Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

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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07 AUGUST, 2009

Notes & Neurons: Music, Emotion and the Brain

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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

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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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