All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.


Richard Brautigan (1967)

Posted in Art

“Firing,” by d. m. kingsford


I was roaming the streets of Denver during an ultra-long layover on Friday and ran into someone offering to write poems on the spot, on any topic. The topic: brains, neurons.

Merry Christmas, neuroscience community:

Firing by d.m. kingsford

Like a V-10,000,000
this thing, ordinary enough,
comprised of the same stuff
as everyone else’s,
making up a man of average intelligence,
kind, occasionally
(but his in-laws think he’s a
and basically fulfilled.

this thing is firing
on all cylinders, heat beat,
renal systems in check,
temperature ok, and
at this moment,
the frontal lobe bearing down on
a crossword puzzle.

The same as Stephen Hawking.

(Apologies for the loss of formatting.)


Interstellate Magazine: The Art of Neuroscience


Caitlin Vander Weele has been curating a collection of stunning neuroscience images that really bring the brain to life (so to speak). Volume 1 is here and it is a beauty! You can also download the hi-res PDF if you’ve got a spare 210 MB lying around.

Some samples:



Posted in Art

Coherent dots as art


One of the more influential experimental paradigms in sensory neuroscience is the coherent random dots task in which small dots flicker in and out of existence, with some small number of them moving either left or right, like flecks of snow on a windy winter day. An animal – a monkey, a mouse, a human – is forced to say in which direction these dots are moving, a task which gets harder as the number moving in a coherent direction gets smaller. You can see an example here (which is uploaded in quicktime for some reason). Versions of this task have been adapted to other sensations like audition.

I was in Seoul recently and visited the Seoul Museum of Art. Filled to the brim with amazing installations, one caught my eye. Much to the chagrin of my non-neuroscientist companions, I became entranced by a vivid representation of these seminal psychophysics studies. Norimichi Hirakawa, consciously or not, has manifested this ‘random noise’ into a form that is somehow accessible to a broad audience. Think of the possibilities inherent in that the next time that you run an experiment.

(I took some videos but could not find a good way to embed them as youtube and vimeo both attempt to lossily compress it – which is difficult when you are literally compressing noise.)

Punctuation in novels

Faulkner versus McCarthy

I found some beautiful posters that showed the punctation in different novels the other day. I was immediately curious if I could do something similar and wrote a little script (code here) to extract the punctation and print out a compressed representation of my favorite novels.

Then, like any proper scientist, I looked at the data and did some simple stats. Go see on Medium!

Here are a few of the (almost) full sets of punctuation from a couple of novels. For Pride And Prejudice, note the zoom-in versus the zoom-out:




Here are the files for Pride and Prejudice (alternate), A Doll’s House, and Romeo and Juliet.

Please let me know in the comments how totally I was wrong in my Medium analysis, and if there is anything you would like to see.

Update: Here a couple I thought were interesting. First, part of the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:


And then Ulysses, the difference between the beginning of the book (first) and the end of the book (second):



Posted in Art

The ballerina illusion

No matter how hard I try, I cannot get the spinning dancer illusion to flip. Looks like someone has found a much more powerful version of the illusion:


What I especially like about this version of the illusion is I can totally get why it is happening. There aren’t great depth cues so there is a powerful prior that if you can see a face then that face is looking in your direction – hence direction flipping.

(via kottke)

Posted in Art

Is it white and gold? Is it blue and black?


By now, I am sure that you have seen this picture. Some people see it as blue and black and some people see it as white and gold. Two people can be sitting right next to each other and see totally different things! It happened to me last night.

Wired attempts to explain it:

“What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College. “So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.” (Conway sees blue and orange, somehow.) [ed. that makes her the devil.]

Essentially, it is an issue of color constancy: that the color we perceive is due to its context. Brightening and darkening the image supports that:

See also XKCD:

But that explains one, trivial why – why one ‘color’ can look different depending on context. What it does not explain is why some people see it as white and gold and others see it totally the opposite. Why is there this individual level variation?

It seems to exist right on some threshold: some people have an in-built or learned bias to favor – well, something. Light images? Dark images? Overhead light? And others have a different bias. If it was light or dark, presumably you could lock five people in a closet and when they came out they would see it one way (maybe blue and black). Push five others out in the sun and they’d see it differently (white and gold). But I haven’t seen a good explanation of this nor why it is so bimodal. I would bet someone money there will be a scientific paper on this illusion published within the next year or two.

In conclusion, it’s white and gold because that’s all I can see. Case closed.

Posted in Art

Greg Dunn’s neural landscape


Every so often these fantastic neural paintings by Greg Dunn get passed around. I never wondered about the backstory until now:

My artistic career began during my tenure as a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. As I came to learn, molecular research can be an existential exercise in that you must rely on machines and chemical reagents to “see” your experiments. Painting provided me a welcome respite from lab frustrations because it gave me a sense of control. When painting, I can experiment and immediately see the result, judge it against my intentions, and iterate as necessary. I can convey my thoughts to the world without having to worry about grants, contaminated compounds, the politics of publishing, or an unexpected flood in the mouse room threatening to wash away my study subjects.

…My graduate school days were filled with stunning microscopic imagery. Neurons, in particular, resonated with me. With their chaotic, unpredictable branching patterns, neurons have much in common aesthetically with traditional subjects of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ink painting, such as trees and branches. Viewed as landscapes, neuronal vistas would fit easily within an Asian context. I began to experiment with merging the two.

From American Scientist

Where to find great, free neuroscience pictures

striatum etc labeling

Image from the Mouse Connectome Gallery

When I write a post or an article, I often want to include a nice-looking picture or illustration. But it can be hard to find the right images of the brain (or animal) that is freely available: open-sourced or Creative Commons licensed.

Here is a list of suggestions I received for images to use:

Search the Creative Commons database

Jason Snyder’s flickr collection

The Cell Image Library

Mouse Connectome database

Cell Centered Database (usually offline)

In addition, I’ve started a tumblr of open-sourced pictures so I have a single place to find everything that I use. So start following the Neuroecology tumblr!