You can’t tell if someone is lying by reading their facial expressions

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You can’t tell if someone is lying by reading their facial expressions


So you’ve watched every single episode of Lie to Me and read every article from here to Mars on how to spot a fake smile and gotten pretty damn fantastic at spotting these fleeting, involuntary facial movements called microexpressions. You’re pretty much ready to bet the farm that you could spot a liar just by reading the clues written all over his stupid little liar face. Except no. No you can’t.

Microexpressions, as defined by psychologist Paul Ekman (who coined the term “microexpression,” basically wrote the book on the little bastards, and has been studying their use in detecting deception for going on half a century, now), are:

…very brief facial expressions, lasting between 1/25th and 1/15th of a second. They occur when a person either deliberately or unsconsciously conceals an emotion being felt. Any one of the seven emotions found to have a universal signal may appear in a micro expression: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise and happiness.

Microexpressions therefore fall under the umbrella of “body language” (“nonverbals,” if you’re one for parlance), and are distinguishable in that they refer explicitly to the face and specific situations in which they’re likely to appear, viz. a situation where the emotion being felt is being either intentionally or unintentionally suppressed.

The big upshot is that microexpressions have the potential to reveal hidden sentiments (NB: They were first detected by psychologists Ernest Haggard and Kenneth Isaacs when the two of them were reviewing footage of people undergoing couple’s therapy. Go ahead and mull that one over for a second), and so could serve some use to people (law enforcement, parents, poker players, a suspicious spouse) who stand to gain from knowing where someone really stands on an issue – or, more specifically, whether that someone is lying. The whole premise of the showLie to Me, starring Tim Roth as an uncannily capable human lie-detector, is based almost entirely on research surrounding microexpressions.

It of course bears mentioning that while Lie to Me is a fictional TV show, microexpressions are 100% real. They’re difficult to detect, and even more difficult to analyze, but they’re real. But we repeat: you probably can’t use them like Tim Roth.

There are several reasons for this, but arguably the most important one is that a microexpression, on its own, can really only tell you that a person is experiencing some emotion. Even if you can accurately determine which emotion it is – let’s say it’s fear – all you can really say from your assessment is that the person you’re talking to is experiencing fear. Let’s say you’re interrogating someone suspected of murder and you pick up on their fearful microexpression. Are they afraid that you’re close to figuring out they committed the crime, or afraid of being interrogated by some creep who is goggling at their face the way a dog might stare at a rack of ribs?

The point being that context – situational context, emotional context, the context of your relationship with the person you’re scrutinizing – is incredibly important when reading someone’s microexpressions. The importance of context applies to the analyses of other forms of body language, too, by the way. According to Joe Navarroa former FBI counterintelligence agent and an expert on nonverbal cues, a person’s feet tend to be more accurate in revealing sentiments and intentions than her face. And loads more important than someone’s face or feet, on their own, is the concurrent reading of her entire body, which Navarro says “is constantly transmitting vital information.”

But even if you have been trained to pick up on every last one of a person’s corporeal clues, it remains incredibly unlikely that you are equipped to divine when they are or are not being deceitful. To quote Ekman, the pinoeering microagression researcher, again, this time from his book Telling Lies: “Most liars can fool most people most of the time.” That includes people who have been taught to spot body language.

“Our research,” he goes on to explain, “and the research of most others, has found that few people do better than chance in judging whether someone is lying or truthful.” His research has also shown, and I’m going to bold this, just so that I can refer to it easily when I see someone bring this up in the comments“that most people think they are making accurate judgments even though they are not.” Allow us to reiterate: YOU ARE NOT TIM ROTH.

Okay but so wait… like… what if you really CAN tell when people are lying? What if you really are Tim Roth? Well, then perhaps you are one of the “few exceptional people who,” Ekman claims, actually “can quite accurately spot deceit.”

And this is where things get a little weird.

Some years ago, Ekman teamed up with fellow UC San Francisco psychologist Maureen O’Sullivan to establish a research project that would not only investigate people’s ability to detect lies, but actively seek out “Truth Wizards” – that is, people able to identify deception in other people in at least 80% of standardized trials. “Although most groups, including police officers, CIA and FBI agents, lawyers, college students and therapists, do little better than chance,” said O’Sullivan in a 2004 statement, wizards can usually detect whether a person is lying, whether that lie is about an opinion, and “how someone is feeling about a theft.”

