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.
I am skeptical of the idea that the Internet–structurally– is a completely unprecedented innovation in human history. I didn’t know exactly how to express this until I came across a passage by Steven Pinker in “The Mind,” a series of insightful Q&A-structured essays by prominent scientists and philosophers, edited by John Brockman.
Pinker begins by comparing the Internet to the human brain in its ability to share a lot of information very rapidly. But then he goes on to give us some humbling history as to where the Internet as a tool fits into our evolutionary past.
“Even nonindustrial hunter-gatherer tribes pool information by the use of language. That has given them remarkable local technologies– ways of trapping animals, using poisons, chemically plant foods to remove the bitter toxins, and so on. That is also a collective intelligence that comes from accumulating discoveries over generations, and pooling them among a group of people living at one time. Everything that’s happened since, such as writing, the printing press, and now the Internet, are ways of magnifying something that our species already knew how to do, which is to pool expertise by communication. Language was the real innovation in our biological evolution; everything since has just made our words travel farther or last longer.”
“Creepy” may be the more apt colloquial term, but “uncanny” is how scientists describe the feeling you get when looking at an almost-but-not-quite-real-enough simulation of a human’s face. It may be a robot, the AI in your favorite video game, or that CG version of Jeff Bridges, but there seems to be an unusual feeling we get from seeing a face that “just isn’t right.”
For example, in a study by Seyama and Nagayama (2007), the researchers note that abnormally large eyes on face with higher degrees of realism induce an “uncomfortable (unpleasant) impression.” Below is a general, graphical representation of this effect, and that dip is called the “uncanny valley.”
One theory behind this occurrence is that we have been evolutionarily programmed to avoid corpses, therefore we have a gut reaction to faces that just aren’t right. The visual artists for the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had the challenge of crossing this valley, and it’s generally accepted that they did very well in this endeavor. Seems like those millions of dollars paid off, at least in terms of modern computer generated imagery.
Over at the World Science Festival site, an intriguing discussion of memory palaces– a technique by which one builds a mental representation of a structure and then fills the rooms with certain memories for later recollection:
Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, walks us through the process of constructing “memory palaces”—an age-old memorization technique currently exploited by the world’s leading memory champs and mental athletes. Psychologist and memory expert Lynn Nadel explains why this trick is so powerful and how it leverages some the brain’s strongest faculties. [video of panel discussion]
In addition, WSF has some excellent new content surrounding the question of genius, including a report on a panel discussion that featured Julie Taymor and Philip Glass discussing creativity and the mind.
For those interested in the dialogue between the arts and sciences, there’s an epicenter of discourse that has emerged in London at the GV Art Gallery. Besides being the only commercial gallery to exclusively display science-inspired art, GV Art also hosts frequent panels and debates focused on interdisciplinary questions. Two recent panels were videotaped and are publicly viewable on YouTube:
In many sections, the participants in the debates grasp for how to identify the future of a merged art/science world. How would you label this pursuit, often called the “third culture”?
For those who haven’t seen the 2008 documentary “Man On Wire,” which is about a record-breaking feat of high altitude tightrope walking, I “highly” recommend it (sorry, that was awful). Director James Marsh’s new documentary, “Project Nim,” is an in-depth look at one of the most educational, tragic, monumental, flawed studies in the history of modern psychology research. In the 1970s, an experimental chimp subject, Nim Chimpsky, was reared and taught as if he was human, and the researchers hypothesized that he would be able to learn human language (through signing).
While Nim learned many signs, the results were cloudy, and researchers spent years analyzing his behavior to see what was really going on. His moniker came from a play on “Noam Chomsky,” who argued that humans were specifically wired for language and other apes were not. Though the results of the Nim Chimpsky study were heavily disputed, and, ultimately, found to be flawed, questions about the origin of language and the cognitive abilities of our primate cousins remain unanswered.
Check out “Project Nim” for a nicely made look at this multi-layered story of the crossroads between curiosity, intellectual arrogance, scientific discovery, and self-discovery.