Famous works of abstract art achieve popularity by using shapes that resonate with the neural mechanisms in the brain linked to visual information, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool has discovered.

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Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1921

University of Liverpool, November 22, 2008 — Humans make aesthetic judgements about shapes and forms quickly and easily, preferring certain shapes to others, even in the absence of any narrative. Dr Richard Latto, from the University’s Psychology department, has discovered that these shapes resonate with the processing properties of the human visual system, which is responsible for analyzing what we have seen.

Dr Latto said: “Humans inherit a basic visual system through genetics. That system provides very selective information about the world around us. It has evolved to provide only the information that we need to survive – for example, we cannot see most electromagnetic radiation or follow the leg movement of a galloping horse.

“Of course our visual systems can be influenced by social factors, like fashion and the number of abstract images that we expose ourselves to, but evolution had given us some genetically determined responses to certain shapes and forms. In popular abstract works such as Matisse’s The Snail (1953), Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (1921), and Malevich’s Supremus No. 50 (1915), the artists start with a blank canvas and arrange shapes and colours in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, using their own brain to monitor the effect.

“We like to look at the human body or parts of the body like the face and hands, stylized representations like stick figures and organic forms of the kind incorporated into the work of Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon. Certain landscapes and horizontal and vertical lines are also popular because they resonate with our visual systems, which have been tuned by evolution and experience to respond particularly to these biologically and socially important stimuli.

“We know that neurons in the brain need to be kept active to flourish and develop, so it is important for the visual system to be stimulated and sometimes pushed to the limit to function effectively. As with other adaptive behaviors, we have evolved a mechanism for encouraging this by rewarding ourselves with good feelings. Perhaps we enjoy looking at faces, landscapes and Mondrian’s work because it is good for us and good for our brains.”

Dr Latto added: “Artists were experimenting with abstract shapes long before scientists began analyzing our nature of perception. Through observation or trial-and-error, artists have been identifying these aesthetic primitives – critical shapes and arrangements – and have indirectly defined the nature of our visual processes. In purely abstract painting, as with much music, form is all we have. Popular works have shown that essentially we like looking at what we are good at seeing.”

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Kazimir Malevich, Supremus No. 50, 1915

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Escher style Fractal – Connected Cubes.

ScienceDaily.com — M.C. Escher’s ambiguous drawings transfix us: Are those black birds flying against a white sky or white birds soaring out of a black sky? Which side is up on those crazy staircases?

Lines in Escher’s drawings can seem to be part of either of two different shapes. How does our brain decide which of those shapes to “see?” In a situation where the visual information provided is ambiguous — whether we are looking at Escher’s art or looking at, say, a forest — how do our brains settle on just one interpretation?

In a study published this month in Nature Neuroscience, researchers at The Johns Hopkins University demonstrate that brains do so by way of a mechanism in a region of the visual cortex called V2.

That mechanism, the researchers say, identifies “figure” and “background” regions of an image, provides a structure for paying attention to only one of those two regions at a time and assigns shapes to the collections of foreground “figure” lines that we see.

“What we found is that V2 generates a foreground-background map for each image registered by the eyes,” said Rudiger von der Heydt, a neuroscientist, professor in the university’s Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute and lead author on the paper. “Contours are assigned to the foreground regions, and V2 does this automatically within a tenth of a second.”

The study was based on recordings of the activity of nerve cells in the V2 region in the brain of macaques, whose visual systems are much like that of humans. V2 is roughly the size of a microcassette and is located in the very back of the brain. Von der Heydt said the foreground- background “map” generated by V2 also provides the structure for conscious perception in humans.

“Because of their complexity, images of natural scenes generally have many possible interpretations, not just two, like in Escher’s drawings,” he said. “In most cases, they contain a variety of cues that could be used to identify fore- and background, but oftentimes, these cues contradict each other. The V2 mechanism combines these cues efficiently and provides us immediately with a rough sketch of the scene.”

Von der Heydt called the mechanism “primitive” but generally reliable. It can also, he said, be overridden by decision of the conscious mind.

“Our experiments show that the brain can also command the V2 mechanism to interpret the image in another way,” he said. “This explains why, in Escher’s drawings, we can switch deliberately” to see either the white birds or the dark birds, or to see either side of the staircase as facing “up.”

The mechanism revealed by this study is part of a system that enables us to search for objects in cluttered scenes, so we can attend to the object of our choice and even reach out and grasp it.