By 2004, “The Wizard Project,” had tested more than 13,000 people and O’Sullivan and Ekman had identified 31 wizards. By those figures, fewer than 25 people in 10,000 are good enough at detecting deception to merit wizard status.

But then, the fact that there are any wizards to speak of whatsoever is certainly surprising, is it not? This is the real question – are there, in fact, people who possess the uncanny ability to read fleeting facial expressions, hand gestures, or shifts in body weight and divine your true feelings, opinions, or knowledge on a subject? Could you really be Tim Roth?

A statistical critique of The Wizards Project by psychologists Charles F. Bond Jr. and Ahmet Uysal found O’Sullivan and Ekman’s findings to be statistically and methodologically suspect. “Analyses reveal that chance can explain results that the authors attribute to wizardry,” the researchers write in a 2007 issue of Law and Human Behavior. “Thus, by the usual statistical logic of psychological research, O’Sullivan and Ekman’s claims about wizardry are gratuitous.”

In the same issue of Law and Human Behavior, O’Sullivan cam to Ekman’s defense as well as her own with a perspective piece titled “Unicorns or Tiger Woods: are lie detection experts myths or rarities?” The piece takes Bond and Uysal to task, claiming misrepresentation or misinterpretation by the researchers’ of The Wizards Project and its findings.

The “lively debate” over Ekman and O’Sullivan’s work on deceit detection, is ongoing – and on the subject of microexpressions, in particular, Ekman remains a contentious figure. His efforts to teach microexpression-analysis to TSA Agents has produced uninspiring results. Boise State University psychologist Charles Honts, a former DoD polygrapher who was trained by Ekman and now specializes in the study of deception, claims that every one of his attempts to replicate Ekman’s experiments have failed. “There’s not a lot of science to back up Ekman’s claims,” said Jay Nunamaker, head computer engineer of the digital lie-detecting Embodied Avatar project, in an interview with WIRED published earlier this year. “Applying them to deception detection is a reach.”

In light of this contention, it is perhaps sufficient, in the debate over whether you are or are not capable of telling whether another person is lying, to refer to the title written by O’Sullivan in defense of her and Ekman’s Wizard Project findings: “Unicorns or Tiger Woods: are lie detection experts myths or rarities?” When an ability becomes so rare as to be confused with myth, it’s probably safe to assume you don’t possess it.

In brief: No. You are not Tim Roth.


Possibly one of the weirdest geological formations in the world

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Possibly one of the weirdest geological formations in the world


How did this happen? In Norway, there is a bizarre rock formation known as Kjeragbolten, which is a huge block of stone that has become lodged in a 984-meter-deep crevice over a gorgeous lake. It’s so sturdy that sheep like to stand on it — and so do humans.

Photo by Deeds

Possibly one of the weirdest geological formations in the world

Photo by 7ty9

According to Atlas Obscura:

The boulder itself is a 5-cubic-meter large block of stone suspended above 984-meter deep abyss. Despite its impressive appearance, it is easily accessible on foot without any special equipment. The whole of Kjerag mountain is a popular hiking area, and Kjeragbolten is a favorite photo spot.

Apparently, for some the thrill of standing on a boulder suspended between two cliffs isn’t quite enough, as Kjeragbolten has become a very popular spot for base jumpers to use when launching themselves into the air.

What Is OCD?

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What Is OCD?

By Elizabeth Palermo, LiveScience Contributor   |   October 30, 2013 01:36pm ET
Frequent, repetitive handwashing may be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.
Credit: caimacanul /

Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, is a mental disorder characterized by recurrent, persistent thoughts (obsessions) and ritualistic behaviors (compulsions) that interfere with a person’s daily life and relationships, according to the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition” (DSM-5).

People with OCD often realize their compulsive behavior is irrational, but they feel powerless to stop, since that only increases their level of anxiety.

