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How Your Brain Became an Illusion Factory: Time, Color, Causality
Your brain is playing tricks on you. And most of the time you have no idea what is really going on.
Dean Buonomano was among the first neuroscientists to begin to ask how the human brain encodes time. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, Buonomano says, and for that reason many researchers overlook it. “The first field of modern science was probably geometry, which was formalized by Euclid around 300 B.C.,” says the researcher, “What’s amazing about geometry is that there is absolutely no time involved; it’s the study of things that never change. And there’s a reason why it is one of the first science fields. Science is much easier if you can ignore time.” Buonomano was in grad school when he became enamored of the question of how we navigate through time. As a graduate student at the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center at Houston, Buonomano collaborated with Michael Mauk after he heard Mauk’s lecture on his studies of the neural circuits in the cerebellum. Mauk and Buonomano modeled the way the cerebellum’s circuits could respond to stimuli and showed that this type of neuronal network can differentiate between time intervals that differ by just tens of milliseconds. Such networks also have the ability to tune the timing of their responses, the two found. “My collaboration with him was absolutely formative for me,” says Buonomano. “Mauk had this very influential notion that time is encoded in the changing patterns of neuronal activity.” Today, Buonomano’s laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, uses computational modeling, in vitro electrophysiology, and human psychophysics experiments to explore how neurons and the brain as a whole perceive and respond to time. Here, Buonomano describes how he performed his first experiments on his little sister, bathed mice with antidandruff shampoo, and hypothesized that timing is so integral to brain function that all of our brain’s circuits keep tabs on the clock. In his new book, Your Brain Is a Time Machine, brain researcher and best-selling author Dean Buonomano draws on evolutionary biology, physics, and philosophy to present his influential theory of how we tell, and perceive, time. The human brain, he argues, is a complex system that not only tells time but creates it; it constructs our sense of chronological flow and enables “mental time travel”—simulations of future and past events. These functions are essential not only to our daily lives but to the evolution of the human race: without the ability to anticipate the future, mankind would never have crafted tools or invented agriculture. The brain was designed to navigate our continuously changing world by predicting what will happen and when.
Dean Buonomano was among the first neuroscientists to begin to ask how the human brain encodes time. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, Buonomano says, and for that reason many researchers overlook it. “The first field of modern science was probably geometry, which was formalized by Euclid around 300 B.C.,” says the researcher, “What’s amazing about geometry is that there is absolutely no time involved; it’s the study of things that never change. And there’s a reason why it is one of the first science fields. Science is much easier if you can ignore time.”
Buonomano was in grad school when he became enamored of the question of how we navigate through time. As a graduate student at the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center at Houston, Buonomano collaborated with Michael Mauk after he heard Mauk’s lecture on his studies of the neural circuits in the cerebellum. Mauk and Buonomano modeled the way the cerebellum’s circuits could respond to stimuli and showed that this type of neuronal network can differentiate between time intervals that differ by just tens of milliseconds. Such networks also have the ability to tune the timing of their responses, the two found. “My collaboration with him was absolutely formative for me,” says Buonomano. “Mauk had this very influential notion that time is encoded in the changing patterns of neuronal activity.”
Today, Buonomano’s laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, uses computational modeling, in vitro electrophysiology, and human psychophysics experiments to explore how neurons and the brain as a whole perceive and respond to time. Here, Buonomano describes how he performed his first experiments on his little sister, bathed mice with antidandruff shampoo, and hypothesized that timing is so integral to brain function that all of our brain’s circuits keep tabs on the clock.
In his new book, Your Brain Is a Time Machine, brain researcher and best-selling author Dean Buonomano draws on evolutionary biology, physics, and philosophy to present his influential theory of how we tell, and perceive, time. The human brain, he argues, is a complex system that not only tells time but creates it; it constructs our sense of chronological flow and enables “mental time travel”—simulations of future and past events. These functions are essential not only to our daily lives but to the evolution of the human race: without the ability to anticipate the future, mankind would never have crafted tools or invented agriculture. The brain was designed to navigate our continuously changing world by predicting what will happen and when.
Dean Buonomano: Time is complicated, I think more so than space. If you think about our mammalian ancestors, our mammalian cousins, all animals have a fairly good understanding of space in the sense that they know where a predator is located behind a tree; or if my dog loses its treat it knows to go behind the couch or beside the couch or over the couch.
But time—we navigate space, right. We take left turns, we have a map of space within our heads and we know that if somebody goes around the corner where we can go after them.
But time we don’t navigate time, right. Time is this one way street. And I think in part because of that time is something that we never involved to manipulate to map out because we have very little options. Time doesn’t have any branches or right turns or exits or 180 degree wraparounds. So I think the brain of most mammals didn’t involve to manipulate, to think about time as much as in space.
