Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

13 SEPTEMBER, 2011

How the Aurora Borealis Works

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Demystifying the cosmic origins of one of Earth’s greatest wonders, or what solar storms have to do with snow.

If you’ve ever wondered how the magic of the aurora borealis works, today is your lucky day. This short video by Norwegian animator and sound artist Per Byhring illuminates the cosmic secret of the Northern lights, one of our planet’s most magnificent wonders.

For the real thing, don’t forget you can watch the aurora borealis live from the comfort of your nomad screen.

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13 SEPTEMBER, 2011

15 Years of Cutting-Edge Thinking on Understanding the Mind

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What mirror neurons have to do with Abu Ghraib, the science of religion, and how happiness flourishes.

For the past 15 years, literary-agent-turned-crusader-of-human-progress John Brockman has been a remarkable curator of curiosity, long before either “curator” or “curiosity” was a frivolously tossed around buzzword. His Edge.org has become an epicenter of bleeding-edge insight across science, technology and beyond, hosting conversations with some of our era’s greatest thinkers (and, once a year, asking them some big questions.) Last month marked the release of The Mind, the first volume in The Best of Edge Series, presenting eighteen provocative, landmark pieces — essays, interviews, transcribed talks — from the Edge archive. The anthology reads like a who’s who of Brain Pickings favorites across psychology, evolutionary biology, social science, technology and more. And, perhaps equally interestingly, the tome — most of the materials in which are available for free online — is an implicit manifesto for the enduring power of books as curatorial capsules of ideas. Brockman writes in the book’s introduction:

While there’s no doubt about the value of online presentations, the role of books, whether bound and printed or presented electronically, is still an invaluable way to present important ideas. Thus, we are pleased to be able to offer this series of books to the public.”

Here’s a small sampling of the treasure chest between The Mind’s covers:

In “Eudaemonia: The Good Life” (2004), Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology whom you might recall as the author of Flourish and Learned Optimism, one of our 7 essential books on optimism, explores what he calls the “third form of happiness,” which lies in:

knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are. There’s no shortcut to that. That’s what life is about. There will likely be a pharmacology of pleasure, and there may be a pharmacology of positive emotion generally, but it’s unlikely there’ll be an interesting pharmacology of flow. And it’s impossible that there’ll be a pharmacology of meaning.”

In “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion” (2007), psychologist Jonathan Haidt (whose The Happiness Hypothesis you might recall as one of our 7 favorite books on happiness) notes:

[I]t might seem obvious to you that contractual societies are good, modern, creative, and free, whereas beehive societies reek of feudalism, fascism, and patriarchy. And, as a secular liberal I agree that contractual societies such as those of Western Europe offer the best hope for living peacefully together in our increasingly diverse modern nations (although it remains to be seen if Europe can solve its current diversity problems). I just want to make one point, however, that should give constructualists pause: surveys have long shown that religious believer s in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.”

In “Amazing Babies” (2009), psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik laid the foundations for her The Philosophical Baby, one of this year’s must-read books by TED Global speakers:

We’ve known for a long time that human children are the best learning machines in the universe, but it has always been like the mystery of the hummingbirds. We know that they fly, but we don’t know how they can possibly do it. We could say that babies learn, but we didn’t know how.”

Harvard’s Steven Pinker, whose illuminating insights on violence and human nature you might recall and who penned one of our 5 favorite books on language, wrote in “Organs of Computation” (1997), long before the hype of contemporary quasi-sciences like neuromarketing:

Most of the assumptions about the mind that underlie current discussions are many decades out of date. [L]ook at the commentaries on human affairs by pundits and social critics. They say we’re ‘conditioned’ to do this, or ‘brainwashed’ to do that, or ‘socialized’ to believe such and such. Where do these ideas come from? From the behaviorism of the 1920s, from bad cold war movies from the 1950s, from folklore about the effects of family upbringing that behavior genetics has shown to be false. The basic understanding that the human mind is a remarkably complex processor of information, an ‘organ of extreme perfection and complication,’ to use Darwin’s phrase, has not made it into the mainstream of intellectual life.”

Stanford social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, best-known for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and most recently a founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, drew on his seminal work exploring good and evil in “You Can’t Be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel” (2005):

When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel. You could put virtually anybody in it and you’re going to get this kind of evil behavior. The Pentagon and the military say the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That’s the dispositional analysis. The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that’s the wrong analysis. It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systemic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that ‘little shop of horrors.'”