The International OCD Foundation estimates that about 1 in 100 adults in the United States — and 1 in 200 children — has OCD. The condition often appears first during childhood or the teen years, and it tends to occur in men and women in roughly equal numbers. [Hypersex to Hoarding: 7 New Psychological Disorders]

Symptoms of OCD

OCD has many manifestations, but commonly, the obsessions of a person who has OCD are in some way linked to his or her compulsions. A child who obsesses about germs or contamination, for example, might compulsively wash his hands. Other common obsessions and compulsions include the constant need to “check” things, like that the front door is locked or the oven is turned off; an obsession with counting or arranging things in a particular order; or compulsive hoarding.

While OCD symptoms show up differently in each individual, those who have the disorder have at least one thing in common: Their obsessive-compulsive tendencies get in the way of everyday life. This is what separates OCD from the day-to-day anxiety and habits that are deemed “normal.”

A small amount of obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior is not necessarily a symptom of OCD; these are normal responses to real stress that serve a valuable purpose. The ability to foresee — and then worry about — possible dangers allowed early humans to take precautionary measures and survive difficult situations. But those with OCD may worry and compulsively perform “precautionary” behaviors even after they have determined that no danger exists.

Causes of OCD

Researchers have many theories about the causes of OCD in humans, ranging from childhood trauma to bacterial infection to genetics — the condition often runs in families. But scientists agree that OCD coincides with abnormalities in certain brain processes.

When exposed to threatening or frustrating situations, most people with OCD experience hyperactivity in the parts of the brain regulating external stimuli, including the amygdala — the part of the brain where danger is evaluated and processed — and the orbital frontal cortex, which performs cognitive processing and decision-making functions.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a chemical that relays messages within the brain) that may play a part in OCD. People with the condition who take medication that modifies serotonin levels have fewer symptoms of OCD (see Treatments, below).

Diagnosis of OCD

While not all perfectionist behaviors are symptomatic of OCD, the disorder can become so severe and time-consuming that it becomes dysfunctional, preventing a person from normal day-to-day activities.

Only a qualified physician or mental-health provider can make an accurate diagnosis of OCD. The condition is often present with other mental-health disorders, such as depression, eating disorders or other anxiety disorders.

Treatment for OCD

There are several methods of treating OCD; most involve some kind of medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in treating OCD by teaching the individual with the disorder to try a different approach to those situations that trigger their obsessive-compulsive behavior. One type of CBT, known as exposure and response prevention, can help people with OCD by teaching them healthy ways to respond when exposed to a feared object (dirt or dust, for example).

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants are the medications most commonly prescribed for treating OCD. Anti-anxiety medication may also be prescribed.

Both types of medications may take several weeks to begin to work, according to the National Institutes of Health. In addition to side effects such as headache, nausea and insomnia, antidepressants have been shown to cause suicidal thoughts and behaviors in some people. People taking antidepressants need to be monitored closely, especially when starting their treatment.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo on Twitter @techEpalermoFacebook orGoogle+Follow LiveScience @livescience. We’re also on Facebook &Google+.

See How Smoking Prematurely Ages the Skin (Images)

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See How Smoking Prematurely Ages the Skin (Images)

By Anthony Rivas
Rab, Okt 30, 2013

There are so many harmful effects caused by smoking that it’s hard to decide where to start listing them. From health complications after surgery to brain damage, and even inflicting harm on our pets, the list can go on. Smoking is also believed to contribute to skin aging, and now a new study on twins shows that smoking can indeed cause premature wrinkling and other characteristics of accelerated aging.

Researchers scouted for twins at the annual Twin Days Festival, in Twinsburg, Ohio, to find pairs in which one twin smoked and the other didn’t, or both smoked, but with a five-year difference between initiation. They found 79 twins, of whom 57 were women, altogether with an average age of 48 years old. Close-up photos of each participants face were shown to a group of plastic surgeons, who had no knowledge of each participants’ smoking history. They were told to point out “specific components of facial aging” that were related to smoking, and 57 percent of the time, they were able to spot the smoking twin.

(Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery/American Society of Plastic Surgeons.)  The twin on the left is a non-smoker. The twin on the right smoked for 29 years, as seen by aging around the eyes.

