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The Exploratorium's Sound Uncovered: A science museum in your hand (for free)

This review also appears on Download the Universe, a group blog reviewing the best (and worst, and just "meh") in science-related ebooks and apps.

When I go to science museums, I like to press the buttons. I'm convinced this is a special joy that you just do not grow out of. Hit the button. See something cool happen. Feel the little reward centers of your brain dance the watusi.

But, as a curmudgeonly grown-up, I also often feel like there is something missing from this experience. There have definitely been times when I've had my button-pushing fun and gotten a few yards away from the exhibit before I've had to stop and think, "Wait, did I just learn anything?"

Science museums are chaotic. They're loud. They're usually full of small children. Your brain is pulled in multiple directions by sights, sounds, and the knowledge that there are about 15 people behind you, all waiting for their turn to press the button, too. In fact, research has shown that adults often avoid science museums (and assume those places aren't "for them") precisely because of those factors. Sound Uncovered is an interactive ebook published by The Exploratorium, the granddaddy of modern science museums. Really more of an app, it's a series of 12 modules that allow you to play with auditory illusions and unfamiliar sounds as you learn about how the human brain interprets what it hears, and how those ear-brain interactions are used for everything from selling cars to making music.

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Are cats fooled by optical illusions?

The Rotating Snake Illusion is a fun image that makes your brain perceive motion where no motion actually exists. Psychologists understand the factors that make an illusion like this work (and work better) — for instance, breaking up and staggering the colored lines that radiate from the center of the circle creates a much stronger sensation of movement. But they don't know exactly why it works yet, according to Japanese psychologists Akiyoshi Kitaoka and Hiroshi Ashida.

And that brings us to this kitten video.

YouTube user Rasmus posted a video that he thinks might show his cat being tricked by the same sense of motion that catches the eyes of humans who look at The Rotating Snake Illusion. On the other hand, this just might be a cute video of a kitten attacking a piece of paper — which is known to happen.

So here's the challenge: Try it on your cat. You can print it off here. Then, report back here and/or post video responses to YouTube. Let's gather some data!

This is not exactly the soundest experimental methodology ever, but it sure would be interesting to see what happens.

From Seizure to Surgery: first-person account of what it's like to have a brain tumor

Jess Hill has published the second part of a three-part series on what it’s like to have a brain tumor diagnosed, then surgically removed. Read: Magical Realism: From Seizure to Surgery. The earlier installment is here. Xeni

What it's like to have a grand mal seizure

Radio producer Jess Hill, who has been working in the Middle East, wrote an account of what the experience of having a grand mal seizure was like.

She wrote the post a week after the episode, and two weeks before having brain surgery to remove the tumor that caused it.

"At the time I was still having seizures every few days, and just the act of writing about the first seizure in such detail almost brought on another one," Jess explains. "I initially planned to keep this account private, but after two months, I’ve decided to share it, if only for the fact that it might be useful to others who have had or will have a similar experience."

It happened when she was in transit via plane from Yemen to Beirut.

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The two parts of pain

TIL: That what we think of as "pain" is actually two different things. The most basic sense is called nociception — a non-subjective reflex that drives lots of animals to pull away from dangerous things. Pain — actual pain — is what happens after nociception, and different individuals perceive it differently under different situations. So, for example, nociception is why you jerk your hand away from a hot stove. Pain is the feeling that helps you learn not to touch hot stoves again. Oh, and also, crabs might be capable of feeling both. Maggie

A More Resilient Species

“A playful brain is a more adaptive brain,” writes ethologist Sergio Pellis in The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience. In his studies, he found that play-deprived rats fared worse in stressful situations.

In our own world filled with challenges ranging from cyber-warfare to infrastructure failure, could self-directed play be the best way to prepare ourselves to face them?

In self-directed play, one structures and drives one’s own play. Self-directed play is experiential, voluntary, and guided by one’s curiosity. This is different from play that is guided by an adult or otherwise externally directed.

A MacArthur Fellow told me that, when he was a teenager, his single mother would drop him off at an industrial supply store on Saturdays while she ran errands. Using library books as his primary resource, he built a linear accelerator in the garage. It wasn’t until neighbors complained about scrambled television and radio signals in the hours just after school and after dinner that his “playful” invention was discovered.

