Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

01 JUNE, 2011

Incognito: David Eagleman Unravels the Secret Lives of the Brain

By:

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.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

11 MAY, 2011

Out of Character: The Psychology of Good and Evil

By:

What Aristotle has to do with Tiger Woods and the story of the world.

The dichotomy of good and evil is as old as the story of the world, and timeless in its relevance to just about everything we do in life, from our political and spiritual views to our taste in music, art and literature to how we think about our simple dietary choices. But while most of us recognize that these concepts of good and bad aren’t always black-and-white categories, we never cease to be surprised when someone or something we’ve perceived as “good” does or becomes something we perceive as “bad,” from an esteemed politician’s transgression to a beloved celebrity’s slip into addiction or scientology or otherwise socially undesirable behavior.

In Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us, researchers David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo explore this curious disconnect through the rigorous lens of science. Drawing on their research at the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University, the authors offer a fascinating yet highly readable perspective on the psychology of the hero/villain spectrum of human character, inviting us to reconceive personality, both our own and that of others, with a more balanced moral view that reflects the fluidity of human psychology.

The derivation of the word ‘character’ comes from an ancient Greek term referring to the indelible marks stamped on coins. Once character was pressed into your mind or soul, people assumed it was fixed. But what modern science repeatedly shows is that this just isn’t the case. As we discuss in our book, everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted.” ~ David DeSteno

In this excellent talk from Northeastern’s Insights series, DeSteno reveals some of the fascinating research behind the book and the illuminating insights that came from it.

The analogy of color is an interesting way to think about [character]. Most of us think that colors are very discrete things — something’s red, it’s got redness; something’s blue, it’s got blueness. But we are creating these categories. They’re not natural kinds, they’re not given in ways that represent fundamentally distinct things. Ultimately, what determines what colors we see are the frequencies of light waves entering our eyes, so it’s along a continuum. It’s kind of the same with character. Things blend. We assume that if someone is good, that we’ve characterized them as good, that’s a discrete category, they can’t be bad. And when they are, our categories shatter. That’s because we have this illusory, arbitrary idea of what vice and virtue mean” ~ David DeSteno

Ultimately, Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us makes a compelling case for seeing human character as a grayscale continuum, not a black-and-white dichotomy of good and bad, enlisting neuroscience and cognitive psychology to reaffirm the age-old Aristotelian view of virtue and vice as fluid, interlaced existential capacities.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

22 APRIL, 2011

An Eyeful of Sound: How Synesthesia Works

By:

The color of Friday, or what the absence on silence has to do with the presence of light.

We have a long-standing fascinating with synesthesia, the rare neurological condition that leads stimulation in one sensory pathway to trigger an experience in another — a neural short-circuiting that enables such strange phenomena as hearing colors, seeing sounds and tasting smells.

Earlier this year, we looked at some mesmerizing near-synesthetic ways of visualizing music in color and learned how synesthesia operates in the brain of an autistic savant. Today, we turn to An Eyeful of Sound– a fascinating animated documentary about audio-visual synesthesia, which attempts to add an intimate, visceral layer to our intellectual understanding of the peculiar condition.

All sounds have color. The alphabet has color. Days of the week have color. Each day has a color and a certain shape.”

What makes strange phenomena like synesthesia all the more fascinating is that they raise unsettling questions about some of the most fundamental givens of the “normal” brain: Does color even exist, or is it merely a product of our fancy? Do things have inherent, static smells, tastes, sounds and colors, or do we arbitrarily intuit those from our own minds to attribute to them? Are life’s sensory qualities static and permanent — is the sky always blue, lemons always sour — or are they fluid and dynamic attributes on a spectrum we just happen to experience arbitrary slices of?

HT @kirstinbutler

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.