(Above: The twin on the left is a non-smoker. The twin on the right smoked for 29 years, as seen by aging around the eyes.)

“Smoking makes you look old. That’s all there is to it,” Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, a dermatologist at the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, and who wasn’t involved in the study, told Reuters. Besides lung cancer, heart attacks, and strokes, just one more good reason to stop smoking is that it’s definitely making you look a lot older.”

The various indicators of aging that the surgeons found included: more sagging of the upper eyelids, baggier lower eyelids and bags under the eyes; more facial wrinkles, including lines between the nose and mouth, wrinkling of the upper and lower lips, and sagging chins. Signs of aging were most pronounced on the lower parts of the face, with those whose difference was more than five years showing even more signs, the researchers said.

(Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery/American Society of Plastic Surgeons.) Both twins smoked, however, the one on the right smoked for 14 years longer, as seen by more facial wrinkles.

(Above: Both twins smoked, however, the one on the right smoked for 14 years longer, as seen by more facial wrinkles.)

“It is noteworthy that even among sets of twins where both are smokers, a difference in five years or more of smoking duration can cause visibly identifiable changes in facial aging,” they wrote.

The results held true even when environmental factors, such as work stress, alcohol consumption, and sunscreen use were accounted for. They also said that they could not control for the effect of smoking on fat distribution. A U.K. study found that “smokers on average have a lower body mass index than non-smokers.”

Study author Dr. Bahman Guyuron suggested facial creams and plastic surgery for people who have already damaged their skin from smoking, but told Reuters that the goal of the study was to encourage people never to start in the first place. “We are hoping that by again emphasizing the harms that come from smoking, we can dissuade individuals from smoking … knowing how much it may damage their skin,” he said.

Smoking kills more than five million people each year around the world, and is responsible for nearly 87 percent of lung cancer deaths, according to the National Institutes of Health. It also increases the risk for cancer by up to 23 times for men and 13 times for women, according to the U.S. Cenetrs for Disease Control and Prevention, putting them at risk for cancer of the lips, oral cavity, esophagus, and many more.

Forbidden City: Home to Chinese Emperors

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Forbidden City: Home to Chinese Emperors

By Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor   |   October 29, 2013 01:15am ET
Forbidden city
An aerial view of the Forbidden City shows many of the buildings that are part of the palace complex.
Credit: ChameleonEye | Shutterstock

The Forbidden City (also called Zijin Cheng) is a 72-hectare (178 acres) palace complex in Beijing that was used by the emperors of China from A.D. 1420 to 1911.

In total, 24 emperors occupied the Forbidden City, so named because it could only be accessed by the emperor, his immediate family, his women and thousands of eunuchs (castrated male servants) and officials. It was renovated constantly throughout its 600-year history.


Glazed building decoration at the Forbidden City

The complex consists of about 980 buildings, mainly in yellow and red colors, surrounded by a wall 32 feet (10 meters) high and a moat 171 feet (52 meters) wide. The city is configured on a north-south axis that aligns with the pole star, emphasizing the emperor’s position as the son of heaven. “The whole palace context is built along a central axis, the axis of the world,” said University of Sydney professor Jeffrey Riegel in a 2008 BBC/History Channel documentary, “everything in the four directions suspend from this central point represented by these palaces.”

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The Forbidden City, viewed from Jingshan Hill to the north

The southern portion, which is also called the outer court, ends in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (the largest building) and tended to be where official business was carried out. The northern portion, which is also known as the inner court, had the residences of the emperor and his family as well as the harem where his concubines were kept.

It was difficult for an ordinary male to enter the Forbidden City, said Chen Shen, the curator of a Forbidden City exhibition set to open at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum in 2014, at a recent media presentation. He said that for a common man to enter he would likely have to become a eunuch, having his genitals cut off.  Even then “you still have to work your way up for many, many, many years before you get close to the emperor and his women.”

Shen added that the Forbidden City is, today, a major tourist destination attracting millions of visitors each year. On a single day in 2013, October 2, “the Forbidden City welcomed 175,000 visitors making it the most visited World Heritage destination in the world.”


File:Forbidden city map wp 1.png

Plan of the Forbidden City. Labels in red are used to refer to locations throughout the article.

