Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

12 JANUARY, 2010

FaceSense: Mind-reading from MIT

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70’s-style mind-reading for the digital age, or why we all say one thing and mean another.

We have a longstanding fascination with the human face and the wealth of data that it holds. Now, the Affective Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab (another Brain Pickings darling) has developed FaceSense — a software application that detects head and face gestures in real time, analyzes them and deduces information about the person’s emotional disposition and mental state.

The principle, of course, is nothing new — back in the late 70’s, legendary psychologist Paul Ekman pioneered FACS, the Facial Actions Coding System, which is used to this day by anyone from academic researchers to the CIA to draw information about cognitive-affective states based on the micromuscle contractions of the human face. Though the MIT project doesn’t explicitly disclose it, we bet the data encoding is based, at least to some degree, on FACS.

But what makes FaceSense different and important is that it enables the extraction of such cognitive-affective information from pre-recorded video. And in the midst of all the neuromarketing hype — which is, for the most part, just that: hype — it offers an interesting model for collecting consumer psychology insight remotely, a scalable and useful tool for the age of telecommuting and sentiment analysis. What’s more, it helps bypass the quintessential unreliability of self-report in product testing.

Its applications can, of course, extend far beyond the marketing industry. An accurate disposition detection model for video can be used in anything from analyzing politicians’ televised appearances to testing news anchors for bias. And, judging by the abundance of all things video at CES this year, FaceSense has firmly planted its feet in a rich and ever-expanding space.

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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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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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