe we can create a much deeper experience,” he says. “It’s a good thing you mention Kandinsky. Maybe it’s a good thing games can be the first encounter with artists. Gaming is also a new art form.”

So what other ideas does the artist in front of me have at the moment?

“Many ideas!” he grins. There’s no doubt that Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s next dance with synaesthesia will be just as exhilarating as his last.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.