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What's it like to be a small bird?

Brandon Keim has an amazing feature up at Aeon Magazine, about the idea of animal consciousness — i.e., how animals think and feel and experience their own lives. After delving into the chimpanzee experience of death for a couple weeks, this story really grabbed my attention. Increasingly, it's an idea that scientists are paying more attention to, as well. Maggie 4

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.

Where does pain happen?

Someone stubs her toe. Where is the pain? In her mind ... or in the toe? In a recent study, laypeople indicated that they thought the pain was in the toe. (Via Scientific American Mind) Maggie

Perpetual Inattentional Blindness

Linda Stone, on human attention: "Our relationships with our SmartPhones, and this wicked habit that many of us have, of walking or driving while texting or talking, holds us in a state of perpetual inattentional blindness." Xeni

No such thing as "neurotypical"?

"The distinction between neurodiverse and neurotypical is too simplistic. There is certainly a great deal of structural variability between individuals, and that's compounded by structural changes that go on across the lifespan. I'm sure [the extent of brain variability is] a lot more than most people realise." — Jon Simons, senior author on a recently published research paper looking at structural variation in the human brain, and its influence on the ability to distinguish between stuff that actually happened, and stuff we imagine. As quoted by Mo Costandi in The Guardian. Maggie

Can magnets make you lie?

A small Estonian study is offering some hints that our brains could be even weirder than we'd imagined. Researchers found that magnetic pulses directed at a certain part of the frontal cortex affected whether people were more willing to fib, or more likely to tell the truth. Only 16 people were involved in the study, so these results are more something potentially cool to follow up on than a definitive declaration about brain function. There's a good chance this could turn out to be a statistical fluke. But it is worth researching further. If the effect is real, it could have some really interesting ethical, legal, and neurobiological implications.

Say it with me now: "F***ing magnets, how do they work?" Mo Costandi explains:

Inga Karton and Talis Bachmann of the University of Tartu adopted a different and novel approach, by examining the natural propensity to lie spontaneously during situations in which deception has no consequences. They recruited 16 volunteers, and showed them red and blue discs, which were presented randomly on a computer screen. The participants were asked to name the colour of each disc, and that they could do so correctly or incorrectly at their free will.

The researchers used a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt the participants' brain activity during the task. TMS is a non-invasive technique in which pulses of electromagnetic radiation are targeted to a specific brain region, inducing weak electrical currents that can either inhibit or enhance activity in that area.

They split the participants into two groups of eight for the experiment. Half of the participants in one group received magnetic pulses to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in the left hemisphere of the brain, while half in the other received them to the DLPFC on the right side. The rest of the participants acted as controls, and TMS was targeted to either the left or the right parietal cortex.

Statistical analysis of the results revealed that magnetic stimulation directed at the left DLPFC slightly increased the participants' tendency to lie about the colour of the discs, whereas stimulation of the right DLPFC slightly reduced it. By contrast, stimulation of the left or right parietal cortex had no effect on the participants' propensity to lie.

Costandi has actually made his full interview with the primary researcher in this study available online. In it, he gets a bit more into the nuance of what happens when you turn up a result as odd as this one, why scientists conduct such small studies, and what they do with the results of those studies.

The science of near-death experiences

Some recent research is confirming what a lot of us have probably long suspected—there's a pretty reasonable scientific explanation for near-death experiences.

Recently, a host of studies has revealed potential underpinnings for all the elements of such experiences.

For instance, the feeling of being dead is not limited to near-death experiences—patients with Cotard or "walking corpse" syndrome hold the delusional belief that they are deceased. This disorder has occurred following trauma, such as during advanced stages of typhoid and multiple sclerosis, and has been linked with brain regions such as the parietal cortex and the prefrontal cortex—"the parietal cortex is typically involved in attentional processes, and the prefrontal cortex is involved in delusions observed in psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia," Mobbs explains. Although the mechanism behind the syndrome remains unknown, one possible explanation is that patients are trying to make sense of the strange experiences they are having.

This story, by Charles Q. Choi, breaks down several common elements of near-death experiences the same way. But the fact that I found most interesting relates to who has "near-death" experiences. Turns out, it's not limited to people who are actually near death. Choi reports that a study of 58 patients who had had near-death experiences found that 30 of them weren't actually in danger of dying. They just thought they were.