Mind Hacks

 Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain

by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb

Foreword by Steven Johnson

Mind Hacks- Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain

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Book Details
 396 p
 File Size 
 4,494 KB
 File Type
 PDF format
 2005 O’Reilly Media, Inc

About the Author
Tom Stafford likes finding things out and writing things down. Several years
of doing this in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield
resulted in a Ph.D. Now sometimes he tells people he’s a computational cognitive
neuroscientist and then talks excitedly about neural networks. Lately
he’s begun talking excitedly about social networks too. As well as doing academic
research, he has worked freelance, writing and working at the BBC as
a documentary researcher. Things he finds interesting he puts on his web
Matt Webb is an engineer and designer, splitting his working life between
R&D with BBC Radio & Music Interactive and freelance projects in the social
software world. In the past, he’s made collaborative online toys, written IM
bots, and run a fiction web site (archived at http://iam.upsideclown.com); now
he’s content with hacky web scripts and his weblog, Interconnected, 
Matt reads a little too much, likes the word “cyberspace,”
lives in London, and tells his mother he’s “in computers.”

Think for a moment about all that’s happening while you read this text:
how your eyes move to center themselves on the words, how you idly
scratch your arm while you’re thinking, the attention-grabbing movements,
noises, and other distractions you’re filtering out. How does all this work?
As one brain speaking to another, here’s a secret: it isn’t easy.
The brain is a fearsomely complex information-processing environment.
Take the processing involved in seeing, for instance. One of the tasks
involved in seeing is detecting the motion in every tiny portion of vision, in
such and such a direction and at such and such a speed, and representing
that in the brain. But another task is seeing a face in the light that falls on
the retina, figuring out what emotion it’s showing, and representing that
concept in the brain, somehow, too.

To an extent, the brain is modular, so that should give us a way in, but it’s
not that clean-cut. The processing subsystems of the brain are layered on top
of one another, but their functionality mingles rather than being organized in
a distinct progression. Often the same task is performed in many different
places, in many different ways. It’s not a clear mechanical system like clockwork
or like a computer program; giving the same input won’t always give
the same output. Automatic and voluntary actions are highly meshed, often
inextricable. Parts of vision that appear fully isolated from conscious experience
suddenly report different results if conscious expectations change.
The information transformations in the brain are made yet more complicated
by the constraints of history, computation, and architecture. Development
over evolutionary time has made it hard for the brain to backtrack; the
structure of the brain must reflect its growth and repurposing. Computation
has to occur as fast as possible—we’re talking subsecond responses—but
there are limits on the speed at which information can travel between physical
parts of the brain. These are all constraints to be worked with.
All of which leaves us with one question: how can we possibly start to
understand what’s going on?

Cognitive neuroscience is the study of the brain biology behind our mental
functions. It is a collection of methods (like brain scanning and computational
modeling) combined with a way of looking at psychological phenomena
and discovering where, why, and how the brain makes them happen. It
is neither classic neuroscience—a low-level tour of the biology of the
brain—nor is it what many people think of as psychology—a metaphorical
exploration of human inner life; rather, it’s a view of the mind that looks at
the fundamental elements and rules, acting moment by moment, that makes
up conscious experience and action.

By focusing both on the biological substrate and on the high-level phenomenon
of consciousness, we can pick apart the knot of the brain. This picking
apart is why you don’t need to be a cognitive neuroscientist to reap the fruit of the field.

This book is a collection of probes into the moment-by-moment works of
the brain. It’s not a textbook—more of a buffet, really. Each hack is one
probe into the operation of the brain, one small demonstration. By seeing
how the brain responds, we pick up traces of the structures present and the
design decision made, learning a little bit more about how the brain is put together.

Simultaneously we’ve tried to show how there isn’t a separation between the
voluntary “me” feeling of the mind and the automatic nature of the brain—
the division between voluntary and automatic behavior is more of an ebb and
flow, and we wield our cognitive abilities with unconscious flourishes and
deliberate movements much as we wield, say, our hands, or a pen, or a lathe.
In a sense, we’re trying to understand the capabilities that underpin the
mind. Say we understand to what extent the holes in our vision are continually
covered up or what sounds and lights will—without a doubt—grab our
attention (and also what won’t): we’ll be able to design better tools, and create
better interfaces that work with the grain of our mental architecture and
not against it. We’ll be able to understand ourselves a little better; know a
little more, in a very real sense, about what makes us tick.
Plus it’s fun. That’s the key. Cognitive neuroscience is a fairly new discipline.
The journey into the brain is newly available and an enjoyable ride.
The effects we’ll see are real enough, but the explanations of why they occur
are still being debated. We’re taking part in the mapping of this new territory
just by playing along. Over the course of writing this book, we’ve spent
time noticing our own attention systems darting about the room, seen ourselves
catching gestures from people we’ve been talking to, and played
games with the color of traffic and peripheral vision. That’s the fun bit. But
we’ve also been gripped by the arguments in the scientific literature and
have had new insights into facets of our everyday lives, such as why some
web sites are annoying and certain others are particularly well-made. If,
through this book, we’ve managed to make that world a little more accessible
too, then we’ve succeeded. And when you’ve had a look around and
found new ways to apply these ideas and, yes, new topics we’ve not touched
on, please do let us know. We’re here for the ride too.

