Archive for the 'Pop Culture' Category

The Jennifer Aniston neuron

Though I spend a lot of time following brain news, I somehow missed this announcement when it first went around. Scientists have discovered a neuron that fires when a person sees pictures of Jennifer Aniston!

In brain surgery, patients are often kept fully conscious, even when they have a probe implanted in their heads. Brains don’t hurt when they’re open, and this is standard procedure; the doctor needs to map the area where there’s going to be surgery, the patient needs to answer the doctor’s questions.

Fried asked his patients if they wouldn’t mind doing a little exploratory science while on the operating table, and a bunch of them said yes.

So he showed them a set of photographs, and he noticed when they came to a picture of Jen, very often a particular neuron would begin to flash, multiple times. When he showed these same patients pictures of Julia Roberts or random (not famous) people, or animals, or places, the neuron was quiet. Back to Jen? Back came the flash. He found this Aniston-specific brain cell in a number of people, and he wondered, what is going on?

A “Halle Berry neuron” was also discovered. A book I’m reading, “Connectome” makes an interesting point about this discovery.

[The] “Halle Berry neuron” was activated by an image of the actress Halle Berry, suggesting that it plays a role in perceiving her. But the neuron was also activated by the written words Halle Berry, indicating that it participates in thinking about her as well. So it seems the “Halle Berry” neuron” represents the abstract idea of Halle Berry…

Mmmm, there’s nothing abstract about Halle Berry and you know what I mean!

The Crumbs

Last night, I rewatched the movie “Crumb” about famed countercultural artist Robert Crumb and his family. It really is a fascinating study of dysfunctional people and their relationships, as well as a look at how subversive art is viewed by different factions of society.

But I was mainly struck by one thing. Robert and his two siblings, Charles and Max, were all highly gifted artists from a young age. Robert’s son is also a terrific representational artist. Robert’s daughter Sofie – a pre-teen at the time the movie was filmed – is also a great artist. It seems like the Crumb family makes a strong case for there being some kind of “visual artist gene.”

Such a theory leads us back into the whole nature versus nature debate. Are the Crumbs’ artistic talents because of DNA or because of an environment that encouraged artistic development? The case might be made that Robert’s children were simply encouraged to explore art. But Robert and his brothers grew up in an environment run by a tyrannical father and a pill popping mother, neither of whom seemed to have much interest in their children’s development.

But how would an art gene work? That’s very complex of course, but I do think a lot of what makes a good artist is a strong understand of spacial relativism. In essence, if you can look at a face and understand that that person’s nose takes up 20% of the width of their face and you can then render that on the page you have a good head start towards creating representational art. (There’s also years of practice, of course, but this natural talent can only help.) If this sort of spatial ability can be passed via genetics that would explain the Crumb family talent.

An interesting experiment would be to take one of the Crumbs, grind up their brain into a liquid, inject it into a non-talented person and see if that person becomes and artistic genius.

I had actually forgotten that Robert’s brother, Maxon, is an artist. In fact, he does some very interesting work – he’s the most non-representational out of all the artist brothers; his work is vaguely cubist. Here’s a Tumblr blog with a lot of his art.

Here’s Sophie’s Tumblr with art.

Art versus science

I’ve been reading an interesting book called “The Age of Insight” by Eric Kandel (a famous neuroscientist who co-hosts Charlie Rose’s Brain series.) In the book, Kandel looks at turn-of-the-century Vienna and the interaction between scientists and artists that took place there. Freud was operating in Vienna at the time and his observations about the unconscious had a big effect on painters and writers of the day who turned from merely representing the physical world to hinting at what was happening “underneath the surface” of their subjects. Artists also integrated the ideas of Darwin into their work.

What strikes me while reading this book is how different the relationship between artists and scientists was back then as compared to today. Now there seems to be this big dividing line between artists and scientists. Scientists are generally mistrusted by artists. (This was perhaps best expressed in the Insane Clown Posse song “Miracles” in which Shaggy 2 Dope rapped, “And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist. Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed.”) In general, I think artists tend to feel they work at unveiling a “greater truth” about the human condition, a truth that scientists – with their obsession with diagnostics and numbers – can never approach.

