This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

29Apr/11

What can art tell us about our mind?

Amy Cook combines the creativity of theater with the rigor of cognitive science

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Amy Cook, a professor at Indiana University, about some interesting new inroads that are being made between psychology and art. Professor Cook exists at the intersection of two fields that have historically been very far apart: theater and cognitive science.

She explained to me that both of these fields are ultimately touching on the same kinds of ideas, albeit from very different directions. While it is quite obvious that cognitive science is concerned with understanding the mind, theater is driven by our knowledge of the human psyche as well. Put the two together, and you have a very powerful combination. In a talk she gave at UC Berkeley, Professor Cook used a cognitive science perspective to look at Henry V, one of Shakespeare's most well-known plays. It turns out that The Bard was actually quite crafty about weaving a story that plays with your mind and deals with some pretty sophisticated mental concepts.

One of the fundamental themes that Dr. Cook sees embodied in Henry V is emergence. The play tells the story of how a small group of men (a "band of brothers", to use the famous quote) performed feats that were far greater than the simple sum of each member's contribution to the group. Through the leadership and charisma of King Henry, they manage to defeat the French against all odds. Such events have been written about for hundreds of years, but they were mostly attributed to the superhuman abilities of a select few leaders, known only in lore and tall tales. However, there's something very real about the ability of a holistic unit of people to synthesize their abilities in an emergent way. One might even argue that such a process is fundamental to the natural world. If the brain is anything, it is a complex system of simple units, producing a chorus of activity and sensation that would be impossible to describe with a picture of only one neuron.

On a more general level, Cook points to the importance of imagination and metaphor in our experience of theater and other forms of imaginative participation. Obviously, we cannot import an entire army onto a stage (nor would we want to watch an actual battle unfold before our eyes), and yet as we watch actors and props, we synthesize a rich representation of a battle in our minds. Taking Cook's cognitive science approach, we can describe this phenomenon as "mental blending," the act of allowing two idea spaces in our minds to briefly overlap, and enjoying the often surprising and powerful synthesis that occurs at their intersection. Understanding this process has implications for our ability to capture people's attention and imagination in other contexts as well. What teacher wouldn't love to have a set of practices designed to stimulate their students and get their imaginations working?

At the end of the day, there is much ground to cover before we can truly appreciate the cognitive/psychological implications of works of art such as Henry V. Creative works have the benefit of being interpreted in a nearly infinite number of ways, but this can make it difficult to take the rigorous empirical approach that modern psychology demands. I am excited about the things that people like Professor Cook will discover by taking a hybrid approach to art and the mind.

27Apr/11

Big fish bigger fish

Whoa, it's been like 2 weeks since I've last updated and now I feel terribly unproductive.  I've been super busy working on various projects...honest...

Anyway, to make up for it I thought I'd share this amazing video from the BBC's "Nature's Great Events" series.  It describes what is known to marine biologists as a "bait ball."  What's a bait ball?  Well, you'll probably figure it out pretty quickly after watching the video.

Doing a bit of research on this has left me absolutely amazed by the extent to which nature has adapted predator behavior to take advantage of these tasty little treats.  As Wikipedia describes it, "As a response to the defensive capabilities of schooling fish, some predators have developed sophisticated countermeasures. These countermeasures can be spectacularly successful, and can seriously undermine the defensive value of forming bait balls."

Undermining is a huge understatement in this case, because as far as I can tell it means that every fish gets eaten in one fell swoop.

So what's actually going on here?  Well, basically there are two kinds of birds working together in order to take advantage of a property of schooling fish.  Whenever a school of fish feels threatened enough, it will turn into a "ball" of fish in order to minimize it's vulnerability to the outside world.  Unfortunately for the fish, it also compacts them into a tasty little morsel that attracts predators far and wide.

In order to force the fish into a ball, one group of birds begins attacking them from below.  They do this by divebombing into the water and swimming up from underneath.  This forces the fish upwards, and causes them to go into their defensive ball form.  Once they're close enough to the surface, another group of birds begins attacking from the top, picking apart the now defenseless fish.

Or, you could just swallow the whole thing in one gulp.

Birds aren't the only ones who have learned to take advantage of these feeding frenzies, as witnessed by our large friend in the above video.  In particular, humpback whales will do what is called "lunge feeding" or, to put it more clearly, opening your giant mouth and forcing everything to fall into it.

Whales salivate (?) at these little balls of fish because it allows them to essentially snatch up an entire school in one fell swoop.  Seems like a great way to raise your cholesterol levels...

Anyway, there are apparently too many ways for these fish balls to get eaten than I have room to talk about here (of particular note are swordfish who charge the circle and slash everything in their path, as well as humpback whales that swim in circles under the fish blowing out "bubble nets" to trap the little guys before gobbling them up). Suffice it to say that this is probably not the super clever defensive technique the little fish had in mind.

It's wonderful watching nature carry out it's constant game of cat and mouse.  For every defensive technique that one species comes up with, there seems to be a whole host of others ready to take advantage and learn their own workarounds.  The next time you're feeling clever, just remember: given enough time, nature will find a way to best you.

14Apr/11

Science saved my soul…

Here's one of the more inspiring and insightful videos that I've seen in quite some time.  Truth be told, I know very little about the author or what their background is, but they've clearly got a knack for touching on the beautiful things in life.

One of the things I like best about this video is the fact that they aren't simply trying to bash one way of life without offering an alternative.  You get a real sense of the way in which an understanding of the world has enriched this person's life, something that science offers to all of us if we are willing to investigate enough.

A lot of people seem to think that scientists are obsessed with the minutiae, always waiting to pick apart an argument and spoil everybody's fun.  In reality, scientists are far more than this.  They're individuals who can look at anything, from a leaf to a snapshot of our galaxy, and find something wondrous, amazing, perplexing, and worth studying.

This video truly captures some of the best parts of being an inherently curious person, and it makes me proud to call myself a scientist.

4Apr/11

Cell suicide!

Many of us might say the main goal of staying alive is just that: not dying.  As stupidly obvious as this seems, it isn't necessarily true.  Zoom in to the level of molecules and cells in any living creature, and you will see quite a different picture from the world we're all used to living in.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this world is called "apoptosis," or programmed cell death.  Essentially, this is a process by which cells in the body intentionally disassemble and decompose themselves.  It's a kind of cell suicide.

Granted, this can be brought about by many different factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic to the cell.  Generally speaking, it involves a signaling molecule to bind to receptors in the cell, often called "death receptors" (and you thought science was all sunshine and rainbows).  Once this happens, a cascade of chemical pathways is initiated, resulting in the cleavage of key structural components and the cessation of cell growth factors.  Sounds complicated?  It is:

Apoptosis Signaling Pathways

It's like some terrifying version of Chutes and Ladders

While it is possible for toxic substances to induce apoptosis in a bad way, it is generally believed that this is an essential and useful process for the brain to carry out.  Apoptosis is useful in controlling the growth of many areas in the body, preventing tissue from becoming cancerous.  It's also necessary in fetal development and  the immune system response.

Apoptosis is a fascinating process, and yet another reminder of the delicate balance that must be maintained in every living organism.  While we're moving about our lives, decidedly focused on not dying, there are armies of cells in a constant flux of life and death.  After all, you can't make an omelette without breaking any eggs.