Brain Pickings

Urban Atrophy: Haunting Photos of Architectural Ghosts

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What Classic Coke has to do with abandoned dolls and the afterlife of buildings.

The Japanese find beauty in decay, accepting the natural cycle of growth and collapse. This philosophy might be foreign to our Western clinging to the corporeal, but since 2005, Dan Haga and Dan Ayers have been looking for beauty and poeticism in abandoned schools, psychiatric hospitals, missile silos, amusement parks, cathedrals, jails, churches, and other remnants of modern civilization.

This year, they immortalized their finds in Urban Atrophy — a spellbinding collection of 560 striking, haunting images, alongside text that contextualizes these architectural ghosts and exposes the afterlife of ordinary buildings.

Pennhurst Hospital

Charles H. Hickey, Jr. School

Pennhurst Hospital

The Queen Theater

United Cross

Fort Washington

Hebrew Orphan Asylum

The Queen Theater

Mayfair Theatre

via Web Urbanist; images from Urban Atrophy

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Life in the Abyss: Behind the Scenes of the Census of Marine Life

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How to name a new species after your exwife, or what bioluminescent fish have to do with world peace.

Last week, we highlighted the discoveries of the Census of Marine Life — a global collaboration between researchers from more than 80 nations, constituting the first concentrated effort to better understand the past, present and future of marine biodiversity. Life in the Abyss is a fascinating short documentary about the ambitious endeavor, inviting you aboard an Arctic Ocean research vessel as scientists scoop up organisms from the ocean floor to see new species being discovered before your very eyes. From bioluminescence to deep-sea life, the short film offers a glimpse of an astounding and otherworldly microcosm — a precious final frontier of humanity’s exploration of Earth.

For more on the remarkable and important project, dive into Paul Snelgrove’s Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count.

via @remarkableape

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Brain Bugs: The Glorious Imperfections of Our Brains

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What our memory lapses have to do with optical illusions, advertising, and the bliss of ignorance.

In 1876, Thomas Edison coined a term we use to this day to describe those pesky glitches, malfunctions and other deviations from the intended paths of technology:

It has been just so in all my inventions. The first step is an intuition — and come with a burst, then difficulties arise. This thing gives out and then that — ‘Bugs’ — as such little faults and difficulties are called.” ~ Thomas Edison

So opens Dean Buonomano’s excellent new book, Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives, which borrows the technological term to explore “the full range of limitations, flaws, foibles, and biases of the human brain.” From our susceptibility to advertising and propaganda to the biases of our memory to how word choice sways our decisions, Buonomano treks across evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, neurobiology, philosophy, theory of mind and a number of other disciplines — though, it’s worth nothing, not at all in the fluffy, formulaic fashion of “Big Idea books” — to reveal the intricate limitations and blessings of the most complex device in the known universe and, perhaps most fascinatingly, the trade-offs between the two: the balance of fear and curiosity, of altruism and jealousy, of the rational and the irrational.

Who we are as individuals and as a society is defined not only by the astonishing capabilities of the brain, but also by its flaws and limitations.” ~ Dean Buonomano

Buonomano pinpoints three central sources of “brain bugs” — our brains’ evolutionary bias towards survival and reproduction; the cognitive quirks that have resulted from an imperfect and clumsy evolution process, such as optical illusions and impulsivity; and our constantly evolving environment, which forces us to adapt rapidly, in the scale of evolution, and often not in the best ways possible.

Simply put, our brain is inherently well suited for some tasks, but ill suited for others. Unfortunately, the brain’s weaknesses include recognizing which tasks are which, so for the most part we remain ignorantly blissful of the extent to which our lives are governed by the brain’s bugs.” ~ Dean Buonomano

(This phenomenon is actually called anosognosia and Errol Morris wrote a fantastic five-part series on it for The New York Times last year, one of 2010′s best longreads.)

What makes the book all the more compelling is the lucidity with which Buonomano recognizes, amidst its weaknesses, the brain’s insurmountable strengths, feats artificial intelligence is ages from reaching — most notably, its remarkable penchant for pattern-recognition and what Buonomano calls “the inherent and irrepressible ability of the brain to build connections and make associations.” And whatever we may say of the future of the Internet and technology, even our most optimistic predictions pale in comparison to the remarkable information processes taking place, quite literally, under our very roofs. (And, if we’re really keeping score, Buonomano points out that the brain’s 90 billion neurons linked by 100 trillion synapses far surpass the web’s 20 billion web pages connected by a trillion links.)

The brain is an incomprehensibly complex biological computer, responsible for every action we have taken and every decision, thought, and feeling we’ve ever had. This is probably a concept that most people do not find comforting. Indeed, the fact that the mind emerges from the brain is something not all brains have come to accept. But our reticence to acknowledge that our humanity derives solely from the physical brain should not come as a surprise. The brain was not designed to understand itself anymore than a calculator was designed to surf the Web.” ~ Dean Buonomano

Ultimately, Brain Bugs drives home the point that exploring our cognitive limitations and mental blind spots doesn’t merely tickle our curiosity and fuel or fascination, but is also a fundamental part of our human quest for self-knowledge, for better understanding what makes us human.

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