Archive for October, 2009
Technology Review provides an illustrated “time travel through the brain“:
Over the 100-year history of modern neuroscience, the way we think about the brain has evolved with the sophistication of the techniques available to study it. Improvements in microscope design and manufacture, together with the development of cell-staining techniques, afforded neuroscientists their first glimpse at the specialized cells that make up the nervous system. Microscopes with more magnifying power enabled them to probe nerve cells in greater detail, revealing distinct compartments. Newer techniques expose the connections between nerve cells, revealing the complex organization of the brain.
More images and history of neuroscience here.
William Kamkwamba, from Malawi, is a born inventor. When he was 14, he built an electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap, working from rough plans he found in a library book called Using Energy and modifying them to fit his needs. The windmill he built powers four lights and two radios in his family home.
Jon Stewart recently interviewed William, who has since become known as (and written a book titled) The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Be sure to watch the interview here, as it is one of the more amazing examples of creativity, imagination, resourcefulness, and resilience.
Below is the second of two presentations featuring William at a TED conference.
“Disorientation begets creative thinking.”
As reported in the NYT article, “How nonsense sharpens the intellect,” college students who read an absurd short story by Frank Kafka prior to their participation in a pattern recognition and recall test engaged in significantly more implicit learning (“knowledge gained without awareness”) than a peer group who read a coherent short story.
This is one area of psychology where the theory of mind is racing to catch-up with research:
In a series of new papers, Dr. Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that these findings are variations on the same process: maintaining meaning, or coherence. The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns.
When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.
“There’s more research to be done on the theory,” said Michael Inzlicht, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, because it may be that nervousness, not a search for meaning, leads to heightened vigilance. But he added that the new theory was “plausible, and it certainly affirms my own meaning system; I think they’re onto something.”
Jonah Lehrer has another fantastic post on “Nature and compassion“:
Even a glimpse of greenery can make us behave in kinder, gentler ways.
[A recent] study consisted of several experiments with 370 different subjects. In each experiment, people were exposed to either natural settings (pristine lakes, wooded forests, remote deserts) or man-made environments (cityscapes, skyscrapers and highways). They were then tested for a variety of “prosocial” behaviors, such as compassion and generosity. For instance, two of the experiments used a simple trust task, in which a person is given a $5 prize and told that they could share their prize with an anonymous stranger, who would then be given an additional $5. (There was no guarantee that the second person would return any of the winnings.)
The scientists found that subjects exposed to nature were significantly more likely to open their wallets. Furthermore, increased exposure to nature led to an increased willingness to share with strangers.
Jonah’s explanations and interpretations of this study are here.
From The Guardian’s “Will California become America’s first failed state?“:
The percentage of 19-year-olds at college in the state dropped from 43% to 30% between 1996 and 2004, one of the highest falls ever recorded for any developed world economy. California’s schools are ranked 47th out of 50 in the nation.
Related read: Bob Herbert’s NYT op-ed, “Cracks in the future.”
From TED: “Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.”
The talk gets especially interesting around the 8:30 mark when Sir Robinson observes the ways in which school (and society) champion the disembodied mind and “educates people out of their curiosity.” His call-to-action for a new human ecology — rooted in the reimagination of intelligence as diverse, dynamic, and distinct — is an absolute “must watch.”
More about Sir Ken Robinson can be found here.