Coben Reveals Secrets to Success

A recent Brainwave program focused on a best-selling author’s approach to writing thrillers. The featured guest was Harlan Coben, the 56-year-old author of 30 novels (seven New York Times No. 1 bestsellers) and a Jersey guy with a shaved head and a keen sense of humor. Matching wits and finding neuroscience angles was David Eagleman, the Stanford University-based author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, and the writer and host of the Emmy-nominated PBS television series The Brain.

The Rubin Museum in New York City advertised the science of suspense as the program’s theme, but the conversation covered any number of areas that a writer of thrillers considers: memory, empathy, manipulation, human nature, and consciousness, to name a few.

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Coben explained that he helped jumpstart his thought process for his next book by sitting and observing people in Strawberry Fields in Central Park for three days.

Coben’s stories almost always contain woods and basketball and are set in North Jersey, where he lives (Ridgewood) with his pediatrician wife and two dogs. Growing up in a loud, Jewish home in Livingston, he said storytelling was essential to be heard at the dinner table. Even with four children, he says he still thinks of himself as a 17-year-old who is waiting for his life to begin. He believes that every individual has their own compelling story to tell and, in discussing human nature, said with a twinge of sarcasm, “We think we are uniquely complex, and no one knows what is really going on inside us. At the same time, we all think we are very good at reading the thoughts of others.”

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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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Memory as a Creative Act

Creativity (2).jpgDaphna Shohamy, Ph.D., is more comfortable in her lab at Columbia University than on stage in front of an audience. So why did she agree to participate in the 2018 Brainwave series for a live discussion? Because art and science are more alike than they seem, she said, and she wanted to help explain that.

The series pairs accomplished professionals with neuroscientists for a themed discussion at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. When asked who she would like as a partner for the discussion on the relationship between narrative/storytelling and memory, Shohamy knew right away she wanted to be paired writer Nicole Krauss, author of New York Times bestselling books Great House and The History of Love, because writers truly “understand the force of memory.”

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Only One Week Left for Sticker Design Entries

It’s the last week of October, which means it’s time to prepare for Halloween costumes and free candy—It also means there is just one week left to submit your artwork for the Brain Awareness Week (BAW) Sticker Design Contest!

The brainy challenge launched in September to ask people of all ages to create their own graphic in hopes of becoming the new BAW 2018 sticker. A great assortment of prizes are in store for the top three winners, in addition to the first place design being printed into thousands of stickers for distribution in March!

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Some prizes for top finalists shown above.

The design must include the words “Brain Awareness Week 2018,” but all other elements are left up to the artist. Entries must be emailed as both a JPEG and PDF file (minimum of 300 dpi) to bawcontest@dana.org. The deadline is Halloween, or October 31st.

Once all design submissions have been received, five finalists will be selected by Dana Foundation staff. After that, voting will be open to the public to choose the top three finalists. Contest winners will be publicly announced in mid-December.

Good luck!

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