– – – Approximate dividing line between Inner (north) and Outer (south) Courts.

A. Meridian Gate
B. Gate of Divine Might
C. West Glorious Gate
D. East Glorious Gate
E. Corner towers
F. Gate of Supreme Harmony
G. Hall of Supreme Harmony
H. Hall of Military Eminence
J. Hall of Literary Glory
K. Southern Three Places
L. Palace of Heavenly Purity
M. Imperial garden
N. Hall of Mental Cultivation
O. Palace of Tranquil Longevity

File:Beijing city wall map.jpg

Location of the Forbidden City in the historic centre of Beijing


The palace complex was ordered built by Zhu Di (the Yongle Emperor) who lived A.D. 1360-1424. He was crowned emperor in 1402 after forcefully overthrowing his nephew. After his ascension, he decided to move the imperial capital from Nanjing to his power base in what was then called Beiping, renaming the city Beijing “the northern capital.”

Moving the capital and building a new palace complex was an immense operation that meant expanding China’s canal system and mobilizing about 1 million workers to cut down trees, quarry rocks, make bricks and transport supplies, among the many other necessary activities.

The emperor felt that heaven had turned against him when, in 1421, lightning strikes resulted in three of his palaces burning down. “I am frightened to the very core of my being and I don’t know what to do …” said the emperor in a document quoted by Riegel in the documentary. Despite Zhu Di’s bad fortune the Forbidden City continued to be used by China’s emperors in both good times and bad.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, dragons

The roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony is decorated with dragons.
Credit: Jorge Sanchez | Shutterstock

Entering the City

The Meridian Gate, which towers as high as 125 feet (38 meters), is located in the south and serves as the formal entranceway to the city. It leads visitors through a series of courtyards that end in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the central and largest building where the emperor would conduct business.

Officials had to wait outside the Meridian Gate at about 3 a.m. to be admitted for their work, the gateway also serving public ceremonial purposes, writes Geremie Barme, a professor at the Australian National University, in his book “The Forbidden City” (Profile Books, 2008). “From the gate’s parapets, emperors presided over military ceremonies and victory parades, as well as the annual proclamation of the calendar which determined agricultural and ritual activities throughout the empire.”

File:Sign of the Hall of Supreme Harmony.JPG

The sign of the Hall of Supreme Harmony

The Hall of Supreme Harmony sits on a dais and stands about 115 feet (35 meters) tall, writes Marilyn Shea, a professor at the University of Maine, in a 2009 online article.  “At the top of the building, at each end of the roof ridge, are two dragons facing one another,” she writes noting that each dragon is more than 11 feet (3 meters) long and weighs close to five tons.

Barme notes that in later times, after a line of rulers from Manchuria formed the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), another building known as the “Hall of Mental Cultivation” took over, in practice, as the main workplace of the emperor.


The Hall of Supreme Harmony

Change of dynasties

One of the most important events to happen in the Forbidden City occurred in 1644. In that year, a rebel army attacked Beijing, forcing the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Youjian (the Chongzhen emperor) to commit suicide.

A Manchu army from Manchuria was invited by the remaining Ming supporters to march on Beijing and kick the rebels out. They succeeded but the price of their success was the founding of a new, Manchu-led, dynasty known as the Qing. Their rulers would go on to rebuild Beijing, and much of the Forbidden City, after the devastation brought by the rebel forces. They incorporated Manchu customs into the daily life of the city while continuing to respect earlier Ming customs. The Qing Dynasty would be the last imperial dynasty of China, ending in 1912 with the abdication of the 5-year-old Puyi.

An emperor’s retirement abode

The Qing Dynasty reached the height of its power under Hongli (the Qianlong emperor) who reigned 1736-1795. In 1795, after ruling for 60 years, he officially retired as emperor so that the length of his rule would not surpass that of his grandfather.

In doing so, he built a retirement palace called Ningshougong (Tranquility and Longevity Palace) in the northeast part of the Forbidden City, writes Nancy Berliner in an article published in the book “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City” (Peabody Essex Museum, 2010). It included a “twenty-seven pavilion garden” spanning two acres that “would reference nature and inner harmony, with places for leisurely contemplation, poetry writing, Buddhist meditation, and delighting in the visual arts,” Berliner writes.