Although I think humans are unique in the sense that we and perhaps we alone have this notion of past, present and future being fundamentally different from each other an ability to map out time. And the same is true by the way in science. If you think about what’s probably the first field of modern science. Let’s say that’s geometry, right. Geometry, as formalized by Euclid over 2000 years ago is probably the first field of modern science. And why?
I think the reason is is because the universe is a simpler place if we can ignore time. So geometry is basically the study of a universe in which nothing changes. It’s space and objects that don’t change in time. It took another 2000 years for people, great scientists like Galileo and Newton to fully incorporate time into mathematics and physics and to further bring physics into its renaissance in which it fully embraced time and its complexity. Biology as well. Up until the 1800s biology was fairly static until Darwin came along playing the role of Galileo and said “Look, species change. They’re in motion. They’re mutating and adapting.”
I think neuroscience is just reaching that stage now in which it’s fully coming to embrace the time and its full complexity along with dynamics and look at the brain as a time machine of sorts.
So the brain is indeed an illusion factory. Many of the things that we experience in the world around us are an illusion in one sense of that word. So a common example is color.
So color we perceive in this vivid array of different sensory experiences, is something that in many ways an illusion because color doesn’t exist in the physical world.
What exists in the physical world is wavelength. The wavelengths of visible light of the electromagnetic spectrum. The brain if you will imposes a sensory percept on top of those wavelengths which is subject to many illusions. The intensity of green or intensity of blue that we see often doesn’t exactly match the wavelengths that we’re seeing anyway.
So it’s reasonable to ask well maybe our sense of time or our sense of flow of time is an illusion. But I think there’s an important difference between those two subjective experiences.
So our sense of color correlates very tightly with something in the external world, with a physical property which is visible light. And that’s why it’s adaptive. So color evolved, our perception of color evolved because it was adaptive, it was evolutionary adaptive to provide information about the external world. The color of a snake may tell us very important information whether it’s poisonous or not.
Now presumably our sense of the flow of time should be adaptive as well. Most of our subjective experiences presumably have some evolutionary advantage to them. If our sense of the flow of time is an illusion in the deepest sense, meaning that it reflects something that doesn’t exist in the physical world, then it’s a bit hard to understand what would be the evolutionary purpose of our sense of the flow of time. So I think there’s reasons to which physicists and neuroscientists have to collaborate more and to resolve these mysteries. Should we look at the sense of the flow of time, our subjective sense of the flow of time which is very profound, right, where truly every human on the planet has this unmistakable feeling of time flowing and we have to decide if that unmistakable feeling of time flowing by is something that evolved because it offered a selective advantage about what’s happening in the world. And thus it correlates with a property of the universe that really exists or if in contrast it’s an illusion that doesn’t correspond to any property of the physical world. And then in that case physicists don’t have to explain the basis of evolution of consciousness. I mean the illusion of the nature of the flow of time. But neuroscientists have to work to resolve that mystery. On the other hand if we accept that our sense of the flow of time is a valid empirical observation about the external world then physics has to attempt to explain what we are perceiving.
Are you sitting down? We've got some news: your brain is playing tricks on you. It must be hard to hear that, y'know, since you've known your brain for so long. But your brain is perceiving time, color, and a whole array of other things in a fully different way that you think you are. It might sound a big "freshman dorm conversation after midnight" initially, but Dean Buonomano explains perfectly that color (for instance) is little more than wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, and that time is a totally human construct in that it doesn't exactly exist because it is entirely subjective. Dean's new book is appropriately called Your Brain Is A Time Machine.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
Several experts have weighed in on our sometimes morbid curiosity and fascination with true crime.
- True crime podcasts can get as many as 500,000 downloads per month. In the Top 100 Podcasts of 2020 list for Apple, several true crime podcasts ranked within the Top 20.
- Our fascination with true crime isn't just limited to podcasts, with Netflix documentaries like "Confessions of a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes" scoring high popularity with viewers.
- Several experts weigh in on our fascination with these stories with theories including fear-based adrenaline rushes and the inherent need to understand the human mind.
Why are we fascinated with true crime stories?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzODA1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MzkwOTAzOX0.7WqeWaf-odtEJV5XB2jdEG1uPU5d6Uaujw6iy6MKMbw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="d99fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e14d547e4d386925bad470882a823333" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="woman standing in front of crime scene notes" />
Several experts and psychologists weigh in on why we could be so fascinated by violence, destruction and true crime stories...