For the most part, I suspect modern artists are full of shit in their views. Much of modern music, whether it be pop or niche, seems largely self-obsessed – a bunch of losers bemoaning their shitty love affairs, or shitty jobs or shitty feces stained life. This stands in stark contrast to the Viennese artists who were attempting to explore themes of the human mind or birth of our species.

What is needed today is a great artist to arise and rejuvenate the connection between science and art. That artist could be me, but most people are too dumb to appreciate my genius.

The news blows

A couple weeks ago I was thinking about the financial meltdown of 2008. I was wondering whether – had I somehow been unaware of this meltdown (via living under a rock or something) – would I have lived my life any differently? (Aside from living under a rock.) I decided it was likely that, no, I wouldn’t have. Basically, this constant news chatter about the financial situation was really of no practical value to me other than fodder for conversation.

Now, I freely grant that there are some people who would have benefited from following this particular news story – especially people who work in the world of finance. But I am not one of them.

A similar train of thought occurred to me at one point during the recent Boston Marathon bombing story. The cops had shot the first bomber and the manhunt was on for the second. I got the impression that people I knew were avidly following the news story, frequently checking the web and TV news for updates. I was thinking, “It’s one guy versus the entire Boston Police Department – of course they’re going to find him!” The constant news blather about the topic was largely meaningless.

But to have this view – that news is mostly crap – flies in the face of common wisdom. We are constantly reminded how uninformed we the public are. We’re supposed to follow the news because that symbolizes that we care about the world. Don’t you care about this earthquake in China, or these starving polar bears in Tibet, or the fact that children’s public education scores have dropped to new levels, or Congress’s malfeasance, or the rise of prescription drug deaths or…

To be honest, not really. Or at least I recognize I only have so much attention to give to these topics and if I want to achieve various goals I have set out for myself, I need to restrict my attention to the news (and other similar distractions: facebook, email, blogs etc.)

I was pleased to see the following article appear over at the Guardian (which, lest you thing I was checking for news, I actually saw linked off a blog. (Not that that’s much better.)) News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier. The author makes a number of arguments against the consumption of news; this one stood out in particular.

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.

I was also interested in this point about online news; it makes a lot of intuitive sense.

Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.

That’s really the crux of my complaint – news interrupts. I’m not saying it should be avoided completely but we should manage our time when interacting with it.

The meaning of art

I’m continuing my reading of David Byrne’s “How Music Works” and find myself in an interesting section discussing amateur art. He runs down a lot of theories past and present about what makes art “good” (always a lively debate.) At one point Byrne quotes the views of English author John Carey who said, “Meanings are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them.” Carey’s fundamental point is that high art was considered high because the elite class says so, not that these forms or art have some built in magic.

And I generally agree with that; I would have strongly agreed with that a few years ago (though I reject the sort of punk rock/populist counter argument that “street level” art is great merely because it’s not high art.) But are objects totally without meanings? I’m not sure I buy that. I’m reminded of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran who argues that the brain seems to associate reactions to certain types of objects. For example, a big spiky sculpture made of steel can’t help but seem fearsome. A painting of pillows can’t help but seem safe. If you want to call those reactions “meanings” (and when you think about it, the exact meaning of the word meaning is rather ethereal) then objects do have meanings in so much as these reactions seem built into the brain. We could revive the whole tabula rasa debate and question whether you’re born with a fear of spiky objects or rather it’s something that gets built in early on, but it probably doesn’t matter much.

Rethinking Dave Grohl

I was just thinking about Dave Grohl. Here’s a guy who was in the biggest band of the 90s (er, I’m talking about Nirvana) but didn’t command much attention for himself. He was certainly a respected drummer but, after Cobain killed himself, I think a lot of people — myself included — wouldn’t have been surprised had Grohl simply fallen into the dustbin of history (much the same way his band mate Krist Novoselic did.) But Grohl did not. He’s had a long and storied career and I think one could argue he’s one of the last of the real rock stars left.

