Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘brain’

03 MARCH, 2011

Moonwalking with Einstein: How to Hack Your Memory

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One of the mind’s most fascinating — and, some nuroscientists argue, uniquely human — facets is memory. Why do we remember, and how? Is there a finite capacity to our memory reservoir? Can we hack our internal memory chip?

These questions and more are precisely what science writer Joshua Foer sought to answer when he set out to cover and compete in the U.S. Memory Championship. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything tells the story of Foer’s fascinating journey as he became enthralled by the secrets of the participants and learned how to play with the hard-wired quirks of the brain, optimizing it to remember information it ordinarily wouldn’t.

The title refers to a memory device I used in the US Memory Championship—specifically it’s a mnemonic that helped me memorize a deck of playing cards. Moonwalking with Einstein works as a mnemonic because it’s such a goofy image. Things that are weird or colorful are the most memorable. If you try to picture Albert Einstein sliding backwards across a dance floor wearing penny loafers and a diamond glove, that’s pretty much unforgettable.” ~ Joshua Foer

In the process of studying these techniques, I learned something remarkable: that there’s far more potential in our minds than we often give them credit for. I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s possible to memorize lots of information using memory techniques. I’m talking about a lesson that is more general, and in a way much bigger: that it’s possible, with training and hard work, to teach oneself to do something that might seem really difficult.” ~ Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein is out today, one of the most ambitious brain-hacking experiments we’ve encountered in a long time — do your memory a favor and don’t forget to grab it.

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01 NOVEMBER, 2010

Portraits of the Mind: A Brief History of Visualizing the Brain

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We’re all about the cross-pollination of disciplines and we’re (naturally) fascinated by the human brain, so today’s release of Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century, a book that sources its material in science, roots its aesthetic in art, and reads like a literary anthology, is making us swoon in all kinds of ways. Author Carl Schoonover explores — in breathtaking visual detail — the evolution of humanity’s understanding of the brain, from Medieval sketches to Victorian medical engravings to today’s most elaborate 3D brain mapping.

Axon Scaffolding Proteins (Photomicrograph, 2008) | The arrangement of proteins forming the inner scaffolding of axons, captured thanks to genetically engineered antibodies that help researchers study the molecular components neurons like specific types of proteins

Image by Michael Hendricks and Suresh Jesuthasan

Phrenological Skull (Drawing on human skull, 19th century) | A quasi-medical artifact of phrenology, the 19th-century pseudo-science positing that bumps on the head reflect the underlying shape and functionality of the brain, dividing the skull into regions that control specific aspects of one's organs and personality

Photograph by Eszter Blahak/Semmelweis Museum

The foreword by Jonah Lehrer, one of our favorite science-distillers, only adds to the tome’s already irresistable allure.

Dog Olfactory Bulb (Drawing on paper, 1875) | A drawing of the first area in the brain that processes smells by physician and scientist Camillo Golgi, who invented a revolutionary technique for staining neurons still in use today

Drawing by Camillo Golgi. Courtesy of Dr. Paolo Mazzarello, University of Pavia

Hippocampus (Photomicrograph, 2005) | Genetically-encoded fluorescent proteins illuminate neurons in different colors in a modern version of the Golgi stain, a simple chemical coloring traditionally done with silver nitrate

Image by Tamily Weissman, Jeff Lichtman, and Joshua Sanes

Schoonover curates images come from data laboratories around the world, many of which are revealed to the world for the first time, contextualized through essays by leading scientists. And while the history of brain research seems to be an extended exercise in Socratian the-more-we-learn-the-more-we-learn-how-little-we-know, Portraits of the Mind manages to construct a thrilling frame for hope in neuroscience by making the scientific understanding of the human brain both exciting and accessible, a digestible deluge of visual and intellectual fascination.

Images via The Atlantic

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09 OCTOBER, 2009

Color and the Brain: Beau Lotto’s Optical Illusions

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What tsunamis have to do with online banking, public transit and better street cred for geeks.

We’re deeply fascinated by both the inner workings of the brain and the essential role of color in design thinking. Which is why we raved about Beau Lotto’s TED talk when we first saw it live at TEDGlobal this summer. Lotto is founder of Lottolab, a hybrid art studio and science lab, and his fantastic talk is now available for all to see — a remarkable journey into how we see, by way of optical illusions, plays on color and light, and some curious neuro-factoids.

Illusions are often used, especially in art — in the works of the more contemporary artists — to demonstrate the fragility of our senses. This is complete rubbish. The senses aren’t fragile — if they were, we wouldn’t be here. Instead, color tells us something completely different: That the brain didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is — we can’t. Instead, the brain evolved to see the world the way it was useful to see it in the past.

Much of this, of course, isn’t new — many of the illusions Lotto demonstrates borrow from the famous Ishihara color test, developed by Japanese researcher Dr. Shinobu Ishihara in 1917.

But what we find most interesting is the notion of translating color into sound as it’s closely related to the work of a dear, dear friend — Israeli animation artist and jazz musician Michal Levy, who actually sees music and hears color — a rare phenomeno known as synesthesia, a neurological crossing of the senses that occurs in only a tiny fraction of the population.

Her brilliant short films, Giant Steps and One, embody many of the principles used in Lotto’s translation of children’s paintings into music. (Needless to say, we hope to see Michal speaking at TED one day.)

For a deeper illumination of the brain’s incredible relationship with color and light, check out Lotto’s fantastic book, Why We See What We Do: An Empirical Theory of Vision — a compelling exploration of the visual history of our species, the historical significance of visual stimuli, and the wide-spanning consequences of how our brain sees.

Meanwhile, we’re anxiously awaiting the emergence of more synesthetic projects across the arts and sciences as multimedia environments evolve and interaction artists continue to experiment with the intersection of technology and the senses.

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