Salmon of doubt

A demonstration that brain researchers can detect meaningful neural activity in dead fish is among the research projects honoured in yesterday's Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

September 21, 2012

The prizes, awarded by the American humorous magazine the Annals of Improbable Research, are an annual parody of the Nobel Prizes intended to "first make people laugh, and then make them think".

The neuroscience prize this year went to four American researchers who demonstrated that researchers using an fMRI scanner and simple statistics could see meaningful brain activity anywhere - even in a dead salmon.

The researchers' paper, "Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in the Post-Mortem Atlantic Salmon: An Argument For Proper Multiple Comparisons Correction", was published in the Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results.

It details how the dead salmon was placed in an fMRI scanner and "shown a series of photographs depicting human individuals in social situations with a specified emotional valence, either socially inclusive or socially exclusive. The salmon was asked to determine which emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing."

Using standard statistical techniques, the researchers recorded meaningful results. "Either we have stumbled onto a rather amazing discovery in terms of post-mortem chthyological cognition, or there is something a bit off with regard to our uncorrected statistical approach," they conclude.

Meanwhile, the physics Ig Nobel Prize was won by an investigation into "the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a human ponytail".

The recipients include Raymond Goldstein, Schlumberger professor of complex physical systems at the University of Cambridge, and Robin Ball, head of the physics department at the University of Warwick.

The anatomy prize went to Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal and his former doctoral student Jennifer Pokorny for discovering that chimpanzees can identify each other from photographs of their backsides.

The medicine prize went to a French team who offered advice on how to prevent patients undergoing colonoscopies from exploding, while the psychology prize was awarded for a Dutch study entitled "Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller".

A Swedish environmental engineer scooped the chemistry prize for solving the puzzle of why people's hair turned green in certain houses in a Swedish town, while the fluid dynamics prize went to an American study of the sloshing that occurs when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee.

This year's Nobel Prizes will be awarded in the second week of October.

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