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Category Archive: science

Magic and the Brain in the Phoenix Theater!

Watch us pull a card out of your brain!

We were  thrilled to join world-renowned magicians James Randi and Mac King for an evening of science and magic!

Las Vegas is coming to Phoenix for a rare star-studded event that will mix the world’s greatest magic with the mysterious science of the brain. International-renowned magicians Mac King and the Amazing Randi will take the stage along with brain scientists from Barrow Neurological Institute in an evening titled “Magic and the Brain.” The September 17 charity event at Phoenix Theater will showcase the unusual partnership between scientists at Barrow and magicians who have traveled to the Institute to help medical researchers better understand the way the brain functions and how it is tricked. Barrow, located at St. Joseph’s Hospital, is celebrating its 50th Anniversary and today does more brain surgeries than any hospital in the nation. The unusual medical research has been led by Drs. Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik. Mac King, who headlines in Vegas at Harrah’s and the Amazing Randi, who is the world’s Elder Statesman of Magic, will perform as the researchers try to explain the unexplainable.your brain.

Susana MartinezConde and Stephen L. Macknik


There goes the neighborhood

Change blindness, our failure to detect changes in a scene that should have been (but weren’t) obvious, is a common occurrence not only on the magic stage, but it in real life, too.

The San Francisco Exploratorium has now produced a spectacular demonstration (below) of cumulative change blindness. Unnoticed changes pile up on a San Francisco street scene during brief blinks, until there is nothing left of the original picture.

Also, check out Sleights of Mind for more spectacular examples of magical and everyday change blindness.

Have you experienced change blindness in real life? Post a comment here and let us know.

— Susana Martinez-Conde

Blink. Did Anything Change? By Kenneth Chang: First, play the video to see if you notice any changes. Then, play it again, but this time grab the playhead with your mouse and scrub through the video to see all of the changes.




Fat Tuesday: Caloric restriction’s days are numbered

“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.” – Mark Train

Twain may have been correct about health, but longevity  may be another matter altogether. Eat, drink, and be merry… if you want to die: that is what the evidence has shown for the last 75 years, right? In a way, perhaps it was too good to be true: go on a diet and live happily ever after… forever. Well, not forever, but, yes, for significantly longer. It still seems to be a robust finding in mice and rats, where lifetimes are short and easily measured in the lifetime of a single grant funding cycle. But a new careful, well-controlled, and decade-spanning study from a group at the National Institute on Aging has shown that, whereas monkeys that are put on a restricted diet long-term may be healthier than monkeys that are fed 50% more, they don’t live longer. But you have to admit that they during monkeys do look spritely.

— Stephen Macknik

Neuroscience in Fiction: Stephen King’s The Jaunt

Image by Darek Kocurek,

Your mind can be your best friend; it can keep you amused even when there’s nothing to read, nothing to do. But it can turn on you when it’s left with no input for too long. It can turn on you, which means that it turns on itself, savages itself, perhaps consumes itself in an unthinkable act of auto-cannibalism.”

Stephen King – The Jaunt

Granted, Stephen King is not the first name that comes to mind when you think about neuroscience insights, but this week’s Neuroscience in Fiction pick will give you a lot to ponder.

The Jaunt is part of King’s Skeleton Crew short story collection, and one of the most engaging sci-fi tales I’ve read. In the not-too-distant future, humankind has achieved teleportation, or as they call it, jaunting. Unconscious bodies and cargo can travel from the Earth to Mars in a fraction of a second, unharmed and unchanged. But the effect of the Jaunt on a fully conscious, sentient being, is a different creature altogether.

The Jaunt explores the limits of sustained sensory deprivation on the mind, with just a little bit of gore thrown in for added effect. We’re talking about Stephen King, after all.

For extra credit, check out Sleights of Mind for our thoughts on the neuroscience of sensory deprivation.

The art featured in this post is the work of Darek Cokurek — visit his website for more wonderful examples, including many covers of books by Stephen King.

We hope you enjoy The Jaunt. If nothing else, the ending will stay with you for longer than you think.

-Susana Martinez-Conde

To sleep perchance to learn

When I was 11 or 12, my geography teacher in Spain announced that every student needed to learn the capital of each country in the world, in addition to all the major geographical features of every continent: rivers, mountain ranges, capes, gulfs, and archipelagos. I stuck a large world map to my bedroom wall and tried to memorize the textbook in front of the poster, without success. I was out of options: I didn’t see how I could hold the copious, tedious details in my head.  With the date of the test quickly approaching, panic set in, and then inspired me. I pulled out my tape recorder and read aloud  as I recorded from the hated textbook for hours on end. I  then played back the recording as I slept, for the  remaining 3 nights leading to my date with doom.  The outcome was disappointing. I wish I could tell you that I aced the exam, but alas, none of the  information seemed to absorbed as I slept.

Though I continued to struggle with geography through high school, I never attempted to study in my sleep again. So I guess I did learn something  useful from my experience after all.  High school procrastinators of future generations may be more fortunate, however. A new study published in Nature Neuroscience shows that humans can acquire entirely new information while they sleep. The researchers paired pleasant and unpleasant odors with different tones during sleep, and measured the subjects’ sniffs to tones alone when they were awake. Tones associated with pleasant smells produced stronger sniffs, and tones associated with disgusting smells produced weaker sniffs, despite the subjects’ lack of awareness of the learning process.

So it may not  help today,  or even tomorrow, but perhaps  this a first step towards fulfilling o ur dreams of learning through osmosis.

