Extraordinary Show on Consciousness Extended

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Baba Brinkman with his wife Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

At $5 a ticket, theater lovers can experience the steal of the century at the SoHo Playhouse through mid-August. Baba Brinkman is starting a new run of his one-man, interactive show, “Rap Guide to Consciousness.” “We’ve had good crowds the last couple of days, and I’m excited to be doing the show again,” says Brinkman. “There’s also a new discount site that lets you book a ticket for $5 and then choose whether to pay more after you see it.”

The play fuses hip-hop, humor, and neuroscience together in a 70-minute multimedia presentation that attempts to explain difficult complex topics such as free will, artificial intelligence, the effects of psychedelic drugs, Bayesian probability, the presence or absence of thoughts in infants and animals, and much more. To hear about the origins of Brinkman’s first name Baba, his rapping influences and origins, and the time he and Lin Manuel Miranda were on the street together in Edinburgh Fringe handing out flyers, listen to my podcast with Brinkman.

– Bill Glovin

#WSF18: Why Music Makes Us Shiver

I have some friends who have tried to describe the overwhelming emotion they feel when listening to a certain piece of music, so much so that it sometimes brings them to tears. While I could empathize with the sensation, my reaction to the same piece was often completely different. Personal experience and context for which the piece is playing are just two variables that can affect the way we interpret music and explain why we find some melodies more mesmerizing than others. But what is it exactly that gives a piece its character, and what more is taking place within our brains when we process sounds?

To further explore this phenomenon of music and its ability to dictate our emotions, an expert group of neuroscientists and musicians took the stage for a World Science Festival event, “Notes on the Folds: Why Music Makes Us Shiver.” With John Schaefer, host and producer of a nationally-acclaimed WNYC radio show, as moderator, the conversation began with a solo performance by composer Mari Kimura.

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Mari Kimura and John Schaefer. Photo: World Science Festival

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And All That Jazz: A Q&A with Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D.

Guest post by Kayt Sukel 

Famed artist Barbara Januszkiewicz once said, “Jazz is the art of thinking out loud.” Is it any wonder then that jazz has made its way into a variety of neuroscience laboratories to help researchers investigate the neural underpinnings of creativity, communication, and timing?

In honor of International Jazz Day, a day designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to celebrate jazz’ ability to connect people from all over the globe, Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D. , a neurologist at Columbia University (and jazz guitar player), shares his thoughts about jazz, timing, and the celebration of what our brains do each and every day in the service of cognition.

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Photo: Michael Shadlen

You are a jazz guitarist. What first got you interested in playing jazz music?

MS: I’ve always been interested in music. When I was younger, I played the violin. Later, I switched to guitar—mainly because my violin teacher wanted me to choose between basketball, girls, and violin. So I switched to guitar. I played in a rock band for a long time doing covers. We had the Bar Mitzvah circuit down!

But the drummer in our band was in the jazz band in high school. And he turned me on to it. We’d go to this amazing café called Amazing Grace in Evanston, Illinois. They had mostly folk music but also a lot of jazz acts. I remember seeing Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, and all kinds of amazing artists play there. It was pretty spectacular.

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Santiago Ramón y Cajal: The Artist as Scientist

Santiago Ramón y Cajal is “the most famous scientist about whom very little is known,” said Eric Himmel, the speaker at Thursday night’s talk about the man whose prolific drawings helped revolutionize the field of neuroscience. But by the end of the evening’s event, the audience walked away with a much better understanding of how an aspiring artist, steered into medicine by his doctor father, found a way to merge his two passions.

Himmel, a publisher who worked on last year’s book, The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, and collaborated on the accompanying travelling art exhibit of the same name, was privy to more than 4,000 images from Cajal—drawings and photos—and the selection he chose to accompany his talk really brought the story to life.

Cajal, born in 1852 in Aragon, Spain, was already practicing watercolors at a level way beyond my high school renderings by the time he was ten. Sent to the provincial capital, Huesca, at age 12 to attend school, he further explored his artistic interests, taking art classes and learning about photography from a friend.

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A watercolor painted by Cajal at age nine or ten

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What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain

Dana Alliance member and Professor of Neurobiology Margaret S. Livingstone, Ph.D., spoke about art and the brain on Tuesday night at this year’s annual Irving H. Jurow Lecture at New York University’s College of Art and Science. Her lecture demonstrated to the audience how looking at art reveals how we see and what mechanisms are at work in the brain to create visual perception.

All artists use lines in their works to create shapes that are interpreted by the brain as specific contours or forms. Center-surround antagonism enables edge detection and contrast enhancement within the visual cortex. Livingstone explained center-surround antagonism as a process by which light creates signals, also known as action potentials, in retinal cells. Certain cells in our visual field are excited while other cells fail to fire. Neurons in our visual cortex are either activated or inhibited to create an accurate depiction or mental map of what we see.

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An illustration in Livingstone’s presentation that demonstrates how color and luminescence affect what we see in markedly different ways.

Painting and art rarely represent realistic accuracy even though they are photorealistic. Shadows, reflections, and perspectives defy the laws of physics and, very often, artists emphasize and play with how our vision works and how we see. Our visual system involves two processing streams that originate from the retina— the higher visual cortex ventral stream (the “what” system) and the older and more ancient dorsal stream (the “where” system). The ventral stream recognizes a specific object such as a bike or an animal and the dorsal system allows us to sense where objects are in space, including depth and position.  The dorsal stream is colorblind—the “what” system can see colors but the “where” system can’t.

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