And I think had Cobain not killed himself and Nirvana continued, Grohl would not have flourished the way he has. Unlike the reticent rock star that Cobain was, Grohl seems fully at ease in the world of the commercial music industry. He happily embraces the role of celebrity and plays with musicians from across the musical spectrum. But I don’t think he could openly acknowledge this side of himself while in the decidely anti-corporate, punk-elitist Nirvana. In some ways, Cobain’s death allowed Grohl to step out of the shadows and embrace his own persona. You could say he actually benefitted from Cobain’s self-immolation.

Which brings up an interesting question: Where exactly was Grohl the day Cobain “committed suicide”?

Japan’s violent movies (and non-violent society)

Not too long ago I was in a bar (surprise!) and saw a segment from an extremely bizarre looking film on a video screen. It was an ultra-gory, ultra-weird Japanese movie. Days later I managed to track it down as “Tokyo Gore Police.” I still haven’t seen it but it looks awesome: chainsaw battles, severed limbs raining blood, ghastly torture!

As it turns out, there’s been an onslaught of super violent horror films from Japan in the past decade or so. Mutant Girls Squad, Meatball Machine and similar titles have pushed horror and gore to new levels, basically confirming my long held suspicion that the Japanese are insane!

This topic – Japan’s fetish for bizarre hyper-violence – would seem interesting but largely meaningless. But I’m reminded today by this blog post that there are political implications to consider as the U.S. Government is casting a watchful eye on Hollywood and Western video game makers.

[I]f exposure to violent media was a significant determinant of real-world violence, then since media culture is now global, every country would have about the same level of violence, and of course they don’t. Japan would be the most violent society on earth.

Have you seen the crazy stuff the Japanese watch and play? (Two words: tentacle porn. Don’t ask.) But in fact, Japan is at or near the bottom among industrialized countries in every category of violent crime, from murder to rape to robbery. There are many reasons, some of them cultural, some of them practical (like the fact that it’s basically illegal for a private citizen to own a gun there), but the point is that even if all that violent media is having an effect on Japanese psyches, the effect is so small that it doesn’t make much of a difference on a societal level.

Just for guts and giggles, here’s the trailer for Meatball Machine.

Bow before them!

This is great: a series of photographs of evil twins! You can almost feel their combined brainpower forcing your head to explode.

Review of “Silent Night”

I think we can all agree that there is no greater holiday tradition than putting up the mistletoe, pouring some eggnog, grabbing the grandparents and the little ones and sitting down to watch the classic horror film “Silent Night, Deadly Night” in which a homicidal Santa Claus travels through a neighborhood and kills people (including the classic scene where he impales a libidinous teenage girl on a pair of mounted deer antlers.)

I, however, have seen the film a number of times. So last night I decided to watch the film’s recent remake, called, simply, “Silent Night.”

How was it? Not bad. As others have noted, I found it to be more of an homage than direct remake. The basic premise of the first film — a crazed Santa killing people in a small town — remains, but not much else. Fans of the original film and its sequel will see several of the original death scenes replicated, including a great moment where someone is electrocuted so severely that their eyeballs fly out of their head. Ho ho ho! But “Silent Night” also has a great original death scene: death by wood chipper! (Yes, bringing to mind a scene from “Fargo”, but in this case the victim is still alive.)

The film boasts a strong cast including Malcolm McDowell and model-turned-actress Jaime King. But perhaps the best performance is by comedic actor Donal Logue (I first saw him years ago in a terrific and underrated dramedy called “The Tao of Steve.”) who plays a embittered and enraged Santa who is the antithesis of Christmas spirit (and possibly the killer.) The movie strongest moment features Logue’s character spitting out a free-form rant about how Christmas makes everyone miserable.

All that said and done, there was something a little unsatisfying about the plot. It never quite fell into place for me. Fortunately, the horrifyingly brutal death scenes and at least one pair of exposed breasts kept things interesting.

Steve Niles

This is a pretty cool looking website by a comic book/horror author.