How Selective Is Your Attention?

Why do we notice a remarkably beautiful person in a crowd, or pay attention to the sound of screeching car brakes cutting through the noise of traffic?

Graduation ceremony at UT

Why do we notice a remarkably beautiful person without any effort? Our affective attention leaps into action before we know it. Image credit: Andres Tennus

According to Andero Uusberg’s doctoral thesis, defended at the University of Tartu, this might be so because the brain processes emotional information in an accelerated manner.

The brain is equipped with various attention mechanisms for sorting out important stuff from potentially overwhelming sensory input. While top-down attention enables us to concentrate on the task at hand, and bottom-up attention to remain vigilant for unexpected aspects of the environment, there is also a third system that is sensitive to emotional information. This mechanism, referred to as affective attention, is responsible for spotting opportunities such as a valuable mate or threats such as a traffic accident.

Scientists still do not fully comprehend what exactly is going on in the brain when different attention systems compete with each other. As an example, consider the reader of an online news story whose eyes also capture a juicy sensational headline in the sidebar. Sometimes affective attention wins and the gossip story receives the anticipated click. But sometimes deliberate attention is able to push away the insignificant bait, so the person can go on reading the story. Continue reading

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Discover Arvo Pärt, His Music and Silence

Arvo Pärt among students of the University of Tartu

Arvo Pärt – the world’s most performed and surely most beloved living composer – amongst students of the University of Tartu after the seminar on 20 November 2013. In the background on the left: Professor Toomas Siitan. Image credit: Andres Tennus

Who doesn’t know Arvo Pärt? He is the world’s most performed living composer and arguably the most beloved as well. In late May, he accompanied the Grammy-winning Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra on their performances of his music in New York’s Carnegie Hall and in Washington, D.C. Some days before embarking on this tour, the musicians performed their programme of Arvo Pärt’s  music at the University of Tartu Assembly Hall:

It was the jewel in the crown of the year-long series of lectures on Arvo Pärt’s music by the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre Professor Toomas Siitan, with greatly awaited appearances by the famous albeit shy composer himself, who served as an invited Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Tartu last academic year.

Although Arvo Pärt has never been verbose about his work, noting that his word is the sound (in this sense, the final concert carried his most important message), the composer’s presence during the course felt essential and special. As one of the seminar participants wrote in an essay:

I don’t want to use big words, but the first seminar and meeting over the video bridge to the composer’s home created a strange and wonderful atmosphere. I felt a part of something very special, and you could see that the participants were moved. I later described this experience as the result of a great work of self-improvement. The composer has arrived to a place where many don’t even start their journey.

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Jevgēnijs from Latvia Is Used to Crossing Borders

Jevgēnijs Rjaščenko

Instagram selfie: Jevgēnijs Rjaščenko

A few hours before Jevgēnijs and I are supposed to meet for an interview, he warns me on Facebook that due to bad weather conditions on the way from Riga to Tartu he might be late. There isn’t much room for being late though, as Jevgēnijs’ graduation ceremony starts fifty minutes from our interview appointment. Luckily, he arrives just in time – looking handsome in his bow tie and joyful.

“It is a funny trip, I guess”, smiles Jevgēnijs Rjaščenko, a fresh master’s graduate of the Baltic Sea Region Studies programme. He came to Tartu along with his family and a friend to take part in the graduation ceremony, and after a few hours they would continue driving for about ten hours more to visit relatives in Russia.

Will he celebrate his graduation in a big family circle upon arrival? “I wouldn’t call it a celebration, but a calm time spent with my family, friends, and relatives. I prefer it to hard partying”, says Jevgēnijs.

He came to Tartu two years ago, leaving behind his job in Riga. In looking back at his choice now, Jevgēnijs is content – he made many new friends, travelled a lot,  challenged himself in an unfamiliar environment, and enjoyed independence. Right from the start, he aimed for the Atlantis programme and succeeded in getting the scholarship, so having spent his first semester in Tartu, Jevgēnijs continued his studies at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, Poland, and then at West Virginia University in the United States. Continue reading

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The Song Festival Is Sacred for Estonians

Song Festival in Estonia

The singing nation at the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn. Image credit: Endel Grensmann and Rainar Kurbel

Estonians are counting the days left until the start of the national song and dance celebration in Tallinn on 4–6 July. A whopping 96 per cent of Estonians surveyed in a sociological study led by UT Professor of Social Communication Marju Lauristin and Senior Media Researcher Peeter Vihalemm consider the song celebration important. Moreover, two-thirds of the total 1301 respondents – a representative sample of the Estonian-speaking population aged between 15–74 – deem the celebration very important.

This is no surprise, as every second Estonian within the surveyed age range has previously been on stage in a song or dance celebration at least once. Two in three Estonians have attended such celebrations, and 90 per cent have followed them via TV or radio broadcast.

