Brain technologies

Madonna

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Strange face images

The brain is extremely good at recognizing human faces and is believed to have a special module or part that is responsible for analyzing faces
(Carter, Rita; Frith, Christopher. (1999). Mapping the mind. University of California Press).

This module is obviously very handy, but it can also play nasty tricks with our perception.


Look at the image here to the right. You will most certainly recognize the famous singer and actress Madonna. The photo is upside down, but otherwise it seems normal to you, right?

Well, prepare yourself for a mind-boggler.


The image to the LEFT is is the same image as before, only rotated 180° to be "right". Not a pretty sight, is it? If you don’t believe me, print the image or copy it to a graphics editor and rotate it 180° again.

The image on the RIGHT is the original image for comparison. What a relief! (Original image courtesy of: WireImage.com)

What? How? In the funky image I have taken Madonna’s eyes and mouth and rotated them 180°. In addition I switched the right and left eyes (we are also extremely good at recognizing only eyes).

We are not used to faces being this way and therefore the face recognition module assumes all is in order and even recognizes the face. When we turn it around, the face recognition module instantly sees that something is terribly wrong.

The Brain Revolution

Once I was going to write a book. As a matter of fact I started writing a book. The subject was brain technologies from technical, philosophical, historical and futuristic standpoints.

As all of my time now is devoted to developing Spurl.net further, I realized that this book is not going to be finished. At the same time I have a lot of material that I have already written and it won’t do any good lying around on my computer, therefore I’ve decided to publish this material bit-by-bit on the Wetware blog (that has also been neglected due to Spurl).

Take it for what it is – more or less provisional work, unedited and not necessarily in the order it would have been in a completed work. The first chapter follows and other bits and pieces will come in during the next weeks.

Scientific American Mind

Scientific American’s latest special issue is Scientific American Mind. It is a collection of very informative and interesting articles on the latest in brain science, philosophy of mind and brain technologies.

There is a brilliant article on “idiot savants” – people that have autism or received serious brain damage so that they do not function in daily life, yet have acquired some incredible special talents. Among the individuals mentioned in the article is Kim Peek, the man who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s character in the Rain man. He knows the text of 7,500 books by heart! Another one is Ellen who can tell the current time to the second without a clock no matter what the season.

While the whole issue is most interesting, three other articles in the issue are worth special mentioning:

  1. Anguish and Ethics (p. 10) that talks about how brain science is being used to better understand how humans deal with moral and ethical issues.
  2. The quest to find consciousness (p. 32) on efforts to understand how consciousness works – or better yet, what it is. These questions have hitherto been left to philosophers, but are gradually becoming hard science.
  3. The science of persuasion (p. 70). Consumer marketing – the persuasion techniques used to get us to buy certain products, elect a stupid president and other ways to make us sit and stand at “their” will.

I think most of you that read this blog will find this issue of Scientific American most amusing – and, no, there is nothing in it for me 😉

The Status of Brain-Machine Interfaces

I mentioned in the Trendwatch the other day that Popular Science has a cover article in January about Brain-Machine Interfaces. Well, the article is now online, and it is a brilliant one. Wetware has mentioned much of the research discussed in the article before (see the Brain technologies category), but Carl Zimmer‘s article is a well written first hand account – which I unfortunately cannot match.

Here are just a few interesting bits from the article:
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Animal brained robots

Do you remember the “scribbling rat neurons“, Wetware wrote about a few weeks ago? In that project, neurons from a rat’s brain were used to control a robot arm, holding a pencil. To add a little dramatic effect, the “brain” and its “body” were on two different continents.

While this sort of thing gives some people the creeps, several people have been experimenting with similar animal brained machinery, and we’ll no doubt see plenty more. Following are a few examples.
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Listening to the walls

BBC yesterday posted an article about blind people who restore rudimentary vision using a system that turns the input from a head mounted camera into sound. The result has enabled a blind woman to distinguish similar objects, roughly make out obstacles in her environment and detect whether the lights in a room are on or off.

These remarkable results are thanks to a system called vOICe (where the three middle letters stand for “Oh I See”), developed by Dr Peter Meijer, a senior scientist at Philips Research Laboratories in the Netherlands.
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Note to self: Take notes

The single thing in the philosophy of mind that has surprised me the most is the importance of human language in thinking. Its importance in communication is of course quite obvious, but in the inner language we use to “talk to ourselves” its role is more open to dispute. I won’t go too far into the different theories here, but the theories I’ve read range from that it plays no role at all, to the notion that without “inner language”, no planning nor direct recall of experience is possible. We would simply be living in the present, trying to make the most of it based on the general but not specific experience we have accumulated in our lives.

At first I was a little skeptical of the importance of language in thinking, but the more I read and think about it, the more I believe in its central role in human thinking. Words are almost definitely used as references to memories. Try this for an example: Think of a dog. How do you do that without thinking of the word “dog”? Can you imagine? Of course a picture of a dog, hearing a bark or encountering a real live dog would get you there, but in the absence of those it is hard to imagine how you would call a dog to your mind without using the word “dog” as a reference. And what do we do to memorize things? We utter them over and over as if to imprint them thoroughly into our heads.
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