–Susana Martinez-Conde

Fat Tuesday: Insidious Weight Bias

I just want to thank you all for being so even-minded and fair when it comes to your attitudes about fat people. Or are you? According to a landmark study by Brian Nosek and his colleagues working with the inventors of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, you actually probably aren’t. So I take back my thanks, you bigot.

The IAT is a wonderful tool to assess implicit associations between two concepts (like fat and thin) and two attributes (like good and bad). The experimenter displays, for example, a picture of a fat person and the word “bad” and the observer’s job is to simply press a keyboard button, as fast as possible. Images may be sorted according to four categories (thin/good, thin/bad, fat/good, or fat/bad). When you see 40 trials of these examples (10 for each association), what you find is that people tend to answer more quickly for concepts that are associated well with the attribute (i.e. fat/bad and thin/good) whereas they slow down in responding to concepts that are mismatched to the attributes (i.e. fat/good and thin/bad). This happens even if the observer self-reports as unbiased, or even if the observer has the attribute discriminated against (in this case, implicit association bias affect even people who are obese). What’s especially interesting about weight attitudes is that the bias works against ingroup matches. An outgroup is a social group that you consider to be different to you (i.e. fat people are an outgroup if you consider yourself thin). In most IAT tests of attitudes observers have positive attitudes towards their ingroup members. For example, Americans tend to see other Americans as part of the same ingroup and reflect on them positively, whereas foreigners are seen as members of an outgroup and produce longer delays in response in the IAT. But the study shows both fat and thin people (69%) preferred thin people over fat people on the IAT (only 12% of respondents liked the fatties).

So this suggests that if you are fat, there is likely bias working against you, from the people closest to you. Even yourself.

— Stephen Macknik

Love Warmed Over

Love Warmed Over

The Spanish popular science magazine Quo invited 7 Spanish scientists to contribute short stories for a special issue. The only rule: the stories had to combine science and love.

For those of you who understand Spanish, my story “Amor recalentado” [Love warmed over], co-authored with Stephen Macknik, is freely accessible on the Quo website.

You can also read the other six stories here.

–Susana Martinez-Conde

Fat Tuesday: Binge Like a Man

You don’t get to be my size without eating a few large meals now and again. I’ve wondered if some of my darkest acts of eating might be considered binging. Apparently not, as the definition involves eating large amounts of food within a two-hour period at least twice per week: I’m more of a once-a-month  overmuncher. But even then I feel fortunate that I have been compelled to eat the amounts that some guys do. Last Tuesday’s NY Times gave the example of a man who would eat 10,000-15,000 calories in a single 1.5-hour sitting, as reported on a study from the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Binge eating combines cognitive dysfunction (we decide what to eat, we seek it out, acquire it, prepare it, and then eat it) with motivational dysfunction (the hunger itself is not a decision we make, and neither is the feeling of satiety that clearly fails to kick in during a binge). New research shows that binge eating is not more prevalent among females (as traditionally believed) but comparable across the sexes.

Stephen Macknik

Fantasia: A Composer’s Experience of Synesthesia

Composer and synesthete Harley Gittleman visited our institute today to discuss his perception. Synesthesia is when you experience more than one sensory perception in response to stimulation of  a single sensory modality. Often, people see numbers as having colors (even when they are uncolored physically, they see specific replicable colors matched to numbers. Estimates are as much as 5% of the population have some degree of synesthesia.

Harley perceives specific colors and shapes when he hears certain tones. That’s especially interesting in his case because he is a professional composer and musician. Harley played some of his wonderful music for us = and pointed to colors as he experienced synesthesia in relationship to the tones, in real time. His daily life is awash in color, motion and shape. He listens only to talk shows when he drives and he’s been known to walk into a wall or two when he absent-mindedly attends to the floating colors and shapes in front of him instead of to the real world.

Current theories suggest that synesthesia is due to wiring between neighboring brain areas that usually are not connected together. This idea is bolstered by brain imaging studies showing increased connectivity and mutual functional activation between neighboring brain areas in synesthetes  as compared to non-synesthetes.

Synesthesia might be due to mutations in genes controlling neural plasticity and pruning of neurons. In that case, it may have an adaptive value from an evolutionary standpoint, as it brings new insight and relationships between neural experiences in a way that is interesting and fairly harmless.

Do you experience synesthesia? If so, is it useful to your everyday life?

Stephen Macknik

Neuroscience in Fiction: Still Alice

Everything she did and love, everything she was, required language.”
Lisa Genova, Still Alice

Harvard-trained neuroscientist and author Lisa Genova couldn’t get agents or publishers interested in her debut novel Still Alice. So she decided to self-publish. The book became an overnight sensation that led to a six-figure advance from publishing house Simon and Shuster.

Still Alice describes the descent of Alice, a successful professor and researcher, into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and the consequences for her family and career.

Genova followed up her Still Alice success with another novel grounded in clinical neuroscience: Left Neglected (about a patient suffering from hemineglect).

Both Still Alice and Left Neglected are moving and well-written stories, but if I had to choose I’d go for the more restrained tone of Still Alice. As a fellow academic, I also found the protagonist very relatable. (Full disclosure: in one of the most poignant moments in the book, Alice forgets a critical piece of electronics inside the fridge, with vital consequences… well, I’ve done the same exact thing at least once, although with far less momentous results).

For extra credit, read “Elegy for Iris”, literary critic John Bayley’s memoir about his wife, novelist Iris Murdoch, and her battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Or watch the Oscar-winning movie “Iris”.

Also, check out the Society for Neuroscience’s primer about Alzheimer’s disease.


-Susana Martinez-Conde