Iconic neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, whose empirical quest for the what makes us human we recently examined, wrote in his seminal 2000 essay “Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force Behind ‘the Great Leap Forward’ in Human Evolution”:

The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution — which I speculate on in this essay — is the single most important ‘unreported’ (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”

And in his second essay, “The Neurology of Self-Awareness” (2007), which laid the foundations for his The Tell-Tale Brain, Rama pondered the essence of the self:

What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the ‘turning inward’ aspect of the self — its recursiveness — that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.”

A coffer of cutting-edge contemporary thought, The Mind contains the building blocks of tomorrow’s history books — whatever medium they may come in — and invites a provocative peer forward as we gaze back at some of the most defining ideas of our time.

Images via Flickr Commons

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07 SEPTEMBER, 2011

World Science Festival: Scents and Sensibilities, or How Smell Works

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From pheromones to disease detection via smell, or what your nose has to do with the neurochemistry of nostalgia.

Smell is often considered the most primal and most evocative of our senses. But how does it really work, and what exactly is its secret language? That’s exactly what Scents and Sensibilities explores — a fascinating 90-minute program from the World Science Festival, covering everything from pheromones to the smell of fear to how scent influences behavior to the incredible sentimental value of smells. The full program is now available online in its entirety, an absolute treat of fascination and self-knowledge.

Smell is the only human sense that brings floating molecules from our environment into direct contact with our neurons.”

Particularly intriguing is this segment by neuroscientist and olfactory researcher Leslie Vosshall on how smell actually works and the complex chemical interplay of scents:

Once you go beyond three [olfactory] components, people are completely stumped because the 400 receptors start interacting. It will be like A + B = Z, so a completely different precept emerges, which is why perfumery ends up being so empirical and so artistic. You can predict what you’ll get when you mix two colors, you actually can’t predict what will happen when you mix two smells.” ~ Leslie Vosshall

For more on this infinitely fascinating subject, see Avery Gilbert’s excellent What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Secret Life of Pronouns: Computational Linguistics and What Our Word Choices Reveal About Us

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What the pronouns you use reveal about your thoughts and emotions, or how to liespot your everyday email.

We’re social beings wired for communicating with one another, and as new modes and platforms of communication become available to us, so do new ways of understanding the complex patterns, motivations and psychosocial phenomena that underpin that communication. That’s exactly what social psychologist and language expert James W. Pennebaker explores in The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (public library) — a fascinating look at what Pennebaker’s groundbreaking research in computational linguistics reveals about our emotions, our sense of self, and our perception of our belonging in society. Analyzing the subtle linguistic patterns in everything from Craigslist ads to college admission essays to political speeches to Lady Gaga lyrics, Pennebaker offers hard evidence for the insight that our most unmemorable words — pronouns, prepositions, prefixes — can be most telling of true sentiment and intention.

Both a fascinating slice of human psychology and a practical toolkit for deciphering our everyday email exchanges, tweets and Facebook statuses, the research looks at what our choice of words like “I,” “she,” “mine” and “who” reveals about our deeper thoughts, emotions and motivations — and those of the people with whom we communicate.

One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status.” ~ James Pennebaker

Art by Stefanie Posavec from her 'Writing Without Words' project. Click image for more.

Like much of scientific discovery, Pennebaker’s interest in pronouns began as a complete fluke — in the 1980s, he and his students discovered when asked to write about emotional upheavals, people’s physical health improved, indicating that putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals. They eventually developed a computerized text analysis program to examine how language use might predict later health improvements, trying to find out whether there was a “healthy” way to write. To his surprise, the greatest predictor of health was people’s choice of pronouns.

Scientific American has an excellent interview with Pennebaker:

As I pondered these findings, I started looking at how people used pronouns in other texts — blogs, emails, speeches, class writing assignments, and natural conversation. Remarkably, how people used pronouns was correlated with almost everything I studied. For example, use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) was consistently related to gender, age, social class, honesty, status, personality, and much more. Although the findings were often robust, people in daily life were unable to pick them up when reading or listening to others. It was almost as if there was a secret world of pronouns that existed outside our awareness.” ~ James Pennebaker

From gender differences that turn everything you know on its head to an analysis of the language of suicidal vs. non-suicidal poets to unexpected insights into famous historical documents, The Secret Life of Pronouns gleans insights with infinite applications, from government-level lie-detection to your everyday email inbox, and makes a fine addition to these 5 essential books on language.

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