Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

17 FEBRUARY, 2015

How a Dog Actually “Sees” the World Through Smell

By:

“The world of scents is at least as rich as the world of sight.”

Even though smell is the most direct of our senses and the 23,040 breaths we take daily drag in a universe of information — from the danger alert of a burning odor to the sweet nostalgia of an emotionally memorable scent — our olfactory powers are not even mediocre compared to a dog’s. The moist, spongy canine nose is merely the gateway into a remarkable master-machine which can detect smells in concentrations one hundred-millionth of what we humans require to smell something, and then transmute them into immensely dimensional and useful information about the world. So magnificent is the dog’s olfactory brawn — including the ability to sniff out skin, breast, bladder, and lung cancers with an astounding degree of accuracy and to literally smell fear — that to our primitive human perception it appears like nothing short of magic.

How that neurobiological magic happens is what cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz — who heads the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College but has also produced a canon of invaluable insight on how we humans construct our impressions of reality — explains in this short animation from TED-Ed, based on her illuminating book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (public library):

In the book — which also gave us the curious psychology of why a raincoat traumatizes your dog — Horowitz delves deeper into the impressive olfactory powers of canines, pointing out that the paltry six million sensory receptor sites in our noses are vastly eclipsed by the two to three hundred million in a dog’s nose. Not only do canines have manyfold more of these sophisticated information-processing units but they also have far more genes than we do dedicated to the coding of olfactory cells, as well as more kinds of those cells wired to detect more varieties of smells. Horowitz writes:

We humans tend not to spend a lot of time thinking about smelling. Smells are minor blips in our sensory day compared to the reams of visual information that we take in and obsess over in every moment.

[…]

Not only are we not always smelling, but when we do notice a smell it is usually because it is a good smell, or a bad one: it’s rarely just a source of information. We find most odors either alluring or repulsive; few have the neutral character that visual perceptions do… As we see the world, the dog smells it. The dog’s universe is a stratum of complex odors. The world of scents is at least as rich as the world of sight.

'Communication' by Wendy MacNaughton

But at least as remarkable as the dog’s olfactory neurocircuitry — and as superior to our primitive human version — is the physical act of sniffing itself:

Few have looked closely at exactly what happens in a sniff. But recently some researchers have used a specialized photographic method that shows air flow in order to detect when, and how, dogs are sniffing… The sniff begins with muscles in the nostrils straining to draw a current of air into them — this allows a large amount of any air-based odorant to enter the nose. At the same time, the air already in the nose has to be displaced. Again, the nostrils quiver slightly to push the present air deeper into the nose, or off through slits in the side of the nose and backward, out the nose and out of the way. In this way, inhaled odors don’t need to jostle with the air already in the nose for access to the lining of the nose. Here’s why this is particularly special: the photography also reveals that the slight wind generated by the exhale in fact helps to pull more of the new scent in, by creating a current of air over it.

This action is markedly different from human sniffing, with our clumsy “in through one nostril hole, out through the same hole” method. If we want to get a good smell of something, we have to sniff-hyperventilate, inhaling repeatedly without strongly exhaling. Dogs naturally create tiny wind currents in exhalations that hurry the inhalations in. So for dogs, the sniff includes an exhaled component that helps the sniffer smell. This is visible: watch for a small puff of dust rising up from the ground as a dog investigates it with his nose.

Horowitz puts the gaping mismatch of abilities in pause-giving perspective:

We might notice if our coffee’s been sweetened with a teaspoon of sugar; a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar diluted in a million gallons of water: two Olympic-sized pools full.

Inside of a Dog is an endlessly fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with Mary Oliver’s impossibly wonderful poems about dogs and this sweet animated ode to what dogs teach us about the meaning of life, then redeem some of your human sensory dignity with the not entirely unimpressive science of how our own sense of smell works.

For more treats from TED-Ed, see the science of why music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how to spot liars, and why bees build perfect hexagons.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

29 JANUARY, 2015

How Playing Music Benefits Your Brain More than Any Other Activity

By:

“Playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout.”

“Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating,” musician Glenn Kurtz wrote in his sublime meditation on the pleasures of practicing, adding: “My attention warms and sharpens… Making music changes my body.” Kurtz’s experience, it turns out, is more than mere lyricism — music does change the body’s most important organ, and changes it more profoundly than any other intellectual, creative, or physical endeavor.

This short animation from TED-Ed, written by Anita Collins and animated by Sharon Colman Graham, explains why playing music benefits the brain more than any other activity, how it impacts executive function and memory, and what it reveals about the role of the same neural structure implicated in explaining Leonardo da Vinci’s genius.

Playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout… Playing an instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once — especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices. And, as in any other workout, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens those brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities… Playing music has been found to increase the volume and activity in the brain’s corpus callosum — the bridge between the two hemispheres — allowing messages to get across the brain faster and through more diverse routes. This may allow musicians to solve problems more effectively and creatively, in both academic and social settings.

Because making music also involves crafting and understanding its emotional content and message, musicians also have higher levels of executive function — a category of interlinked tasks that includes planning, strategizing, and attention to detail, and requires simultaneous analysis of both cognitive and emotional aspects.

This ability also has an impact on how our memory systems work. And, indeed, musicians exhibit enhanced memory functions — creating, storing, and retrieving memories more quickly and efficiently. Studies have found that musicians appear to use their highly connected brains to give each memory multiple tags, such as a conceptual tag, an emotional tag, an audio tag, and a contextual tag — like a good internet search engine.