Why Mind Hacks?
The term “hacking” has a bad reputation in the media. They use it to refer to
those who break into systems or wreak havoc with computers as their weapons.
Among people who write code, though, the term “hack” refers to a
“quick-and-dirty” solution to a problem, or a clever way to get something
done. And the term “hacker” is taken very much as a compliment, referring
to someone as being “creative,” having the technical chops to get things
done. The Hacks series is an attempt to reclaim the word, document the
good ways people are hacking, and pass the hacker ethic of creative participation
on to the uninitiated. Seeing how others approach systems and problems
is often the quickest way to learn about a new technology.
The brain, like all hidden systems, is prime territory for curious hackers.
Thanks to relatively recent developments in cognitive neuroscience, we’re
able to satisfy a little of that curiosity, making educated explanations for
psychological effects rather than just pointing those effects out, throwing
light on the internal workings of the brain.
Some of the hacks in this collection document the neat tricks the brain has
used to get the job done. Looking at the brain from the outside like this, it’s
hard not to be impressed at the way it works. Other hacks point to quirks of
our own minds that we can exploit in unexpected ways, and that’s all part of
learning our way round the wrinkles in this newly exposed technology.
Mind Hacks is for people who want to know a bit more about what’s going
on inside their own heads and for people who are going to assemble the
hacks in new ways, playing with the interface between ourselves and the
world. It’s wonderfully easy to get involved. We’ve all got brains, after all.

How to Use This Book
You can read this book from cover to cover if you like, but each hack stands
on its own, so feel free to browse and jump to the different sections that
interest you most. If there’s a prerequisite you need to know, a cross-reference
will guide you to the right hack.
We’ve tried out all the demonstrations in this book, so we know that for
most people they work just as we say they do; these are real phenomena.
Indeed, some are surprising, and we didn’t believe they’d work until we
tried them ourselves. The explanations are summaries of the current state of
knowledge—often snapshots of debates in progress. Keep an open mind
about these. There’s always the chance future research will cause us to revise
our understanding.
Often, because there is so much research on each topic, we have linked to
web sites, books, and academic papers to find out more. Follow these up.
They’re fantastic places to explore the wider story behind each hack, and
will take you to interesting places and appear interesting connections.
With regard to academic papers, these are bedrock of scientific knowledge.
They can be hard to get and hard to understand, but we included references
to them because they are the place to go if you really need to get to the bottom
of a story (and to find the cutting edge). What’s more, for many scientists,
evidence doesn’t really exist until it has been published in a scientific
journal. For this to happen, the study has to be reviewed by other scientists
working in the field, in a system called peer review. Although this system
has biases, and mistakes are made, it is this that makes science a collective
endeavor and provides a certain guarantee of quality.
The way journal articles are cited is quite precise, and in this book we’ve
followed the American Psychological Association reference style (http://www.apastyle.org). 
Each looks something like this:
Lettvin, J., Maturana, H., McCulloch, W., & Pitts, W. (1959). What the
frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain. Proceedings of the IRE, 47(11), 1940– 1951.
Before the year of publication (which is in parentheses), the authors are
listed. After the year is the title of the paper, followed by the journal in
which you’ll find it, in italics. The volume (in italics) and then the issue
number (in parentheses) follow. Page numbers come last. One convention
you’ll often see in the text is “et al.” after the main author of a paper. This is
shorthand for “and others.”
Many, but not all, journals have an electronic edition, and some you can
access for free. Most are subscription-based, although some publishers will
let you pay per paper. If you go to a library, generally a university library,
make sure it not only subscribes to the journal you want, but also has the
year in which the paper you’re after was published.
If you’re lucky, the paper will also be reprinted online. This is often the
case with classic papers and with recent papers, which the authors may
have put on their publications page. A good query to use at Google (http://
www.google.com) for papers online in PDF format using a query like:
“What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain” filetype:pdf
Alternately, search for a researcher’s name followed by the word “publications”
for papers, demonstrations, and as-yet-unpublished research, a gold
mine if you’re learning more about a particular topic.

