Archive for the ‘Brain’ Category

Same colour illusion

Apparently I am in a somewhat frivolous mood this evening (not that Dali is ever frivolous). Via John Baez comes a wonderful optical illusion:

Same colour illusion

I assure you that the squares labelled A & B are the same colour.

No, really. This is a wonderful illusion in that, unlike some others that I won’t shame by naming (I have geometric illusions with lines and the like in mind, however), I can’t convince myself in any visual way that the squares are similar. Even this alteration, which goes some way to dispelling the trickery, can’t fully convince. I had to open the image in Pixelmator* and confirm with the eyedropper that they are, in fact, both (120, 120, 120). You should do the same.

(I have given up on GIMP for the Mac, ‘cos the X11 interface is horrendously buggy, and the most recent versions simply crash on launch. I don’t want to have to pay for Pixelmator, though; could someone suggest an alternative?)

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The pleasures of chess

Garry Kasparov this month thinks about reviewing something-or-other in the New York Review of Books, becoming happily diverted into a discussion of what makes chess truly interesting. (I draw also from some recent conversations with S. O. Killmier.)

The big point: chess is not about who can see the most moves ahead. Computers (and humans) that win by doing this are simply winning by brute force, rather than by intelligence; in the article Kasparov memorably denigrates his result against Deep Blue as ‘losing to a $10 million alarm clock.’ If one insists that the only purpose of chess is to win, then brute force seems a very successful, though by no means infallible, way to do this. I’d like to spend a little time describing just why it isn’t fool-proof; and a lot of time showing why victory in chess is less than half the point.

Imagine you are a chess computer; in fact, imagine you are a chess computer with limitless computational power. Now here is a famous chess position—find the winning move:


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A week ago, ESA initiated a call for applicants to participate in a simulated round-trip mission to the Red Planet, which will involve being inside a sealed facility for more than 500 days performing what I presume are relatively uncreative tasks that require plenty of concentration. Some further descriptive content has appeared on their website today, full of delicious tidbits:

…an international crew of six will simulate a 520-day round-trip to Mars, including a 30-day stay on the martian surface. In reality, they will live and work in a sealed facility in Moscow, Russia, to investigate the psychological and medical aspects of a long-duration space mission.

The crew will follow a programme designed to simulate a 250-day journey to Mars, a 30-day surface exploration phase and 240 days travelling back to Earth.

Certainly not my cup of tea, but it does tickle the imagination! The Call for Candidates and related documents are available here. Completed and signed application forms should be sent to Mars500@esa.int. The deadline for applications is 5 November 2009, however only citizens of nations participating in the ESA ELIPS programme are eligible.

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I must admit that smartphones have impacted my consciousness quite severely in the last few weeks.  Things came to a head when a friend shared the link to this wonderful new phone on Facebook…check it out before the jump…


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In his sardonically-titled First Person Plural, Paul Bloom (h/t Sullivan) draws my attention to an interesting current in applied identity metaphysics (a.k.a. psychology):

But what’s more exciting, I think, is the emergence of a different perspective on happiness itself. We used to think that the hard part of the question “How can I be happy?” had to do with nailing down the definition of happy. But it may have more to do with the definition of I. Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another.

He proceeds to rattle off a series of wonderful examples with which I couldn’t identify more:

Examples abound in our own lives. Late at night, when deciding not to bother setting up the coffee machine for the next morning, I sometimes think of the man who will wake up as a different person, and wonder, What did he ever do for me? When I get up and there’s no coffee ready, I curse the lazy bastard who shirked his duties the night before.

Yes, curse you, evening Berian, for your wastrel ways! Also, for your ambitious setting of alarm clocks at 5am; morning Berian has his revenge with the snooze button.

However, after delighting me with this introduction, Bloom for some reason decides to insist that all this is tied to the relationship between personality and time: over short time scales, he says, we intuitively see our personalities as reasonably persistant, but over decades we generally think of ourselves as different people (cf. what I wrote about people on Sydney trains). He’s not completely wrong, but of course there are loads of exceptions. Here is how I would describe it in the preferred nomenclature: the first derivative of personality with respect to time is a partial derivative; the full derivative is with respect to ‘circumstance’, which is of course time-dependent, or, as I would rather have it though of, t is a function of c and not the other way around.

I’m not always opposed to getting out of bed at 5 in the morning; I am generally opposed to getting out of bed when I’ve just been asleep for a long while and the covers are nice and warm, regardless of what time of day it is. I concede, though, that time is a rather more tangible variable than circumstance.

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Isaac Asimov once said: “in Man is a three-pound brain which, as far as we know, is the most complex and orderly arrangement of matter in the universe”. It’s rather ironic that the most complicated thing we’ve ever discovered is the very thing that does the discovering.

To anyone who thinks that they’ve got the brain all figured out, I offer the placebo effect. Find someone who is in immense pain and inject them with the principle active ingredient in opium: morphine. Its proven pain-relieving properties will soon have things under control. After several days, and without telling the patient, replace the morphine with a saline solution – i.e. instead of:


(a.k.a. morphine), give them table salt and water. The patient, astonishingly, will report that their pain has been relieved.


