• 09.04.12

Watch A Squid’s Membrane As It Hears Cypress Hill

A video showing a squid’s chromatophores contracting to the 1993 crossover hit has gone viral.

When neuroscientist Greg Gage became a TED Fellow this spring, he ignited an ethics debate so intense that TED’s site administrators gave the discussion its own thread.


Gage is the founder of Backyard Brains, a company that wants to revolutionize how science is taught by putting neuroscience in the hands of young people. Their main product, SpikerBox, lets young (and old) scientists hear and visualize neural activity, by dissecting a leg from a cockroach and attaching it to the box, which manipulates it with electrical currents. These techniques are common (even on animals) in the scientific community, but Gage’s TED talk, The Cockroach Beatbox, struck many as sensationalizing cruelty that ought to be seen as a scientific necessity, not a joke. “Many students that I teach are fixated on the virtual enough as it is,” wrote one science teacher. “Many struggle with empathy. They do not need more reasons and even encouragement to further objectify the animate members of their world.” On the other hand, many argued that Gage’s experiments are exposing invaluable young minds to science they’d only have access to in college or graduate school. What’s more, he anesthetizes the insects before “operating.”

That was back in March. This week, Gage unveiled the results of his latest experiment, which builds on his previous work by triggering a squid’s color-shifting membrane with electrical currents. Critics of Gage’s past work may want to click away now: The electrical currents were generated by Cypress Hill’s 1993 crossover hit, Insane in the Brain, fed into the squid’s fin nerve through the raw end of an iPod’s headphone cable. Say what you will about Gage’s sensationalism: The dude knows how to deliver a punchline.

Here’s how it works. Gage worked with a group of researchers who are studying how squids’ iridescent membranes shift and change–a fairly rare trait in the animal kingdom. The squid’s membrane contains cells called chromatophores, which contain pigment and reflect light. Some animals have the ability to shift the rate of reflectivity and color, as humans are able to flex a muscle. Gage and his collaborators wanted to manipulate the shift using bass frequencies, in this case, generated from music. They cut off the earbuds from a pair of iPod headphones and attached the raw end of the wire into the fin nerve of a Massachusetts longfin squid. A camera trained on the squid’s dorsal fin magnified the change in the chromatophores at 8x. “The results,” says Gage, “were both interesting and beautiful.”

Whether or not you feel this type of experiment treats animal welfare flippantly, it’s hard to deny that Gage is reaching a far broader audience than any of his peers. The video has since gone viral, evidence that injecting neuroscience with a healthy dose of pop is enough to give it legs on the Internet. So, what do you think? Scientific and moral fair game?

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.