The Beautiful Brain explores the latest findings from the ever-growing field of neuroscience through monthly long-form essays, reviews, galleries, short-form blog posts and more, with particular attention to the dialogue between the arts and sciences.
The researchers stained (using green-fluorescent protein) and imaged tens of thousands of neurons in the fly brain and used complex gene-marking procedures to find out which cells interacted with one another.
These methods helped them elucidate the architecture of specific networks of cells, and that information allowed for a reconstruction of the pathways of functional brain regions, and ultimately the full structure of the brain. The authors compare their model of interacting neurons to a city highway system, writing:
Each unit is like a city containing local intersected streets and avenues linked to other cities through multi-lane highways without cross-traffic. Sometimes, several geographically closed units form a family working together for a specific function requiring intensive information processing.
The researchers also address the age-old brain/computer comparison, pithily stating:
It seems that a fly brain is smarter and more complicated than any computer built thus far.
However, their work by no means represents a full understanding of the workings of the fruit fly brain and the translation of neural network to behavior (that level of understanding is a ways away); rather, it’s a useful visual tool for testing hypotheses about specific neural interactions in the fruit fly brain, and locating neurons of interest. It’s akin to navigating on a road trip – why use a glove compartment full of small, unconnected state maps when you can use a nice, big road atlas?
The Hwang team has published the results of their brain-mapping project online for free and open access, just like the Human Genome Project did in 2003. To see the exciting images and videos, go here.
Carl Zimmer recently reviewed studies by Dr. Niedenthal in the New York Times. In it, he reports a new theory on how a person detects different types of smiles. When we see someone smile, we tend to mimic the smile. This act of mimicry lights up different parts of our brain for different types of smiles (genuine, happy, fake, etc). Dr. Niedenthal’s model suggests we decode other’s smiles by analyzing our own brain activity when we mimic.
When subjects were shown fake and genuine smiles under two conditions, with and without pencils in their mouths, those who had their smile-muscles occupied by a pencil had a significantly harder time distinguishing the test smiles. It is good support for the model, but this is still a budding field.
Next time you see a summer blockbuster or art house film and you see a scene where everything is in slow motion, consider this: researchers have found that our perception of time is actually distorted during clips of slow and fast biological movements (such as people moving). For example, subjects reported that stimuli lasted for a shorter period of time while viewing slow motion footage. As well as being beautiful cinematic techniques, overcranking (slow motion) and undercranking (fast motion) film also affects our perception of reality.
Time perception is not always accurate. We know this from experience. An hour of playing a fun video game may feel like 15 minutes, a bad movie can feel like eternity. But interestingly, there is a 3-second “point of indifference,” a term coined in 1868. Tones shorter than 3-seconds are reported as being longer, and tones longer than 3-seconds are reported as being shorter. And even though technology has sped up, our cars got faster, and we’re constantly looking at 3 websites at once, this 3-second point of indifference has remained.
A new study in Science argues that thinking about certain foods acually makes you consume less of that food, contrary to conventional wisdom.
Carey Morewedge and his team at Carnegie Mellon University experimented on subjects who sat next next to full a bowl of M&Ms. Experimental groups were divided based on how many M&Ms they were told to “imagine eating” (respectively 0,3, and 30). The group that was told to imagine eating the largest amount actually ate the least.
The authors argue that their result was due to “habituation.” That is, the subjects got used to the presence of the delicious candies by imagining themselves binging on them, and “getting used” to the candies helped them control their intake. The authors conclude:
These results suggest that mental representation alone can engender habituation to a stimulus.
Meanwhile, those with responsible “mental representations” (‘I’ll only eat 3′) went ahead and binged. Go figure.
A review article by Janka Zoltan (2004) looks at the pattern of psychological disorders in a few celebrated artists, and it finds that there is a large prevalence of bipolar disorders in these artists. Bipolar mood disorder is largely defined by having phases of mania and depression. The manic phase is characterized by inflated self-esteem, less need for sleep, being talkative, irritable, having racing thoughts, greater activity (both positive and negative), and distractibility. The article suggests that the hypomania of bipolar disease could contribute to prolificness and creativity of great artists. Though it is not a novel concept, it is nevertheless an intriguing, perhaps poetic, idea that painful neurological disorder can very well have beautiful products.
We came across this venn diagram as part of the Imaginary Foundation‘s exhibition “The Undivided Mind” in San Francisco.
From the description of the show:
The artist and scientist may at first seem strange bedfellows. Of the many human disciplines, there are few that could seem more divergent. The artist employs image and metaphor; the scientist uses number and equation. Art creates illusions meant to evoke emotion, while science engages in the pursuit of empirical verification. There is, to some degree, a physiological cause for this apparent divergence: the two halves, or hemispheres, of the brain.
The right side of the brain is responsible for emotions and intuition, the left for logic and reason. Yet the notion of two brains gives rise to the function of one mind. Perhaps it is this one “undivided mind” that presents a way forward through the monumental cultural changes we now face, enabling us to surf this dynamic moment in history from a platform of balance and symmetry.
This installation endeavors to fuse the aesthetic beauty of art and science in order to create a synthesis of mind, one which is as much rational as it is fantastic. Think of this undivided mind as a prototype of human possibility—an evolutionary signal of convergence, harmony, and accelerated progress. The rest is up to us.
While this description of the drastically split functions of the hemispheres of the brain is pretty oversimplified and outdated, props to the Imaginary Foundation for cool images and a great idea for a show.