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Original author: 
Cory Doctorow

I've written before about Moran Cerf -- celebrated neuroscientist, former military hacker, and good-guy bank robber -- who also happens to be a great storyteller. Here's a video in which Cerf recounts some clever and fascinating neuroscience experiments that use neurofeedback to help people resolve competition between different thoughts and wills in their minds. The applications are even more interesting -- mentally controlling a robotic arm, for example.

Moran Cerf: Hacking the brain (Thanks, Moran!)     

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Original author: 
John Timmer

Arthur Toga, University of California, Los Angeles

In 1992, at the age of 70, a US citizen suffered a severe case of viral encephalitis, a swelling of the brain caused by infection. After he recovered two years later, he appeared completely average based on an IQ test (indeed, he scored 103). Yet in other ways, he was completely different. Several decades of his past life were wiped completely from his brain. His only accessible memories came from his 30s, and from the point of his illness to his death, he would never form another memory that he was aware of.

But this severe case of what appears to be total amnesia doesn't mean he had no memory as we commonly understand it. The patient, called E.P., was studied intensely using a battery of tests for more than a decade, with researchers giving him tests during hundreds of sessions. After his death, his brain was given for further study. With the analysis of the brain complete, the people who studied him have taken the opportunity to publish a review of all his complex memory problems.

Aside from memory, there were only a few obvious problems with E.P. Most of his senses were normal except smell, which was wiped out (a condition called anosmia). His vision was perfectly fine, but he had two specific problems interpreting what he saw. One was a limited ability to discriminate between faces, and the other was difficulty in determining whether a line drawing represented an object that's physically impossible (think M. C. Escher drawings).

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Original author: 
Akshat Rathi

U Penn

In recent years, massive open online courses (MOOCs), through the likes of Coursera, have attracted hundreds of thousands of students from across the world. Many teachers are using a "flipped" classroom model, where students take lectures through videos at their convenience and spend the time in class delving into issues they don't understand.

But are they really improving learning? The evidence is not fully convincing. A 2010 meta-analysis of the literature on online teaching by the US Department of Education revealed that there are only "modest benefits" to online learning compared to classroom learning, but more rigorous studies were needed. After all, ease of access to the learning material comes with a bundle of distractions only a single click away. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that students suffer from attention lapses when learning through videos.

Given those findings, an improvement in students' attentiveness is bound to pay significant dividends. To that end, Karl Szpunar, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, might have a rather simple solution to rein in distractions, one that focuses attention in real-world classrooms: intersperse pop quizzes into the online lectures.

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Original author: 
Maggie Koerth-Baker

Scientists managed to link the brains of a conscious human and an anesthetized rat, allowing the human to wiggle the rat's tail with his thoughts. And all God's creatures said, "Holy shitballs!"     

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Last month, I blogged a fascinating profile of Apollo Robbins, a stage pickpocket with an almost supernatural facility for manipulating attention and vision to allow him to literally relieve you of your watch, eyeglasses, and the contents of your wallet without you even noticing it, even after you've been told that he's planning on doing exactly that.

The profile mentioned that Robbins had consulted on a book called Sleights of Mind, written by a pair of neuroscientists named Stephen L Macknick and Susana Martinez-Conde (a husband and wife team, who also hired science writer Sandra Blakeslee to help with the prose, to very good effect). Macknick and Martinez-Conde are working scientists who had a key insight: the way that magicians manipulate our blind spots, our attention, our awareness, our intuitions and our assumptions reveal an awful lot about our neurological functions. Indeed, conjurers, pickpockets, ventriloquists and other performers are essentially practicing applied neuroscience, working out ways to systematically fool our perceptions and make seemingly impossible things happen before our eyes.

The book is a marvellous read, a very well-balanced mix of summaries of published scientific insights into visual and attention systems; accounts of the meetings between illusionists and scientists that the authors organized; histories of magic tricks; exposure of psychic frauds and fakes; and a tale about the couple's quest to craft a neuroscience-based magic act that would gain them full membership to the exclusive Magic Castle in Los Angeles.

I really can't overstate the charm and delight of Sleights of Mind -- from the introduction to the extensive footnotes, it is a truly great popular science text on one of my favorite subjects. The accompanying website is full of supplemental videos, showing how illusions work as mechanical effects, scientific principles and bravura performances. The performers who assisted the authors -- James Randi, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, and, of course, Apollo Robbins -- are all justly famed for their skill, and the book is worth a read just for the insight it provides into their work. But it goes so much farther, providing both a theoretical underpinning in the neuroscience of perception and consciousness, and practical advice on how to apply this to your everyday life.

One interesting note: the authors mention a book called The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, which reprints the secret (and long-lost) training documents that magician John Mulholland created for the Agency in 1952, which were used at the height of the Cold War by US spies to deceive their Soviet counterparts -- for example, details of how to use the "big move" of lighting a cigarette to disguise the "small move" of slipping drugs into a rival's drink. I haven't read this yet, but I've just ordered it.

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions

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Last month, I linked to a great Atlantic New Yorker profile of Apollo Robbins, a stage pickpocket who pulls off the most audacious fingersmithing you've ever seen, manipulating attention with such a fine touch that he leaves even jaded magicians slack-jawed.

Here's a great example of Robbins's schtick, from an NBC news show. I've been reading Sleights of Mind, a book on the neuroscience of vision, attention, optical illusion and magic, for which Robbins was extensively interviewed, and this video really helped me understand what the writers are talking about.


Supernatural pickpocketing skills!! Awesome to watch! - by Apollo Robbins

(via Kottke)

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"Thanks for the memories, but I'd prefer a bite to eat."

UFL.edu

As the organ responsible for maintaining equilibrium in the body and the most energy-demanding of all the organs, the brain takes a lot of the body's energy allocation. So when food is in short supply, the brain is the organ that is fed first. But what happens when there isn’t enough food to fulfill the high-energy needs of the brain and survival is threatened?

The brain does not simply self-allocate available resources on the fly; instead it “trims the fat” by turning off entire processes that are too costly. Researchers from CNRS in Paris created a true case of do-or-die, starving flies to the point where they must choose between switching off costly memory formation or dying. When flies are starved, their brains will block the formation of aversive long-term memories, which depend on costly protein synthesis and require repetitive learning.

But that doesn't mean all long-term memories are shut down. Appetitive long-term memories, which can be formed after a single training, are enhanced during a food shortage.

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Miles O'Brien has a wonderful piece on NewsHour about the neuroscience of sleep and other forms of brain-rest, including meditation. I was present for some of the taping and research, and I love how the story turned out.

Sleep deprivation can cause serious health and cognitive problems in humans. In short, it can make us fat, sick and stupid. But why do humans need so much sleep? Science correspondent Miles O'Brien talks to scientists on the cutting edge of sleep research and asks if there's any way humans might evolve into getting by with less.

And below, some out-takes from Miles' time swimming with dolphins at SeaWorld. Dolphins sleep in a very interesting way, and you'll want to watch the piece to learn more. PBS Link, and YouTube Link.

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Is it worth bluffing if you're playing cards against a computer? Most of us go through the day reading subtle (and some not-so-subtle) social cues, like tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions, to figure out what an appropriate course of action should be. To look into how humans read some of these social cues, researchers have put subjects into an MRI tube and asked them to play a simplified form of poker (just one card) against both computerized and human opponents.

The participants kept track of their opponents' behavior on previous trials when determining whether to bluff with a given card, but were more careful to pay attention to what their human opponents did. The researchers then used MRI images of brain activity to look for areas of the brain that might mediate this difference. One area stood out: the temporal-parietal junction, or TPJ.

(Functional MRI studies have come in for some criticism because the researchers often focus imaging on areas they expect to see involved. In this case, the researchers imaged the whole brain, divided it up evenly, and repeated the search for elevated activity. The TPJ still stood out.)

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There's a feature worth reading in the New York Times today by John Hanc on the role that meditation plays in brain development, and scientific studies to explore "the extent to which meditation may affect neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to make physiological change."

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