Boing Boing 

Building a 15-foot-tall brain-controlled brain for Burning Man and beyond

My cousin Katherine Leipper is part of a crew that's building a 15-foot-tall head and brain with interactive light and flame effects that will be controlled by a participant's brain waves.

Yup. Weirdness runs in our family.

She and her co-makers will take it to Burning Man, but the bigger plan is to take it around to schools after the festival, "to get kids excited about science, technology and fabrication."

Katherine and her brain-building buddies have a crowdsourcing campaign under way. They're well on their way, but if you love 15-foot-tall brain-controlled brains like I love 15-foot-tall brain-controlled brains, and you think America's children need more 15-foot-tall brain-controlled brains in their classrooms because SCIENCE, you should kick in a little to ensure this weird dream comes true.

Katherine explains the wild idea to Boing Boing, below:

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What is dopamine?

Dopamine — the most talked-about human neurotransmitter — isn't a "love drug", or a "lust drug", or an "addiction drug", writes Bethany Brookshire in a smarter-than-average neuroscience story at Slate. It's actually a lot more complicated than that, and if you keep trying to pigeonhole and oversimplify what it does, you're going to completely misunderstand how your brain works.

Of (really cute) mice and men

Scientists are trying to understand "cuteness agression" — aka, the urge we have all felt, at one point in time or another, to take something adorable and squeeze it until it pops.

Dolphins on acid (and other bad ideas)

How dosing dolphins with LSD (and giving dolphins hand jobs) helped shape our modern pop culture beliefs about dolphins as sources of healing — beliefs that, according to neuroscientist Lori Marino, can endanger both dolphins and the humans who come to them for help.

Dragonflies outfitted with brain sensor backpacks

Dragonnnn

Neuroscientist have attached an electronic "backpack" to dragonflies that jack into the insect's brain and wirelessly transmit the data back to a base station. Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher Anthony Leonardo and his collaborators hope the telemetry will deepen our understanding of how dragonflies target and catch their pray. (via Wired)

How Bugs Bunny saved Mel Blanc's life

In 1961, Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Barney Rubble, and literally a thousand other cartoon characters (see vide above), was in a terrible car crash that put him in a coma. Nothing could rouse him until his surgeon addressed him as Bugs Bunny. Of course, Blanc's response was: "What's up, Doc?" Here's a 2012 short episode of Radiolab where they interview the surgeon, a neuroscientist, and Mel Blanc's son, Noel.

"What's Up, Doc?" (Radiolab)

Your very fallible memory

Your memories can be manipulated and changed. In fact, this happens often. And you're the one doing it to yourself.

Conspiracy theorists aren't crazy

I have a personal Facebook account, which I use to keep up with friends and family. Like many of you, I've also discovered that this gives me a peek inside the psyche of those friends and family — and one of the things that I saw was an interest (and sometimes belief in) conspiracy theories. It wasn't limited to the Right or the Left. And it definitely wasn't limited to people I love but consider a little "off", if you know what I'm saying.* Over and over, I saw perfectly rational, sane people, supporting and spreading ideas that, to me, seemed a little nuts.

And that made me curious: Where do conspiracy theories come from? The answer, according to psychologists and sociologists, is not "Glenn Beck's fevered imagination." In fact, the category "people who believe in conspiracy theories" can't even really be separated into The Other in a nice, neat way. If you look at the data, the people who believe in conspiracy theories are us. And those theories grow out of both historical context, our feelings about ourselves and the wider world, and the way that our brains respond to feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty. Here's a short excerpt from my most recent column for The New York Times Magazine:

While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.

Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.

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*This joke is totally going to get me into trouble. Dear friends and family: Trust me, you are not the one I'm referring to here.

Image: December 21st...., a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from clawzctr's photostream

Brain hacking: using neurofeedback to master conflicting wills in your mind

I've written before about Moran Cerf -- celebrated neuroscientist, former military hacker, and good-guy bank robber -- who also happens to be a great storyteller. Here's a video in which Cerf recounts some clever and fascinating neuroscience experiments that use neurofeedback to help people resolve competition between different thoughts and wills in their minds. The applications are even more interesting -- mentally controlling a robotic arm, for example.

Moran Cerf: Hacking the brain (Thanks, Moran!)

