Brain Pickings

Incognito: David Eagleman Unravels the Secret Lives of the Brain

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What seeing rainbows has to do with artificial intelligence and the biology of infidelity.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by neuroscientist David Eagleman is one of my favorite books of the past few years. So, as a proper neuro-nut, it’s no surprise I was thrilled for this week’s release of his latest gem, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain — a fascinating, dynamic, faceted look under the hood of the conscious mind to reveal the complex machinery of our subconscious.

Bringing a storyteller’s articulate and fluid narrative to a scientist’s quest, Eagleman dances across an incredible spectrum of issues — brain damage, dating, drugs, beauty, synesthesia, criminal justice, artificial intelligence, optical illusions and much more — to reveal that things we take as passive givens, from our capacity for seeing a rainbow to our ability to overhear our name in a conversation we weren’t paying attention to, are the function of remarkable neural circuitry, biological wiring and cognitive conditioning.

The three-pound organ in your skull — with its pink consistency of Jell-o — is an alien kind of computational material. It is composed of miniaturized, self-configuring parts, and it vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building. So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.” ~ David Eagleman

Sample some of Eagleman’s fascinating areas of study with this excellent talk from TEDxAlamo:

Equal parts entertaining and illuminating, the case studies, examples and insights in Incognito are more than mere talking points to impressed at the next dinner party, poised instead to radically shift your understanding of the world, other people, and your own mind.

And if Incognito tickles your fancy, you might also enjoy V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, Mark Changizi’s The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision and Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, as well as these 7 must-read books on music, emotion and the brain.

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An Illustrated Guide to Cockroaches

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What superhuman sprinting has to do with democracy, the power of design and your kitchen sink drain.

If you’ve ever lived in a city, especially a densely populated, neighbors-across-the-street-staring-down-your-dinner-plate kind of city, you’ve likely had your run-in with a neighbor of the least likable yet most inevitable kind: The cockroach. And while for most people, it’s an endless source of variations on the ewww response, for Siberian-born, New-York-based artist Ekaterina Smirnova it’s been the unlikely source of design inspiration. In An Illustrated Guide to Cockroaches, she offers an irreverent and beautifully designed blueprint to better understanding your six-legged roommate in a graphic style that’s part Shepard Fairey, part Olly Moss, Lynd Ward, part something entirely its own.

The book began as an experiment, a study in the power of graphic design, as Smirnova was assigned to come up with an idea for a book in her editorial design class at the SVA. The winning idea: To muster the most tedious, even repulsive subject possible, and use design-driven storytelling to make it something interesting to read and study. And, as far as I’m concerned, she’s aced her assignment — the book is as fascinating as it is visually stimulating.

From the remarkable talents of roaches (did you know that an American cockroach can run a distance distance of 50 times his size in a second, which in human scale would translate to running at 186 miles per hour?) to their unusual intelligence (they seem to make democratic group decisions better than most human societies) to their enduring role in science fiction and pop culture, the book offers an extraordinary black-white-and-red look a character we spend our lives actively trying not to look at, delivering an unexpectedly delightful punch of trivia treats, obscure scientific factoids and artful graphic explorations.

In pop culture, cockroaches are often depicted as filthy, disgusting pests. Their shiny, greasy shells make them look like they are creatures born of filth and slime, but in fact they are obsessively clean.”

An Illustrated Guide to Cockroaches, yet another treat from my friends at Mark Batty Publisher, is out today and the kind of book you never thought you’d love until you do — which you will.

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E. chromi: Designer Bacteria for Color-Coded Disease Detection

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What the future of personalized medicine has to do with the cross-pollination of design and engineering.

Last year, I had the pleasure of profiling the extraordinary artist Daisy Ginsberg for Wired UK. (We also shared a crazy New York adventure that involved a Russian homeless man with Cheetos in his beard and anterograde amnesia.) I called Ginsberg a “postmodern Michelangelo” — and she very much is one, working at the fascinating intersection of design and research as she explores the bleeding edge of art and science, particularly the field of synthetic biology.

Photo by Leon Csernohlavek

E.chromi is one of Ginsburg’s most notable projects — an ambitious collaboration in which she and designer James King partnered with seven Cambridge University biology undergraduates to develop a designer strain of bacteria capable of detecting and notifying you of the concentration of pollutants in water by secreting colors visible to the naked eye. The team designed standardized sequences of DNA called BioBricks, each containing genes from existing organisms capable of producing color, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria.

The project won MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in 2009 and the film about it recently won the best documentary award at Bio:Fiction, the world’s first synthetic biology film festival.

Synthetic biology is promising to change the world, from sustainable fuel to tumor-killing bacteria. But personally I’m skeptical about how we should use it — just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.” ~ Daisy Ginsberg

What makes E.chromi most fascinating are its diverse and tremendously valuable real-life applications, from testing groundwater for arsenic to producing natural, chemical-free colorings and dyes for food and textiles to personalized disease monitoring via custom probiotic yogurt.

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