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.
To kick off our new season of The Beautiful Brain Podcast, host Noah Hutton sits down with Carl Schoonover, author of “Portraits of the Mind,” a stunning collection of beautiful images of the brain published by Abrams in 2010, with essays by senior scientists, detailed descriptions of the images by Schoonover, and an eloquent foreword by Jonah Lehrer.
Schoonover’s path to writing Portraits is a somewhat unorthodox one. He first studied Philosophy as an undergraduate at Harvard, then went on to do his graduate work in cognitive science and neuroscience, which he is still pursuing as a 4th year Ph.D candidate at Columbia University in New York City.
In this interview, Carl Schoonover discusses his background, the impetus for creating the book, and why the history of neuroscience is really the history of seeing the brain. Total runtime: 35:17.
In this month’s podcast we proudly present a conversation with the outspoken artist and author Garry Kennard. Kennard’s art has been featured in many gallery shows in Paris and the U.K., and he’s also written extensively about the art and mind in prominent publications as well as essays on his own website (for a particularly interesting essay he wrote about religion, art and neuroscience, click here). He is the founder of artandmind.org, and has hosted many conferences and festivals that have brought together leading thinkers in the field of art and brain research.
In the podcast, host Noah Hutton discusses the philosophy of art and mind inquiry, the events Kennard has hosted, and future avenues for the dialogue between art and science. Total runtime: 29:30
This month we’re proud to feature a conversation with British artist Andrew Carnie, whose work explores scientific themes and the representation of the self through scientific imagery. We’re also featuring an exclusive online gallery of his work.
Carnie often creates pieces that are time-based in nature, involving 35mm slide projections onto complex screen configurations.
His latest project, Dendritic Forms, which is currently showing at the GV Art Gallery in London, is a body of work that investigates the visual motifs of trees and organic matter that is mirrored within the human brain. In the darkened gallery space, layered images appear and disappear on suspended screens, suggesting a narrative of the brain itself. In this edition of the podcast, Noah Hutton interviews Carnie about his personal interest in the brain, his thoughts on his own art, and the nature of the current dialogue between the arts and brain sciences. Total runtime: 29:21
The Persistence of Illusion | The Beautiful Brain Podcast, July 2010
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
This month, as our focus turns to cognitive science, we take our podcast title from the famous Einstein quote. Reality may be a persistent illusion; so is the way we think about it, says psychology researcher and author Daniel Simons.
If you’re engaged in thinking about the way you think (what researchers call “meta-cognition”) and feeling pretty confident about things, you may be fooling yourself with one of several persistent illusions detailed in Simons’ new book The Invisible Gorilla, co-authored with Christopher Chabris. From false memories to an inflated sense of knowledge, the book reveals the hubris many of us display when it comes to our own brains.
In this edition of The Beautiful Brain Podcast, Simons discusses the research behind his new book, which grew out of a simple experiment about attention (or lack thereof)– the video of which turned into a YouTube sensation.
What are some common illusions we have about our own thinking? What are the traps these illusions create in everyday life? Daniel Simons, co-creator of the original experiment and co-author of the book, discusses The Invisible Gorilla with host Noah Hutton. Total runtime: 31:40.
Todd Sacktor (Photo: Fred Conrad for the New York Times)
How does a constellation of neurons store a memory over time? Why do some memories degrade, while others always feel like they happened yesterday? Could this system of storage be selectively edited to enhance pleasurable memories and delete painful ones? (Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, based largely on this research).
In this edition of The Beautiful Brain Podcast, host Noah Hutton interviews Todd Sacktor, a leading researcher of the mechanisms of long-term memory storage—and deletion— in the brain. Sacktor’s research investigates the activity of a class of proteins which are very active around synapses— these are protein kinases, and they come in several varieties in the brain. They catalyze chemical reactions at the synapse, allowing a neuron to become more or less responsive to the electrical firing of its neighbor by aiding reactions that reshuffle neurotransmitter receptors.
These kinases were known to have a direct role in the molecular basis of memory—but perhaps never as directly as the work being done in Sacktor’s lab is showing (see the New York Timesstory on his work). Sacktor has identified one kinase in particular—called PKMzeta—which seems to be directly responsible for the maintenance of memory in the brain. When PKMzeta is found at a synapse, the memory encoded there is OK—it’s being maintained. When PKMzeta stops working at a synapse, the memory floats into the abyss of the brain, disassembled into its consituent cellular parts and extinguished from our recollection. In this edition of the podcast, Sacktor discusses his research and its implications on the way we understand memory storage in the brain. Total runtime: 26:22.
Bevil Conway is truly an artist and a scientist. Now a professor at Wellesley College, Conway has studied painting at McGill and neuroscience at Harvard, where he went on to do his Ph.D. work in the lab of Margaret Livingstone studying the neural mechanisms of color and motion in primary visual cortex. Throughout his time as a neuroscientist, Conway maintained an active painting studio and taught painting in the Visual and Environmental Studies Dept. at Harvard.
His research in visual neuroscience has been featured in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, and next year he will begin work on a new book about neuroscience and art practice, discussed in this podcast. Our interview with Bevil Conway about his art and science, as well as a roundup of recent neuroscience news, all in this edition of The Beautiful Brain Podcast, which is now part of the sciencepodcasters.org network. Total runtime: 36:14
What’s that thing about monkeys typing Shakespeare? Give an abstract device an infinite amount of time to produce a endless string of random linguistic symbols and there is a technically a non-zero probability that such a “monkey” will eventually hit upon any existing piece of literature, the theorem goes. In other words, pure chance can be highly creative. In the 1960s, movements like the Oulipo imposed certain constraints on their work, following certain patterns (the most famous example may be the experimental novel La Disparition by Georges Perec, written without the letter e). With these algorithms, the creative act becomes a calculable operation. The result may or may not be inherently meaningful. In the case of the monkey, the result would be as meaningful as the original, but would not arrive for the duration of our universe. Some people are even programming computerto produce books. Phillip Parker, Professor of Marketing at INSEAD Business School, has patented a program that can receive a small amount of information mimic the thought process of an expert. The process takes thirteen minutes, and Parker claims to be able to program romance novels and even rudimentary poetry (the program has produced over 2oo,000 books). Recently I’ve thought about this phenomenon after encountering Google Voice transcripts for my phone messages, which produce hilarious and even brilliant errors:
“Bye bye. Thank you very much catch her to work Hi. This past sorry it is, actually some fire Yeah, okay. Alright friends and I’ll pass. Something written about it’s all right with you, cool trying to heydude fresh. We know with the Ohh, Ohh I’m calling about the truck I guess.”
How would the meaning be changed if I told you what the caller was actually saying? In the digital age, Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” seems especially prescient. What will happen to creativity? I like this quote from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined, out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Maybe he meant a computer, processing.