A 93-year-old neuroscientist explains how memory works

At an age when some people are struggling with their own memories (and many others are just plain dead) neuroscientist Brenda Milner does an amazing job of explaining her contributions to our understanding of how memory works. Milner is one of the researchers who worked with H.M., the famous patient who lost his ability to form new memories after undergoing brain surgery.

This is a long talk — almost an hour — but it's a fascinating look at the career of a scientist who changed the way we think about the mind, told in her own words.

You can watch the full video at Vimeo

What neuroscientists think of the BRAIN Initiative

In general, they seem to like it. But with reservations. The Obama Administration's highly touted brain-mapping program — pitched as a neurological analog to the Human Genome Project — might be approaching the problem of how the brain works in the wrong way. In particular, if the Initiative only focuses on mapping activity in the brain, it's going to miss out on the ways activity and neural architecture work together to create a functioning system.

Life imitates "Fringe" with development of brain-to-brain interface

Scientists managed to link the brains of a conscious human and an anesthetized rat, allowing the human to wiggle the rat's tail with his thoughts. And all God's creatures said, "Holy shitballs!"

Obama and DARPA want to map the human brain like we've mapped the human genome

Here are a couple different perspectives on the big news out of Washington this afternoon — an ambitious Obama Administration proposal to appropriate $100 million to begin a project to "map the brain". What's that mean? We have a lot of good data on single neurons. We have a lot of good data on what happens in the brain, as a whole, during certain tasks. What we don't really understand is how those individual neurons work together as networks or what activity in the brain really means on the level of causality and processing. That's what this project would be aimed at understanding. At LiveScience, Stephanie Pappas puts the project into scientific (and financial) context. At Nature News, Meredith Wadman writes about why some scientists are wary of this plan.

How "workarounds" cause people with dyslexia to be more creative

"Mounting evidence shows that many people with dyslexia are highly creative, out-of-the-box thinkers, and neuroimaging studies demonstrate that their brains really do think differently." An interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal on adaptive responses to a "neurodifference" that affects as many as one in five Americans.

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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Review of David Eagleman's Incognito

Many years ago I watched a standup comic on television explain that the President of the United States has no more control over the country than the bulldog hood ornament on a Mack Truck has in controlling where the truck goes. He was exaggerating but he had a point.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has a similar argument about the human brain. Our conscious brain (our "I") is the tiny chrome bulldog, while our non-conscious brain is doing the driving. His highly-readable pop science book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, offers dozens of persuasive examples to support the idea that our conscious brain is at the tip of our behavioral iceberg.

Here's a few questions Eagleman asks in Incognito:

Why can your foot jump halfway to the brake pedal before you become consciously aware of danger ahead? Why do strippers make more money at certain times of month, even while no one is consciously aware of their fertility level? Is there a true Mel Gibson? What do Odysseus and the subprime mortgage meltdown have in common? How is your brain like a conflicted democracy engaged in civil war? Why are people whose name begins with J more likely to marry other people whose name begins with J? Why is it so difficult to keep a secret? Why did Supreme Court Justice William Douglas deny that he was paralyzed?

Eagleman's answer to all of these questions is that the non-conscious brain is made up of many signal processors, honed by eons of evolution, that compete and cooperate with each other to make decisions that eventually make their way to the tip of the cognitive iceberg, where the "I" takes credit.

I think Eagleman is probably right, but I'm also the kind of person who is easily persuaded by attractively presented arguments and Eagleman, who is an accomplished fiction writer (see Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives) is a good story teller, so that has to be figured into my feeling that he's onto something. In any case, this was one of the most entertaining books about the brain that I've read.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Previously:

An interview with David Eagleman, neuroscientist

David Eagleman: We live in the past…literally

Comic adaptation of David Eagleman story about the afterlife

Scrub your brain of these "folk neuroscience" misconceptions

There is no such thing as "left brained" or "right brained". You really and truly cannot break down rationality and creativity in that way. And that's not the only thing we all think we know about the brain that turns out to be totally wrong. At the Guardian Vaughan Bell writes about the rise of folk neuroscience, why these misconceptions are actually problematic, and which bits of false information we need to stop repeating to one another.

Dopamine isn't "the pleasure chemical"

Vaughan Bell is one of the best neuroscience writers out there. In a piece at The Guardian, he explains what, exactly, the chemical dopamine is doing in our brains and why we do it a major disservice by associating it solely with addiction.

