Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

03 AUGUST, 2011

How Music and Language Mimicked Nature to Evolve Us

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How auditory cheesecake was made with mother nature’s milk, or why our brains were not designed for reading.

Speech and writing are our two most fundamental forms of communication yet, while we’re extraordinarily good at them, they remain an ever-mystifying frontier of intellectual inquiry. We’ve previously looked at how sounds evolved into shapes, 5 essential books on language, and 7 must-reads on music and the brain. Now, from evolutionary neuroscientist Mark Changizi, comes compelling new evidence to unite these three domains of fascination. In Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, Changizi explores the evolution of language and music as they came to separate us from our primate ancestors.

Our brain’s tight fit to writing and speech is not because we evolved by natural selection to read or comprehend speech, but, rather, because the structure of writing and speech culturally evolved to fit our brain…by looking and sounding like nature, just what our brains can brilliantly process. I call this nature-harnessing — that’s the secret sauce.” ~ Mark Changizi

Changizi builds on his previous research for the excellent Vision Revolution and psycholinguist Steven Pinker’s work in The Language Instinct to examine how it’s possible that we appear to be designed to read, yet we have no actual reading “instinct.”

The answer is that, rather than our brains being designed for reading, reading is designed for our brains. Writing is a technology that has been optimized over time by the forces of cultural selection to be good for our visual system. We have no reading instinct. Instead, writing has a brain instinct (i.e., is designed for the brain), something neuroscientist Stanislav Dehaene calls ‘neuronal recycling.'” ~ Mark Changizi

Curiously, in the majority of our interaction with the world, we seem to mimic the sounds of events among solid objects. Solid-object events are comprised of hits, slides and rings, producing periodic vibrations. Every time we speak, we find the same three fundamental auditory constituents in speech: plosives (hit-sounds like t, d and p), fricatives (slide-sounds like f, v and sh), and sonorants (ring-sounds like a, u, w, r and y). Changizi demonstrates that solid-object events have distinct “grammar” recurring in speech patterns across different languages and time periods.

Artwork by Kerry Hyndman for Wired UK

But it gets even more interesting with music, a phenomenon perceived as a quintessential human invention — Changizi draws on a wealth of evidence indicating that music is actually based on natural sounds and sound patterns dating back to the beginning of time. Bonus points for convincingly debunking Steven Pinker’s now-legendary proclamation that music is nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.”

Ultimately, Harnessed shows that both speech and music evolved in culture to be simulacra of nature, making our brains’ penchant for these skills appear intuitive. Perhaps most interesting of all is what this might suggest about our evolving communication diets as we contemplate the future of information and the Internet and ponder what the web is doing to our brains — are these media, nascent in evolutionary terms, evolving as simulacra of nature as well, or are they taxing our brains with unnatural and counterintuitive mechanisms that make for impossible cognitive loads?

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20 JULY, 2011

Brain Bugs: The Glorious Imperfections of Our Brains

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What our memory lapses have to do with optical illusions, advertising, and the bliss of ignorance.

In 1876, Thomas Edison coined a term we use to this day to describe those pesky glitches, malfunctions and other deviations from the intended paths of technology:

It has been just so in all my inventions. The first step is an intuition — and come with a burst, then difficulties arise. This thing gives out and then that — ‘Bugs’ — as such little faults and difficulties are called.” ~ Thomas Edison

So opens Dean Buonomano’s excellent new book, Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives, which borrows the technological term to explore “the full range of limitations, flaws, foibles, and biases of the human brain.” From our susceptibility to advertising and propaganda to the biases of our memory to how word choice sways our decisions, Buonomano treks across evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, neurobiology, philosophy, theory of mind and a number of other disciplines — though, it’s worth nothing, not at all in the fluffy, formulaic fashion of “Big Idea books” — to reveal the intricate limitations and blessings of the most complex device in the known universe and, perhaps most fascinatingly, the trade-offs between the two: the balance of fear and curiosity, of altruism and jealousy, of the rational and the irrational.

Who we are as individuals and as a society is defined not only by the astonishing capabilities of the brain, but also by its flaws and limitations.” ~ Dean Buonomano

Buonomano pinpoints three central sources of “brain bugs” — our brains’ evolutionary bias towards survival and reproduction; the cognitive quirks that have resulted from an imperfect and clumsy evolution process, such as optical illusions and impulsivity; and our constantly evolving environment, which forces us to adapt rapidly, in the scale of evolution, and often not in the best ways possible.

