TRTZ no 44 The Brain The Mind The Self


Before I get started on tonight’s show let me first make a couple of apologies..

First for the unexpected cancellation of last weeks show. Domestic issues meant that I could not get to the studio to do what needed to be done…

Secondly, advance apologies for next week as I’m off giving a talk so won’t be in the studio either. (I dunno, these part time presenters…)

That being said, tonight’s show will be about the brain, the idea of mind and the notion of self…


Brain scanning technology is quickly approachi...
Image via Wikipedia

But first some news…

January 4th:  Tuscon, Arizona has played host to another chupacapra (Spanish for ‘Goatsucker’) sighting after a resident meterologist spied a creature ‘about the size of a coyote, but with no fur and with dark skin and big ears.’  Though the legend of the chupacabra has only come about in the last fifty years or so (And appears to have gained public awareness after a sighting from a woman having just seen a film with a similar creature in it), sightings are fairly regular in North America and Mexico and incidents of peculiar livestock death are often attributed to them.  Many sightings, though not all of them, are coyotes or other canine species with a seriously nasty case of sarcoptic mange.  From the snaps of this particular beast it’s possible to come to the same conclusion, though whatever has been photographed certainly looks like an extra from Silent Hill.

January 9th:  A Madison, US resident was arrested on Thursday afternoon on charges of: carrying a concealed weapon, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of marijuana and violation of probation.  The unusual thing about this particular case was the name of the criminal.  Born Jeffrey Drew Wilschke, he had his name officially changed to Beezow Doo-Doo Zoopittybop-Bop-Bop in October 2011.  His facebook page has come under scrutiny fromthe public subsequent to this story and when he isn’t being arrested he apparently enjoys ‘eating’, ‘standing’, ‘walking’, ‘thinking’, and ‘diamond’, whatever diamond means.  As he was arrested he allegedly told the police that he would ‘get even with them’.

January 13th: The first 13th of the year and it just so happens to be a Friday! America in particular suffered the most as superstition results in many workers taking the day off to avoid ill fortune, resulting in a loss of around $800 to $900 million.  Fear of Friday the 13th even has a name – friggatriskaidekaphobia, and the origin of the anxiety has it’s roots in the history of the Knight’s Templar, as this was the day they were sentenced to death by the church.

A foot locker store in New York discovered a nightmarish pest dwelling in it’s basement.  Though the picture was taken months ago, it has only recently started circulating in the public eye.  The 2.5 foot rat far exceeds the size of most conventionally large rats, and experts in the field believe it to be a Gambian pouched rat.  Fortunately, musophobes can sleep soundly in the knowledge that this breed is harmless, quite docile and that the specimen caught in the foot locker store could easily have been an escaped pet.  Witty commenters jokingly remarked that perhaps this sighting would be followed by ninja turtles in pursuit of pizza trucks.

A prize equivalent to £6.5m and sponsored by Qualcomm is being offered to anybody who can come up with a device that ‘weighs less than 2.2kg but can measure “key health metrics and diagnose a set of 15 diseases”’.  Trekkies everywhere are dithering with excitement at the possibility of such a device, the capability of which could be likened to a tricorder.


The Brain and Perception – some notes from Catherine

The Brain – Perception  (Or lack thereof!)

The brain is still something of a mystery to us, regardless of medical awareness and development.  Psychology and biology still come to blows even now over perception, sensation, processing and many other things, particularly abnormality.

There are many varying thoughts on how everything works, and some established certainties.

The passive process of sensation involves bringing information from the outside to the brain, while the active process of perception involves organising or translating said information into something meaningful to us.

The result is more subjective than you might expect, affected by cultural influence, past experience and basic nature known as perceptual expectancy.  For example, a person from the UK expects to see cars on a road, but somebody from another country with a different history might be surprised to see such a thing.

What is perceived is also affected by what you choose to pay attention to, known as selective attention.  An example of this might be your ability to completely drown out loud music at a party when you hear the mention of your name.  Others will be paying attention to the music.