Sleights of Mind: the secrets of neuromagic


Last month, I blogged a fascinating profile of Apollo Robbins, a stage pickpocket with an almost supernatural facility for manipulating attention and vision to allow him to literally relieve you of your watch, eyeglasses, and the contents of your wallet without you even noticing it, even after you've been told that he's planning on doing exactly that.

The profile mentioned that Robbins had consulted on a book called Sleights of Mind, written by a pair of neuroscientists named Stephen L Macknick and Susana Martinez-Conde (a husband and wife team, who also hired science writer Sandra Blakeslee to help with the prose, to very good effect). Macknick and Martinez-Conde are working scientists who had a key insight: the way that magicians manipulate our blind spots, our attention, our awareness, our intuitions and our assumptions reveal an awful lot about our neurological functions. Indeed, conjurers, pickpockets, ventriloquists and other performers are essentially practicing applied neuroscience, working out ways to systematically fool our perceptions and make seemingly impossible things happen before our eyes.

The book is a marvellous read, a very well-balanced mix of summaries of published scientific insights into visual and attention systems; accounts of the meetings between illusionists and scientists that the authors organized; histories of magic tricks; exposure of psychic frauds and fakes; and a tale about the couple's quest to craft a neuroscience-based magic act that would gain them full membership to the exclusive Magic Castle in Los Angeles.

I really can't overstate the charm and delight of Sleights of Mind -- from the introduction to the extensive footnotes, it is a truly great popular science text on one of my favorite subjects. The accompanying website is full of supplemental videos, showing how illusions work as mechanical effects, scientific principles and bravura performances. The performers who assisted the authors -- James Randi, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, and, of course, Apollo Robbins -- are all justly famed for their skill, and the book is worth a read just for the insight it provides into their work. But it goes so much farther, providing both a theoretical underpinning in the neuroscience of perception and consciousness, and practical advice on how to apply this to your everyday life.

One interesting note: the authors mention a book called The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, which reprints the secret (and long-lost) training documents that magician John Mulholland created for the Agency in 1952, which were used at the height of the Cold War by US spies to deceive their Soviet counterparts -- for example, details of how to use the "big move" of lighting a cigarette to disguise the "small move" of slipping drugs into a rival's drink. I haven't read this yet, but I've just ordered it.

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions

The history (and future) of psychedelic science

Back in 2010, the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience published an article looking at the neurobiology of psychedelic drugs and why researchers were returning to this field after 40 years of stagnation. As part of that, they commissioned four of the best neuroscience bloggers on the Internet to write posts about the history of psychedelic psychiatry and the possible ways we could use these drugs to help people. I stumbled across this collection recently, and thought you all might enjoy it.

Apollo Robbins, pickpocket -- mindbending live performance

Last month, I linked to a great Atlantic New Yorker profile of Apollo Robbins, a stage pickpocket who pulls off the most audacious fingersmithing you've ever seen, manipulating attention with such a fine touch that he leaves even jaded magicians slack-jawed.

Here's a great example of Robbins's schtick, from an NBC news show. I've been reading Sleights of Mind, a book on the neuroscience of vision, attention, optical illusion and magic, for which Robbins was extensively interviewed, and this video really helped me understand what the writers are talking about.

Supernatural pickpocketing skills!! Awesome to watch! - by Apollo Robbins (via Kottke)

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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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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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."

Where characters come from, and where they go

My latest Locus column is "Where Characters Come From," and it advances a neurological theory for why fiction works, and where writers find their characters.

As a writer, I know that there’s a point in the writing when the engine of the story really seems to roar to life, and at that moment, the characters start feeling like real people. When you start working on a story, the characters are like finger-puppets, and putting words into their mouths is a bit embarrassing, like you’re sitting at your desk waggling your hands at one another and making them speak in funny, squeaky voices. But once those characters ‘‘catch,’’ they become people, and writing them feels more like you’re recounting something that happened than something you’re making up. This reality also extends to your autonomic nervous system, which will set your heart racing when your characters face danger, make you weepy at their tragedies, has you grinning foolishly at their victories.

In some ways, this is even weirder. For a writer to trick himself into feeling emotional rapport for the imaginary people he himself invented seems dangerous, akin to a dealer who starts dipping into the product. Where does this sense of reality – this physical, limbic reaction to inconsequential non-events – spring from?

