Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

18 AUGUST, 2011

Brain Culture: How Neuroscience Became a Pop Culture Fixation


Debunking the phrenology of our day, or why self-help books offer the cognitive science equivalent of snake oil.

Far from a mere motherboard, the brain has swollen into one of humanity’s greatest obsessions. We have been trying to visualize it since antiquity, we have written countless books about it, we’ve even enlisted it in our pop culture satire. The brain, in fact, has become a pop culture fixture in and of itself. That’s exactly what Davi Johnson Thornton explores in Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media — a fascinating account of the rhetoric and sociology of cognitive science, exploring our culture’s obsession with the brain and how we have elevated the vital organ into cultish status, mythologizing its functions and romanticizing the promise of its scientific study. The brain, it seems, has become a modern muse. (As Jonah Lehrer brilliantly notes in his Wired interview with Thornton, “If Warhol were around today, he’d have a series of silkscreens dedicated to the cortex; the amygdala would hang alongside Marilyn Monroe.”)

From the media’s propensity for pretty pictures like PET and fMRI scans, often misinterpreted or presented out of context, to the misappropriation of the language of neuroscience in simplistic self-help narratives to the “anxious parenting” triggered by the facile findings of developmental cognitive science, Thornton offers a refreshing lens on the many contradictions in how we think about the brain as we continue to hope that making the brain calculable and mappable would also make it manipulable in precisely the ways we need it to be.

What makes Thornton’s take most compelling is the lucidity with which she approaches exactly what we know and don’t know about the brain. In an age of exponentially replicating headlines about quasi-sciences like neuromarketing, which, despite the enormous budgets poured into them by the world’s shortcut-hungry Fortune 500, remain the phrenology of our time, it’s refreshing to see a sober take on the disconnect between how much we want to manipulate the brain and how little we actually know about its intricately connected, non-compartmentalizable functions.

According to this popular neuroscience, because the brain is the source of literally all human thought, emotion, and behavior, willful efforts to improve the brain will naturally lead to superior intelligence, greater emotional stability, and improved performance in the home, at the gym, and in the workplace. [If] one wants to become better in some aspect of life — smarter, fitter, more sociable, or more competitive — the key to improvement is always the brain, regardless of the specific kind of improvement desired. Want a better body? Work on your brain. Want better children? Work on your brain (and theirs). Want a better job? Work on your brain. In this context, having a healthy brain is not simple a matter of avoiding injuries and illness, but rather is tied to endless projects of self-optimization in which individuals are responsible for continuously working on their own brains to produce themselves as better parents, workers, and citizens.” ~ Davi Thronton

On characterizing the brain as a “vast frontier waiting to be discovered,” Thronton says:

I think this is a unique metaphor — it goes back to the idea that the brain is everything. I see this message all the time in these discourses I am looking at: ‘You are your brain.’ It’s the ultimate dream — through science we can fully know all that there is to know about human nature, and then control it perfectly. That is part of what makes these discourses so interesting to me, how it’s not just about science or medicine, but ultimately about this fascination with revealing the ultimate secrets of human existence.”

Captivatingly written, intelligently argued, and refreshingly grounded, Brain Culture offers an essential blueprint to becoming better-informed consumers of cognitive science and, perhaps more importantly, having a healthier relationship with our own brains and our expectations of them.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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17 AUGUST, 2011

Science vs. Religion: 50 Famous Scientists on God, Part 2


What uniform motion has to do with religion, or what Galileo can teach us about consciousness.

Last month, we watched 50 famous academics discuss God in a mashup video by British neurosurgeon Jonathan T. Pararajasingham, a fine addition to the ongoing conversation on science vs. religion and the psychology of faith. Now, Pararajasingham is back with a sequel mashup, featuring another 50 renowned academics, including Brain Pickings frequents Michio Kaku, Sean Carroll, V.S. Ramachandran, and Jonathan Haidt.

If you believe that the truth lies in strange scrolls, dug up by somewhere or other, written by someone, then there’s no logical counter to that.” ~ Sir Richard Friend

The sausage party in order of appearance:

51. Frank Wilczek, Nobel Laureate in Physics, MIT
52. VS Ramachandran, World-Renowned Neuroscientist, UC San Diego
53. Bruce C. Murray, Caltech Professor Emeritus of Planetary Science
54. Sir Raymond Firth, World-Renowned Anthropologist, LSE
55. Alva Noë, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
56. Alan Dundes, World Expert in Folklore, Berkeley
57. Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy, CUNY
58. Bede Rundle, Oxford Professor of Philosophy
59. Sir Richard Friend, Cambridge Professor of Physics
60. George Lakoff, Berkeley Professor of Linguistics
61. Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine
62. Shelley Kagan, Yale Professor of Philosophy
63. Roy J. Glauber, Nobel Laureate in Physics
64. Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of Biology, UCL
65. Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard Professor of Social Ethics
66. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Practical Ethics, Duke University
67. Richard Dawkins, Oxford Evolutionary Biologist
68. Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology, Bristol
69. Marvin Minsky, Artificial Intelligence Research Pioneer, MIT
70. Herman Philipse, Professor of Philosophy, Utrecht University
71. Michio Kaku, CUNY Professor of Theoretical Physics
72. Dame Caroline Humphrey, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
73. Max Tegmark, World-Renowned Cosmologist, MIT
74. David Parkin, Oxford Professor of Anthropology
75. Robert Price, Professor of Theology and Biblical Criticism
76. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology, Virginia
77. Max Perutz, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
78. Rodolfo Llinas, Professor of Neuroscience, New York
79. Dan McKenzie, World-Renowned Geophysicist, Cambridge
80. Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy, UC San Diego
81. Sean Carroll, Caltech Theoretical Cosmologist
82. Alexander Vilenkin, World-Renowned Theoretical Physicist
83. PZ Myers, Professor of Biology, Minnesota
84. Haroon Ahmed, Prominent Cambridge Scientist (Microelectronics)
85. David Sloan Wilson, Professor of Biology and Anthropology, SUNY
86. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies, UNC
87. Seth Lloyd, Pioneer of Quantum Computing, MIT
88. Dan Brown, Fellow in Organic Chemistry, Cambridge
89. Victor Stenger, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Hawaii
90. Simon Schaffer, Cambridge Professor of the History of Science
91. Saul Perlmutter, World-Renowned Astrophysicist, Berkeley
92. Lee Silver, Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology
93. Barry Supple, Emeritus Professor of Economic History, Cambridge
94. Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Professor of Law
95. John Raymond Smythies, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatric Research
96. Chris Hann, Max Planck Institute For Social Anthropology
97. David Gross, Nobel Laureate in Physics
98. Ronald de Sousa, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Toronto
99. Robert Hinde, Emeritus Professor of Zoology, Cambridge
100. Carolyn Porco, NASA Planetary Scientist

For more on the subject, see BBC’s excellent documentary, The End of God? A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion.

HT Open Culture

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15 AUGUST, 2011

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


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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10 AUGUST, 2011

Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge


Going beyond biology’s limits, or how laboratory advances will change the way we think about the law.

What consumes the best and brightest minds working in science today? With the brand-new anthology Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge, literary agent Max Brockman poses (and provides a spectrum of answers to) the question. From astronomy to virology to computer science, 19 first-rate researchers contributed short pieces to this collection, intended for the curious layperson. Their participation isn’t without risk since, as Brockman notes in his introduction, “if you’re an academic who writes about your work for a general audience, you’re thought by some of your colleagues to be wasting your time and perhaps endangering your academic career. For younger scientists (i.e., those without tenure), this is almost universally true.”

Given our optimism for the future and soft spot for intellectual anthologies, we’re certainly glad the contributors to Future Science took the chance. The result is a fascinating tour of academy’s advanced guard on, among other topics, why stress causes some people to crumble even as it spurs others on, what sense computer science can make of social media’s vast digital data, and how infinity has entered the realm of testable science. The breadth of subjects and their authors’ ability to make them accessible is thrilling — it’s like TED in book form.

Here’s just a small sampling from Future Science‘s contents:

For much of human history, we have been explorers of other continents — examiners of rocks and regions ripe for habitation, the culmination being the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration and the capstone being our flags and footprints on the surface of the Moon. But in the decades and centuries to come, exploration — both human and robotic — will increasingly focus on the ocean depths, of both our own ocean and the subsurface oceans believed to exist on at least five moons of the outer Solar System: Jupiter’s Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus. The total volume of liquid water on those worlds is estimated to be more than a hundred times the volume of liquid water on Earth.” ~ Kevin P. Hand, “On the Coming Age of Ocean Exploration”

If humans are to succeed as a species, our collective shame over destroying other life-forms should grow in proportion to our understanding of their various ecological roles. Maybe the same attention to one another that promoted our own evolutionary success will keep us from failing the other species in life’s fabric and, in the end, ourselves.” ~ Jennifer Jacquet, “Is Shame Necessary”

This afternoon I received in the post a slim FedEx envelope containing four small vials of DNA. The DNA had been synthesized according to my instructions in under three weeks, at a cost of 39 U.S. cents per base pair (the rungs adenine-thymine or guanine-cytosine in the DNA ladder). The 10 micrograms I ordered are dried, flaky, and barely visible to the naked eye, yet once I have restored them in water and made an RNA copy of this template, they will encode a virus I have designed.” ~ William McEwan, “Molecular Cut and Paste: The New Generation of Biological Tools”

We were particularly excited about Future Science given Brockman’s own pedigree — his father, John Brockman, has spent a lifetime investigating audacious intellectual inquiries as founder of the EDGE Foundation. (In fact, prior to this new volume, the younger Brockman also edited a 2009 book for EDGE’s own imprint as a kind of prequel to Future Science called What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science.)

For a provocative survey of the ever-expanding scientific frontier, you’ll find much to enjoy among the big ideas, probing techniques, and intriguing insights of Future Science.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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