The name for the study of this is psychophysics and it acts as a quantitative means by which relations between stimulus and response can be observed and questioned.

The processes specifically are of interest to psychophysics as the structure of sensory systems is a job for physiology.

The methods of psychophysics have assisted in the development of many other branches of psychology such as learning and memory as well as social psychology.

The cognitive branch of psychology also places much significance on the processes involved in perception, most specifically visually and aurally.

Many of the optical illusions that float around on the internet and such used as part of the cognitive approach to perception.

Many optical/ visual illusions use parallel lines, afterimages on the retina, lack of context resulting in an inability to interpret the spatial structure of something, and colour arrangement to demonstrate how what we perceive is not always correct, and thusly, that seeing is not always believing.

There are three main types of illusion.  ‘Optical illusion’ is perhaps an overused and incorrect term for many illusions we know of as this implies that it is an illusion on a purely physiological basis, which is not always the case.  Cognitive illusions differ significantly from optical and physiological ones.

Literal optical illusions ‘create images that are different from the objects that make them.’  Seeing the outline of a man in the gaps between the branches of a tree might be an example of this.

Physiological illusion follows the theory that ‘a stimulus follows its individual dedicated neural path in the early stages of visual processing, and that intense or repetitive activity in that or interaction with active adjoining channels cause a physiological imbalance that alters perception.’

Physiological illusions are still rooted the literal and biological, being the excessive stimulation of something such as colour or movement and its effects on the eyes and brain.  Thusly, it is particular to the reactions of neurons, rods, cones and other such biological functions and can be physically observed.

An example of a physiological illusion usually involves something such as colour combinations that appear to move despite being static or an image that creates a different afterimage on the retina.

The effect of colour arrangement has on our perception is perhaps the most difficult to unravel.  Many illusions can be perceived correctly (To some degree) when explained to us, but the checkerboard illusion shown here is an excellent demonstration of still perceiving what we know to be totally incorrect.  Squares A and B are in fact exactly the same colour, but regardless of the fact that you now know this, it is still extremely difficult to see!



Cognitive illusions are more of a psychological study as opposed to a physiological one (though physiology is still involved) being the result of unconscious conjecture and presumption.  There are further sub categories of cognitive illusion, including depth and motion perception, colour and brightness constancy, object constancy and perceptual organization.


Perceptual Organisation is most commonly quoted, involving images that can be different depending on how the subject views the image. Some people see one thing and others see something else depending on individual factors or influences.

That isn’t to say that utilisation of these illusions is by any means recent.  The ancient Greeks used to incorporate a small amount of convexity in the columns of the Parthenon because without this the parallel lines created an illusion of concavity.  This is known as entasis.  It is also suggested that this made a building appear more substantial.

Moving on from illusion, other examples of perception usually begin with an environmental stimulus that is not always visual.  The sound of something, the smell of something, the touch of something.

After the perception of the stimulus comes the recognition of the stimulus.  We have to categorise things to understand the world around us.

Perception without a stimulus is possible: a hallucination.  This can manifest on every sensory level.

Visually:  Seeing something that is not there.

Auditory:  Hearing sounds that are not being made.

Olfactory:  Picking up on a non-existent smell. (Phantosmia)

Gustatory:  A taste without any flavour creating factor being present in the mouth.

Tactile:  Feeling touch when there is no physical contact, or perhaps a change in temperature or altered position.

Equilibrioception:  Feeling as if one is out of balance when they are not.

Nociception:  Feeling pain when there is none.

Chronoceptive:  Perhaps most intriguing, this is a misperception of the passage of time.

While most examples of hallucination are linked to psychological malfunction there are examples of commonly occurring hallucinations that are not an illness.

Hypnagognic hallucinations occur when one is falling asleep.  It could be described as a waking dream, whereby the subject experiences visual, auditory or tactile hallucinations just before they go into REM sleep where dreaming takes place.  It most often a sensation of falling just as you nod off, often waking you up as you kick out in a hypnic jerk (A kind of myoclonic twitch).

