.... "If the brain was so simple that we could understand it, then we would be so simple that we couldn't." -- Emerson M. Pugh


Web mindshavings.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Brain Magic

Fun "brain magic" here (20 mins.) from Keith Barry. Nothing supernatural, just magician tricks... but haven't a clue how he does it! :

Monday, September 29, 2008


Posting about Alan Sokal's 'hoax' article a couple days ago made me also recall the much older "Broughton phrase generator" (and many later versions of it) which operates along the same line... a simple, humorous, system for generating 3-word phrases (like, "functional reciprocal contingency") that 'sound' keenly meaningful, to be employed in meetings or documents where a sense of erudition is desired. It's Alan Sokal on a small scale. See here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Psychology of Intuition

Just stumbled upon this worthwhile (hour-long) lecture by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman on the subject of intuition, or what he calls "system 1" versus "system 2" which is 'reasoning':

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Nonsense and Non-science

Possibly enough time has passed that some readers are either unfamiliar with, or have forgotten, physicist Alan Sokal's classic 1996 hoax of cultural 'relativistic' studies in a paper entitled (...if you can believe it), "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" --- a "parody" written by Sokal, and submitted for serious publication to the professional journal "Social Text," where it was indeed accepted (to the eventual chagrin and red-faced embarassment of editors). The purpose was to expose the sloppiness, if not outright ignorance, of certain schools of thought when it comes to scientific thinking. This is an almost timeless piece and episode that ought be reviewed every so many years, not only for its humor, but because of what it DOES tell us about gullibility, and the power of verbiage, versus understanding of real analytical science.

For any not familiar with the infamous work, these lines from near the paper's end give the flavor of the presentation:
"Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations. Catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis. Finally, chaos theory -- which provides our deepest insights into the ubiquitous yet mysterious phenomenon of nonlinearity -- will be central to all future mathematics."
It may be best to start by reading Sokal's explanation for perpetrating the hoax in the first place, before actually reading the fraudulent paper itself.
The original paper in its entirety, is here.

And much further discussion and follow-up can be linked to from this Sokal webpage:


Alan also authored an entire book, "Beyond The Hoax," about the whole affair.

And, all-in-all, I'm not so sure that much has changed in the dozen years passed since the hoax's unveiling --- indeed, the public's comprehension of science today may be even worse than before :-(

Friday, September 26, 2008

Importance of Spacing in Perception

Research indicates that spacing, not size, is most at play in visual recognition, here.
"Spacing," in the form of rhythm, syllabic stress, and of course speed, is no doubt also centrally operative in the auditory task of speech processing/recognition.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


A thread on another website asks for examples of "words that sound dirty, but aren't" :-) Some of the readers' offerings here:


This is more than just a humorous exercise, as it indicates how strongly certain sound combinations can carry connotations or senses in brain processing quite apart from their literal meanings (and in turn says something about semantic organization of the brain). In some ways this is almost the opposite of "onomatopoeia" where words actually do sound, to some degree, like the meanings to which they refer:

crunch, buzz, murmur, clang, purr, whisper, splash, hiss

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Palindromic Number


Most readers likely know that palindromes are words, phrases, or sentences composed of the same letters reading forwards or backwards: "otto," "madam I'm Adam," "never odd or even".
Numbers obviously can also be palindromic: "11," "6116," "503305". Clearly one can invent palindromic numbers pretty much at will; still some are more interesting than others. The long number above is made from the first 27 digits of pi 'mirroring' themselves to create a palindrome. Nothing overly peculiar about that, but making it more interesting is the fact that it is also a prime number (of 53 digits). The next two such 'pi-palindromic' primes have 301 and 921 digits respectively. The study of prime numbers (evenly divisible only by themselves and 1) is virtually a book-length topic by itself. Prime numbers not only remain a central long-running and mysterious subject within mathematics (and specifically 'number theory'), but also play a key role in modern day encryption technology, and were central to Carl Sagan's best-selling novel/movie "Contact," as well.
BTW, the largest prime number yet known was recently discovered:
243,112,609 -1
(yes, it's even larger than the debt the current Administration will be leaving behind to the next President)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A True Statement

This sentence contains one hundred and ninety-seven letters: four a's, one b, three c's, five d's, thirty-four e's, seven f's, one g, six h's, twelve i's, three l's, twenty-six n's, ten o's, ten r's, twenty-nine s's, nineteen t's, six u's, seven v's, four w's, four x's, five y's, and one z.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Science Online '09

