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kottke.org posts about brain

A recent study shows that the human

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2008

A recent study shows that the human brain reacts differently to people that seem like us than to those who don’t.

The experimenters used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of Harvard and other Boston-area students while showing them pictures of other college-age people whom the researchers randomly described as either liberal northeastern students or conservative Midwest fundamentalist Christian students.

The study concludes that the secret to getting along with someone that you perceive as an outsider is to find some common ground so that your brain will accept them as someone with similar circumstances.

This is not new advice. Yet it is heartening to see that it is firmly grounded in distinct patterns of neural activity. There may be a brain basis for reacting with prejudices for those that seem different. But there’s also a brain basis for overriding those differences and seeing outsiders as more like us.

David Galbraith expands upon what this means for society at large:

In other words, a civilized society depends not on the people who are currently the most civilized, but those who are most willing to accept change, as social or cultural groupings change, split or coalesce. Inevitably this means reasonable people rather than faithful people.

On the possible consciousness of rocks and

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2007

On the possible consciousness of rocks and panpsychism:

First, our brains consist of material particles. Second, these particles, in certain arrangements, produce subjective thoughts and feelings. Third, physical properties alone cannot account for subjectivity. (How could the ineffable experience of tasting a strawberry ever arise from the equations of physics?) Now, Nagel reasoned, the properties of a complex system like the brain don’t just pop into existence from nowhere; they must derive from the properties of that system’s ultimate constituents. Those ultimate constituents must therefore have subjective features themselves — features that, in the right combinations, add up to our inner thoughts and feelings. But the electrons, protons and neutrons making up our brains are no different from those making up the rest of the world. So the entire universe must consist of little bits of consciousness.

Dude! Note: the timestamp on this post is exactly 4:20 pm ET. You know what to do.

From an article on human memory that

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2007

From an article on human memory that includes profiles of a woman who remembers everything she’s done in her life since age 11 and a man who remembers almost nothing after 1960:

The metaphors we most often use to describe memory — the photograph, the tape recorder, the mirror, the hard drive — all suggest mechanical accuracy, as if the mind were some sort of meticulous transcriber of our experiences. And for a long time it was a commonly held view that our brains function as perfect recorders-that a lifetime of memories are socked away somewhere in the cerebral attic, and if they can’t be found it isn’t because they’ve disappeared, but only because we’ve lost access to them.

That’s not the case, of course. A better metaphor for human memory might be that of an almost-saturated sponge trying to sop up spilled water on a counter. The sponge gets some of the water up but also loses some of its already-captured liquid and you just sort of smear the watery mess all over until the counter is completely wet but appears less waterlogged than it was. At least, that’s how *my* memory works.

Martian colors

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2007

Synesthesia is:

…a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.

For some people, this means that numbers are associated with colors…5 is blue, 2 is red, etc. In a recent experiment, a person with synesthesia was found to experience colors associated with numbers even though they were colorblind…colors that person had never actually seen with his eyes.

That may seem strange, but what it really means is that the subject had problems with his retina that left him able to distinguish only an extremely narrow range of wavelengths when looking at most images in the world — his brain was fine, but his eyes weren’t quite up to the job. But when he saw certain numbers, he experienced colors that he otherwise never saw.

He called the colors “martian colors”. (via the best thing i learned today)

Executive function of the brain:

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2007

Executive function of the brain:

The set of abilities that allows you to select behavior that’s appropriate to the situation, inhibit inappropriate behavior and focus on the job at hand in spite of distractions. Executive function includes basic functions like processing speed, response speed and working memory, the type used to remember a house number while walking from the car to a party.

Interestingly, physical and not mental exercise is the best way to improve your brain’s executive function. (via joel)

Update: A list of articles demonstrating the efficacy of cognitive training. (thx, henry)

A Florida scientist has trained a brain

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2007

A Florida scientist has trained a brain consisting of cultured rat cells to fly a simulated F-22 fighter jet. [Insert “I, for one, welcome our new rat brain pilot overlords” joke here.]

