Vanishing Perception With Magic

Master magician Prakash Puru took out a silver coin and held it with one hand. He snapped his fingers. In seconds the coin disappeared, only to reappear later by his elbow. Over and over again the coin vanished, much to the delight of a packed audience at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC.

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Tony Ro (left) and Prakash Puru (right). Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Puru was invited to discuss the ways magicians manipulate perception to create illusions with neuroscientist Tony Ro. The Brainwave Series program, “Why Magicians are Master Manipulators,” focused on the neuroscience of perception and how its principles can be used to create magic.

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Video Games and the Brain: Action, Strategy, and Pac-Man

Playing some video games can cause serious harm, while others might improve or restore skills, suggested three panelists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week.

“Not all games are created equal,” said Chandramallika Basak, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas. She and her colleagues study how memory and other skills change across our lifespan; part of that includes research investigating brain and cognitive effects of different games, especially as people get older.

Not everything in your brain declines with age (crystallized memory stays strong), but she’s looking for activities that could strengthen the ones that do, especially working memory (including how fast you can update current information) and task-switching (how fast you can switch when multitasking). Assuming there is a “functional threshold” for success at daily life, she wonders, “Can we keep this declining cognitive abilities stable for a few more years” above this threshold. “If I’m going to live to 90, I’d rather get it [dementia] at 89” as opposed to earlier, she said.

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AAAS’s Deborah Runkle moderates the Q&A session with, from left, Craig Anderson, Hilarie Cash, and Chandramallika Basak.

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How to Perceive Without Sight

How is it that we construct our reality? What is it we think we know, and what do we actually know? These are questions that led Columbia University neuroscientist Jacqueline Gottlieb to a career studying attention, decision-making, and curiosity. And at Saturday’s Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC, we learned how these questions were addressed by someone who lost his sight at age 25.

At “How to Perceive Without Sight,” Gottlieb spoke with entrepreneur Isaac Lidsky, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease of the retina, at age 12. Prior to losing his vision, he already had achieved status as a child actor, lawyer, Supreme Court clerk, and a successful business owner. But when he lost his sight in early adulthood, he had to overcome depression and learn to shift his attention to his remaining senses to navigate the world around him.

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Isaac Lidsky, photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

“It was an eye-opening process,” quipped Lidsky, who came to realize that his other senses provided him with “phenomenal” information. Rather than passively observing the world through sight as before, he now had to make a conscious effort to pay more attention to that other information.

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Student Webinar on the Senses

In elementary school, we learn about the five senses and their vital importance to appreciating life. Taste, smell, touch, hearing, and vision are all vital to survival, and even with the absence of one or more, our bodies compensate by strengthening the senses we do have. But what about using our senses in a more advanced setting, like mind reading?

That idea was addressed in “Sense and Sensibilities,” a Brain Awareness Week webinar last Tuesday by students at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). They took turns explaining the mechanisms behind our senses and explored the extraordinary ways in which our touch, hearing, and vision can be used.

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New PSA: Successful Aging & Your Brain

It’s never too late to start living a brain-healthy life! Our new Successful Aging & Your Brain public service announcement illustrates easy steps (as recommended by the Institute of Medicine) we can all take to keep our brains healthy and sharp as we grow older. The PSA recommends that we stay active with regular exercise, reduce vascular risk factors (like high blood pressure and cholesterol) with good diet, talk to the doctor about diseases and drugs that may impair brain function, and stay active socially and intellectually.

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