Pint of Science: Perception

Many factors weigh into how we perceive the world, and last night we tapped into two areas: hearing and memory, at a “Pint of Science” gathering at DROM in the East Village. Beer in hand, attendees packed the venue, eager to learn more from hometown scientists James Hudspeth of Rockefeller University and Paula Croxson of Mount Sinai.

Hudspeth, a Dana Alliance member and hearing expert, spoke about how hearing works, and the role of tiny hair cells in the cochlea. As explained on his Howard Hughes Medical Institute page, “Each cochlea normally contains about 16,000 hair cells, which convert mechanical inputs derived from sounds into electrical signals that the brain can interpret.”

It is the loss of these hair cells, which don’t regenerate in humans, that leads to the most common form of hearing loss, said Hudspeth. Lucky for us, other species can regenerate these cells (amphibians and reptiles, for example). Dr. Hudspeth is using zebra fish in his lab to study this ability; he hopes new therapies can be produced for people in the next five to ten years. In the meantime, cochlear implants are being used by more than 300,000 people in the US.

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SfN Brain Awareness Video Contest Winners

The Society for Neuroscience has announced the winners of the 2015 Brain Awareness video contest. Anyone can enter and work with a member of the Society for Neuroscience in their area to produce an educational video about the brain.

The first place winner, Matthew Sugrim’s, video discusses our perception of color and poses the question: “Do We See The Same Red?” The video is a stunningly simple and colorful animation of the neurochemical process of sight, specifically how the brain turns photons into color. He insists that “it is complicated, but it’s not magic. Variations in the composition of cones in our eyes and the exact wiring of our brains may cause very slight variations in color perception.” Regardless, red really is the same red to everyone. Interestingly, many people have learned from the recent viral phenomenon of The Dress that lighting and color context can create much more variance in how people perceive color.

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The Science of Illusion

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Most talks on the brain science of illusion feature slides or recordings, but the presentation last night at AAAS in Washington, DC, offered illustrations in four dimensions—a live performance by mesmerist Alain Nu. “The Man Who Knows” treated us to a series of experiences hard to explain but easy to enjoy. I’m going to describe a bit of what happened but you may want to just jump to the event’s video below to see for yourself, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

For example, Nu showed us a can of soda, popping the top, pouring soda into two ice-filled glasses, crumpling the can a bit as he invited two volunteers to quaff it down. After they had, Nu’s hands danced around the can, and its bends slowly straightened—and then it was full of soda. He popped the top, and poured more soda out, to the evident enjoyment of the two volunteers, who got a second helping. How did he do it? After his set, Nu joined three scientists who told us we’d only fooled ourselves.

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How Theatrical Lighting Creates Illusion

We’re in the final month of Brainwave at The Rubin Museum in New York, which this year brings together artists and neuroscientists to explore the idea of illusion in different contexts. Sunday evening’s program, held in partnership with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, will pair Tony Award lighting designer Jules Fisher with Harvard vision expert and Dana Alliance member Margaret Livingstone, Ph.D. They will discuss how Fisher’s techniques create illusions. Tickets are available for purchase online.

Dr. Livingstone has studied how the visual system processes different artistic aspects, including form, color, depth, and movement. To learn more, read our 2006 interview “Visual System Processing and Artistic Genius.”

– Ann L. Whitman

How Expectations Influence Human Behavior

Hello, my name is Simon Fischweicher, and I’m a fantasy nerd. In high school I outlined an entire epic fantasy series filled with fairies, centaurs, talking raccoons, and demi-gods. I’ve spent an entire day watching all three “Lord of the Rings” movies in a row. And, I love George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” or “Game of Thrones” as it is more commonly known because of the HBO television series adaptation. So naturally, when I heard Peter Dinklage, the actor who plays Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” would be speaking at one of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave events, I had to go.

The event, titled “The Actor,” showcased a conversation between Peter Dinklage and Dan Ariely, Ph.D., James B. Duke Professor of Psychology & Behavioral Economics at Duke University. Their discussion focused on the illusions, expectations, and perceptions created by actors, but also branched into other areas, such as a behavioral discussion of lying and Dinklage’s frustration with the film industry’s demeaning attitude toward roles for little people.

The Actor2

(Credit: Michael Palma for The Rubin Museum)

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