To control the simulated aircraft, the neurons first receive information from the computer about flight conditions: whether the plane is flying straight and level or is tilted to the left or to the right. The neurons then analyze the data and respond by sending signals to the plane’s controls. Those signals alter the flight path and new information is sent to the neurons, creating a feedback system.

FYI, this story is a couple of years old…if that matters to you.

Spinning dance optical illusion

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2007

I’ve been obsessing over this optical illusion ever since I ran across it yesterday.

Spinner

Is she spinning clockwise or counterclockwise? Or both…and how is that even possible? It’s a left-brain vs. right-brain test…which way she spins for you determines which side of your brain is more dominant. (Tip: if you’re having trouble getting her to switch directions, focus on a point a couple of inches below her feet…that seems to do it for me.)

Update: Neuralogica Blog debunked the left/right-brain explanation in this post.

This news article, like many others, ignores the true source of this optical illusion and instead claims it is a quick test to see if you use more of your right brain or left brain. This is utter nonsense, but the “right-brain/left brain” thing is in the public consciousness and won’t be going away anytime soon. Sure, we have two hemispheres that operate fine independently and have different abilities, but they are massively interconnected and work together as a seamless whole (providing you have never had surgery to cut your corpus callosum).

(via @danielpunkass)

Tony Wright, horticulturalist, broke the unofficial world

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 12, 2007

Tony Wright, horticulturalist, broke the unofficial world record by going without sleep for more than 11 days. His trick was, when the left side of his brain tired, to switch to the right side. And then back again after the left had recovered and so on.

Forgetting May Be Part of the Process

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2007

Forgetting May Be Part of the Process of Remembering. “A lightning memory, in short, is not so much a matter of capacity as it is of ruthless pruning.” I pointed to some similar studies in my better living through self-deception post from a couple of weeks ago.

Better living through self deception

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2007

Interesting article about how people tell their stories and think of their past experiences and how that influences their mood and general outlook on life.

At some level, talk therapy has always been an exercise in replaying and reinterpreting each person’s unique life story. Yet Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being — who had recovered, by standard measures — told very similar tales about their experiences.

They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.

“The story is one of victorious battle: ‘I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own,’” Mr. Adler said. Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.

The article goes on to describe the benefits of thinking about past events in the third person rather than in the first person:

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students’ essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

“What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you’re feeling upset,” instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study’s lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.

But things like eating disorders and mental illness aren’t external forces and thinking about a bad memory as if it happened to a third party is not the truth. The standard model of the happy, smart, successful human being is someone who knows more, works hard, and has found, or at least is heading toward, their own personal meaning of life. But often that’s not the case. Self-deceit (or otherwise willfully forgetting seemingly pertinent information) seems to be important to human growth.

Consider the recent findings by a group at Harvard about the effects of mindset on physical fitness:

The researchers studied 84 female housekeepers from seven hotels. Women in 4 hotels were told that their regular work was enough exercise to meet the requirements for a healthy, active lifestyle, whereas the women in the other three hotels were told nothing. To determine if the placebo effect plays a role in the benefits of exercise, the researchers investigated whether subjects’ mind-set (in this case, their perceived levels of exercise) could inhibit or enhance the health benefits of exercise independent of any actual exercise.

Four weeks later, the researchers returned to assess any changes in the women’s health. They found that the women in the informed group had lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their blood pressure by almost 10 percent, and were significantly healthier as measured by body-fat percentage, body mass index, and waist-to-hip ratio. These changes were significantly higher than those reported in the control group and were especially remarkable given the time period of only four weeks.

Just by thinking they were exercising, these women gained extra benefit from their usual routines. The idea of thinking about oneself reminded me of Allen Iverson’s training routine, which utilizes a technique called psychocybernetics:

“Let me tell you about Allen’s workouts,” says Terry Royster, his bodyguard from 1997 until early 2002. “All the time I have been with him, I never seen him lift a weight or stand there and shoot jumper after jumper. Instead, we’ll be on our way to the game and he’ll be quiet as hell. Finally, he’ll say, ‘You know now I usually cross my man over and take it into the lane and pull up? Well, tonight I’m gonna cross him over and then take a step back and fade away. I’m gonna kill ‘em with it all night long.’ And damned if he didn’t do just that. See, that’s his workout, when he’s just sitting there, thinking. That’s him working on his game.”