Hynapompic hallucinations take place as one is waking up.

Visual hallucinations are often exploited to form an illusion.

Auditory hallucinations fall in to two categories:

Elementary, whereby we perceive hearing something such as a rushing, hissing or a whistling, some constant noise.

Complex, whereby the subject hears voices or music or perhaps something they can’t understand.  This type of hallucination is most commonly associated with mental illness.

It is possible to hear things without being otherwise ill, thus further complicating the intricacies of perception.

Tactile hallucinations are often associated with prolonged drug use, such as the feeling of crawling skin or of insects or creatures being on the skin.  Sufferers of delusional parasitosis (The belief that one is infested with something ranging from worms to mites and lice, despite the lack thereof) also often feel this, known as formication.

Other illnesses commonly associated with hallucination include Parkinsons, delirium tremens, some forms of epilepsy, schizophrenia and intriguingly, Charles Bonnet syndrome, whereby visual hallucinations are experienced by those who are blind.

While many of these are commonly attributed to biological deficit, followers of Freud relate hallucinations to the manifestation of subconscious desires, much like they do for dreams.

In relation to psychoanalysis, the Rorschach inkblot test relies on the subject’s perception.  A Rorschach inkblot is the image of a shape, resembling a splotch of ink, which is often used in therapy to determine an individual’s basic thought processes and emotional functioning.  The individual describes what they perceive in or from the shape and associations can be drawn henceforth as to why they saw what they saw, and what it means to the individual.

The notion and meaning behind Rorschach blots were used heavily in psychological horror game, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, whereby the protagonist is regularly pursued by ‘Raw Shocks’, a monster that changes in physical appearance according to the actions of the player.  For example, they appear ‘atrophied and disfigured’ if the player directs the protagonist to focus on trivial things in the game and speaks to other NPCs rudely.  Or they appear overtly feminine and sexualised if the player directs the protagonist to focus on the sexual imagery in the game.  Very Freudian!

Derren Brown employs many demonstrations of selective attention in his shows, perhaps the best example being during ‘The Evening of Wonders’, whereby he paced across the stage carrying a writing board, paused momentarily, then appeared to walk back onstage followed by a man in a gorilla costume.  The gorilla removes his headpiece, revealing himself to be Derren Brown, who artfully managed to convince his audience he was still carrying the writing board and that the man in the costume was somebody else.

It was suggested that this was his sort of ‘tribute’ to similar selective attention test performed in 1999 known as the ‘Invisible Gorilla’ test.

In this test, subjects were asked to watch a video of people passing a basketball between one another and count the number of times players in white passed the ball.  Halfway through the video, a man in a gorilla costume strolls into the game, beats his chest and strolls out again.  The video was meant to outline how few people would take any notice of the presence of the gorilla, despite its obvious and odd appearance, because their selective attention was focused on a different task.  Unfortunately the video became so famous people now know to look for the gorilla.

Derren Brown’s test is also an example of change blindness, which in turn is an example of the brain’s perception of the world comprising of fragmented details, the gaps of which are filled in by the brain itself.

This theory suggests that the brain more or less estimates the significance of what needs to be paid attention to or the usefulness of the information received.

Derren Brown has also made an example of change blindness in an act that involved approaching a stranger on the street, asking for directions, and while he is talking have somebody walk past carrying a large object.  While this object is disrupting the view for hardly any time at all, he swapped out with another who doesn’t resemble him remotely, yet the stranger will continue the conversation with the second individual as if there had been no change.

Change blindness is also thought to be easy to achieve during saccadic eye movement, the period in which your eyes move from one thing to another.  This movement is not smooth, though we perceive it to be.

By tracking saccadic eye movement, George Mcconkie conducted an experiment that meant he was able to change details of a piece of text right in front of the subject’s eyes without them noticing.


Alan here – the above video is from Richard Wiseman’s excellent Quirkology – were you fooled?

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