In practice, the Qianlong emperor was never able to fully enjoy this palace or his retirement, retaining unofficial power up until his death in 1799. His rule would represent the height of the Qing Dynasty, the 19th century being one of decline.


The throne in the Hall of Preserving Harmony

The two Dowagers

In the 19th century, the Dowagers, mothers of the emperors, would gain greater influence. Dowager Cixi, who lived 1835-1908, would gain great power when her 5-year-old son, the Tongzhi Emperor, ascended the throne in 1861. For a time, she ruled literally “behind the screen” along with Dowager Ci’an (who died in 1881), telling Tongzhi and his successor what to do.

This period of rule was one of decline for the Qing Dynasty, something which some authors have tried to blame on the Dowagers, Cixi in particular. A major problem the Qing had to deal with was the relative decline of their own military in comparison to that of the Western powers. Barme notes that after the failed 1900 Boxer Rebellion, a foreign army occupied Beijing, looting the Forbidden City.

File:Palace Museum 6.jpg

The throne in the Palace of Heavenly Purity

The imperial throne did not last long after Cixi’s 1908 death. In 1911, an uprising forced the 5-year-old emperor Puyi and his Dowager mother to flee the Forbidden City. He formally abdicated the following year and China would never have an emperor again. The Palace Museum was founded in the Forbidden City in 1925. Today this museum has about 1.5 million artifacts from the city under its care.

File:Forbidden city 05.jpg

The Hall of Central Harmony (foreground) and the Hall of Preserving Harmony

Forbidden City under Mao

Even without the emperors, there was still much history left to be made in the Forbidden City. In the Chinese civil war that broke out after World War II, the retreating Nationalists moved about 600,000 treasures, originally from the Forbidden City, to Taiwan, where they are now part of a Palace Museum in Taipei.

When the communists under Mao took control of Beijing, they didn’t know what to do with the Forbidden City. Barme notes in his book that the palace complex, with the opulence it afforded the emperor, seemed at odds with Mao’s way of thinking and plans were proposed to tear it down. They were never put into action, however, and when Richard Nixon made his groundbreaking trip to China in 1972, he visited the Forbidden City.


The Palace of Heavenly Purity

Unexplored history

Today, there are still many more stories waiting to be told about the Forbidden City. The Palace Museum in Beijing has more than 1.5 million artifacts from the city, including many which have yet to be published despite a program that has produced 60 volumes in the last few decades.

Chen Shen told LiveScience in an interview that when his team was putting together the new exhibition they made a week-long trip to the vaults where many treasures of the emperors and their families are being stored, including their textiles, bronzes, paintings, silver and gold utensils, documents, thrones and personalized cups among many other objects. Of the 250 artifacts his team selected for the Toronto exhibition, about 50 have never been published and 80 had never left the Forbidden City at all.

File:Forbidden City Imperial Guardian Lions.jpg

A gilded lion in front of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity

For educators and documentary makers, telling the numerous stories about the Forbidden City is also a challenge. Recently the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation supported a 100-episode documentary co-produced by CCTV9 and the Palace Museum that tells as much of the story as possible.

Today the importance of the Forbidden City is again undisputed. Whatever doubts Mao had about the Forbidden City had when he first entered it have been swept aside and today it is recognized as one of the greatest heritage sites in China and indeed the world. “This building still stands today as the symbol of the Chinese people and their great and glorious history,” said McGill University professor Robin Yates in the BBC/History Channel documentary.


File:China qing two blue ceramics.JPG

Two Qing Dynasty “blue porcelain” wares

File:China ming blue dragons.JPG

A blue and white porcelain vase with cloud and dragon designs, marked with the word “Longevity”, Jiajing period of Ming Dynasty


Interior of the Palace Museum

File:The Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armour on Horseback.jpg

Equestrian painting of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) by Giuseppe Castiglione

File:Jade cabbage closeup.jpg

The Jadeite Cabbage, formerly at the Palace Museum and now at the National Palace MuseumTaipei

— Owen Jarus

Editing : Yappy

Sistine Chapel: Facts, History & Visitor Information

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Sistine Chapel: Facts, History & Visitor Information

By Jessie Szalay, LiveScience Contributor   |   October 30, 2013 12:32am ET
‘The Creation of Adam’ is one of the nine ceiling panels in the Sistine Chapel depicting scenes from the book of Genesis.