Photo by Motortion Films on Shutterstock<p>Several experts have weighed in on this topic over the years, as the spike in popularity of true crime media has continued at an astonishing rate.</p><p><strong>Psychopaths are charismatic.</strong> </p><p>One of the <a href="https://www.scienceofpeople.com/psychopath/#:~:text=Psychopathy%20researchers%20found%20that%20psychopaths,defer%20gratification%20and%20control%20behavior" target="_blank">defining qualities of a psychopath</a> is that they have "superficial charm and glibness", which could explain part of our fascination with podcasts, TV shows, and movies that cover the lives of famous serial killers like Ted Bundy.</p><p><strong>Our psychology demands we pay attention to things that could harm us.</strong></p><p>Psychology can play a large role in why we like what we like, and our fascination with true crime stories is no exception. When it comes to potential threats or things that could be threatening to humanity, perhaps we've been conditioned to pay those things extra attention. </p><p>According to Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist at <a href="http://www.doctorondemand.com/" target="_blank">Doctor on Demand</a> who spoke about the process <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/science-behind-why-we-can-t-look-away-disasters-ncna804966" target="_blank">in an interview with NBC News</a>, seeing destruction, disaster, or tragedy actually triggers survival instincts in us. </p><p>"A disaster enters into our awareness - this can be from a live source such as driving by a traffic accident or from watching a news report about a hurricane, a plane crash or any disaster," Mayer said. "This data from our perceptual system then stimulates the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions, survival tactics and memory). The amygdala then sends signals to the regions of the frontal cortex that are involved in analyzing and interpreting data. Next, the brain evaluates whether this data (awareness of the disaster) is a threat to you, thus judgment gets involved. As a result, the 'fight or flight' response is evoked." </p><p><strong>Could it just be morbid curiosity? </strong></p><p>Dr. Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., a professor at De Sales University, explained <a href="https://www.bustle.com/p/why-are-people-so-obsessed-with-true-crime-experts-reveal-the-evolutionary-reasons-why-18138062" target="_blank">in an interview with Bustle</a>:</p><p>"Part of our love of true crime is based on something very natural: curiosity. People reading or watching a true crime story are engaged on several levels. They are curious about who would do this, they want to know the psychology of the bad guy, girl, or team. They want to know something about the abhorrent mind. They also love the puzzle - figuring out how it was done." </p><p><strong>Perhaps it's a way of facing our fears and planning our own reactions without risking immediate harm. </strong></p><p>In an interview with NBC News, psychiatrist Dr. David Henderson suggested that we may be fascinated with violence, destruction, or crime as a way of assessing how we would handle ourselves if put into that situation:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Witnessing violence and destruction, whether it is in a novel, a movie, on TV or a real life scene playing out in front of us in real time, gives us the opportunity to confront our fears of death, pain, despair, degradation and annihilation while still feeling some level of safety. This sensation is sometimes experienced when we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or look through the glass at a ferocious lion at the zoo. We watch because we are allowed to ask ourselves ultimate questions with an intensity of emotion that is uncoupled from the true reality of the disaster: 'If I was in that situation, what would I do? How would I respond? Would I be the hero or the villain? Could I endure the pain? Would I have the strength to recover?' We play out the different scenarios in our head because it helps us to reconcile that which is uncontrollable with our need to remain in control."</em></p><p><strong>Psychologically, negative events activate our brains more than positive events. </strong></p><p><a href="http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0033-2909.134.3.383" target="_blank">A 2008 study</a> published by the American Psychological Association found that humans react to and learn more from negative experiences than we do positive ones. The term "negative bias" is the tendency to automatically give more attention (and meaning) to negative events and information more than positive events or information. </p><p><strong>A forced perspective may trigger empathy and act as a coping mechanism. </strong></p><p>Viewing destruction (or listening to/watching true crime stories) could be beneficial. According to Dr. Mayer, "the healthy mechanism of watching disasters is that it is a coping mechanism. We can become incubated emotionally by watching disasters and this helps us cope with hardships in our lives…" <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/science-behind-why-we-can-t-look-away-disasters-ncna804966" target="_blank">Dr. Stephen Rosenburg points out</a>, however, that this empathetic response can also have a negative impact. "Being human and having empathy can make us feel worried or depressed."</p><p>Dr. Rosenberg goes on to explain that this can also impact the negativity bias. "We tend to think negatively to protect ourselves from the reality. If it turns out better, we're relieved. If it turns out worse, we're prepared." </p><p><strong>Perhaps the adrenaline of fear that comes from listening to or watching true crime can become addicting. </strong></p><p>Similarly to how people get a "runners high" from exercise or feel depressed when they have missed a scheduled run, the adrenaline that pumps during our consumption of true crime stories <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201508/can-you-be-addicted-adrenaline" target="_blank">can become addictive</a>. According to sociology and criminology professor Scott Bonn, <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201605/the-delightful-guilty-pleasure-watching-true-crime-tv" target="_blank">in an interview with Psychology Today</a>: "The public is drawn to these stories because they trigger the most basic and powerful emotion in us all: fear."</p>