Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

07 AUGUST, 2009

Notes & Neurons: Music, Emotion and the Brain


From axons to a cappella, or why music gives us chills and thrills.

Music is easily the widest-reaching, most universal emotional facilitator. Anecdotally, it shapes so many of life’s everyday experiences: An epic movie would fall flat without a cinematic soundtrack, a party without dance music is unthinkable, and a run without an upbeat playlist feels somehow much more tiresome. Scientifically, music has been shown to impact anything from our alertness and relaxation to our memory to our physical and emotional well-being.

Today, we take a look at just how music affects our brain and emotion, with Notes & Neurons: In Search of a Common Chorus — a fascinating event from the 2009 World Science Festival.

But before we launch into the geekier portion, here’s a quick improvised treat from phenomenal jazz and a cappella performer Bobby McFerrin, who embodies the intimate relationship between music and the human element.

The panel — hosted by John Schaefer and featuring Jamshed Barucha, scientist Daniel Levitin, Professor Lawrence Parsons and Bobby McFerrin — takes us through a series of live performances and demonstrations that illustrate music’s interaction with the brain and our emotions, exploring some of the most interesting questions about this incredible phenomenon.

Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined? Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment?

We encourage you to see the full Notes & Neurons: In Search of a Common Chorus program, or snack on some more digestible bites over at World Science Festival’s Vimeo channel.

And while we’re at it, we highly recommend neuroscientist Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain — an utterly fascinating read about the extreme effect music can have on our cognitive and emotional lives.

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06 JULY, 2009

Focus on Focus: Rapt


Happiness, ADD, and why multitasking doesn’t work but denial might.

A few weeks ago, I came across Sam Anderson’s excellent New York Magazine article about the benefits of distraction. Sure, it took me a week to read — let’s face it, who has the luxury of single-task attention these days — but that was half the point.

In it, Anderson cites an intriguing book by cancer-survivor-turned-behavioral-science-writer Winifred Gallagher.

Rapt is a fascinating, thorough, yet brilliantly digestible foray into the power of attention. It’s solid science — from psychology experiments to fMRI studies — wrapped in Gallagher’s moving personal story: She turned to the focused life when her own life was disrupted by a grim cancer diagnosis.

From evolutionary theory to psycho-social science, Rapt is part descriptive expose on how the mind works, part prescriptive recipe for how to make it work better, live more richly, and inhabit each moment more fully.

You can’t be happy all the time but you can pretty much focus all the time. That’s about as good as it gets.

For a closer look at productivity, why creative people pay attention differently, and how to train ourselves to focus, watch this excellent interview with Gallagher on Australia’s equally excellent FORA network.

In this epidemic of what I call “skim culture” — the inability to give our attention fully to any one thing, stirred by the constant anxiety that there’s something better, more interesting, more urgent happening elsewhere simultaneously — Rapt comes highly recommended. If only to find out just why multitasking — brace yourself — doesn’t even remotely work, but denial actually might.

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12 NOVEMBER, 2008

Army Goes Ghost


What the U.S. Army has to do with Sarah Palin, the Terminator and Men in Black.

Holograms may be the stuff of CNN laughability these days, but it turns out the U.S. Army is working hard on the real stuff. According to Dr. John Parmentola, Director of Research and Laboratory Management with the Army’s science and technology office, they are “making science fiction into reality” using quantum computing.

Holographic futureHere’s the gist: There’s a special kind of photons that don’t bounce off of objects but off of other photons, which have bounced off of objects themselves. This causes the object to be reflected in the second set of photons, creating a “ghost” image. Hence, the technique name: “Quantum Ghost Imaging.”

The Army hopes to use it in confusing the enemy with objects rendered through smoke and clouds. And we thought ghost soldiers were the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.

The interesting part is that the military has been dabbling in quantum mechanics, neuroscience and robotics a lot lately, making nice with scientists and major research universities so they can grab revolutionary technologies before the general public.

Amnesia Beam Remember the Boston Dynamics Big Dog that shot straight to the YouTube top a few months ago? The technology was actually developed years ago and its possible military applications were first discussed by roboticist Rodney Brooks in his TED talk back in 2003. They’ve also dabbled in stem cell research for “growing back” body parts, turned to neuroscience for memory-erasing amnesia beams, and looked into controlling robots with nothing but thought.

Creeped out yet? You should be — it’s scary, Big-Brother-meets-Terminator stuff. But it’s also exciting to observe the mind-blowing scientific and technological progress of our day. That, and we loved the amnesia beam in Men In Black.

via Fast Company

13 JUNE, 2008

Friday FYI: Stop the Hiccups


Why anticipation makes things not happen but helps your friends’ love lives.

Your buddy’s got the hiccups right before a big date and just can’t make it stop? Be a hero: ask him to pay attention and give you a sign as he feels the next hiccup coming on, right before it happens.

It’ll never come.

Before you scream “Witch!,” here’s how it happens: pure brain geekery. You see, the hiccups are essentially a series of involuntary, spasmodic contractions of the diaphragm. Unlike voluntary contractions like breathing and blinking, involuntary ones like the hiccups and your heartbeat are orchestrated by parts of your brain you can’t directly command.

But when you ask your buddy to predict the next hiccup, you’re essentially messing with his brain: because one can’t predict what one can’t control, it essentially forces the brain’s inner control freak to turn its attention to the pesky spasms and switch the involuntary contractions off.

Think of it as reverse psychology on a neurological level.

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