So what is the magic force driving people to the festival grounds? According to the survey, the top three incentives are: national tradition, a sense of national unity, and family members or friends performing.

The ‘Singing Nation’ is not a mere metaphor. I would say that the Song Festival Grounds gather Estonia’s biggest congregation with common sacred values. Surely, some have said that the Song Festival’s time is over. However, the survey has clearly indicated that for the majority of young and old Estonians alike, the Song Festival is a celebration where Estonian people gather to experience together our essential values, and feel that they belong to a community, a congregation. Participation in the festival is an extremely important common departure from the everyday routine towards values that bond us with the past. It is close to a religious feeling. The survey has shown that Estonians have a great need for the sacred, and it feeds upon this tradition.

UT Professor Marju Lauristin

The top 5 festival experiences

The festival programme can seem overwhelming and picking events to attend hard. If you were wondering what the must-see things would be, look no further. Here are the top five experiences as seen by Estonians themselves (look for more in the survey report, page 5): Continue reading

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Cum Laude Graduate Marina Gets a Head Start on Career

Marina Pukeliene is a fresh cum laude graduate of the master’s programme in EU-Russia studies at the University of Tartu. Her name is related to the sea, and she comes from Klaipeda, a seaport city in Lithuania.

MA graduates of EU - Russia studies programme

Marina (second from the left) and her coursemates jumping from joy after receiving their Master’s defense grades. Image credit: SIlver Bohl.

What does it take to achieve a cum laude? It definitely requires a lot of work, but also love for the programme and your subject. Marina is grateful to her supervisor, Professor Viacheslav Morozov, who guided and helped her through the difficult stuff, and is happy about the true friendships that evolved during her studies in Tartu: “I was really lucky that my coursemates have become not only my colleagues but also my friends”.

Although excited about graduation, Marina admits she is also a little nervous. All her summer plans got reshuffled after she received a job offer from an NGO working with Russia. Instead of travelling merrily with her friends, she is now looking for an apartment to settle down in Tallinn. Continue reading

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Win Crimea and Pawn Siberia

Rein Taagepera, recipient of Skytte Prize 2008, is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Tartu, and the University of California, Irvine, USA.

It is still unclear who the winners and losers are in the recent events near the Black Sea – and to what degree. But China is a clear winner. The Chinese-Russian trade agreement had been in the works for ten years. Both sides were asking for more than the other side was willing to cede. Now Vladimir Putin went to Beijing, and the treaty came about. Putin hesitated, but 10 minutes before leaving he did sign. For such a dramatic breakthrough right now, someone had to yield and give up on demands firmly held for 10 years. Someone must have felt unusually vulnerable and badly in need of a treaty. It wasn’t China.

A Chinese takeover in Eastern Siberia was in the cards, anyway. The geo-demographic reality consists of 140 million Russians far away and one billion Chinese nearby. For different reasons, both sides have desisted from estimating how many thousand Chinese already work in the Russian Far East. But it is evident that quite a few Chinese are willing to toil there for wages the Russians would reject. Eventually, these Chinese will take over much of commerce, as they have in Southeast Asia. Now Putin has been forced to speed up this inevitable course.


Graffiti in Novosibirsk, Eastern Siberia says: “We want to live, not to survive.” Some people in Eastern Ukraine supported rebellion in the hopes of higher wages and pensions from Russia. Image credit: @thedimka / Flickr Creative Commons.

Some people in Lugansk and Donetsk supported rebellion in the hopes of higher wages and pensions, as they are in Russia, compared to Ukraine. – See more at:

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The University of Tartu in 2032

Signe Ivask, an editor at UT magazine, discusses the future of the University of Tartu with Professor of Media Studies Veronika Kalmus, Professor of Comparative Politics Vello Pettai, and Professor of International Relations Eiki Berg.

Main Building of the University of Tartu
The role of women in society will be significantly greater in 2032, including at the university and its top echelons, says Veronika Kalmus. “The percentage of professors who are women will be up to one-third, compared to the current one-fifth,” she forecasts. “The university will have had at least one female rector by 2032 and it will seem incredible that back around the turn of the millennium, some said in debates that the University of Tartu wasn’t ready for a woman to be rector.”

Kalmus adds that the percentage of female students will level off in the 2020s, because higher education will become so much the norm that young males without a diploma will have no other way of landing a decent job and being successful.

“In 2032, children born today will choose their major and enter university. My son, born in December, will be one of them,” says Kalmus. “Internationalisation will no longer be a development objective at the University of Tartu, as the process will have seen unprecedented acceleration in the 2020s due to the external environment, and about half the students will be foreign nationals.” Continue reading

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