“We can do all of this without effort, thanks to a neural machine that generates visual object representations in the brain,” von der Heydt said. “Better yet, we can access these representations in the way we need for each specific task. Unfortunately, how this machine’ works is still a mystery to us. But discovering this mechanism that so efficiently links our attention to figure-ground organization is a step toward understanding this amazing machine.”

Understanding how this brain function works is more than just interesting: It also could assist researchers in unraveling the causes of — and perhaps identifying treatment for — visual disorders such as dyslexia.

Other authors include Fangtu T. Qiu and Tadashi Sugihara, both of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind-Brain Institute. Funding for the research was provided by the National Institutes of Health.

Adapted from materials provided by Johns Hopkins University.

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Northwestern Memorial Hospital — A study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found that art therapy can reduce a broad spectrum of symptoms related to pain and anxiety in cancer patients. In the study done at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, cancer patients reported significant reductions in eight of nine symptoms measured by the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS) after spending an hour working on art projects of their choice.

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Website: Mary Andrus, art therapist, licensed
Clinical professional counselor

Fifty patients from the inpatient oncology unit at Northwestern Memorial were enrolled in the study over a four-month period. The ESAS is a numeric scale allowing patients to assess their symptoms of pain, tiredness, nausea, depression, anxiety, drowsiness, lack of appetite, well-being and shortness of breath. Eight of these nine symptoms improved; nausea was the only symptom that did not change as a result of the art therapy session.

“Cancer patients are increasingly turning to alternative and complementary therapies to reduce symptoms, improve quality of life and boost their ability to cope with stress,” says Judith Paice, PhD, RN, director, Cancer Pain Program, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and an author on the study. “We wanted to see if the creative process involved in making art is healing and life-enhancing. Our study provides beginning evidence for the important role art therapy can play in reducing symptoms. Art therapy provides a distraction that allows patients to focus on something positive instead of their health for a time, and it also gives patients something they can control.”

Each art therapy session was individualized and patients were offered a choice of subject matter and media. When participants could not use their hands or were not comfortable using the art materials, the art therapist would do the art making under the direction of the subject or they could look at and discuss photographic images that were assembled into a book. Sessions ranged from light entertaining distraction to investigating deep psychological issues, says Nancy Nainis, MA, ATR, an art therapist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who is the lead author on the study. “We were especially surprised to find the reduction in ‘tiredness’,” says Ms. Nainis. “Several subjects made anecdotal comments that the art therapy had energized them. This is the first study to document a reduction in tiredness as a result of art therapy.”

“Art provides a vehicle for expression,” says Dr. Paice. “It may be preferential to some cancer patients who may be uncomfortable with conventional psychotherapy or those who find verbal expression difficult.”

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This study was supported by a grant from the Service League of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

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A painting made by a participant in the art therapy workshop. (Credit: Image courtesy of Universidad de Granada)

Universidad de Granada .— Elizaberta López Pérez, a Bachelor of Fine Arts and doctor in Painting at the University of Granada, has carried out one of the first studies in a Spanish university on the use of art therapy for the treatment of acute mental sick persons. Her work, based on psychoanalysis principles, starts from a basic premise: A work of art is a sign formed as a vital trace and its essential material is the humanity of the human being who leaves his memory in the world.

Art therapy or therapy through art, a current started in the middle of the 20th century, uses visual arts with therapeutic purposes. It is based on the idea that visual representations, objectified through plastic material, contribute to the construction of a meaning of the psychic conflicts, and favour its resolution. Plastic representation would be, from this point of view, a process for thought construction.

Therapeutic community

In order to carry out her research work, López Pérez worked for more than one year with 20 acute mental patients from the Therapeutic Community of the Northern Area of the Virgen de las Nieves Hospital of Granada. Those who participated in these sessions took part in them voluntarily two days a week and they adapted paintings of artists such as Modigliani, Munch or Van Gogh, offering their own vision.

The researcher of the University of Granada highlights the liberating nature of art for these patients, who project their inner world and their repressed desires through their paintings. This way, they deal with their fears and desires, which get real during the artistic process where it is possible to give them life or to destroy them.

The peculiar works of art carried out in this art therapy workshop gave rise to an exhibition called The Fugitive Memory, organized by the Vice-Rectorate of Extramural Studies of the UGR held in the Corrala de Santiago in 2003.

Adapted from materials provided by Universidad de Granada.

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The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci

University of East Anglia — The brain of the artist is one of the most exciting workplaces, and now an art historian at the University of East Anglia has joined forces with a leading neuroscientist to unravel its complexities.