Simply put, our brain is inherently well suited for some tasks, but ill suited for others. Unfortunately, the brain’s weaknesses include recognizing which tasks are which, so for the most part we remain ignorantly blissful of the extent to which our lives are governed by the brain’s bugs.” ~ Dean Buonomano

(This phenomenon is actually called anosognosia and Errol Morris wrote a fantastic five-part series on it for The New York Times last year, one of 2010’s best longreads.)

What makes the book all the more compelling is the lucidity with which Buonomano recognizes, amidst its weaknesses, the brain’s insurmountable strengths, feats artificial intelligence is ages from reaching — most notably, its remarkable penchant for pattern-recognition and what Buonomano calls “the inherent and irrepressible ability of the brain to build connections and make associations.” And whatever we may say of the future of the Internet and technology, even our most optimistic predictions pale in comparison to the remarkable information processes taking place, quite literally, under our very roofs. (And, if we’re really keeping score, Buonomano points out that the brain’s 90 billion neurons linked by 100 trillion synapses far surpass the web’s 20 billion web pages connected by a trillion links.)

The brain is an incomprehensibly complex biological computer, responsible for every action we have taken and every decision, thought, and feeling we’ve ever had. This is probably a concept that most people do not find comforting. Indeed, the fact that the mind emerges from the brain is something not all brains have come to accept. But our reticence to acknowledge that our humanity derives solely from the physical brain should not come as a surprise. The brain was not designed to understand itself anymore than a calculator was designed to surf the Web.” ~ Dean Buonomano

Ultimately, Brain Bugs drives home the point that exploring our cognitive limitations and mental blind spots doesn’t merely tickle our curiosity and fuel or fascination, but is also a fundamental part of our human quest for self-knowledge, for better understanding what makes us human.

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12 JULY, 2011

Highlights from TED Global 2011, The Stuff of Life: Day One

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What 86,000 neurons have to do with privacy, the Magna Carta, and the world’s fastest piano player.

After warming up with two sets of must-read books by this year’s speakers and a look at some amazing work by the TED Fellows, this year’s TED Global, titled The Stuff of Life, is officially underway. Gathered here are the essential highlights of Day One, in photos and soundbites.

TED Curator Chris Anderson and TED Europe director Bruno Giussani open the first session of TED Global 2011, 'Beginnings'

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

SESSION 1: BEGINNINGS

Biologist Lee Cronin opened the day with a compelling look at the chemical origins of life, questioning our most fundamental assumptions about what constitutes living matter with a scientific lens underpinned by philosophical inquiry.

Life is flame in a bottle.” ~ Lee Cronin

Chemist Lee Cronin

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Biology doesn’t care about the design unless it works.” ~ Lee Cronin

Author Annie Murphy Paul shared insights from her book, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. Fetuses, she argued, are learning about sounds, tastes and smells while still in the womb, and the meals a pregnant woman consumes constitute a kind of story that imparts information the fetus uses to organize its body and its systems.

We’re learning about the world before we even enter it.” ~ Annie Murphy Paul

Author Annie Murphy Paul

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of visionary citizen journalism portal Global Voices, explored private sovereignty in cyberspace, how digital laws can challenge or extend the sovereignty of nation-states, and what we can do to uphold sovereignty in a cultural context where most private CEOs focus on maximizing profit, not freedom.

What people can and cannot do with information has more effect than ever on the exercise of power in the physical world.” ~ Rebecca MacKinnon

MacKinnon drew on history, pointing to the Magna Carta — which recognized that even the king who claimed to have divine rule still had to abide by a basic set of rules, setting off a cycle of political innovation and eventually leading to “Consent of the governed” — and called for the need to build “Consent of the networked,” which would require innovation not only in politics and geopolitics, but also in business management, investment behavior, consumer choice and even software design.

Each and every one of us has a vital part to play in building a world in which government and technology serve the world’s people and not the other way around.” ~ Rebecca MacKinnon

Soprano Danielle de Niese

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, spoke about improving the qualities of human life by reducing income differences, pointing out that the most important determinant of healthy community life is the scale of income differences between us.

Richard Wilkinson

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark.” ~ Richard Wilkinson

Political theorist Phillip Blond argued that, for the past 30 to 40 years, Western societies have run on extreme individualism, leading to social maladies like enormous disparity, a welfarist culture, and ultimate breakdown after which the state has to pick up the pieces.

The state has turned class into caste and the market has converted owners into serfs.” ~ Phillip Blond

Political theorist Phillip Blond

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Blond pointed to relationships as the real basis for society and asserted that the economic problem isn’t so much about income inequality as it is about asset inequality, which is far worse.