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FDA wants Ambien doses cut for women because users are crashing cars the morning after

The Food and Drug Administration today announced it will require the makers of popular sleeping pills like Ambien and Zolpimist to reduce the recommended dosage in half for women, "after laboratory studies showed that the medicines can leave patients drowsy in the morning and at risk for car accidents." Women eliminate the drugs from their bodies more slowly than men. (NYT) Xeni

Junior Seau had brain disease caused by "two decades of hits to the head"

ABC News reports that a team of scientists who analyzed the brain tissue of the late NFL star Junior Seau after his 2012 suicide "have concluded the football player suffered a debilitating brain disease likely caused by two decades worth of hits to the head." Xeni

Neuroscience of the human brain while freestyle rapping

Using brain scans, scientists are trying to find how great freestyle rappers drop dope lines. Discovery News reports on a study conducted by researchers the voice, speech and language branch of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Here's the paper: "Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap." (via Clive Thompson; image photoshop mine from original study)

Tapeworms on the brain

Here's a fun fact: Did you know that you can get tapeworms in your brain? You know that you can get a tapeworm from eating infected meat. But when people have tapeworms in their guts, they secrete tens of thousands of eggs a day. And those eggs can end up on food, or other things that people put into their mouths. For some reason—nobody is really sure why—tapeworm eggs that are ingested by humans never mature into adults. Instead, they remain in a larval stage and hang out in a host's bloodstream. Sometimes, they make it to the brain. And, apparently, this happens often enough that it has an actual medical name: Neurocysticercosis.

The good news is that these things are mostly harmless. They don't seem to hurt your brain at all while they're alive. The bad news: As soon as the larvae die, your body's immune system seems to suddenly realize they exist and it goes into overdrive—triggering seizures, loss of feeling in the body, and sometimes leading to death.

Scientific American blogs has the story of one woman in California who had this happen to her. To save her life, surgeons had to remove a calcified tapeworm larva from her brain.

Sara Alvarez was afraid.

It was December 20, 2010, in Sunnyvale, Calif., a town that lives up to its name. The West Coast winter, not as long or as harsh as seasons in the East, gave her the opportunity to take her youngest child out for an afternoon stroll.

In the fading light of dusk, Alvarez, too, began to fade. She lost the feeling in her right leg. Her right foot followed suit. She couldn’t lift or move her right hand. She was weak, and her body was numb.

The National Institutes of Health classifies neurocysticercosis as the leading cause of epilepsy worldwide, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that tapeworms infect 50 million people globally. The CDC says an estimated 1,900 people are diagnosed with neurocysticercosis within the United States yearly.

Read the rest of the story at Scientific American blogs. (WARNING: Surgery images!)

This is your brain on meditation

There's a feature worth reading in the New York Times today by John Hanc on the role that meditation plays in brain development, and scientific studies to explore "the extent to which meditation may affect neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to make physiological change." Xeni

Diane Ackerman: The Brain on Love

Snip from an essay in the New York Times today about the neuroscience of romantic love, by author Diane Ackerman:

While they were both in the psychology department of Stony Brook University, Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron scanned the brains of long-married couples who described themselves as still “madly in love.” Staring at a picture of a spouse lit up their reward centers as expected; the same happened with those newly in love (and also with cocaine users). But, in contrast to new sweethearts and cocaine addicts, long-married couples displayed calm in sites associated with fear and anxiety. Also, in the opiate-rich sites linked to pleasure and pain relief, and those affiliated with maternal love, the home fires glowed brightly.

The Brain on Love (NYT)

Pianist with synesthesia performs Bach "in color" (video)

[Video Link] BB pal Joe Sabia points us to this incredible video by Evan Shinners, Julliard-trained pianist and "best Bach player around." In the video, Shinners shows the world the colors he sees when he plays: he has synesthesia. You can follow him on Twitter, and check him out live on one of his upcoming tour dates.

Wide awake during brain cancer surgery

This fascinating video from the Mayo Clinic explains how 28-year-old Mary Meixner went through "awake surgery" during which surgeons used an intra-operative MRI to target her brain tumor.

At the end of the operation, she slept. Then, she says, "I woke up and I was so excited, and I was like, yes! I'm not dead! I can talk! I can think! Because you never know, right?"

Transcript here (PDF).

(via @thespeachgal)

Forecast uncertain: Chaos theory, weather prediction, and brain cancer

A diagnosis of brain cancer is basically a death sentence. It’s a terrible thing for anyone to deal with, and it’s only made worse by all the uncertainty.

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