Credit: Vlad G /

The Sistine Chapel is a large chapel in the Vatican City. It is renowned for its Renaissance art, especially the ceiling painted by Michelangelo, and attracts more than 5 million visitors each year.


The Sistine Chapel stands on the foundation of an older chapel called the Capella Magna. In 1477, Pope Sixtus IV instigated a rebuilding of the chapel, which was then named for him.

The chapel is 40.23 meters long, 13.40 meters wide, and 20.70 meters high (about 132 by 44 by 68 feet) — reputedly, the dimensions of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in A.D. 70. The chapel’s exterior is simple and unassuming, giving little hint to the splendid decoration inside.

Pope Sixtus IV commissioned celebrated painters, including Botticelli and Rosselli, to decorate the chapel. At this point, the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was painted like a simple blue sky with stars.

In 1503, a new pope, Julius II, decided to change some of the Sistine Chapel’s decoration. He commanded artist Michelangelo to do it. Michelangelo balked, because he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter, and he was hard at work sculpting the king’s tomb. But Pope Julius insisted, and Michelangelo began work on his famous frescoed ceiling in 1508. He worked for four years. It was so physically taxing that it permanently damaged his eyesight.

More than 20 years later, Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint the giant fresco “The Last Judgment” behind the altar. The artist, then in his 60s, painted it from 1536 to 1541.

Michelangelo’s paintings


At the highest part of the ceiling, Michelangelo depicted nine scenes from Genesis, including “The Separation of Light From Darkness” at the altar end of the chapel to “The Drunkenness of Noah” at the other end. The most famous panels are “The Creation of Adam” and “The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from Paradise.” Images of prophets and pagan sibyls surround the panels, and twisting (and originally controversial) male nudes decorate the corners.

'The Last Judgment'
Michelangelo painted a fresco titled ‘The Last Judgment’ on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel.

Credit: | Shutterstock

The Last Judgment

This fresco depicts the second coming of Christ, who is judging all mankind. The blessed are on the right and heading to heaven, while the damned are on the left and being sent to hell and tortured by demons. Major Biblical and Catholic characters appear in the scene, including Eve and several saints.

Secret images

In 1990, some physicians suggestedthat the flying-seat shape and figure of God in “The Creation of Adam” makes up an anatomically correct image of the human brain. In 2010, it was asserted that “The Separation of Light From Darkness” panel contains a human brain stem. Other theorists have suggested that Michelangelo depicted kidney imagery on the ceiling.  As a sculptor, Michelangelo was fascinated by the human form. He studied cadavers to get a better sense of anatomy, and would have been familiar with the human brain.

Painting the Sistine Chapel was an exhausting task, and Michelangelo’s relationship with the Catholic Church became strained doing it. Perhaps to depict his unhappiness, he hid two miserable-looking self-portraits in “The Last Judgment.”He painted his deceased face on Holofernes’ severed head and his ghoulish visage on Saint Bartholomew’s flayed skin.

Restoration efforts

A serious restoration of the Sistine Chapel began in 1980. Restorers spent 14 years reattaching fresco and cleaning it. They also removed some of the “modesty drapes” that had been added to Michelangelo’s work.

The restoration was extremely controversial. Some critics claim that the restoration removed an intentional second layer of paint, and that Michelangelo had intentionally used darker, more shadowy hues to give the figures depth. Others say that the restoration was essential for keeping the masterpiece intact and reviving the brilliancy of Michelangelo’s palette.

Papal use

The chapel is more than an artistic masterpiece; it is a place of crucial religious activity.  Since 1492, the chapel has been the site where the College of Cardinals gathers to elect a new pope.  The chapel has a special chimney that is used to broadcast the cardinals’ voting status. White smoke indicates that a new pope has been elected, while black smoke signals that no candidate has received a two-thirds majority.