What Iverson is doing is tricking his conscious self into thinking that he’s done something that he hasn’t, that he’s practiced a move or shot 100 perfect free throws in a row. I think, therefore I slam. (I wonder if Iverson pictures himself in the first or third person in his visualizations.)

Carol Dweck’s research looks at the difference between thinking of talent or ability as innate as opposed to something that can be developed:

At the time, the suggested cure for learned helplessness was a long string of successes. Dweck posited that the difference between the helpless response and its opposite — the determination to master new things and surmount challenges — lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed. People who attributed their failures to lack of ability, Dweck thought, would become discouraged even in areas where they were capable. Those who thought they simply hadn’t tried hard enough, on the other hand, would be fueled by setbacks.

For some people, the facade they’ve created for themselves can come crashing down suddenly, as with stage fright:

He describes the sense of acute self-consciousness and loss of confidence that followed as “stage dread,” a sort of “paradigm shift.” He says, “It’s not ‘Look at me - I’m flying.’ It’s ‘Look at me - I might fall.’ It would be like playing a game of chess where you’re constantly regretting the moves you’ve already played rather than looking at the ones you’re going to play.” Fry could not mobilize his defenses; unable to shore himself up, he took himself away.

In a slightly different but still related vein, Gerd Gigerenzer’s research indicates that ignoring information is how smart decisions are made:

In order to make good decisions in an uncertain world, one sometimes has to ignore information. The art is knowing what one doesn’t have to know.

Research done by Edward Vogel at the University of Oregon shows the capacity of a person’s visual working memory “depends on your ability to filter out irrelevant information”:

“Until now, it’s been assumed that people with high capacity visual working memory had greater storage but actually, it’s about the bouncer - a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness,” Vogel said.

And data from another study indicates that perhaps one of the things that the brain does best is forgetting (“motivated (voluntary) forgetting”, in the words of one researcher):

The findings suggest that despite the brain’s astonishing ability to archive a lifetime of memories, one of its prime functions is, paradoxically, to forget. Our sensory organs continually deluge us with information, some of it unpleasant. We wouldn’t get through the day — or through life — if we didn’t repress much of it.

Perhaps the way to true personal acheivement and happiness is through lying to yourself instead of being honest, loafing instead of practicing, and purposely forgetting information. There are plenty of self-help books on the market…where are the self-hurt books?

Scott Adams hacks brain, restores speech

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 25, 2006

I know it’s only 8am, but this is the best link of the day. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, lost his voice 18 months ago due to a strange condition called spasmodic dysphonia. He wasn’t ever supposed to get it back, but he did what any good nerd would do: he figured out how to hack his brain to route around the problem and, voila, his voice returned. Awesome. (thx, eric)

Update: In November 2004, Adams also lost the ability to draw because of a condition called focal dystonia. As with his voice problems, he routed around the problem by learning to draw in a different way. (thx, martin)

Update: Wired has an update on Adams’ condition. Apparently a few days after he wrote the blog post above, Adams had a relapse and waited almost two more years for a surgical procedure that helped him.

Political party members’ brains get a rush

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2006

Political party members’ brains get a rush from “ignoring information that’s contrary to their point of view”. “None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged. Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.”

The human brain may have undergone “substantial

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2005

The human brain may have undergone “substantial evolution” in the past 60,000 years.

Rejected “grandmother cell” suggestion — that individual

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2005

Rejected “grandmother cell” suggestion — that individual neurons respond to single concepts — may be true after all. “For things that you see over and over again, your family, your boyfriend, or celebrities, your brain wires up and fires very specifically to them. These neurons are very, very specific, much more than people think.”

As one gets smarter, how you use your memory changes

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2005

As one gets smarter, how you use your memory changes. “Verbatim memory is often a property of being a novice. As people become smarter, they start to put things into categories, and one of the costs they pay is lower memory accuracy for individual differences.”

Poetry takes more brain power to read than prose

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 07, 2005

Poetry takes more brain power to read than prose. “Subjects were found to read poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with prose.”