Where Characters Come From

Apollo Robbins: profile of a pickpocket

The New Yorker's profile of Apollo Robbins is one of the most interesting things I've read all year (ha). Robbins is a self-trained virtuoso pickpocket who once managed to lift a pen out of Penn Jillette's pocket, steal the ink cartridge, and return the pen, all while he was demurely insisting to Jillette that he wasn't really comfortable performing in front of magicians.

Josh grew increasingly befuddled, as Robbins continued to make the coin vanish and reappear—on his shoulder, in his pocket, under his watchband. In the middle of this, Robbins started stealing Josh’s stuff. Josh’s watch seemed to melt off his wrist, and Robbins held it up behind his back for everyone to see. Then he took Josh’s wallet, his sunglasses, and his phone. Robbins dances around his victims, gently guiding them into place, floating in and out of their personal space. By the time they comprehend what has happened, Robbins is waiting with a look that says, “I understand what you must be feeling.” Robbins’s simplest improvisations have the dreamlike quality of a casual encounter gone subtly awry. He struck up a conversation with a young man, who told him, “We’re going to Penn and Teller after this.”

“Oh, then you’ll probably want these,” Robbins said, handing over a pair of tickets that had recently been in the young man’s wallet.

When Robbins hits his stride, it starts to seem as if the only possible explanation is an ability to start and stop time. At the Rio, a man’s cell phone disappeared from his jacket and was replaced by a piece of fried chicken; the cigarettes from a pack in one man’s breast pocket materialized loose in the side pocket of another; a woman’s engagement ring vanished and reappeared attached to a key ring in her husband’s pants; a man’s driver’s license disappeared from his wallet and turned up inside a sealed bag of M&M’s in his wife’s purse.

After the performance, Robbins and I had dinner at the bar. “A lot of magic is designed to appeal to people visually, but what I’m trying to affect is their minds, their moods, their perceptions,” he told me. “My goal isn’t to hurt them or to bewilder them with a puzzle but to challenge their maps of reality.”

My fascination with the profile doesn't just come from the recounting of Robbins's many impressive deeds (though they are impressive, and if I ever had cause to book a magician for a gig, he'd be it), but also the struggle that Robbins has had in coming up with ways to maximize his prodigious talent.

Reading further down, I noticed that Apollo Robbins collaborated with neuroscientists on a book called Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, which I've ordered. I was also unsurprised to learn that Robbins had consulted on the late, lamented caper-show Leverage, which explains quite a lot about why that show was so good.

A Pickpocket’s Tale [Adam Green/The New Yorker] (via Making Light)

Physical, sexual abuse documented at FL facility for autistic and brain-injured

Investigative reports released under a court order to Bloomberg News show that caregivers at a Florida center for brain-injured and "non-neurotypical" adults physically and sexually abused patients, in a systematic and brutal manner. Caregivers "goaded them to fight each other and fondle female employees and in one instance laughed at complaints of mistreatment." At least five patients have died at the center in question, the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation, from alleged abuse or neglect there since 1998. Two patients died in just the last two years. (Bloomberg)

Do these conjoined twins share a mind?

In the New York Times, a piece by Susan Dominus on two twins joined at the head ("craniopagus") who are "beyond rare" because of the way their brains fused inside their skulls. "Their neural anatomy is unique, at least in the annals of recorded scientific literature," she writes. "Their brain images reveal what looks like an attenuated line stretching between the two organs, a piece of anatomy their neurosurgeon, Douglas Cochrane of British Columbia Children’s Hospital, has called a thalamic bridge, because he believes it links the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of her sister."

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)

The Power of Sleep: PBS NewsHour on why we can't stop snoozing

Miles O'Brien has a wonderful piece on NewsHour about the neuroscience of sleep and other forms of brain-rest, including meditation. I was present for some of the taping and research, and I love how the story turned out.

Sleep deprivation can cause serious health and cognitive problems in humans. In short, it can make us fat, sick and stupid. But why do humans need so much sleep? Science correspondent Miles O'Brien talks to scientists on the cutting edge of sleep research and asks if there's any way humans might evolve into getting by with less.

And below, some out-takes from Miles' time swimming with dolphins at SeaWorld. Dolphins sleep in a very interesting way, and you'll want to watch the piece to learn more. PBS Link, and YouTube Link.

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