Facial Cues and the Brain

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As human beings, we can tend to be a little judgmental–sometimes without even realizing it. When we first meet someone, our brains are busy processing facial features, body language, personality traits, etc., within milliseconds of just saying “hello.” So what characteristics make us assume certain things about people we just meet, and can these unconscious first impressions really change the way we perceive someone?

Expanding on this topic, neuroscientist Jon Freeman, Ph.D., spoke to a room crowded with eager listeners as the featured guest in the latest event from the Secret Science Club. As director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences lab at New York University, Freeman devotes all of his research to understanding “split-second social perception”—that is, how our brains use subtle facial cues, personality traits, and emotion to instantly categorize others into social groups. With the help of brain imaging technology (fMRI), electrophysiology (EEG and ERP), and real-time behavioral techniques, Freeman is able to study activity within the brain in hopes of learning more about the phenomena of snap judgments.

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The Brain in Love

shutterstock_94532341Love exists in vastly different societies around the world. It occupies our mind and drives us to create art, write stories, and even commit acts of violence. Religion, values, and other cultural factors influence who we select as a partner. During a talk at the Secret Science Club, a science lecture series held at the Bell House in Brooklyn, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., asked “Are we naturally drawn to some people for biological as well as cultural reasons?”

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Big Lessons from Small Creatures

The Secret Science Club is not your average science talk. It’s held at the Bell House, a hip Brooklyn bar and music venue that from the outside looks like it might hold 300 eager science fans. The atmosphere is laid back, with the audience sipping the night’s themed cocktail, the “Perfect Swarm,” and the speaker, biologist Simon Garnier, drinking beer onstage as he wins over the crowd with videos of puppies and summary tweets.

Garnier, director of the SwarmLab, studies what he calls “Swarm Intelligence,” the ability of animals to self-organize efficiently. He focused on one of his major areas of study, slime mold, a multi-nucleated single cell that—minus a brain— makes decisions and solves problems in its search for food. He calls this the “Homer Simpson paradox,” using the “brainless” cartoon character—who Garnier argues is successful because he has a good job that pays enough to support a family. Garnier points out that Homer Simpson and slime mold commonly prompt the same question: “How can an organism without many neural cells make good decisions and end up successful?”

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Brooklyn: Free Talk on Decision-Making

Why might you decide to go to the Secret Science Club at the Bell House in Brooklyn on Tuesday, August 20? If you don’t go, you may never know; neuroscientist Anne Churchland is going to be on hand to discuss…wait for it…decision-making.

Secret Science Club explains:

At Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, neuroscientist Anne Churchland works at the cutting edge of research on decision-making. She asks:

  • How does your brain compile all the bits of sensory data it receives to make good (or even not so good) decisions?
  • What can new technologies and experiments tell us about how we think–even when our “thinking” is subconscious?
  • How does the brain handle multisensory input? Is one sense favored over others?
  • Why are simple decisions sometimes so complex? What might the neuroscience of decision-making tell us about anxiety, addiction, and other disorders?

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Sunday: Free Fly-Themed Fun at the Bell House in Brooklyn

If you’re looking for a fun science fix this weekend, consider learning how flies help teach us about the brain at the Bell House in Brooklyn on Sunday evening. The Secret Science Club will be screening short films from Imagine Science Films and you’ll be treated to a lecture by neuroscientist Josh Dubnau, Ph.D., on how he uses Drosophila (a tiny fruit fly) to study memory. And did I mention it’s free?

Flight of the Drosophila: A Wild, Winged Night of Cinema & Brain Science Bell House, 149 7th St. (between 2nd and 3rd avenues), Brooklyn, NY Sunday, June 30 at 8pm.  Bring ID: 21+

– Ann L. Whitman

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