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The Scream, by Edvard Munch

Creating a brand new academic discipline — neuroarthistory — Prof John Onians uses the results from new scanning techniques to answer questions such as:

* What happens in the brain of the modern artist as he or she works?
* What happened in the brain of an artistic genius like Leonardo Da Vinci?
* How do the brains of amateur and professional artists differ?
* Why do artists in certain times or places have certain visual tastes?

Prof Onians, of UEA’s School of World Art Studies, said: “Until now we had no way of knowing what went on inside the artist’s brain — although Leonardo tried, using anatomy and observation. But now we are finally unlocking the door to this secret world.

“We can also use neuroarthistory much more widely, both to better understand the nature of familiar artistic phenomena such as style, and to crack so far intractable problems such as ‘what is the origin of art?'”

There are many areas in which neuroarthistory puts the study of art on a more informed foundation. None is more striking than the first appearance of art in the Cave of Chauvet 32,000 years ago. No approach other than neuroarthistory can explain why this, the first art, is also the most naturalistic, capturing the mental and physical resources of bears and lions as if on a wildlife film.

Neuroarthistory can also explain why Florentine painters made more use of line and Venetian painters more of colour. The reason is that ‘neural plasticity’ ensured that passive exposure to different natural and manmade environments caused the formation of different visual preferences.

Similarly, the new discipline reveals that European artists such as Leonardo stood before vertical canvases while Chinese artists sat before flat sheets of silk or paper because ‘mirror neurons’ collectively affect artists’ deportments.

“The most interesting aspect of neuroarthistory is the way it enables us to get inside the minds of people who either could not or did not write about their work,” said Prof Onions. “We can understand much about the visual and motor preferences of people separated from us by thousands of miles or thousands of years.”

Working alongside Prof Semir Zeki FRS of University College London, one of the leading neuroscientists in the field of the visual brain and the founder of neuroesthetics, Prof Onians will now apply his findings to a series of case studies, from prehistory to the present, in a book entitled Neuroarthistory. If the approach is successful this will be the foundation stone of a new discipline.

Adapted from materials provided by University of East Anglia
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Origami Cranes

Mathematicians And Artists Use Algorithms To Make Complicated Paper Sculptures

ScienceDaily.com — Mathematicians design new figures in a traditional art form called origami, using modern techniques. Innovations developed in pursuit of the art find application in multiple fields, including applied mathematics and engineering. One application is the use of folding algorithms to pack air bags.

Can a piece of paper save your life? You probably don’t know one modern invention that was derived from the science of origami, the ancient art of paper folding…..read on for the answer.

“What first got me as a kid was the idea that you can create all these different shapes from such a simple starting material — an uncut sheet of paper,” says origami artist and engineer Robert Lang, Ph.D.

Origami is the traditional technique of Japanese paper folding. Modern science agrees there’s a lot they couldn’t do with out this ancient art form.

“Science, technology, space, automotive, medicine — all these different fields have benefited from origami,” Dr. Lang says.

Dr. Lang is one of America’s greatest origami artists. He can fold just about anything from a single sheet of paper. He’s honored that his art can also be effective for education and invention.

“There has been some testing that shows that after students have done origami, that they have a higher appreciation or understanding of various mathematical geometric concepts,” he says.

It’s an ancient science that uses mathematics for modern day miracles. The twists and bends in an origami turtle may just make their way into your cell phone’s circuit board. And how can a paper scorpion actually save your life? The origami algorithms used to fold bugs are the same ones behind the invention of the air bags in your car.

“An algorithm that origami artists had come up with for the design of insects was the right algorithm to give the creases for flattening an airbag,” Dr. Lang said. “So that has now been adopted into airbag simulation code, and presumably automotive engineers are now using those codes to design airbags.”

Cal Tech says the applications are endless. From consumer programs to the space program, the options have yet to unfold.

Remember the fortune squares you flipped as a kid? That was a form of origami. So if you told fortunes through torn and tattered paper, you were actually studying science.

ABOUT ORIGAMI: Paper folded into delicate shapes may look like art, but at its foundation is a strong supporting layer of math. Beyond a basic paper airplane or simple animal shape, geometry and mathematical calculations enable the creation of astonishing shapes and designs. People have developed a way of diagramming their creations called sequenced crease patterns, which indicate where to make folds, and in what order.

ORIGAMI REVEALS ANSWERS: Algorithms developed for use in origami have been applied to several other fields. Engineers use the algorithms to design the best way to fold an airbag for optimum deployment and astronomers use them to compute the optimum configuration of space telescope lenses. People use the techniques of origami to design games, puzzles, and even magic tricks.

The American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.

