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


A link between creativity and sadness?

Ever wonder why your aspirations at becoming a world-renowned poet seem to be the strongest when you're in the middle of a depressive phase in life?  While artistic genius and personal malaise have often been linked in history (one only needs to google "famous artist" to find a wide range of deranged and depressed creative masters), does this kind of effect carry on into us normal folk as well?

Here is an article by Jonah Lehr tackling this very issue.  Basically, he looks at an emerging body of scientific literature that suggests that depression not only bums us out, it also makes us more creative and sharpens some of our skills.

The studies used different methods to alter their participants' moods, employing things like gloomy music, testing on rainy days, and inducing feelings of negativity and self-doubt.  They then tested them on a number of different activities designed to assess attention, memory, and creativity.  What they found was that being in a depressed state tends to enhance certain aspects of our cognition, making us pay more attention to certain kinds of details and fixate on certain tasks more heavily.

Granted, these studies have a long ways to go before we can draw a strong causal link between being depressed and having an increased level of creativity.  For one, who know how effective their methods are at actually changing participants' moods.  However, I can't say that I'm surprised - when it comes to unleashing my own artistic potential, it seems that there's nothing like a good old-fashioned breakup.

via Wired Magazine


The Unintuitive Mind

Here's a really interesting TEDx talk given by Dan Simon at the University of Illinois.  Dr. Simon studies visual attention and perception, among other things, but the topic of this talk touches on a subject that is a bit more abstract.  He discusses the types of behavior we see when people do things, say things, or perceive things that logic tells us they shouldn't.  Put simply, he is interested in understanding the ways in humans act unintuitively.

He gives a number of examples that by now are very well known in psychological literature (the gorilla ball game is one of my favorites), but I think that his talk as something very important to say about our attempts to understand humans.

In attempting to investigate the ways in which our actions don't make sense from a rational or intuitive standpoint, we can say something very important about the underlying mechanisms (be they at the neural level or the psychological level) that cause people to do the things that they do.

I can't help but think of economics when I see a lecture like this one, since it seems that our most popular modern theories in this field have assumed that humans are rational and relatively all-knowing creatures that can act in an efficient and sensible manner.  Now, I don't think it should take a well-established career and tenure to be able to understand that humans are far from the rational creatures that many economists would like, but perhaps instead we should just should them some of the examples in this talk...



Seeing double?

A new study of human vision has come out of the fantastic labs at MIT, this time acting as a proof-of-concept for current predictions about how humans go about making sense of their visual world.

Researchers at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research developed computational algorithms for parsing through a visual scene and marking "areas of interest" that might mimic those a human would choose.  In order to test these predictions out, the researchers had the program predict areas that humans would inspect first in a visual scene, then recorded the eye movements of actual people looking through the scene.

They theorized that, rather than identifying each object in a visual field, people were more likely to mark out a coarse topography of what they were seeing first, marking certain areas as more important than others.  By making certain kinds of features more "important" and other features less-so, the process of searching through a visual field would be more efficient and focused on the specific task at hand.

Ultimately, the program was highly successful in marking areas that people would look at first, suggesting that humans may be employing the same kinds of algorithms in deciding what to look at first.  While it may not be a perfect match with how our brains are wired, it's an interesting twist on the old "what and where" dual-stream paradigm.

It seems to me that this research might suggest a third parallel process - something along the lines of "how important."  Whether this is an integral part of the basic visual process, or a higher-order function that comes after the fact, remains to be seen.

from MIT News