Connect With Us:

Illusion of the Week: A LEGO Puzzle

Wednesday is Illusion Day.  We feature a  novel illusion–or a variation on a classic.

This week’s pick is another great illusion made with Legos, by German advertising agency Jung von Matt. Thanks go to my friend Mincos Outón Dosil for bringing it to my attention.

Look at the picture below and see if anything rings a bell… No? Keep looking at it, and eventually the (Lego) pieces will all fall into place.

Something that I find very interesting is that, once you figure out what the LEGO configurations stand for, it becomes impossible to ever see them again as random pilings of colorful blocks.

I recommend that you resist looking up the answer for as long as you can… it’ll be much more fun if you wait for the meaning of the image to pop out for you!

Or you can click here if you can’t take it anymore.


–Susana Martinez-Conde

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

Illusion of the Week: The Illusory Mile High Club

Nina Khatchadourian–Seat Assignment: Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style

Ever do it Flemish Style in an airplane restroom? Nina Katchadourian has, and she wants to show you a few photos of it…

Wednesday is Illusion Day, and we feature a contemporary illusion, or a variation on a classic illusion.

This week’s pick is the series “Seat Assignment: Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style“, by artist Nina Katchadourian. As a prominent member of the not-so-well-known Illusory Mile High Club, she never gets bored on a long flight.

While in the lavatory on a domestic flight in March 2010, I spontaneously put a tissue paper toilet cover seat cover over my head and took a picture in the mirror using my cellphone. The image evoked 15th-century Flemish portraiture. I decided to add more images made in this mode and planned to take advantage of a long-haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland, guessing that there were likely to be long periods of time when no one was using the lavatory on the 14-hour flight. I made several forays to the bathroom from my aisle seat, and by the time we landed I had a large group of new photographs entitled Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style. I was wearing a thin black scarf that I sometimes hung up on the wall behind me to create the deep black ground that is typical of these portraits. There is no special illumination in use other than the lavatory’s own lights and all the images are shot hand-held with the camera phone. At the Dunedin Public Art gallery, the photos were framed in faux-historical frames and hung on a deep red wall reminiscent of the painting galleries in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. – Nina Katchadourian

I just love to think about Katchadourian going back and forth between her seat and the lavatory, armed with paper cups, neck pillows, sleep mask, and other such assorted items. I’m hard pressed to choose, but I think the best portrait is the one with the bunches of paper towels around her neck (below).  What’s your favorite?

-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

Delicious Portrait

René Redzepi

Our friend and colleague Jorge OteroMillan has sent us a great link to René Redzepi’s food portrait. The Danish chef’s likeness is the work of the Golpeavisa agency, for the cover of AeroMéxico Airlines in-flight magazine Clase Premier. The portrait features some of the signature dishes offered by  Redzepi’s restaurant Noma — the best restaurant in the world, according to Restaurant Magazine.

You can see the portrait come to life in this video.


-Susana Martinez-Conde 

Neuroscience in Fiction: Fat Farm

“The law says that there is only one possible Barth in all the world. And you aren’t it. You’re just a number. And a letter. The letter H.”

Orson Scott Card, Fat Farm

This week’s Neuroscience in Fiction pick is Fat Farm, by bestselling author of the Enderverse Orson Scott Card.

Martin Barth is a man with an insatiable appetite and a serious yo-yoing weight problem. Technology and wealth have helped him before, but in the end he must face the unforeseen consequences of his relentless pursuit of pleasure, youth and an ideal BMI.

Orson Scott Card said that he wrote Fat Farm in frustration with his own struggles with weight gain and loss. The story is part of the collection Maps in a Mirror, and a comic book version appears in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show.

Fat Farm touches upon multiple neuroscience themes, including the nature of self, consciousness, and perhaps most intriguingly, habit formation and maintenance.

For extra credit, check out our Fat Tuesday posts, where Steve and I discuss the neuroscience and psychology of hunger, satiety, weight gain and weight loss.


-Susana Martinez-Conde


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

Illusion of the Week: Lord of the (dead) flies

Wednesday is Illusion Day. We feature a contemporary illusion, or a variation on a classic illusion.


Swedish photographer Magnus Muhr is the lord of the flies. He brings the dead insects back to life, in very human form, with a few pencil strokes and his camera. Despite its apparent simplicity, the illusion is very effective (and more than a little disturbing).