ANNUAL REPORT TO THE NATION FINDS DECLINES IN CANCER INCIDENCE AND DEATH RATES; SPECIAL FEATURE REVEALS WIDE VARIATIONS IN LUNG CANCER TRENDS ACROSS STATES

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH NIH News

National Cancer Institute (NCI) http://www.nci.nih.gov/

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A new report from the nation’s leading cancer organizations shows that, for the first time since the report was first issued in 1998, both incidence and death rates for all cancers combined are decreasing for both men and women, driven largely by declines in some of the most common types of cancer. The report notes that, although the decreases in overall cancer incidence and death rates are encouraging, large state and regional differences in lung cancer trends among women underscore the need to strengthen many state tobacco control programs. The findings come from the “Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975-2005, Featuring Trends in Lung Cancer, Tobacco Use and Tobacco Control” online Nov. 25, 2008, and appearing in the Dec. 2, 2008, Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Although cancer death rates have been dropping since the publication of the first Annual Report to the Nation 10 years ago, the latest edition marks the first time the report has documented a simultaneous decline in cancer incidence, the rate at which new cancers are diagnosed, for both men and women. Based on the long-term incidence trend, rates for all cancers combined decreased 0.8 percent per year from 1999 through 2005 for both sexes combined; rates decreased 1.8 percent per year from 2001 through 2005 for men and 0.6 percent per year from 1998 through 2005 for women. The decline in both incidence and death rates for all cancers combined is due in large part to declines in the three most common cancers among men (lung, colon/rectum, and prostate) and the two most common cancers among women (breast and colon/rectum), combined with a leveling off of lung cancer death rates among women.

“The drop in incidence seen in this year’s Annual Report is something we’ve been waiting to see for a long time,” said Otis W. Brawley, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society (ACS). “However, we have to be somewhat cautious about how we interpret it, because changes in incidence can be caused not only by reductions in risk factors for cancer, but also by changes in screening practices. Regardless, the continuing drop in mortality is evidence once again of real progress made against cancer, reflecting real gains in prevention, early detection, and treatment.”

The new report shows that, from 1996 through 2005, death rates for all cancers combined decreased for all racial and ethnic populations and for both men and women, except for American Indian/Alaska Native men and women, for whom rates were stable. The drop in death rates has been steeper for men, who have higher rates, than for women. Death rates declined for 10 of the top 15 causes of cancer death among both men and women. However, death rates for certain individual cancers are increasing, including esophageal cancer for men, pancreatic cancer for women, and liver cancer for both men and women. Overall cancer death rates were highest for African-Americans and lowest for Asian American/Pacific Islanders.

Among men, incidence rates dropped for cancers of the lung, colon/rectum, oral cavity, and stomach. Prostate cancer incidence rates decreased by 4.4 percent per year from 2001 through 2005 after increasing by 2.1 percent per year from 1995 to 2001. In contrast, incidence rates increased for cancers of the liver, kidney, and esophagus, as well as for melanoma (2003-2005), non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and myeloma. Incidence rates were stable for cancers of the bladder, pancreas, and brain/nervous system, and for leukemia.

For women, incidence rates dropped for cancers of the breast, colon/rectum, uterus, ovary, cervix, and oral cavity but increased for cancers of the lung, thyroid, pancreas, brain/nervous system, bladder, and kidney, as well as for leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and melanoma.

“While we have made progress in reducing the burden of cancer in this country, we must accelerate our efforts, including making a special effort to reach underserved cancer patients in the communities where they live,” said National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director John Niederhuber, M.D. “This report gives us a better understanding of where we may need to redouble our efforts and try to find new ways of preventing or reducing the occurrence of kidney, liver, and other cancers that continue to show increases in both mortality and/or incidence.”

The Special Feature section of the Report highlights wide variations in tobacco smoking patterns across the United States, which, coupled with differences in smoking behaviors in younger versus older populations, helps explain the delay in an expected decrease in lung cancer deaths among women and a slowing of the decrease in lung cancer deaths among men.

The report finds substantial differences in lung cancer death rate trends by state and geographic region. For example, lung cancer death rates dropped an average of 2.8 percent per year among men in California from 1996 through 2005, more than twice the drop seen in many states in the Midwest and the South. The geographic variation is even more extreme among women, for whom lung cancer death rates increased from 1996 through 2005 in 13 states and decreased only in three. The report also notes that, in five states (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Idaho), lung cancer incidence among women showed an increasing trend, whereas the mortality trend was level.

