Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

15 AUGUST, 2011

Do You See What I See? BBC on the Subjectivity of Color Perception

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Why you should wear red on your next date, or what an African tribe can teach us about the color of water.

We’ve previously examined the extreme ends of how the brain perceives color, from Ben Lotto’s remarkable optical illusions to the curious neurological short-circuiting known as synesthesia. But how do “normal” people see “normal” color? Turns out, the answer isn’t as black and white. From the fine folks behind BBC’s excellent Horizon series — who have also pondered the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, what time is, and how money came to dominate the world — comes Do You See What I See, a fascinating look at the subjectivity and divergence of how we each see the world and the surprising power colors can have on our mood, cognition, emotion, and entire lives.

The hour-long program explores a number of psychology and neuroscience experiments exploring everything from how the color red suppressed the stress-hormone cortisol to elevated confidence to how blue changes our sense of time to make a minute feel 11 seconds shorter to how language shapes the perception of color in different cultures. (Though it should be noted that, while presented as new, the findings are based on the pioneering work of Paul Kay and Brent Berlin, circa 1969.)

Your eye doesn’t simply see color — your brain creates it by drawing on knowledge of what things should look like.”

The earliest colors we learned — blue and yellow — have hard-wired emotional connections. Our associations with red and green we’ve had to learn.”

For more on the science of color perception, you won’t go wrong with Mark Changizi’s fantastic The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew about Human Vision and the out-of-print but excellent Color Perception: Philosophical, Psychological, Artistic, and Computational Perspectives from Oxford University Press.

HT Boing Boing

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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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