Where is Visual Beauty?

goldenratiosculptures.png 

In the brain of the beholder? 

A study in which art criticism-challenged subjects (most of us) were asked to view sculptures in which the classic Golden Ratio parameters were tweaked suggests that our perception of visual beauty is partly instinctive and partly learned.  Test subjects showed more activity in the brain’s limbic insular cortex, part of our emotion mediation system, when viewing sculpture that has been deemed classically beautiful over the ages.

As summed up nicely in Wired – “Thankfully, the researchers did not reach too far in their conclusions. The results, they said, merely suggest that beauty is mediated by separate but overlapping processes. One is learned, the other instinctive — and therein lies the power of art to speak across ages, long after its makers and their world have disappeared.”

Perhaps, as people, we share more in common across cultures than we sometimes admit.

Link: Wired

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A Biological Clue to Paying Attention

Acetylcholine (ACh) increases the activity of neurons to detect stimuli that would be typically below an attention threshold. As such it enhances visual processing through signal amplification and may represent the biological basis underlying the process that our minds undergo in focusing attention upon something.

“That’s what attention does–it strengthens the signal you’re interested in and that strengthening helps you filter out other things” said Anita Disney of NYU, “Our findings show that acetylcholine has the ability to turn up the volume on visual activity, just like attention does.”

See also here.

Link: ScienceDaily

Men and Women Cope Differently under Stress

How do you deal with stress?  University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researcher Dr. J. J. Wang, Assistant Professor or Radiology and Neurology, reports that the brains of men and women respond differently to performance stressors.

In men, it was found that stress was associated with increased cerebral blood flow in the right prefrontal cortex and reduction of cerebral blood flow in the left orbitofrontal cortex. In women, the limbic system — a part of the brain primarily involved in emotion — was activated when they were under stress.  Men had increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, as opposed to women.
In simpler terms, men exhibited typical “fight or flight” responses while women were found to exhibit a more nurturing “tend and befriend” type of behaviour.  One potential from the study –

“Women have twice the rate of depression and anxiety disorders compared to men,” notes Dr. Wang. “Knowing that women respond to stress by increasing activity in brain regions involved with emotion, and that these changes last longer than in men, may help us begin to explain the gender differences in the incidence of mood disorders.”

As to coaching – factoring this difference into personal coaching is congruent with a variety of techniques in team dynamics and other interpersonal situations.

Link: ScienceDaily

Tagore, Delight, my Brain – and Memory

On a personal note, Tagore’s early letters have been a delight of late. Something moves me in his early, reflective writing – the discovery by youth of something of the mystery of self, perception and the world around it. On an extended, lazy river trip he writes –

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man. Shelidah, 10th August 1894.

Many other things move me as well of course. And of many things that they have in common, a piquant poignancy is one important thread among many – a poignancy that not only occurs “in the moment” of the actual event, but is brought forth again and heightened by the simple act of remembering.

Memory is a tricky thing – that which we remember is but one approximation of the actuality – colored by who we are and what we’ve experienced. Events often becomes more pleasant in memory than the actual event itself. Our brains are pretty good storage instruments in many regards – not so much of data perhaps, but of information (data interpreted) and experience (data acted upon). But they act more effectively as interpreters than storage instruments. (Check here and here for the drier explanation if you like.)

And that is significant. For us as individuals data alone is fairly irrelevant. But data that is interpreted, experienced and colored by the complex emotional components that spring from our brains is the stuff of which our memories are made.

I think that’s why experiments such as Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits, while important, and even useful as tools, ultimately remain only that – tools of recall for our brains and minds. The data is just data. Its significance lies in the act of recollection.

And so Tagore’s words move me in my memory some 100 years after they were written. It isn’t merely the data that he left behind – but what those words cause to resonate within me. And it is that resonance that causes me delight – even as it reminds me of the limitations of my mind.

Birth of a Brain Cell

As adults we continue to create new brain cells. This is good news both for future disease treatments as well as for maintaining a healthy brain as we age (so keep mentally active). Until now researchers had not been able to visualize this process.

Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, assistant professor of neurology at Stony Brook University in New York State, has developed a method utilizing a chemical marker that successfully allows scientists to see the birth of these new neurons. While the make-up of the marker remains unknown, Maletic-Savatic speculates that it is a blend of fatty acids in a lipid (fat) or lipid protein.

Link: Scientific American

Left Brain, Right Brain Illusion

Check out the spinning lady here. Which side of the brain are you seeing her with – right brain or left? And if that’s the case, what does it mean? Does it indeed indicate hemispheric dominance – or something else? In any event, she rotated clockwise for me for awhile, then counter clockwise, and finally I was able to make her switch directions at times. Found it curious.

Somewhere over the Brainbow . . .

. . . Neurons are blue, and red, and green and some 87 other colors.  Neuroscientists at Harvard University have developed a methodology for using fluorescent proteins to color individual neurons within the brain.  Using a well-known recombinent system known as Cre/lox scientists have been able to build a transgene from portions of DNA, insert it into mouse DNA and cause the switching on of flourescent protein genes.  The technology allows researchers to see the individual neurons and connections of the brain in unparalled technicolor detail.

Brainbow Image by Tamily Weissman

Link: ScienceDaily