The Science of Illusion


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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Lucy and the 10 Percent Brain Myth


It’s unfair to have Morgan Freeman, with his smooth, deep voice, say it. In the trailer for the upcoming film Lucy, the actor who has played both the President and God addresses an auditorium of students and says, “It is estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of their brain’s capacity…Imagine if we could access 100 percent.” It’s hard not to believe Morgan Freeman. But in this case, he’s wrong.

The idea that we only use 10 percent of our brains is a myth. “The crazy thing about this belief is that despite being totally false, it is so well-known,” says Sam Wang, Ph.D., a Princeton neuroscientist and author of Welcome to Your Brain. So how did it start?

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Summer Reading List: Brain Books

As someone who recently finished the latest Dan Brown book, I understand the entertainment value of a fluff read–particularly when on vacation. But as the Fourth approaches and many of you look forward to beach getaways or some down-time in the back yard, consider reading one of the brain-related books recently published by our Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI) members. You’ll certainly learn something and your friends are sure to be impressed.

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Richard Restak on Humor and the Brain

During Brain Awareness Week this year, Dana Alliance member Richard Restak, M.D., and three New Yorker cartoonists met at the Rubin Museum for a public discussion about humor and the brain. Those of us in the audience left with some key takeaways about how the brain processes humor and the benefits of cartoons: “Cartoons are great brain enhancers,” Restak said, because they make heavy demands on the organ. No stranger to the practical benefits of cartoons, Restak uses them in his neuropsychiatric practice as an evaluative tool to measure patients’ psychological well-being.

In a recent article for The American Scholar, Restak expands upon the Rubin Museum discussion, delving into the question, “Can humor help us better understand the most complex and enigmatic organ in the human body?”

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Reading Cartoons Good for Your Health

We know when something is funny, but can we attribute that recognition of humor to a specific part of our brain? “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it,” said neurologist and Dana Alliance member Richard Restak, M.D., quoting writer E.B. White at Sunday night’s Rubin Museum event, which also featured notable New Yorker cartoonists. More to the point, there is no humor center of the brain, said Restak.

That doesn’t mean we know nothing of how the brain processes humor, though. When looking at a funny cartoon, Restak said, we engage our cerebral cortex for linguistic and visual congruity, and the subcortical areas provide pleasure and emotional aspects of appreciation. “Cartoons are great brain enhancers,” said Restak, because they make heavy demands on the organ.

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