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Lectures for a New Year: The Brain, Art, and Neurology

V.S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist of the peculiar. Rama investigates unusual cases, and through his research he often helps people tremendously -- for example, he invented the mirror box, which is used to treat phantom limb pain in amputees. He also actively studies and seeks to understand topics like synesthesia, rather than simply dismissing them as odd or quirky phenomena.

In this riveting lecture, Rama walks through a variety of curious neurological topics, building a case for how the brain perceives everything -- and ultimately how it perceives art. While this lecture has more to do with neurology than art, it's still of interest to those who dig art, and there is indeed a lot of discussion in the latter half of what art might be, whether art can be considered universal, and how art might function in the brain.

Topics: Capgras Delusion (aka "my mother is an imposter!"), synesthesia (aka "C Major is green!"), what a metaphor really is (schizophrenics don't understand metaphor!), "bite you!", a series of interesting visual illusions, how the brain responds to art, bird beaks, art, art, and artists.

For: fans of science, anyone who's curious how the brain really works, fans of art, and anyone who loves a good lecture (can you imagine having this man as your professor? Fantastic!).

Viewing note: Skip to 3:13 to get to the lecture; the intro isn't necessary.

Further Reading

Rama's book Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind is a classic, though a tad out of date. His latest is The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human. You might also enjoy his lecture Synesthesia in Mystical Traditions.

Transcript

I haven't been able to find a transcript of this talk. The only option I've found is to enable YouTube's automated captioning system, which doesn't work at all well with the technical terms in this lecture.

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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The Prehistoric Bacteria That Helped Create Our Cells Billions of Years Ago
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We owe the existence of our cells—the very building blocks of life—to a chance relationship between bacteria that occurred more than 2 billion years ago. Flash back to Bio 101, and you might remember that humans, plants, and animals have complex eukaryotic cells, with nucleus-bound DNA, instead of single-celled prokaryotic cells. These contain specialized organelles such as the mitochondria—the cell’s powerhouse—and the chloroplast, which converts sunlight into sugar in plants.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts both look and behave a lot like bacteria, and they also share similar genes. This isn’t a coincidence: Scientists believe these specialized cell subunits are descendants of free-living prehistoric bacteria that somehow merged together to form one. Over time, they became part of our basic biological units—and you can learn how by watching PBS Eons’s latest video below.

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