Subscribe via RSS Feed

Smile (?) for the Camera

[ 2 ] January 28, 2011

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.

Which is genuine?

via The New York Times

Slow Down

[ 1 ] December 20, 2010

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.

(Less) Food For Thought

[ 1 ] December 15, 2010

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.


Call It Disorder or Gift

[ 2 ] November 30, 2010

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.

Brilliant Venn Diagram on Art and Science

[ 16 ] November 24, 2010

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.

Seeing What You See

[ 5 ] November 20, 2010

In a study by Tootell et al. (1982), researchers were able to inject metabolic radio-isotope markers into visual cortex area 1 of monkeys when the monkeys saw this pattern:

The marker stains brain cells that are active. When the monkeys were sacrificed and the brain dissected, the researchers saw this, almost haunting, image:

This is a remarkable, beautiful demonstration of how the V1 area of the brain is retinotopically organized. That is, this part of the brain is organized similarly to how the light hits our retinas. Unfortunately, after V1, this information is scrambled and sent to various other parts of the brain for different levels of processing.