"Science Online '09," new name for the formerly "North Carolina Science Blogging Conference" will have its third outing, and biggest extravaganza yet, this coming Jan. 16-18 at the Sigma Xi Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. This is a get-together for bloggers, educators, journalists, students, and any others who have an interest in science communication in the digital age. Each year it grows larger and gets better, with a wide-range of talks, sessions, and attendees... and best of all, it's FREE!!
If it's something you may have interest in attending, start here for more info or to register. Even though it is many months off, be aware that registration is limited and could fill up well ahead of the January dates. A chance to meet some of your favorite bloggers, get energized about science communication, and learn-from/socialize-with some like-minded folks. Come for all the free swag :-), stay for the learning and camaraderie.

Anticipatory Speech Processing

MRI observation of human brain during speech processing yields further evidence that we anticipate several possible words and meanings for upcoming syllables in the flow of speech before making final choice. The very speed of normal speech processing virtually demands that this be the case.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

New Uses for Eye-tracking Study

Interesting piece on eye-tracking in Williams Syndrome people (who are very socially gregarious) versus autistic individuals (who are socially less-attentive):


Saturday, September 20, 2008


I greatly enjoy K.C. Cole's popularized science essays, especially her volume, "Mind Over Matter: Conversations With the Cosmos." Apparently, mathematician Keith Devlin (who's writings I also enjoy) likewise admires K.C. He once designated one of her essays "the best popular science essay ever" (I wouldn't go that far, but all her writing is good), and wrote about it here:


Friday, September 19, 2008

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Stroop Test

Red Blue Green Brown Yellow...

One of the most famous and well-studied effects in experimental psychology is the "Stroop Test" (named after its originator) involving naming/identifying the color of words that are themselves names of colors, which strongly cognitively interfere with that very naming process. Take the Stroop test

Wikipedia entry for same here.

One more indication of just how much our cognition is influenced, even overwhelmed, by the language substrate that we learn.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Monty Hall Problem

Many, if not most readers here, likely well know of the oft-discussed "Monty Hall" problem in probability. Whether you know it or not, one of the best explications of it is here from Keith Devlin, one of the clearest math communicators around.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Daniel Tammet Visiting Stateside

Amazing British autistic savant Daniel Tammet ("Born On A Blue Day") will be speaking in October in the U.S. at locations in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, if any of you have a chance to catch him:

Agnes Scott College, Decatur Georgia - Tuesday October 23rd, 7.30pm-9.30pm
For tickets call the ASC Information Desk at 404 471-6430

Luhrs Center, Shippensburg University, Pennsylvania - Thursday October 25th, 8pm

Lorain County Community College, Ohio - Monday October 29th, 6.30pm-8.30pm

Adrian College, Michigan - Wednesday October 31st, 12pm

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Scientific American Article

Language, evolution, and monkey brains (...not necessarily in that order): research reported by Scientific American here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

True or False

(1) This sentence contains five words.

(2) This sentence contains nine words.

(3) Exactly one of these 3 sentences is true.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Little Cosmology

With miniscule particles whirling at unimaginable speeds around a man-made instrument in Europe as one apex of human achievement, here now a few thoughts from Chet Raymo looking outward in the opposite direction to try to wrap your mind around.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Right and Left Hemispheres

Sent along by a friend: remarkable talk here (18 mins.) by neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor about our competing left- and right-brained selves. Taylor's book, "My Stroke of Insight," detailing her self-examination, from a scientific perspective, of her own stroke at age 37, has been a bestseller and led her on the talk show circuit as well as more formal presentations. Even if you've already read the book, the video is worth a watch.

Her home webpage here: http://www.drjilltaylor.com/

And a bit more on right- and left-hemispheric brain processing here.

Men and Women: Yeah, We Be Different

Some of us could've told the researchers this ahead of time, but recent studies indicate that brain wiring and neuron densities differ in males and females:


Or, put in layman's terms, men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

(...Just thought we should establish this once-and-for-all, before all of us get sucked down a Black Hole later today, when CERN's Large Hadron Collider is switched on ;-)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Kids Make Nutritious Snacks"

More ambiguous sentences/headlines here and here; and additional ambiguity here.

