Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

24 AUGUST, 2011

Mathemagician Vi Hart Explains the Science of Sound, Frequency and Pitch

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From the cochlea to Coachella, or what mathematical ratios have to do with the enjoyability of melodies.

You may recall mathemagician Vi Hart from her brilliant stop-motion explanation of the Victorian novella Flatland on a Möbius strip. This month, she’s back with another gem, this time exploring the science and mathematics of sound, frequency and pitch. From Pythagoras to the anatomy of the ear, Hart uses her signature playful hand-illustrations to reveal how simple mathematical ratios make pleasing melodies.

For a semi-related treat, see Jad Abumrad’s fantastic PopTech talk on science, sound and mystery.

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19 AUGUST, 2011

How the Science of Attention is Changing Work and Education

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What a woman in a gorilla suit has to do with the future of work and education in the digital age.

Much has been said about how the Internet is changing our brains and what this new culture of learning means for the future of education. While much of the dialogue has been doused in techno-dystopian alarmism, from Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, narrated by Orson Welles in the 1970s, to Nicholas Carr’s reductionist claims about attention in today’ digital age. But the truth about attention, as it relates to the intersection of technology and education, seems to be a lot more layered and complex — and, if Cathy Davidson, founder of Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, is right, a lot less worrisome. That’s precisely what Davidson illustrates in her new book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn — a fascinating meditation on how “attention blindness,” the peculiar phenomenon illustrated by Harvard’s famous invisible gorilla experiment, has produced one of our culture’s greatest disconnects, the inability to reconcile the remarkable changes induced by the digital age with the conventions of yesteryear’s schools and workplaces.

As long as we focus on the object we know, we will miss the new one we need to see. The process of unlearning in order to relearn demands a new concept of knowledge not as thing but as a process, not as a noun but as a verb.” ~ Cathy Davidson

In another famous experiment, Davidson, then provost at Duke, gave the entire 2003 freshman class iPods as part of their academic curriculum. Though the pilot project was at first widely derided, it quickly silenced the critics as students found intelligent and innovative ways to employ their iPods in the classroom and the lab in everything from collaborating on group project to podcasting a conference on Shakespeare around the world.

Davidson uses the insights from these experiments as a lens through which to examine the nature and evolution of attention, noting that the educational system is driven by very rigid expectations of what “attention” is and how it reflects “intelligence,” a system in which students who fail to meet these expectations and pay attention differently are pigeonholed somehow deficient of aberrant, square pegs in round holes. Yet neuroscience is increasingly indicating that our minds pay attention in a myriad different ways, often non-linear and simultaneous, which means that the academy and the workplace will have to evolve in parallel and transcend the 20th-century linear assembly-line model for eduction and work. (The assembly and the factory are in fact a familiar metaphor from Sir Ken Robinson’s insightful thoughts on changing educational paradigms.)

Refreshingly constructive and glimmering with much-needed optimism about the future of education in the digital age, Now You See It makes a fine new addition to these 7 essential books on education and offers a well-argued antidote to the media’s incessant clamor about the deadly erosion of our attention.

Thanks, Jake

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18 AUGUST, 2011

Brain Culture: How Neuroscience Became a Pop Culture Fixation

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Debunking the phrenology of our day, or why self-help books offer the cognitive science equivalent of snake oil.

Far from a mere motherboard, the brain has swollen into one of humanity’s greatest obsessions. We have been trying to visualize it since antiquity, we have written countless books about it, we’ve even enlisted it in our pop culture satire. The brain, in fact, has become a pop culture fixture in and of itself. That’s exactly what Davi Johnson Thornton explores in Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media — a fascinating account of the rhetoric and sociology of cognitive science, exploring our culture’s obsession with the brain and how we have elevated the vital organ into cultish status, mythologizing its functions and romanticizing the promise of its scientific study. The brain, it seems, has become a modern muse. (As Jonah Lehrer brilliantly notes in his Wired interview with Thornton, “If Warhol were around today, he’d have a series of silkscreens dedicated to the cortex; the amygdala would hang alongside Marilyn Monroe.”)

From the media’s propensity for pretty pictures like PET and fMRI scans, often misinterpreted or presented out of context, to the misappropriation of the language of neuroscience in simplistic self-help narratives to the “anxious parenting” triggered by the facile findings of developmental cognitive science, Thornton offers a refreshing lens on the many contradictions in how we think about the brain as we continue to hope that making the brain calculable and mappable would also make it manipulable in precisely the ways we need it to be.

What makes Thornton’s take most compelling is the lucidity with which she approaches exactly what we know and don’t know about the brain. In an age of exponentially replicating headlines about quasi-sciences like neuromarketing, which, despite the enormous budgets poured into them by the world’s shortcut-hungry Fortune 500, remain the phrenology of our time, it’s refreshing to see a sober take on the disconnect between how much we want to manipulate the brain and how little we actually know about its intricately connected, non-compartmentalizable functions.

According to this popular neuroscience, because the brain is the source of literally all human thought, emotion, and behavior, willful efforts to improve the brain will naturally lead to superior intelligence, greater emotional stability, and improved performance in the home, at the gym, and in the workplace. [If] one wants to become better in some aspect of life — smarter, fitter, more sociable, or more competitive — the key to improvement is always the brain, regardless of the specific kind of improvement desired. Want a better body? Work on your brain. Want better children? Work on your brain (and theirs). Want a better job? Work on your brain. In this context, having a healthy brain is not simple a matter of avoiding injuries and illness, but rather is tied to endless projects of self-optimization in which individuals are responsible for continuously working on their own brains to produce themselves as better parents, workers, and citizens.” ~ Davi Thronton

On characterizing the brain as a “vast frontier waiting to be discovered,” Thronton says:

I think this is a unique metaphor — it goes back to the idea that the brain is everything. I see this message all the time in these discourses I am looking at: ‘You are your brain.’ It’s the ultimate dream — through science we can fully know all that there is to know about human nature, and then control it perfectly. That is part of what makes these discourses so interesting to me, how it’s not just about science or medicine, but ultimately about this fascination with revealing the ultimate secrets of human existence.”

Captivatingly written, intelligently argued, and refreshingly grounded, Brain Culture offers an essential blueprint to becoming better-informed consumers of cognitive science and, perhaps more importantly, having a healthier relationship with our own brains and our expectations of them.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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