Table of Contents
Foreword . . . . . . . . xi
Credits . . . . . . . xiii
Preface .  . . . xix
Chapter 1. Inside the Brain . . . . . . . . 1
1. Find Out How the Brain Works Without Looking Inside 2
2. Electroencephalogram: Getting the Big Picture with EEGs 5
3. Positron Emission Tomography: Measuring Activity Indirectly with PET 6
4. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging:
The State of the Art 7
5. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation:
Turn On and Off Bits of the Brain 8
6. Neuropsychology, the 10% Myth, and Why You Use All
of Your Brain 9
7. Get Acquainted with the Central Nervous System 13
8. Tour the Cortex and the Four Lobes 16
9. The Neuron 19
10. Detect the Effect of Cognitive Function on Cerebral Blood Flow 22
11. Why People Don’t Work Like Elevator Buttons 24
12. Build Your Own Sensory Homunculus 27
Chapter 2. Seeing . . . . . . . . . . 32
13. Understand Visual Processing 32
14. See the Limits of Your Vision 38
15.To See, 16.Map Your 17. Glimpse the Gaps in Your Vision 50
18. When Time Stands Still 52
19. Release Eye Fixations for Faster Reactions 55
20. Fool Yourself into Seeing 3D 57
21. Objects Move, Lighting Shouldn’t 62
22. Depth Matters 66
23. See How Brightness Differs from Luminance:
The Checker Shadow Illusion 72
24. Create Illusionary Depth with Sunglasses 76
25. See Movement When All Is Still 80
26. Get Adjusted 83
27. Show Motion Without Anything Moving 86
28. Motion Extrapolation: The “Flash-Lag Effect” 90
29. Turn Gliding Blocks into Stepping Feet 93
30. Understand the Rotating Snakes Illusion 95
31. Minimize Imaginary Distances 101
32. Explore Your Defense Hardware 106
33. Neural Noise Isn’t a Bug; It’s a Feature 108
Chapter 3. Attention . . . . . . . 111
34. Detail and the Limits of Attention 112
35. Count Faster with Subitizing 115
36. Feel the Presence and Loss of Attention 117
37. Grab Attention 123
38. Don’t Look Back! 126
39. Avoid Holes in Attention 129
40. Blind to Change 134
41. Make Things Invisible Simply by Concentrating
(on Something Else) 137
42. The Brain Punishes Features that Cry Wolf 139
43. Improve Visual Attention Through Video Games 143
Chapter 4. Hearing and Language . . . . . . 147
44. Detect Timing with Your Ears 148
45. Detect Sound Direction 150
46. Discover Pitch 154
47. Keep Your Balance 156
48. Detect Sounds on the Margins of Certainty 158
49. Speech Is Broadband Input to Your Head 160
50. Give Big-Sounding Words to Big Concepts 162
51. Stop Memory-Buffer Overrun While Reading 165
52. Robust Processing Using Parallelism 169
Chapter 5. Integrating . . . . . . 173
53. Put Timing Information into Sound
and Location Information into Light 173
54. Don’t Divide Attention Across Locations 176
55. Confuse Color Identification with Mixed Signals 179
56. Don’t Go There 182
57. Combine Modalities to Increase Intensity 186
58. Watch Yourself to Feel More 188
59. Hear with Your Eyes: The McGurk Effect 190
60. Pay Attention to Thrown Voices 193
61. Talk to Yourself 195
Chapter 6. Moving . . . .. . . . 200
62. The Broken Escalator Phenomenon:
When Autopilot Takes Over 200
63. Keep Hold of Yourself 203
64. Mold Your Body Schema 207
65. Why Can’t You Tickle Yourself? 210
66. Trick Half Your Mind 215
67. Objects Ask to Be Used 218
68. Test Your Handedness 221
69. Use Your Right Brain—and Your Left, Too 226
Chapter 7. Reasoning . . .  . . . . . 231
70. Use Numbers Carefully 231
71. Think About Frequencies Rather than Probabilities 234
72. Detect Cheaters 239
73. Fool Others into Feeling Better 242
74. Maintain the Status Quo 246
Chapter 8. Togetherness . . . . . . 251
75. Grasp the Gestalt 252
76. To Be Noticed, Synchronize in Time 254
77. See a Person in Moving Lights 258
78. Make Things Come Alive 262
79. Make Events Understandable as Cause and Effect 265
80. Act Without Knowing It 269
Chapter 9. Remembering . . . . .  . 273
81. Bring Stuff to the Front of Your Mind 274
82. Subliminal Messages Are Weak and Simple 277
83. Fake Familiarity 279
84. Keep Your Sources Straight (if You Can) 283
85. Create False Memories 287
86. Change Context to Build Robust Memories 292
87. Boost Memory Using Context 295
88. Think Yourself Strong 298
89. Navigate Your Way Through Memory 302
90. Have an Out-of-Body Experience 306
91. Enter the Twilight Zone: The Hypnagogic State 308
92. Make the Caffeine Habit Taste Good 311
Chapter 10. Other People . . . 316
93. Understand What Makes Faces Special 317
94. Signal Emotion 320
95. Make Yourself Happy 325
96. Reminisce Hot and Cold 327
97. Look Where I’m Looking 331
98. Monkey See, Monkey Do 335
99. Spread a Bad Mood Around 338
100. You Are What You Think 342
Index . . .  . . . 345

Mind Hacks- Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain
Printed in the United States of America.
Published by O’Reilly Media, Inc., 1005 Gravenstein Highway North,
Sebastopol, CA 95472.

Editor: Rael Dornfest
Series Editor: Rael Dornfest
Executive Editor: Dale Dougherty
Production Editor: Sarah Sherman
Cover Designer: Hanna Dyer
Interior Designer: David Futato
Printing History:
November 2004: First Edition.
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