Brain Pickings

Vision Revolution: Why We See The Way We Do

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Why do we see the way we do? Since the dawn of humanity’s fascination with the brain, scientists have tried to answer this question. But, as it turns out, much of what they thought to be true was wrong. In The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision, neuroscientist Mark Changizi — whose work has graced the pages of merchants of culture like TIME, Newsweek, New Scientist and The New York Times — offers groundbreaking insights into the science of how and why we see as we do through thoughtfully curated highlights from breakthrough research, complete with illuminating illustrations and diagrams that visualize his conclusions.

To understand how culture interacts with vision, one must understand not just the eye’s design, but the actual mechanisms we have evolved, for culture can tap into both the designed responses of our brains and the unintended responses.” ~ Mark Changizi

Changizi focuses on four fundamental “why” questions — why do we see in color, why do our eyes face forward, why do we see illusions, and why does reading come so naturally to us — the answers to which will surprise you.

For instance, scientists used to believe that color vision evolved to help our ancestors spot ripe fruit. It turns out, however, that it actually evolved to give us greater insight into the mental, emotional and physical states of other people: People who can see color changes in skin have a competitive edge over those who can’t because they can detect the reddening of rashes and know when others are blushing with embarrassment or purple-faced with exertion. (It’s unsurprising, then, that primates who have color vision are the ones who have no fur or hair on their faces and other instrumental body parts.) Even more interestingly, Changizi reveals that the cones in our eyes are exquisitely designed to see these skin color changes.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, Changizi illuminates the neuropsychology of illusions, which are the result of our brains’ evolutionary need to micro-predict the motion of objects. (You know a baseball is about to hit you in the face before it does, because you can project its trajectory, which allows you to react accordingly.) Simply put, illusions happen when the brain is tricked into believing a static two-dimensional picture has a moving element, projecting that element into the future and seeing not what is actually on the page but what our brain thinks will be there a fraction of a second later.

If our brains simply created a perception of the way the world was at the time light hit the eye, then by the time that perception was elicited — which takes about a tenth of a second for the brain to do — time would have marched on, and the perception would be of the recent past.” ~ Mark Changizi

Deeply fascinating yet absorbingly readable, The Vision Revolution comes as a necessary foundation for better understanding one of our most fundamental tools for navigating the world and, in the process, better understanding ourselves.

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7 Essential Books on Music, Emotion, and the Brain

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What Freud has to do with auditory cheesecake, European opera and world peace.

Last year, Horizon’s fascinating documentary on how music works was one of our most-liked pickings of 2010. But perhaps even more fascinating than the subject of how music works is the question of why it makes us feel the way it does. Today, we try to answer it with seven essential books that bridge music, emotion and cognition, peeling away at that tender intersection of where your brain ends and your soul begins.

MUSICOPHILIA

We love the work of neuroscientist and prolific author Oliver Sacks, whose latest book, The Mind’s Eye, was one of our favorite brain books last year. But some of his most compelling work has to do with the neuropscyhology of how music can transform our cognition, our behavior, and our very selves. In Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition, Sacks explores the most extreme of these transformations and how simple harmonies can profoundly change lives. From clinical studies to examples from pop culture — did you know that Ray Charles believed he was “born with the music inside [him]“? — Sacks delivers a fascinating yet remarkably readable tale that tells the story, our story, of humanity as a truly “musical species.”

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC

Why music makes us feel the way it does is on par with questions about the nature of divinity or the origin of love. In This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel Levitin sets out to answer it — an ambitious task he tackles through a range of lenses, from a digestible explanation of key technical constructs like scale, tone and timbre to compelling cross-disciplinary reflections spanning neurobiology, philosophy, cognitive psychology, memory theory, behavioral science, Gestalt psychology and more. He illuminates diverse subjects like what accounts for the diversity of musical tastes and what makes a music expert, framing music processing as a fundamental cognitive function embedded in human nature. Most impressively, however, Levitin manages to do this while preserving the without subtracting from the intuitive, intangible magic of powerful music, dissecting its elements with the rigor of a researcher while preserving its magnetism with the tenderness of a music lover.

Never ones to pass up a good ol’ fashioned erudite throw-down, we can’t resist pointing out that the book’s final chapter, The Music Instinct, may be the juciest: It’s a direct response to Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, who in a 1997 talk famously called music “auditory cheesecake” and dismissed it as evolutionarily useless, displacing demands from areas of the brain that should be handling more “important” functions like language. (Obviously, as much as we love Pinker, we think he’s dead wrong.) Levitin debunks this contention with a mighty arsenal of research across anthropology, history and cognitive science, alongside chuckle-worthy pop culture examples. (It’s safe to assume that it was musical talent, rather than any other, erm, evolutionary advantage, that helped Mick Jagger propagate his genes.)