An aerial view of the Sistine Chapel.
An aerial view of the Sistine Chapel.

Credit: Banauke | Shutterstock

Visiting the Sistine Chapel

Tickets: To visit the Sistine Chapel, one must purchase an admission ticket to theVatican Museums. As of 2013, adult tickets are 16 euros ($22). There are reduced options for youth, students, clergy and some others. There are selected free admission days throughout the year, including the last Sunday of each month. Because lines can be extremely long, it may save time to purchase a ticket online.

Hours: The Vatican Museums are open Monday through Saturday and the last Sunday of each month. Typically, the ticket office is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the museums close at 6 p.m.

Restrictions: There are a variety of restrictions at the Vatican Museums, including no alcoholic drinks, immodest clothing, flash photography, or touching the works of art. All photography and filming is forbidden in the Sistine Chapel.

Sistine Chapel Photos – Vatican

The Sistine Chapel has beautiful Architecture

Sistine Chapel ceiling

Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel

Sistine chapel

Sistine Chapel

From the outside

Sistine Chapel Photo – Vatican – 1

Sistine Chapel Photo – Vatican – 2

Sistine Chapel Photo – Vatican – 3

Sistine Chapel Photo – Vatican – 4

Sistine Chapel Photo – Vatican – 5

The chimney connected to the stove used to burn ballot papers during the upcoming Vatican conclave reaches the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, Saturday, April 16, 2005. Starting Monday, April 18, 115 Cardinals from all over the world will hold closed-door meetings in the Sistine Chapel, decorated by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in background, to elect the next head of the Roman Catholic Church

Sistine Chapel Photo – Vatican – 6

Doors open to the Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel Photo – Vatican – 7

Doors open to the Sistine Chapel

Pope John Paul II celebrates a Mass April 8, 1994

at the end of 14 years of restoration work on

Michaelangelo’s frescoes on the alter wall and ceiling

of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican

Image Gallery: Einstein’s Brain

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Image Gallery: Einstein’s Brain

Tia Ghose, LiveScience Staff Writer

Albert Einstein

Credit: NASA
When Albert Einstein died at age 76 in 1955 of an abdominal aneurysm, the pathologist who autopsied him, Thomas Harvey, kept his brain.

Slides of Einstein’s Brain

Credit: Evi Numen, 2011, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Harvey sliced hundreds of thin sections of brain tissue and placed them on microscope slides, some of which he revealed in the years following his death

Extraordinary Gray Matter

Credit: Falk, Lepore & Noe, 2012, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, MD
However, Harvey kept secret 14 photographs of the brain, which were recently discovered.

More Folds, More Brain Power

Credit: From Falk, Lepore & Noe, 2012, Courtesy of National Museum of Health and Medicine
A new analysis of those photos suggests Einstein had unusual levels of folding across his cerebral cortex, the gray matter responsible for conscious thought.

Beautiful Asymmetry

Credit: Falk, Lepore & Noe, 2012, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine
Einstein had asymmetric parietal lobes, which may have super-charged his spatial abilities. A 1999 study in the Lancet found that one brain region was completely absent in Einstein, allowing his parietal lobe to take up more space.

Naturally Brainy

Credit: From Falk, Lepore, and Noe, 2012, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine
The physicist had an extra fold in the frontal lobe, an area of the brain needed for sophisticated tasks such as abstract thought and prediction.

Abstract Genius

Credit: From Falk, Lepore, and Noe, 2012, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine
Here, an illustration by the the authors of the new paper shows the four frontal lobe ridges (labeled 1 through 4) as opposed to the three typically found in the human brain.

A Brain Dissected

Credit: From Falk, Lepore & Noe, 2012, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine
The red shaded region marks a spot where Harvey accidentally cut through Einstein’s brain during the autopsy procedure.

Amazing Folds

Credit: From Falk, Lepore, and Noe, 2012, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine
Einstein was probably born with many of the brain differences that contributed to his genius.

Another View of Einstein’s Brain

Credit: From Falk, Lepore & Noe, 2012, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine
However, a lifetime thinking about physics likely also shaped his brain.