Assets are the great drive of modern inequality — who owns and who doesn’t own. The bottom half of the UK owns just 9% of the nation’s assets.” ~ Phillip Blond

SESSION 2: EVERYDAY REBELLIONS

Opening the second session, Everyday Rebellions, artist Hasan Elahi, who has been publicly tracking every detail of his life for the past several years after getting erroneously placed on the FBI’s watchlist and is the subject of the book Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do, spoke about privacy, arguing that the only way to protect our privacy in the digital age by taking full control of its transparency.

Artist Hasan Elahi

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

We’re all creating an archive of our own lives, whether we’re aware of it or not.” ~ Hasan Elahi

Quilliam Foundation founder and anti-extremism activist Maajid Nawaz, a former 13-year Islamic extremist himself, spoke about the “age of behavior” — a period when trans-national ideas and narratives are affecting allegiances and behavior — and argued that the people who have capitalized the most on this age of behavior have been extremists, using globally networked tools to disseminate their ideology. He identified four elements of social movements — ideas, narratives symbols and leaders — and pointed to an ultimate ideal where people vote in an existing democracy, not for democracy, a model in which democracy isn’t merely one of many political choices.

Anti-extrimism activist Maajid Nawaz

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

In history, identity was defined by religion and race. Now, in the age of behavior, it’s defined by ideas and narratives” ~ Maajid Nawaz

Raspy angel Asaf Avidan

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Israeli indie folk-rock musician Asaf Avidan, an absolutely remarkable voice channeling Janis Joplin, Cat Stevens and something else entirely, delivered an utterly spellbiding performance alongside cellist Hadas Kleinman. Their debut album, The Reckoning, is one of the finest indie records to come by in years.

Filmmaker Julia Bacha, who has dedicated her life to documenting how Israeli and Palestinians are finding ways for peaceful conflict resolution and emergence of nonviolent movements in the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere, argued passionately for giving nonviolent behavior enough attention and exposure to shift the normative models for conflict resolution.

What’s missing is not for Palestinians to start adopting nonviolence but for us to start paying attention to those who already are.” ~ Julia Bacha

She noted that the one important characteristic violent and nonviolent resistance have in common is that they are both a form of theater, seeking an audience for their cause.

Filmmaker Julia Bacha

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

I believe at the core of ending the conflict in the Middle East and bringing peace is for us to transform nonviolence into a functional behavior by giving a lot more attention to nonviolent leaders today.” ~ Julia Bacha

SESSION 3: CODED PATTERNS

Physicist Geoffrey West, whose work on “turning the city into an equation” was profiled in The New York Times last winter, explored the economies of scale as they apply to cities and innovation, arguing that unbounded growth requites accelerating cycles of innovation to avoid collapse, but with the catch that it also necessitates a faster and faster pace of innovation.

Every week from now until 2050 more than a million people are being added to our cities.” ~ Geoffrey West

Urban physicist Geoffrey West

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

We are the city — it’s our interactions and the clustering of our interactions.” ~ Geoffrey West

Architect Shohei Shigematsu examined the box as a building block of architectural innovation.

Architect Shohei Shigematsu

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

In order to make an iconic place, shape doesn’t really matter.” ~ Shohei Shigematsu

Kevin Slavin explored how algorithms are shaping our understanding of markets, behaviors and the world at large, calling for rethinking the role of math in life and society. He noted that there are 2,000 physicists working on Wall Street, many working on “black box trading”, which, as Slavin facetiously pointed out, makes up “70% of the algorithm formerly known as your pension.”

Algoworld expert Kevin Slavin

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

We would have to understand algorithms as nature — and, in a way, they are.” ~ Kevin Slavin

Neuroscientist Allan Jones exposed the processes and practices of his lab, which has devised a way to glean 50 million data points from any given human brain. But despite advances in neuroscience, Jones noted, the brain, with its 86 million neurons whose distribution determine its function, remains largely a mystery.

Brain scientist Allan Jones

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The brain is truly an unexplored, undiscovered continent. It’s a new frontier, if you will.” ~ Allan Jones

Virtuoso pianist and composer Balazs Havasi, holder of the Guinness World Record for the Most Piano Keys in One Minute, closed the day with a riveting rock-classical duet with a master-drummer, rolled onstage in a glass box alongside the grand piano.

Pianist Balazs Havasi

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Come back tomorrow for highlights from Day Two, or follow along on Twitter between 8:30AM and 7PM GMT for the live feed.

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