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A few quotes to get you thinking …

Pat Pattison: Professor of Poetry and Lyric writing at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, author of “Writing Better Lyrics”:

The time to start [songwriting] is the first thing in the morning, even before coffee. Sit down and give it a full ten minutes – but no more.

Barry Green, in his book “The Inner Game Of Music”:

My fourteen-year-old cousin Dana … tells me that she plays piano best when she has just rolled out of bed in the morning or is exhausted at the end of the day … It seemed amazing to both of us that Dana was able to perform much better when she was barely awake … Other musicians, young and old, have told me that they perform best when they are relaxed, slightly ill [or] tired.

Songwriter Mike Read, in “The Secrets of Songwriting” by Susan Tucker; asked “Is there a certain time of the day you like to write?”:

… I have this little ritual. I love that smell of the first cup of coffee. I love the early morning … I love getting up early, at six o’clock.

It seems that we are most creative in the morning, when we haven’t woken up properly. Is there any scientific evidence to back up this anecdotal evidence?

On December 2, 2007, New Scientist ran an article titled “The Other You”. The article mentions the work of Colin Martindale of the University of Maine in Orono, which is now three decades old. He used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor the brain activity of a creative mind.

He found that there were two distinct stages of brain activity. During the initial “inspiration” stage, the brain is remarkably quiet. Brain activity is dominated by alpha waves, indicating a very low cortical arousal. The second stage is called the “elaboration” stage, and is characterised by more activity, especially in the cortex. It is probably associated with the conscious analysis of ideas. People with the greatest difference in brain activity between these two stages were the most creative.

The point of interest to us is that brain activity during the inspiration stage is very similar to brain activity during dream sleep and relaxation. Jordan Peterson, of the University of Toronto, Canada, believes that creativity involves the overflow of subconscious information into consciousness. Thus, to tap the rich mental resources of the subconscious, it is best to catch your conscious mind while it is still half asleep.

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In music, there is a chord known as the “Jimi Hendrix chord”. For those who know about these things, it’s a dominant 7 #9 chord – e.g. C7#9 contains the notes C E G Bb D#. The dissonance between the E and the D# (the major and minor third in C respectively) creates the gritty, edgy, crunchy rock sound that Hendrix uses in Foxy Lady and Purple Haze.

There is a story, possibly an urban legend, that Purple Haze is so named because the Jimi Hendrix chord in its introduction made Hendrix see a purple haze. Other theories invoke copious amounts of LSD and marijuana, but it is the triggering of a purple haze that I want to focus on.

This phenomenon, of one sensory experience involuntarily triggering a second, usually unrelated sensory experience, is known as synesthesia. It is a neurological condition, and appears in a variety of forms. For example, some synesthetes (as they are called) associate letters and numbers with colours – for example, a black 5 written on a page is seen to be green; a 2 seen to be red.

At first glance, the condition doesn’t seem very interesting. Most people would connect the word ‘sunset’ with an orange-red colour for the following reason:

  • First, the word “sunset” connects with the concept of a sunset.
  • Next, the concept of a sunset connects with a mental picture of a sunset.
  • Finally, the mental picture of the sunset fills the mind with an orange-red glow.

The mind does all this in an instant, so that the word “sunset” and the colour “orange-red” link seamlessly.

We might postulate that synesthesia involves the same sort of connections, albeit a bit less obvious. For example, the number 2 could trigger a childhood memory of a refrigerator magnet ‘2’ that happened to be red. As time goes by, the connection between the number 2 and the colour red remains even when the fridge magnet is forgotten.

But synesthesia is more than simply association – the number 2 doesn’t just remind them of the colour red. When synesthetes see a black 2, they will tell you that it “really is red”. But is there any way to test how real this mental response is?

In 2001, Ramachandran and Hubbard performed the following ingenious experiment. (See the Wikipedia article on synesthesia for more details.) They presented synesthetes and non-synesthetes with displays composed of a number of 5s, with some 2s embedded among the 5s. These 2s could make up one of four shapes; square, diamond, rectangle or triangle – see the diagram below:

Subjects were asked to identify the hidden shape. If recognising the number triggered a concept that triggered a colour, then the colours wouldn’t appear until after the number was recognised. Thus, if synesthesia is just a subjective, mental connection, then it won’t help a synesthete to find the hidden 2’s.

The results were astounding. Non-synesthetes took about 20 seconds to find the shape; synesthetes took about a second.

How do you explain that? Seeing something that isn’t there is one thing, but having it improve your ability to discern shapes is something else. Its like having an imaginary friend who actually helps with the laundry. (This is why synesthesia isn’t usually classified as a neurological condition, because it is often advantageous to the “sufferer”.) Most explanations involve rejecting the linear processing of sense data we invoked previously. Some researchers have suggested that increased cross-talk between different regions of the brain that are specialized for different functions could explain it.

What if you could train your mind to use synesthesia? What if a piano student who struggles to read music could be taught to see each note on the page as a different colour? Could children be taught to see harmful objects as red and harmless ones as blue? What if you saw interesting blog posts as red, and boring ones as blue?

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