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

26Aug/10

Imaginawesome…

On the subject of scientific approaches to the world, I thought I'd share an article that covers another integral aspect of any person's daily life - imagination.

I know that this sounds hokey, of course everybody uses their imagination - but as much as we like to use it in our day to day lives, I think it's still underestimated as a valuable tool for solving any problem.

This is the stance taken by Timothy Williamson, a philosopher at Oxford University.  He argues that, while deduction is certainly an important part of understanding the world, it isn't as simple as just crunching the data you're given and cranking out an answer.  The world is far too complicated for such a simple method of problem solving, and perhaps our ace in the hole is our ability to imagine.

While it's easy to think of hearing or seeing or smelling as a simple matter of analyzing the sensory information you're given, in truth any sensation you feel is the product of a two-way conversation that is constantly occurring between your brain and the outside world.  What you perceive is highly influenced by what you expect or what you've seen before, and this is where imagination comes in.  Humans do not simply use deduction to understand their world, they also use induction.

So what does this mean for all of us?  Well, if imagining things plays such an important role in our ability to understand the world, then we should certainly make an effort to improve our ability to  do so.  I'd certainly like to see what the folks who are trying to cut many of the creative arts in our public schools have to say about this.

In addition, this kind of approach to cognition points to the value of larger, more ambitious, and ultimately rougher theories about the world.  It is with these kind of guiding ideas that we can connect our minds with the data that the world gives us and come up with truly amazing results.

And even if it weren't so valuable as a life skill, at least you'd beat all your friends at pictionary...if you don't mind, I'm going to go look at the clouds now.

via The New York Times

13Aug/10

Self Serving Perception

While I'm on the topic of getting old and changing your perspective on life an all those heavy topics, I thought I'd drop a link that actually shows some of the science behind this stuff.

Here is an article by the one and only Christof Koch, describing some research that he has done regarding perception and circumstance in human beings.

As much as we'd like to think that our view of the world is based off of hard evidence and objective reasoning, the truth of the matter is that what we perceive is significantly influenced by some decidedly subjective factors.  Expectation, bias, personal opinion, and even your level of tiredness can change how you perceive the world around you, as witnessed in Koch's interesting experiments.

For example, in one study subjects stood at the top of a hill and were asked to judge how steep it was.  One group of people stood on top of a sturdy box while doing this, and the other stood on top of a skateboard (don't worry, nobody ended up taking a plunge).  Both of these objects were the same height, and yet those on top of the skateboard rated the hill significantly steeper than it actually was (the subjects on the box did not do this).

Having the experience of being on a wobbly skateboard changed their perception about the world around them, distorting it to induce more self-preserving behaviors by making them nervous.

What this suggests is that our own opinions about the world and the feelings that we have at any given moment are not completely based on the world around us, but on what we decide to be the world around us.

Given this implication, one can come up with all kinds of interesting ways we might test this theory out.  At the very least, it might make us pause the next time we swear that all the red lights are conspiring against us...

via Scientific American Mind

29Jul/10

Those Inception guys were gamers!

Pardon me if it sounds like I'm excited at the prospect that playing videogames can give me the ability to control dreams, but a new study suggests that it may be true.

Researchers at Grant MacEwan University in Canada recently looked at the existence of lucid dreaming, a dreamstate in which you can control the content of your psychological slumberworld, in young people that identified at gamers.

They found that, compared with individuals who didn't "game," there was a significantly higher report of lucid dreaming in those who did play videogames.

In addition, it seems that the content of these dreams differed between individuals.  Gamers reported a consistent, smooth transition between first and third person dreams (a perspective that is common in videogames), as well as increased control over their emotional approach to the game.

Perhaps most importantly, gamers seemed to approach dreams with a greater sense of challenge rather than despair - rather than becoming frightened with nightmares, gamers tended to take a more proactive approach to dealing with their terrifying alternate worlds.  Such an effect might have implications for prescribing "videogame therapy" for those with frequent nightmares or those with PTSD.

Either way, this is just another piece of evidence that videogames might do a bit more than just turn your brain to mush.  Take that, mom!

via LiveScience

21Jan/10

Informed ignorance

Hello to the one or two readers that happened to stumble across this page!  Considering the fact that this is my first post, I'll ask that you allow me a bit of wiggle-room as I start whiddling down my blogging skills into what will hopefully become a finely-tuned website about science, creativity, wonder, and all sorts of other cool stuff.

Given that you know nothing about me, perhaps a brief introduction is in order:  My name is Chris, I'm a Master's student at Tulane University.  I work in a cognitive neuroscience lab, although I'll likely be moving on to a different city, different school, and different research come June.

I am a scientist, but these days this term seems to carry so much weight.  I don't work in a lab coat, don't carry a pocket calculator with me, and certainly don't begrudge the creative fields that don't follow the empirical method.  On the contrary, I hope to nourish and encourage the artist in me, to find a middle ground between the hard logic of scientific work and the fluid beauty of the creative process.  I do not aspire to be either a scientist or an artist, but both at the same time.

My desire to do research, to learn about the mind, and to interact with others who share this interest comes from my amazement at the world and the wonder of not knowing the answers to a problem.  I know that sounds a bit contradictory.  Science is supposed to be about figuring out the answers, dispelling our preconceptions about the world, and shedding light on our ignorance in order to obtain some sort of objective truth.  These things are certainly part and parcel with the scientific pursuit, but they are not the driving forces behind the best science.  Ignorance is.

You tend to realize two things when you first partake in scientific research: one, that the experiment didn't work out how you thought it would at all, and two, that this is perfectly OK.  Oftentimes, the most insightful research uncovers facts about the world that we weren't even intending to look at, that we never could have predicted ahead of time.  This is the beauty of science, this is the engine that drives inquiring minds.

Over the next few years in my life, I hope to come to terms with the monstrous sea of ignorance that stands before each and every one of us.  I hope to look upon the vacuum of all that I don't know, and feel comforted in the fact that I will never be able to comprehend even the tiniest fraction of all that is out there.  And thank god, for if we ever "figured it all out," what else would we do with ourselves?