Alt text: You know what happens when you assert--you make an ass out of the emergency response team. Source: XKCD

“Really, I’m just guessing!” – Your brain

We like patterns! Our brain likes to find them even when there aren’t any to be found. This podcast by Scientific American explains, very briefly, two studies that asked participants too look for trends in artificial stock market data and images in video static. In both cases the subjects found patterns were there weren’t any, this is called illusory pattern perception.

Source: Scientific American

The reason for this pattern seeking behavior is simple. Our brain needs to process a lot of data, which is oftentimes incomplete. Detecting patterns can also be helpful from a survival perspective. Being able to pick out changes in your surroundings is key to being able to act quickly in a dangerous situation.

It gets worse! You’re brain is not only scanning your senses to detect patterns, but it’s also making stuff up. The amount of raw data available to parse is enormous. Whereas the processor in your computer would (slowly) start processing it bit by bit, our brain performs a different trick. It assumes its smart enough to select only the most important information and fill in the blanks by logical deduction.  Good luck with that!

As any student that has tried to apply this same methodology to their studies can confirm: this isn’t a flawless system. But it does allow us to quickly react to our surroundings and make intelligent decisions based on incomplete data. A field in which robotics still have a long way to go. For instance, it’s because of this system that we can (mentally) track a pedestrian that momentarily is obscured by obstacles along the line-of-sight.

Based on past experiences our brain creates a complex model of the way everything around us interacts. But this modus operandi also makes our brain susceptible to deception. We often overestimate our ability to grasp what’s going on in our surrounding, a vulnerability that is exploited by magicians and pickpockets around the world.

What can you take away from this? Your brain is a powerful beast, learn to respect it and learn the limits of its powers. Nervous for a presentation and certain that everybody will notice it? It probably isn’t (entirely) true, your mind is just very good at convincing you.

Remember, sometimes we  do assume a bit too much.

Alt text: You know what happens when you assert–you make an ass out of the emergency response team. Source: XKCD
OpenBCI developed an open source EEG platform

Open source and crowdfunding bring brain research to your doorstep

Brain–computer interfaces (BCI’s) are the future of interfacing with the machines around us. As crowdfunding and open source software are gaining in popularity, this wonderful world is now coming to enthusiasts around the world.

OpenBCI, the EEG Arduino shield

OpenBCI, the open source EEG platform

This Kickstarter project is a prime example of how the field of electronics is becoming more open. This easy-to-use EEG shield for the Arduino gives almost everyone the possibility to measure their brain activity.

The $ 215,438 backing OpenBCI shows that lot of people believe in these kind of projects.  It’s easy to see why,  for under $ 300  you get an EEG starter kit that easily compares in quality to commercial systems that are  a lot more expensive.

Earlier Kickstarter projects, such as Melon, got funded successfully as well. The difference was that these products were more playful and offered fewer possibilities. This first “scientific” device is indeed a major breakthrough.

These kind of projects, to me, make studying electronics so interesting and worthwhile. It’s a field that is (still) rapidly evolving and is offering exiting new opportunities to everyone willing to put in some time and effort.

Stereotypes prevail: women and men are not equal!

First of all: I’m not saying women are less than men… or the other way around. Certainly not on International Womens Day. 😉 Yet as millions of people have noticed, men and women seem to be wired differently. Well guess what? A recent study has shown just that!

Comparing men’s and women’s connectomes

The researchers mapped the neural connections in almost a 1,000 persons between 8 and 22 years old. This produced the connectomes (map of neural connections in the brain) showed below.

Connectome of male brain. Credit: National Academy of Sciences
Connectome of the male brain.
Credit: National Academy of Sciences

The male brain shows many connections between areas of the same hemisphere and very few between the left and right hemisphere. In contrast the cerebellum, a brain region involved with motor control, showed increased connectivity between both hemispheres.

Connectome of female brain. Credit: National Academy of Sciences
Connectome of the female brain.
Credit: National Academy of Sciences

Women, on the other hand, have a lot of neural connections between the left and right hemisphere. However, in the cerebellum women have less connections between both sides of the brain.

These findings agree with what most people seem to know. Men are  better at perception and learning individual coordinated  tasks, women at multitasking due to their brain being wired for social skills and memory. The left side of the brain mostly involved with logical thinking, while the right side “specializes” in intuitive thinking. A lot of connections between both sides  naturally leads to better performance in tasks that need both of these elements.

Due to the young age of the subjects, brain development during adolescence could also be studied. This revealed that the differentiation between men and women already starts at a young age. It also revealed large differences between the adolescence and adulthood brain.

 What can we learn from this?

This research is about more than only explaining behavioural differences. These brain images can learn us more about sex-related neurological disorders.  Which could lead to a better understanding in how these disorders develop and how they can be cured.

The paper can be found here: Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain