Is Reality Real?: 8 Scientists Explain Whether We Can Ever Know What Objectively Exists

Ask aloud whether real­i­ty is real, and you’re liable to be regard­ed as nev­er tru­ly hav­ing left the fresh­man dorm. But that ques­tion has received, and con­tin­ues to receive, con­sid­er­a­tion from actu­al sci­en­tists. The Big Think video above assem­bles sev­en of them to explain how they think about it, and how they see its rel­e­vance to the enter­prise of human under­stand­ing. For the most part, they seem to agree that, even if we accept that some­thing called “real­i­ty” objec­tive­ly exists, of more imme­di­ate rel­e­vance is the fact that we can’t per­ceive that real­i­ty direct­ly. Any infor­ma­tion we receive about it comes to our brain through our sens­es, and they have their own ways of inter­pret­ing things.

As cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist Don­ald Hoff­man puts it, our sens­es are “mak­ing up the tastes, odors, and col­ors that we expe­ri­ence. They’re not prop­er­ties of an objec­tive real­i­ty; they’re actu­al­ly prop­er­ties of our sens­es that they’re fab­ri­cat­ing.” What’s phys­i­cal­ly objec­tive “would con­tin­ue to exist even if there were no crea­tures to per­ceive it.”

There­fore, “col­ors, odors, tastes, and so on are not real in that sense,” yet they are “real expe­ri­ences”; the trick of sep­a­rat­ing what exists in objec­tive real­i­ty from what only exists in our minds as a result of that objec­tive real­i­ty — “the begin­ning of the sci­en­tif­ic method,” as evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist Heather Hey­ing describes it — is an even more com­pli­cat­ed endeav­or than it sounds.

“Real­i­ty, for us, is what we can sense with­out sen­so­ry sur­faces, and what we can make sense of with the sig­nals in our brain,” says Sev­en and a Half Lessons About the Brain author Lisa Feld­man Bar­rett in the video just above. “Trapped in its own dark, silent box called your skull,” your brain “has no knowl­edge of what is going on around it in the world, or in the body.” It does receive sig­nals from the sens­es, “which are the out­come of some changes in the world or in the body, but the brain does­n’t know what the changes are.” With only infor­ma­tion about effects, it uses past expe­ri­ence to con­struct guess­es about their caus­es and con­texts. We might also call that func­tion imag­i­na­tion, and no sci­en­tists worth their salt can do with­out a good deal of it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Is Con­scious­ness an Illu­sion? Five Experts in Sci­ence, Reli­gion & Tech­nol­o­gy Explain

Alan Watts On Why Our Minds And Tech­nol­o­gy Can’t Grasp Real­i­ty

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

Are We Liv­ing in a Com­put­er Sim­u­la­tion?: A 2‑Hour Debate with Neil Degrasse Tyson, David Chalmers, Lisa Ran­dall, Max Tegmark & More

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How to Rewire Your Brain in 6 Weeks: A BBC Reporter Explores How Everyday Life Changes Can Alter Our Brains

If you sus­pect that your brain isn’t quite suit­ed for mod­ern life, you’re not alone. In fact, that state of mind has prob­a­bly been clos­er to the rule than the excep­tion through­out moder­ni­ty itself. It’s just that the mix of things we have to think about keeps chang­ing: “The school run. Work calls. Infla­tion. Remem­ber your lines,” says BBC sci­ence reporter Melis­sa Hogen­boom in the video above. “Our brain nev­er evolved for any of this, and yet here we are, get­ting on with it as best we can, and it’s all thanks to our brain’s incred­i­ble capac­i­ty to adapt, to learn, to grow” — the very sub­ject she inves­ti­gates in this series, Brain Hacks.

In search of neu­ro­sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly sound “hacks to help strength­en cru­cial con­nec­tions and keep our minds younger in the process,” Hogen­boom put her­self through a “a six-week brain-alter­ing course.” The first seg­ment of the series finds her enter­ing into a med­i­ta­tion pro­gram she describes in this arti­cle: “For 30 min­utes a day, either as one sin­gle ses­sion or two 15-minute ses­sions, I prac­ticed a guid­ed mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion by lis­ten­ing to a record­ing.” In addi­tion, she had a week­ly ses­sion with Uni­ver­si­ty of Sur­rey pro­fes­sor of clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy Thorsten Barn­hofer, who also appears in the video.

Can med­i­ta­tion, and the oft-dis­cussed “mind­ful­ness” it empha­sizes, keep our minds from wan­der­ing away from what we real­ly need to think about? “Mind-wan­der­ing is some­thing that, of course, might be help­ful in many ways,” says Barn­hofer, “but it’s also some­thing that can go awry. This is where repet­i­tive think­ing comes in, where rumi­na­tive think­ing comes in, where wor­ry comes in. Those are the fac­tors which increase stress,” increas­ing the pres­ence of hor­mones like cor­ti­sol. And “if lev­els of cor­ti­sol remain high, that can actu­al­ly become tox­ic for your brain, for regions of your brain which are very plas­tic.” Stress, as Hogen­boom sums it up, “is a direct inhibitor of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty.”

“Research has found that after only a few months of mind­ful­ness train­ing, cer­tain depres­sion and anx­i­ety symp­toms can ease,” Hogen­boom writes, and her own expe­ri­ence seems also to point in that direc­tion. A brain scan per­formed after her med­i­ta­tion course found that “one half of my amyg­dala – an almond-shaped struc­ture impor­tant for emo­tion­al pro­cess­ing – had reduced in vol­ume,” pos­si­bly because the prac­tice “buffers stress seen in the amyg­dala.” It also revealed growth in her cin­gu­late cor­tex, “part of the lim­bic sys­tem that is involved in our behav­ioral and emo­tion­al respons­es,” which indi­cates “increased con­trol of that area.” Hogen­boom acknowl­edges that these changes “could also be ran­dom,” since “the brain is con­stant­ly chang­ing any­way”; the trick, how­ev­er and when­ev­er pos­si­ble, is to nudge it toward change for the bet­ter.

Bonus: Below, sci­ence jour­nal­ist Daniel Gole­man talks about mind­ful­ness and how you can change your brain in 10 min­utes with dai­ly med­i­ta­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Med­i­ta­tion 101: A Short, Ani­mat­ed Beginner’s Guide

How Med­i­ta­tion Can Change Your Brain: The Neu­ro­science of Bud­dhist Prac­tice

Alan Watts Presents a 15-Minute Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion: A Time-Test­ed Way to Stop Think­ing About Think­ing

Dis­cov­er the Back­wards Brain Bicy­cle: What Rid­ing a Bike Says About the Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty of the Brain

How Yoga Changes the Brain and May Guard Against Alzheimer’s and Demen­tia

5 Ways to Build an Alzheimer’s‑Resistant Brain: Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Lisa Gen­o­va Explains

David Lynch Explains Why Depres­sion Is the Ene­my of Cre­ativ­i­ty — and Why Med­i­ta­tion Is the Solu­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Is Consciousness an Illusion?? Five Experts in Science, Religion & Technology Explain

Even among non-neu­ro­sci­en­tists, deter­min­ing the ori­gin and pur­pose of con­scious­ness is wide­ly known as “the hard prob­lem.” Since its coinage by philoso­pher David Chalmers thir­ty years ago, that label has worked its way into a vari­ety of con­texts; about a decade ago, Tom Stop­pard even used it for the title of a play. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it’s also ref­er­enced in the episode of Big Think’s Dis­patch­es from the Well above, which presents dis­cus­sions of the nature of con­scious­ness with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Christof Koch, Vedan­ta Soci­ety of New York min­is­ter Swa­mi Sar­vapriyanan­da, tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neur Reid Hoff­man, San­ta Fe Insti­tute Davis Pro­fes­sor of Com­plex­i­ty Melanie Mitchell, and math­e­mat­i­cal physi­cist Roger Pen­rose.

Koch describes con­scious­ness as “what you see, it’s what you hear, it’s the pains you have, the love you have, the fear, the pas­sion.” It is, in oth­er words, “the expe­ri­ence of any­thing,” and for all their sophis­ti­ca­tion, our mod­ern inquiries into it descend from René Descartes’ propo­si­tion, “Cog­i­to, ergo sum.” Sar­vapriyanan­da, too, makes ref­er­ence to Descartes in explain­ing his own con­cep­tion of con­scious­ness as “the light of lights,” by which “every­thing here is lit up.”

Mitchell con­ceives of it as a con­tin­u­um: “I’m more con­scious when I’m awake,” for exam­ple, and “cer­tain species are more con­scious than oth­er species.” And per­haps it could devel­op even in non-bio­log­i­cal enti­ties: “I don’t think that we have any machines that are con­scious in any inter­est­ing sense yet,” Mitchell says, but “if we ever do, they’ll be part of that spec­trum.”

The ques­tion of whether a machine can attain con­scious­ness nat­u­ral­ly aris­es in host Kmele Fos­ter’s con­ver­sa­tion with Hoff­man, who’s made seri­ous invest­ments in arti­fi­cial-intel­li­gence research. As impres­sive as AI chat­bots have late­ly become, few among us would be will­ing to deem them con­scious; nev­er­the­less, attempt­ing to cre­ate not just intel­li­gence but con­scious­ness in machines may prove a fruit­ful way to learn about the work­ings of the “gen­uine arti­cles” with­in us. Pen­rose’s the­o­ry holds that con­scious­ness aris­es from as-yet-unpre­dictable quan­tum process­es occur­ring in the micro­tubules of the brain. Per­haps, as Koch has sug­gest­ed, it actu­al­ly exists to one degree or anoth­er in all forms of mat­ter. Or maybe — to quote from a song in heavy rota­tion on my child­hood Walk­man — it’s just what you make of your­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Neu­ronal Basis of Con­scious­ness Course: A Free Online Course from Cal­tech

John Sear­le Makes A Force­ful Case for Study­ing Con­scious­ness, Where Every­thing Else Begins

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

What Is High­er Con­scious­ness?: How We Can Tran­scend Our Pet­ty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deep­er Wis­dom

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How Being Bilingual Helps Your Brain (Even If You Learn a New Language in Adulthood)

There was a time in Amer­i­ca, not so very long ago, when con­ven­tion­al wis­dom dis­cour­aged immi­grants from speak­ing the lan­guage of the old coun­try at home. In fact, “it used to be thought that being bilin­gual was a bad thing, that it would con­fuse or hold peo­ple back, espe­cial­ly chil­dren. Turns out we could­n’t have been more wrong.” These words are spo­ken by one of the vari­ety of mul­ti­lin­gual nar­ra­tors of the recent BBC Ideas video above, which explains “why being bilin­gual is good for your brain” — not just if you pick up a sec­ond lan­guage in child­hood, but also, and dif­fer­ent­ly, if you delib­er­ate­ly study it as an adult.

“Learn­ing a new lan­guage is an exer­cise of the mind,” says Li Wei of the Insti­tute of Edu­ca­tion at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. “It’s the men­tal equiv­a­lent of going to a gym every day.” In the bilin­gual brain, “all our lan­guages are active, all at the same time.” (This we hear simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in Eng­lish and the pro­fes­sor’s native Man­darin.) “The con­tin­u­al effort of sup­press­ing a lan­guage when speak­ing anoth­er, along with the men­tal chal­lenge that comes with reg­u­lar­ly switch­ing between lan­guages, exer­cis­es our brain. It improves our con­cen­tra­tion, prob­lem-solv­ing, mem­o­ry, and in turn, our cre­ativ­i­ty.”

In this cen­tu­ry, some of the key dis­cov­er­ies about the ben­e­fits of bilin­gual­ism owe to the research of York Uni­ver­si­ty cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Ellen Bia­lystok and her col­lab­o­ra­tors. Speak­ing a for­eign lan­guage, she explains in this Guardian inter­view, requires using the brain’s “exec­u­tive con­trol sys­tem, whose job it is to resolve com­pe­ti­tion and focus atten­tion. If you’re bilin­gual, you are using this sys­tem all the time, and that enhances and for­ti­fies it.” In one study, she and her team found that bilin­guals with advanced Alzheimer’s could func­tion at the same cog­ni­tive lev­els with milder degrees of the same con­di­tion. “That’s the advan­tage: they could cope with the dis­ease bet­ter.”

Mas­ter­ing a for­eign lan­guage is, of course, an aspi­ra­tion com­mon­ly held but sel­dom real­ized. Based on per­son­al expe­ri­ence, I can say that noth­ing does the trick quite like mov­ing to a for­eign coun­try. But even if you’d rather not pull up stakes, you can ben­e­fit from the fact that the inter­net now pro­vides the great­est, most acces­si­ble abun­dance of lan­guage-learn­ing resources and tools human­i­ty has ever known — an abun­dance you can start explor­ing right here at Open Cul­ture. If it feels over­whelm­ing to choose just one for­eign lan­guage from this world of pos­si­bil­i­ties, feel free to use my sys­tem: study sev­en of them, one for each day of the week. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s Tues­day, which means I’ve got some français à appren­dre.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

Becom­ing Bilin­gual Can Give Your Brain a Boost: What Recent Research Has to Say

A Map Show­ing How Much Time It Takes to Learn For­eign Lan­guages: From Eas­i­est to Hard­est

Why You Have an Accent When You Speak a For­eign Lan­guage

What Are the Most Effec­tive Strate­gies for Learn­ing a For­eign Lan­guage?: Six TED Talks Pro­vide the Answers

Meet the Hyper­poly­glots, the Peo­ple Who Can Mys­te­ri­ous­ly Speak Up to 32 Dif­fer­ent Lan­guages

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Watch an Auroratone, a Psychedelic 1940s Film, Featuring Bing Crosby, That Helped WWII Vets Overcome PTSD & Other Mental Health Conditions

As Lisa Simp­son once mem­o­rably remarked, “I can see the music.”

Pret­ty much any­one can these days.

Just switch on your device’s audio visu­al­iz­er.

That wasn’t the case in the 1940s, when psy­chol­o­gist Cecil A. Stokes used chem­istry and polar­ized light to invent sooth­ing abstract music videos, a sort of cin­e­mat­ic synes­the­sia exper­i­ment such as can be seen above, in his only known sur­viv­ing Auro­ra­tone.

(The name was sug­gest­ed by Stokes’ acquain­tance, geol­o­gist, Arc­tic explor­er and Catholic priest, Bernard R. Hub­bard, who found the result rem­i­nis­cent of the Auro­ra Bore­alis.)

The trip­py visu­als may strike you as a bit of an odd fit with Bing Cros­by’s cov­er of the sen­ti­men­tal crowd­pleas­er “Oh Promise Me,” but trau­ma­tized WWII vets felt dif­fer­ent­ly.

Army psy­chol­o­gists Her­bert E. Rubin and Elias Katz’s research showed that Auro­ra­tone films had a ther­a­peu­tic effect on their patients, includ­ing deep relax­ation and emo­tion­al release.

The music sure­ly con­tributed to this pos­i­tive out­come. Oth­er Auro­ra­tone films fea­tured “Moon­light Sonata,” “Clair de Lune,” and an organ solo of “I Dream of Jean­nie with the Light Brown Hair.”

Drs. Rubin and Katz report­ed that patients reli­ably wept dur­ing Auro­ra­tones set to “The Lost Chord,” “Ave Maria,” and “Home on the Range” — anoth­er Cros­by num­ber.

In fact, Cros­by, always a cham­pi­on of tech­nol­o­gy, con­tributed record­ings for a full third of the fif­teen known Auro­ra­tones free of charge and foot­ed the bill for over­seas ship­ping so the films could be shown to sol­diers on active duty and med­ical leave.

Technophile Cros­by was well posi­tioned to under­stand Stokes’ patent­ed process and appa­ra­tus for pro­duc­ing musi­cal rhythm in col­oraka Auro­ra­tones — but those of us with a shaki­er grasp of STEM will appre­ci­ate light artist John Sonderegger’s expla­na­tion of the process, as quot­ed in film­mak­er and media con­ser­va­tor Wal­ter Fors­berg’s his­to­ry of Auro­ra­tones for INCITE Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Media:

[Stokes’] pro­ce­dure was to cut a tape record­ed melody into short seg­ments and splice the result­ing pieces into tape loops. The audio sig­nal from the first loop was sent to a radio trans­mit­ter. The radio waves from the radio trans­mit­ter were con­fined to a tube and focused up through a glass slide on which he had placed a chem­i­cal mix­ture. The radio waves would inter­act with the solu­tion and trig­ger the for­ma­tion of the crys­tals. In this way each slide would devel­op a shape inter­pre­tive of the loop of music it had been exposed to. Each loop, in sequence, would be con­vert­ed to a slide. Even­tu­al­ly a set of slides would be com­plet­ed that was the nat­ur­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the com­plete musi­cal melody.

Vets suf­fer­ing from PTSD were not the only ones to embrace these unlike­ly exper­i­men­tal films.

Patients diag­nosed with oth­er men­tal dis­or­ders, youth­ful offend­ers, indi­vid­u­als plagued by chron­ic migraines, and devel­op­men­tal­ly delayed ele­men­tary school­ers also ben­e­fit­ed from Auro­ra­tones’ sooth­ing effects.

The gen­er­al pub­lic got a taste of the films in depart­ment store screen­ings hyped as “the near­est thing to the Auro­ra Bore­alis ever shown”, where the soporif­ic effect of the col­or pat­terns were tout­ed as hav­ing been cre­at­ed “by MOTHER NATURE HERSELF.”

Auro­ra­tones were also shown in church by can­ny Chris­t­ian lead­ers eager to deploy any bells and whis­tles that might hold a mod­ern flock’s atten­tion.

The Guggen­heim Muse­um’s brass was vast­ly less impressed by the Auro­ra­tone Foun­da­tion of America’s attempts to enlist their sup­port for this “new tech­nique using non-objec­tive art and musi­cal com­po­si­tions as a means of stim­u­lat­ing the human emo­tions in a man­ner so as to be of val­ue to neu­ro-psy­chi­a­trists and psy­chol­o­gists, as well as to teach­ers and stu­dents of both objec­tive and non-objec­tive art.”

Co-founder Hilla Rebay, an abstract artist her­self, wrote a let­ter in which she advised Stokes to “learn what is dec­o­ra­tion, acci­dent, intel­lec­tu­al con­fu­sion, pat­tern, sym­me­try… in art there is con­ceived law only –nev­er an acci­dent.”

A plan for pro­ject­ing Auro­ra­tones in mater­ni­ty wards to “do away with the pains of child-birth” appears to have been a sim­i­lar non-starter.

While only one Auro­ra­tone is known to have sur­vived — and its dis­cov­ery by Robert Martens, cura­tor of Grandpa’s Pic­ture Par­ty, is a fas­ci­nat­ing tale unto itself — you can try cob­bling togeth­er a 21st-cen­tu­ry DIY approx­i­ma­tion by plug­ging any of the below tunes into your pre­ferred music play­ing soft­ware and turn­ing on the visu­al­iz­er:

  • Amer­i­can Prayer by Gin­ny Simms
  • Ave Maria, sung by Bing Cros­by with organ accom­pa­ni­ment by Edward Dun­st­edter
  • Clair de Lune, played by Andre Kosta­lan­etz and his orches­tra
  • Going My Way, sung by Bing Cros­by with organ accom­pa­ni­ment by Edward Dun­st­edter
  • Home on the Range, sung by Bing Cros­by with organ accom­pa­ni­ment by Edward Dun­st­edter
  • Moon­light Sonata, played by Miss April Ayres

via Boing Boing / INCITE

Relat­ed Con­tent 

How the 1968 Psy­che­del­ic Film Head Destroyed the Mon­kees & Became a Cult Clas­sic

Short Film “Syd Barrett’s First Trip” Reveals the Pink Floyd Founder’s Psy­che­del­ic Exper­i­men­ta­tion (1967)

The Psy­che­del­ic Ani­mat­ed Video for Kraftwerk’s “Auto­bahn” (1979)

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Neuroscientists Reconstruct a Pink Floyd Song from Listeners’ Brain Activity, with a Little Help from AI

Any­one who’s worked in an oper­at­ing room knows that many sur­geons like to put on music while they do their job, and that their work­ing sound­tracks often include sur­pris­ing artists. It hard­ly requires a leap of imag­i­na­tion to assume that there are more than a few scalpel-wield­ing Pink Floyd fans out there — scalpel-wield­ing Pink Floyd fans who will sure­ly feel their musi­cal taste vin­di­cat­ed by a study that involved play­ing “Anoth­er Brick in the Wall (Part 1)” to patients under­go­ing epilep­sy-relat­ed neu­ro­surgery. After­ward, with help from arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, the researchers were able to recon­struct the song from those patients’ record­ed brain­waves.

That this turns out to be pos­si­ble offers “a first step toward cre­at­ing more expres­sive devices to assist peo­ple who can’t speak,” writes the New York Times’ Hana Kiros. “Over the past few years, sci­en­tists have made major break­throughs in extract­ing words from the elec­tri­cal sig­nals pro­duced by the brains of peo­ple with mus­cle paral­y­sis when they attempt to speak. But a sig­nif­i­cant amount of the infor­ma­tion con­veyed through speech comes from what lin­guists call ‘prosod­ic’ ele­ments, like tone.”

It is the musi­cal ele­ments of speech, one might say, that have so far elud­ed repro­duc­tion by exist­ing brain-machine inter­faces, whose sen­tences “have a robot­ic qual­i­ty akin to how the late Stephen Hawk­ing sound­ed when he used a speech-gen­er­at­ing device,” as Robert Sanders writes in Berke­ley News.

You can hear a clip of “Anoth­er Brick in the Wall (Part 1)” as gen­er­at­ed from the researchers’ AI work with brain­wave data in the Euronews video above. Indis­tinct though it may sound, the song will come through rec­og­niz­ably even to the ears of casu­al Pink Floyd fans (irked though they’ll be by the video’s accom­pa­ny­ing it with the cov­er image from The Dark Side of the Moon). They may also feel the urge to con­tin­ue lis­ten­ing to the rest of The Wall, espe­cial­ly “Anoth­er Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” with its school-choir deliv­ered dec­la­ra­tion that we don’t need no mind con­trol. But as for just-dawn­ing tech­nolo­gies that allow us to con­trol things with our minds — well, that would­n’t be so bad, would it?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Neu­rosym­pho­ny: A High-Res­o­lu­tion Look into the Brain, Set to the Music of Brain Waves

Music in the Brain: Sci­en­tists Final­ly Reveal the Parts of Our Brain That Are Ded­i­cat­ed to Music

Hear a Neu­ro­sci­en­tist-Curat­ed 712-Track Playlist of Music that Caus­es Fris­son, or Musi­cal Chills

The Neu­ro­science of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instru­ments Are Fun­da­men­tal to Music

How Pink Floyd Built The Wall: The Album, Tour & Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How Much of What You See Is Actually a Hallucination?: An Animated TED-Ed Lesson

All of us have, at one time or anoth­er, been accused of not see­ing what’s right in front of us. But as a close exam­i­na­tion of our bio­log­i­cal visu­al sys­tem reveals, none of us can see what’s right in front of us. “Our eyes have blind spots where the optic nerve blocks part of the reti­na,” says the nar­ra­tor of the new ani­mat­ed TED-Ed video above. “When the visu­al cor­tex process­es light into coher­ent images, it fills in these blind spots with infor­ma­tion from the sur­round­ing area. Occa­sion­al­ly we might notice a glitch, but most of the time, we’re none the wis­er.” This absence of gen­uine infor­ma­tion in the very cen­ter of our vision has long cir­cu­lat­ed in the stan­dard set of fas­ci­nat­ing facts.

What’s less well known is that these same neu­ro­log­i­cal process­es have made the blind see — or rather, they’ve induced in the blind an expe­ri­ence sub­jec­tive­ly indis­tin­guish­able from see­ing. It’s just that the things they “see” don’t exist in real­i­ty.

Take the case of an elder­ly woman named Ros­alie, with which the video opens. On one oth­er­wise nor­mal day at the nurs­ing home, “her room sud­den­ly burst to life with twirling fab­rics. Through the elab­o­rate drap­ings, she could make out ani­mals, chil­dren, and cos­tumed char­ac­ters,” even though she’d lost her sight long before. “Ros­alie had devel­oped a con­di­tion known as Charles Bon­net Syn­drome, in which patients with either impaired vision or total blind­ness sud­den­ly hal­lu­ci­nate whole scenes in vivid col­or.”

This leads us to the coun­ter­in­tu­itive find­ing that you don’t need sight to expe­ri­ence visu­al hal­lu­ci­na­tions. (You do need to have once had sight, which gives the brain visu­al mem­o­ries on which to draw lat­er.) But “even in peo­ple with com­plete­ly unim­paired sens­es, the brain con­structs the world we per­ceive from incom­plete infor­ma­tion.” Take that gap in the mid­dle of our visu­al field, which the brain fills with, in effect, a hal­lu­ci­na­tion, albeit not one of the elab­o­rate, some­times over­whelm­ing kinds induced by “recre­ation­al and ther­a­peu­tic drugs, con­di­tions like epilep­sy and nar­colep­sy, and psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders like schiz­o­phre­nia.” At the end of the les­son, the nar­ra­tor sug­gests that inter­est­ed view­ers seek out the work of neu­rol­o­gist-writer Oliv­er Sacks, which deals exten­sive­ly with what opens gaps between real­i­ty and our per­cep­tions — and which we here at Open Cul­ture are always pre­pared to rec­om­mend.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Oliv­er Sacks Explains the Biol­o­gy of Hal­lu­ci­na­tions: “We See with the Eyes, But with the Brain as Well”

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

A Beau­ti­ful 1870 Visu­al­iza­tion of the Hal­lu­ci­na­tions That Come Before a Migraine

Alice in Won­der­land Syn­drome: The Real Per­cep­tu­al Dis­or­der That May Have Shaped Lewis Carroll’s Cre­ative World

This is What Oliv­er Sacks Learned on LSD and Amphet­a­mines

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Bored at Work? Here’s What Your Brain Is Trying to Tell You

That we spend much, if not most, of our lives work­ing is, in itself, not nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad thing — unless, that is, we’re bored doing it. In the Big Think video above, Lon­don Busi­ness School Pro­fes­sor of Orga­ni­za­tion­al Behav­ior Dan Cable cites Gallup polls show­ing that “about 70 per­cent of peo­ple are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about eigh­teen per­cent of peo­ple are repulsed.” This may sound nor­mal enough, but Cable calls these per­cep­tions of work as “a thing that we have to get through on the way to the week­end” a “human­is­tic sick­ness”: a bad con­di­tion for peo­ple, of course, but also for the “orga­ni­za­tions who get lack­lus­ter per­for­mance.”

Cable traces the civ­i­liza­tion­al roots of this at-work bore­dom back to the decades after the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. In the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, a shoe-shop­per would go to the local cob­bler. “Each of the peo­ple in the store would watch the cus­tomer walk in, and then they’d make a shoe for that cus­tomer.” But toward the end of the cen­tu­ry, “we got this dif­fer­ent idea, as a species, where we should not sell two pairs of shoes each day, but two mil­lion.”

This vast increase of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty entailed “break­ing the work into extreme­ly small tasks, where most of the peo­ple don’t meet the cus­tomer. Most of the peo­ple don’t invent the shoe. Most of the peo­ple don’t actu­al­ly see the shoe made from begin­ning to end.”

It entailed, in oth­er words, “remov­ing the mean­ing from work” in the name of ever-greater scale and effi­cien­cy. The nature of the tasks that result don’t sit well with a part of our brain called the ven­tral stria­tum. Always “urg­ing us to explore the bound­aries of what we know, urg­ing us to be curi­ous,” it sends our minds right out of jobs that no longer offer us the chance to learn any­thing new. One solu­tion is to work for small­er orga­ni­za­tions, whose mem­bers tend to play mul­ti­ple roles in clos­er prox­im­i­ty to the cus­tomer; anoth­er is to engage in big-pic­ture think­ing by stay­ing aware of what Cable calls “the why of the work,” its larg­er impact on the world, as well as how it fits in with your own pur­pose. But then, bore­dom at work isn’t all bad: a bout of it may well, after all, have led you to read this post in the first place.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Ben­e­fits of Bore­dom: How to Stop Dis­tract­ing Your­self and Get Cre­ative Ideas Again

The Phi­los­o­phy of “Opti­mistic Nihilism,” Or How to Find Pur­pose in a Mean­ing­less Uni­verse

How to Take Advan­tage of Bore­dom, the Secret Ingre­di­ent of Cre­ativ­i­ty

Find­ing Pur­pose & Mean­ing In Life: Liv­ing for What Mat­ters Most — A Free Online Course from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopi­an Office Movies: What The Matrix, Fight Club, Amer­i­can Beau­ty, Office Space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Com­mon

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

More in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.