New Brain Briefs on the Senses

Do you know that emotions increase activity in the visual cortex, so “colors look more vivid and details stand out when we’re happy, angry, or frightened”?  Or that hair cells play a vital function in hearing and that as we get older the “progressive loss of hair cells means less acute hearing, particularly in higher frequencies”? How about that olfactory receptor cells are themselves neurons that are “on one end in direct contact with the external world and the other in direct contact with the brain”?  Have you ever wanted to learn more about how our senses function?

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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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An Evening at the Rubin Museum: Attached to Touch

When I think of grated mountain yam (also known as “tororo”), my mind goes back eight years to when I first tried it in Japan. My great-aunt sent a large cardboard box from the countryside filled with potatoes, carrots, beans, a sack of rice wrapped in cloth, and mountain yams—all harvested that morning. My grandmother grated the tororo over a bowl until it was filled with the slimy, white paste, which we ate over rice. It was refreshing and bizarre—and so delicious that I became obsessed.

If you were to ask Tom Colicchio (renowned chef and celebrated judge on Bravo TV’s Top Chef) what he thinks of grated mountain yam, he would picture the same bowl of slimy paste and cringe with disgust. In fact, that’s exactly what he did on Wednesday evening when Dr. David J. Linden asked if there was a specific texture in food that he couldn’t stand. Unfortunately, Colicchio did not elaborate on his memory of mountain yam; though it must have been pretty bad judging by the way he shuddered. We make associations with certain smells, textures, and tastes the first time we experience them, and these associations greatly affect the way we respond when we encounter them again, Dr. Linden said.

As the first event of the Rubin Museum’s eighth annual Brainwave series, the Top Chef and Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist paired up to discuss the importance of the basic five senses –including hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, tasting—in the kitchen. They also discussed how genetics play a major role in the foods we favor or disdain, and why human evolution has changed the way our bodies react to certain flavors.

Tom Colicchio (left) speaking with David J. Linden (right). Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Tom Colicchio (left) speaking with David J. Linden (right). Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

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Acquiring Taste and Smell

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From left, panelists Kathryn Morgan, Gary Beauchamp, and Joan Marrinan listen to Susan Watterson describe getting a sense of the flavors of foods as she’s cooking.

Last night’s Neuroscience and Society series event was a feast for the senses and the mind, from hearing stories of training noses and palates to trying to train or at least understand our own.

The session, “How Your Brain Distinguishes Tastes and Aromas,” started with a quick science primer by Gary Beauchamp, director and president of Monell Chemical Senses Center. In broad strokes, our conscious taste perception involves the tongue, palate, and part of the throat, while odor perception has two paths: sniffing (orthonasal) or swallowing food, which drives the smell upward to olfactory sensors in the nasal cavity (retronasal).

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Primer on the Senses

We traditionally refer to five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. But it’s not that simple. Our new primer, on the senses, delves into the complex systems that enable us to connect to the world.

It’s a dynamic process. The brain is not simply a receiving station for sensory signals, and what we see, hear, and feel are constantly shaped by emotions, memories, moods, and beliefs. Our sense of the world is a creation of the brain, and the same physical sensation may be experienced quite differently at different times of life, and even from day to day.

Read Part I of the primer now; Part II will post on the Dana Foundation homepage on Monday, August 26.

– Ann L. Whitman

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