Pleasure your brain and your spirit with Kurtz’s indispensable Practicing (public library), a taste of which you can devour here, then revisit these essential books on music, emotion, and the brain and legendary cellist Pablo Casals on how playing prolonged his life.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

15 JANUARY, 2015

Why Bees Build Perfect Hexagons

By:

The space-economics of honey and wax.

After half a lifetime as a schoolteacher, my grandmother retired and promptly became a beekeeper. I spent large chunks of my childhood observing these extraordinary creatures, but no part of their intricately orchestrated existence mesmerized me more than the tiny, perfect cells of their hives — rows and rows of hexagons that would make Euclid proud, each exactly like the next, filled with ancient sweet goodness. Indeed, as lyrical as bees’ role in giving Earth its colors may be, or in offering a metaphor for answering every parent’s most dreaded question, they are also mathematicians of formidable precision and masterful engineers of space-efficiency.

From my friends at TED-Ed comes this illuminating animated look at why and how bees build the mathematically meticulous hexagons of which their honeycombs are constructed.

For more fantastic TED Ed animated meditations, see how melancholy expands our capacity for creativity, how the universe was born, how big infinity really is, and the tell-tale signs of a liar.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

22 DECEMBER, 2014

Why We Lost Leisure: David Steindl-Rast on Purposeful Work, Play, and How to Find Meaning in the Magnificent Superfluities of Life

By:

“A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning.”

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive,” Seneca wrote in his sublime meditation on the shortness of life, adding that when we reap these contemplative fruits of leisure, all the ages that have passed before ours are added to our own — “unless we are very ungrateful.” Two millennia later, in 1926, philosopher Bertrand Russell reflected on the urgent need to undo the Industrial Revolution’s legacy of equating an efficient life with a life worth living when he lamented: “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” In the centuries since Seneca and decades since Russell, we have forgotten more and more how to imbue leisure with the kind of gratefulness that makes possible its true purpose of contemplation — instead, we treat leisure as a luxury, as another good to be gotten from the hamster wheel of material achievement.

In one particularly pause-giving portion of his Essential Writings (public library), the Benedictine monk and interfaith dialogue activist David Steindl-Rast — best known for championing the practice of gratefulness, defined as “the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as a gift” — addresses with great gentleness and great firmness our warped modern understanding of leisure:

Leisure … is not the privilege of those who can afford to take time; it is the virtue of those who give to everything they do the time it deserves to take.

Brother David Steindl-Rast

Our culture betrays this in one aspect especially — the toxic divide between “work” and “life.” I often find myself saddened when people talk of “work-life balance” — a notion that implies we need to counter the unpleasantness we endure in order to make a living with the pleasurable activities we long to do in order to feel alive. Steindl-Rast makes a vitalizing case for reclaiming this ennobling purpose of leisure not outside the context of work but within it:

To recover a healthy understanding of leisure is to come a long way toward understanding contemplation. But few words we use are as misunderstood as the word “leisure.” This shows itself right away when we speak of work and leisure as a pair of opposites. Are the two poles of activity really work and leisure? If this were so, how could we speak of leisurely work? It would be a blatant contradiction. We know, however, that working leisurely is no contradiction at all. In fact, work ought to be done with leisure, if it is to be done well.

What then is the opposite of work? It is play. These are the two poles of activity: work and play.

Finding purposeful work is, of course, perhaps the surest way of resolving this paralyzing polarization — but Steindl-Rast cautions against confusing purpose with productivity, pointing to meaning as the differentiating factor:

Whenever you work, you work for some purpose. If it weren’t for that purpose, you’d have better things to do than work. Work and purpose are so closely connected that your work comes to an end, once your purpose is achieved. Or how are you going to continue fixing your car once it is fixed?…

In play, all the emphasis falls on the meaning of your activity… Play needs no purpose. That is why play can go on and on as long as players find it meaningful. After all, we do not dance in order to get somewhere. We dance around and around. A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning that is there in each of its movements, in every theme, every passage: a celebration of meaning. Pachelbel’s Canon is one of the magnificent superfluities of life. Every time I listen to it, I realize anew that some of the most superfluous things are the most important for us because they give meaning to our human lives.

When our purposeful work also is meaningful, we will have a good time in the midst of it. Then we will not be so eager to get it over with. If you spend only minutes a day getting this or that over with, you may be squandering days, weeks, years in the course of a lifetime. Meaningless work is a form of killing time. But leisure makes time come alive. The Chinese character for being busy is also made up of two elements: heart and killing. A timely warning. Our very heartbeat is healthy only when it is leisurely.

The heart is a leisurely muscle. It differs from all other muscles. How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop? But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live. It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat. Our physical heart works leisurely. And when we speak of the heart in a wider sense, the idea that life-giving leisure lies at the very center is implied. Never to lose sight of that central place of leisure in our life would keep us youthful.

C.S. Lewis echoed this beautifully in his memorable meditation on friendship, where he argued that things “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself” have no survival value but are among “those things which give value to survival.” Reframed in this way, leisure reveals itself as precisely one of those things — not a luxury of life, but an essential vitalizer of it.

In the remainder of his Essential Writings, Steindl-Rast goes on to explore how the practice of gratefulness — which is different from gratitude — enriches our experience of such vital, often misapprehended and misapplied aspects of the human experience as silence, love, and hope. Complement it with Parker J. Palmer on the art of inner wholeness and Alan Watts on how to live with presence, then treat yourself to Steindl-Rast’s wonderfully grounding and elevating TED talk on gratefulness:

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.