MUSIC, LANGUAGE, AND THE BRAIN

As if to drive a stake through the heart of Levitin and Pinker’s debate, Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh Patel — both a musician himself and one of the greatest living neuroscientists — dissects the unique neuropsychological relationship between two of the most unique hallmarks of our species. Rigorously researched and absorbingly narrated, the book traces the origins of humanity’s understanding of this correlation, dating as far back as the philosophical debates of Ancient Greece, and challenges the scientific community’s longstanding assumption that music and language evolved independently of one another. It’s the kind of read that will leave you at once astounded by how much you’ve learned about its subject and keenly aware of how little you — how little we, as a culture — know about it.

Patel also offers this beautiful definition of what music is:

Sound organized in time, intended for, or perceived as, aesthetic experience.

It’s worth noting that Music, Language, and the Brain makes a fine addition to our list of 5 must-read books about language.

LISTEN TO THIS

In 2008, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross published The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century — a remarkable historical and social context for contemporary music, which went on to become one of the most influential music history books ever written. Last fall, Ross released his highly anticipated sequel: Listen to This — an outstanding effort to explain and understand the world through its musical proclivities, from European opera to Chinese classical music to Bjork. Though the book, an anthology of the author’s most acclaimed essays with a deeper focus on classical music, is further removed from neuroscience than the rest on this list, Ross’s astute observations on the emotional and social experience of music make it an indispensable addition nonetheless.

MUSIC, THE BRAIN AND ECSTASY

If the human voice is the greatest instrument, as the widespread music teacher preaching goes, then the brain is the greatest composer. Every time we perform, compose or merely listen to music, the brain plays high-level Tetris with a range of devices, harmonies and patterns, creating emotional meaning out of the elements of sound and often extracting intense pleasure. In Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, composer Robert Jourdain examines music’s unusual emotive power through little-known facts and physiological phenomena and historical anecdotes. Perhaps most fascinatingly, he pins down the origin of pleasure in music as a consequence of a series of tonal deviations that create a conflict in the brain, resolved with a return to the tonal center, which gives us a sensation of bliss. This sequence of conflict and resolution, he explains, can come from the four key elements of music: rhythm, melody. phrase, and harmony. “Ecstasy” is the result of a resolution that comes once a conflict has reached the limit of the listener’s comprehension ability in tonal space-time.

THE TAO OF MUSIC

Traditional self-help books are the pesky cold sore swapped between the lips of legitimate literature and serious psychology. And then there are the books that actually help the self in smart, non-pedantic ways involving no worksheets or mirror nodding. That’s exactly what John Ortiz does in The Tao of Music: Sound Psychology, blending the extraordinary power of music with the principles of Taoist philosophy to deliver an unusual yet captivating proposition: You can enlist your music library in improving your performance and state of mind across everyday challenges like keeping anger at bay, breaking the spell of procrastination, learning to be fully present with romantic relationships, and mastering the art of true relaxation. Through cognitive-behavioral exercises, meditative techniques and melodic visualizations, Ortiz offers a powerful music-driven toolkit for navigating life’s obstacles, and even curates specific “musical menus” of songs and melodies that target specific emotional states and psychological dispositions.

MUSIC AND THE MIND

Nearly two decades after its original publication, Anthony Storr’s Music and the Mind remains an essential and timeless prism for looking at one of humanity’s greatest treasures. From the biological basis of cognition to a thoughtful analysis of the views held by history’s greatest philosophers to the evolution of the Western tonal system, Storr addresses some of the most fundamental questions about music, like why a minor scale always sounds sad and a major scale happy, and offers an evidence-backed yet comfortingly human grand theory for the very purpose of music: Peace, resolution and serenity of spirit.

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Scott Belsky on How to Avoid Idea Plateaus

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“Ideas are cheap and abundant,” proclaimed legendary management consultant and self-described social ecologist Peter Drucker, “what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.”

Hand raise: Who here has had a big idea, the kind that keeps you up at night excitedly plotting its release into the world, only to have it plateau and lose steam before coming to fruition? We thought so. And how do we handle that? We come up with a new idea, a shot of creative dopamine to the brain, only to have it suffer the same fate. In his excellent talk from last year’s 99% Conference — one of our favorite cross-disciplinary event seriesScott Belsky breaks down how this trap works and how to avoid falling into it.

The project plateau is littered with the carcases of dead ideas that have never happened. What do we do? We just generate a new idea. We do it again and again and again. What we continue to do is we escape this project plateau with a new idea, and instantaneously we return to this high of excitement, this willingness to execute. And this is why there are more half-written novels in the world than there are novels.” ~ Scott Belsky

If you haven’t yet read Scott’s book, Making Ideas Happen, we strongly encourage you to do so. Barely a year old, it’s already one of the most important books on creative entrepreneurship ever published. Drawing on years of research and hundreds of interviews, Besky goes after the holy grail of ideation with a club and a smile. From what people who bring ideas to life have in common to understanding the chemistry of collaboration to how to avoid short-circuiting your reward systems, it’s the kind of guide that will make you just the right amount of uncomfortable and, in the process, better and smarter about your work, your productivity and your creative endeavors.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.