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The 2011 Brain Art Competition

[ 0 ] July 9, 2011

I recently served as a judge for the 2011 Brain Art Competition. It’s a brand new initiative organized by a group called The Neuro Bureau, who state that they support “open neuroscience,” and aim to support creative collaborations between the disciplines.

The results of the competition were announced in late June at the 2011 Human Brain Mapping conference in Montreal. My personal favorite entry to the competition is below: “The Brain Tree,” by Silje Soeviknes of Norway.

A To Chimpanzee

[ 0 ] July 3, 2011

Humans hear and understand language through a staggering number of filters — language is heard coming out of the unique voice boxes and accents of millions of our peers, compressed by cell phones, radios, televisions, and computers, and mumbled in rock songs, yet we still manage to understand it through all the noise.

One of many defenses of the theory that spoken language is, essentially, a “human-specific” adaptation, rather than a more subtle evolution of earlier mamallian precursors, points to our ability to understand language in such a multitude of different situations; after it is mangled, processed, and distorted. How else can we explain these feats than by assuming that we’re specialized for spoken language?

Some interesting new research by Lisa Heimbauer and her team at Georgia State University challenges this argument.  They’ve shown that chimpanzees raised hearing and responding to a vocabulary (albeit, a small one) of human language are able to understand words even after they scarcely resemble their natural, human intonations. [ The chimps were said to “understand” words and sentences because they could correctly point to corresponding lexigrams when they heard spoken sentences – the main chimp subject, Panzee, has a vocabulary of 128 English words].

Using two techniques that drastically reduced the natural, human-like acoustics of the chimps’ lexicon (hear an example here), the researchers were able to test the chimpanzees’ ability to understand low-fi English.  Incredibly, the chimps correctly distinguished the distorted words at a rate comparable to humans.

There are some important limits of this study: The subjects have a relatively tiny vocabulary when compared to that of humans (128 vs. 40,000), they can not necessarily be said to “understand” the words in the same textured way as humans, and the work only refers to rigorously trained individuals rather than wild chimps.  However, the research does show that chimps do have the necessary neural architecture to generalize the sounds of spoken words and adapt to the many ways a single word can sound, and that’s an impressive skill.


Discover Cajal

[ 2 ] June 28, 2011

A new gallery at Discover Magazine online features images and text revealing the life and work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the “father of neuroscience.”  Cajal discovered neurons, which he called “butterflies of the soul,” and once remarked that “only true artists are attracted to science.”  Check the essay on this site “Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Artist” for the story of Cajal’s youth and coming of age as an anatomical investigator.

Blaming the Right Person

[ 0 ] June 20, 2011

David Eagleman discusses in his recent article for The Atlantic the increasingly fuzzy line between nature and nurture and how it will play into our judicial system.

In recent years, it has become clear that who we are is dictated by both our genes and our experiences. Though our genes were granted to us at birth, their expressions are adjusted throughout our lives according to changing needs, stresses, and other exterior influences. A natural flow from a conversation of nature vs. nurture is to free will–do we or do we not have it? Eagleman applies this question to the judicial system, where it has real consequences:

As our understanding of the human brain improves, juries are increasingly challenged with these sorts of questions. When a criminal stands in front of the judge’s bench today, the legal system wants to know whether he is blameworthy.

It may sound ridiculous to blame a criminal’s actions on his or her genes. But, as Eagleman points out, there have already been cases where advances in science helped to prove that the perpetrator was not in control of his actions. As the years go on, science will only continues to progress, our ability to see the relationship between biology and behavior will improve, and culpability will shift. Eagleman writes,

This puts us in a strange situation. After all, a just legal system cannot define culpability simply by the limitations of current technology….A legal system that declares a person culpable at the beginning of a decade and not culpable at the end is one in which culpability carries no clear meaning.

It is interesting to witness how the progress of technology and science is changing our definitions and perceptions outside of labs and hospitals. In my experience of talking to neuroscience students, one thing that draws them to this discipline is how it borrows from a wide range of studies, from computer engineering to physics, biochemistry to 3D animation. At this point in history, it is clearer than ever that neuroscience not only requires a wide range of disciplinary input, but also extends its influence throughout various facets of our world.

Read the full article at The Atlantic.

Hearing Taste

[ 1 ] June 7, 2011


We all know that satisfying sound of biting into a perfectly seasoned, fresh potato chip (or, “crisp” for our British friends). And then there are those times someone left the chips out too long. The crunch isn’t quite there. It’s just not the same, is it?

Zampini and Spence (2005) revealed just how much the sound of a food can affect your perception. They had subjects bite into a potato chip with their front teeth. Then, in subsequent trials, they raised either the amplitude or frequency of the noise the subjects heard while biting into the chip. The researchers found that raising either of these variables would make the subject perceived the chip as being fresher.

The whole experience of food and drink is a multisensory formulation. Color and viscosity will affect your perception of flavor of a juice. The primary sensation attributed to carbonated beverages is the irritation caused by chemical excitation of oral nociceptors. Your perception of moistness of a food is partly determined by mastication noises. These are only a few of the numerous factors that play into your daily experience of food and drink.

Tasty? Sure. Pepsi? Not quite.

Do you remember Crystal Pepsi? Pepsi did extensive research to create this clean-looking Pepsi, and it did well in test markets. But when it was released nationwide, the product flopped. One theory of its failure is that after taking the caramel color out of Pepsi, people’s perception of taste was muddled. It should be Pepsi, but it doesn’t “taste” like Pepsi. The end result was a Frankenstein beverage that people couldn’t embrace.

[ 0 ] May 16, 2011

Dear graduating senior,

I know what you’re going through. Graduation is fast approaching. Between the parties, there are the laughs, tears, bittersweet moments of utter satisfaction with life. It’s a joyous time riddled with optimism, self-doubt, and uncertainty, all at the same time. Maybe our beloved neuroscience can help us out?

In an article by Tali Sharot in the New York Times, optimism itself is briefly reviewed. The bottom line? Optimism is good. It helps us heal faster, live longer, and it motivates us. But drink this spirit in moderation and be sure to accompany it with a safety net.

Richard Wiseman’s book, 59 Seconds adds to this by siting studies that suggest envisioning your perfect future can actually be detrimental to your success. People can waste time dwelling in fantasy, and when things don’t go as planned, it can hurt a lot more when you’ve been envisioning the perfect situation for months or years.

So, chin up. Look on the bright side of things and expect the best. Your body will thank you. But don’t get drunk with optimism; the hangover from this binge can be devastating.

I have to return to my friends, taking a moment to smell the air before I return to life. Maybe you should do the same.