Monday, September 8, 2008


Here is a zoom-in on the infinitely expanding, self-similar Mandelbrot Set, considered one of the most fascinating and beautiful constructs in mathematics, which links together notions of chaos, complexity, and fractals (roughly, a "fractal" is a geometric shape that is composed in part of smaller sections which themselves are similar in structure to the larger shape --- a sort of mathematical recursion):

A few sites with more info on this most famously-generated of mathematical fractals :

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandelbrot_set (Wikipedia)


(the Wikipedia entry for "fractals")

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Consciousness Levels

Speaking of levels of consciousness (as the previous post did) one of the common examples used by cognitive psychologists to illustrate different levels runs as follows:

Suppose you are driving around town with your spouse in the front seat. You (as the driver) can carry on a perfectly reasonable, fluent, intelligent conversation with your spouse even while navigating traffic, correctly obeying signs and lights, making turns as needed, operating brakes, turn signals, clutch if necessary, etc. You successfully carry out all these perceptual and mechanical or physical operations virtually at a subconscious level even while focusing on the conversation with your spouse. We've all done it, or something like it.
But now suppose you are asked to very consciously focus visually on the traffic signs, street scenes, vehicles around you, and general traffic environment (as if there was going to be a pop quiz later). You would now find it VERRRY difficult to simultaneously carry on such a fluid, intelligent conversation with your spouse; a choppy, halting conversation maybe, but not the smooth, continuous, proficient communication as before. In short, an experienced driver can attend to the perceptual requirements of a traffic environment around him/her successfully in a fairly automatic, ingrained manner, but language, on the other hand, is a learned cerebral activity that requires more direct conscious attention and control --- and this is so even though language is itself very automatic (one does not consciously think about grammatical and semantic rules when conversing), just not as automatic in the same way or degree as various visual and physical activity. Different levels of consciousness, and different parts/structures of the brain are involved.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Reward-based Brain Conditioning

Interesting summary article here indicating associated learning at a subliminal level through conditioning in the human brain, and pointing to the striatum (a very primitive brain structure) as the possible source of "gut instinct." At the end they even idly speculate that schizophrenics might actually have more "highly developed intuition" than normal people. It would appear that "behaviorism" is not as dead over in Europe (where study was done), as some think it is in the U.S.

Journal citation here.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Weird Body Part Illusion

Odd illusion, the "rubber hand" illusion, reported at Science Daily, relating to our sense of body awareness and its pliability.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Processing the Flow of Speech

This post from 'Cognitive Daily' reports research suggesting a facilitative effect music may have on learning language; specifically learning how to properly partition words and syllables in the flow of speech -- a daunting, almost inexplicable, task that native speakers take for granted.
And in an earlier post at the same blog, research is discussed regarding the role of consonants versus vowels in an infants' incredible ability to learn speech processing.

This all relates to the study within linguistics of "prosody," or the rhythm, stress, and intonation of language, and it's relationship to structure and semantics. This is probably one of the most important, and yet least understood, areas of all linguistics, and very rich ground for ongoing research.
Given that all languages do have rhythmic and stress components it is natural that music could have some influence on the learning of language. Moreover, I have always been intrigued by the frequency with which individuals skilled in mathematics also possess greater-than-average musical talents; playing and/or composing music. I suspect that mathematical algorithms, yet to be uncovered, very much underly most music, and there is much cerebral linkage between the two talents. Moreover, language itself (with its prosodic elements) may eventually reduce in part to certain mathematical rules/formulas. THAT, however, is of course a long way off.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Recommendation

I enjoy mathematics books written for laymen. One of the very best (of many) out in the last few years I think is William Byers', "How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics." The book covers various topics of number theory, infinity, logic, paradox, meaning, and related areas that touch upon the workings of the human mind. If you are a math-phobe, granted you probably won't enjoy this work. But if you have some interest in, and affinity for, the essences of mathematics, I think it is a rich must-read.
More info on the volume here (Amazon) and here (book review, pdf).

Monday, September 1, 2008


"Spoonerisms" are accidental exchanges of letter sounds or syllables within words, phrases, or sentences: "it is kisstomary to cuss the bride," or "flutterby" for "butterfly." They are not uncommon and, like the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon have been studied for some time now for what they tell us about language organization and processing in our brains.

see more spoonerisms here

Wikipedia entry here

The satirical comedy troupe, the Capitol Steps, have become famous for their 'spooneristic' (taken to extreme) comedy bits over the years; audio example of one here:


...and more of their offerings here.