“It’s very promising to see the progress we are making in our fight against cancer,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Julie Gerberding, M.D. “Unfortunately, tobacco use continues to plague our country, and it’s the primary reason why lung cancer continues to rob too many people of a long, productive, and healthy life. We must recommit ourselves to implementing tobacco control programs that we know work if we are truly going to impact the staggering toll of tobacco on our society.”

Variation in smoking prevalence among the states is influenced by several factors, including public awareness of the harms of tobacco use, social acceptance of tobacco use, local tobacco control activities, and tobacco industry promotional activities targeted in a geographic area. The 13 states where lung cancer death rates for women are on the rise have higher percentages of adult female smokers, low excise taxes, and local economies that are traditionally dependent on tobacco farming and production. In contrast, California, which was the first state to implement a comprehensive, statewide tobacco control program, was the only state in the country to show declines in both lung cancer incidence and deaths in women.

According to a U.S. Surgeon General’s report, cigarette smoking accounts for approximately 30 percent of all cancer deaths, with lung cancer accounting for 80 percent of the smoking-attributable cancer deaths. Other cancers caused by smoking include cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, bladder, pancreas, liver, kidney, and uterine cervix and myeloid leukemia.

“We can see that, in areas of the country where smoking and tobacco use are entrenched in daily life, men and women continue to pay a price with higher incidence and death rates from many types of cancer. This type of geographic variation in smoking-related cancers is due to smoking behaviors, not regional environmental factors,” said Betsy A. Kohler, M.P.H., executive director of the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries (NAACCR).

“The observed decrease in the incidence and death rates from all cancers combined in men and women overall and in nearly all racial and ethnic groups is highly encouraging,” conclude the authors. “However, this must be seen as a starting point rather than a destination.” They say a dual effort, combining better application of existing knowledge with ongoing research to improve prevention, early detection, and treatment will be needed to sustain and extend this progress into the future.

The study was conducted by scientists at the ACS, CDC, NCI, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, and the NAACCR.

To view the full report, go to: .

For a Q&A on this Report, go to .

For Spanish translations of this press release and Q&A, go to .

ACS: .

CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control: .

NAACCR: .

NCI leads the National Cancer Program and the NIH effort to dramatically reduce the burden of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers. For more information about cancer, please visit the NCI Web site at or call NCI’s Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation’s Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit .

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Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

The New York Times, November 17, 2008, by Martha Rose Shulman — Most of us begin thinking about sweet potatoes around Thanksgiving and stop buying them soon afterwards. But this nutritious vegetable is quite versatile and makes a great puree, soup or soufflé; “croutons” made with it are wonderful in salads, providing a lovely contrast to savory lettuces, salty cheeses and pungent dressings. When baked ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator, sweet potatoes become sweeter by the day and make a great lunch, hot or cold, and a great snack for children.

Of the deep orange sweet potatoes, my favorites are garnets, which have dark red skin with orange flesh, and jewels, with orange skin with deep orange flesh. Both of these types have moist, sweet flesh that oozes syrup as they bake. Yet sweet as they are, sweet potatoes are a relatively low-calorie food, with approximately 105 calories in a 3 1/2 ounce serving. They’re high in fiber and an excellent source of vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene. They’re also high in vitamin C and manganese, and a good source of copper, vitamin B6, potassium, and iron.

Baked Sweet Potatoes

These make a great lunch or snack. Bake some up and cut thick slices to go with cottage cheese, goat cheese, or feta for a quick lunch. Don’t try to save time and use a microwave for this recipe: the sweet potatoes won’t be nearly as sweet. They need time in the hot oven for their enzymes to convert starch into maltose, which is the sugar that makes sweet potatoes sweet.

4 medium sweet potatoes

1. Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Scrub sweet potatoes and pierce in several places with a sharp knife. Line a baking sheet with foil and place the potatoes on top. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the potatoes, until thoroughly soft and beginning to ooze. Remove from the heat.

2. Place on a plate or in a dish and allow to cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate (they will continue to ooze and sweeten). Serve cold (cut in thick slices and remove the skin) or room temperature, or reheat for 20 to 30 minutes in a 325ºF oven, or in the microwave.

Variation: Baked Sweet Potatoes with Lime

Make the recipe through Step 1. Transfer to a baking dish that will hold the potatoes snugly. Allow to cool completely (they will continue to ooze and sweeten). Slit the potatoes lengthwise and douse with the juice of 1 to 2 limes, to taste. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Serve at room temperature or reheat for 20 to 30 minutes in a 325ºF oven or in the microwave.

Yield: Serves 4

Advance preparation: Baked sweet potatoes will hold in the refrigerator for about 5 days.