Neuroscientists And Magicians Mingle At Conference

Thousands of neuroscientists gathered in Chicago this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Science News writer Laura Sanders reports on the highlights, including a symposium where magicians and neuroscientists discussed their common ground: the mind.

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JOE PALCA, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca. Ira Flatow is away.

If you're interested in how the brain works, a good place to be this past week was Chicago. That's because some 30,000 neuroscientists gathered in Chicago for the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.There were posters and presentations and symposia on pretty much any question you could think about: how the brain maps the space around it, how fine-tuned chemical circuits in the brain can throw off balance by addiction, how the brain controls complex movements. And there was fun stuff, too, like a couple magicians who took the stage to teach a crowd of neuroscientists about the brain. Really, that happened.

My next guest is here to give us some highlights from the meeting. Let me introduce her now. Laura Sanders is a writer for Science News in Washington, D.C. She joins us from our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Ms. Sanders.

Ms. LAURA SANDERS (Writer, Science News): Thanks for having me.

PALCA: And if you want to join our conversation, you should give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, that's 1-800-989-TALK, and if you're on Twitter, you can tweet us your questions by writing the @ sign followed by scifri. And if you want more information about what we'll be talking about this hour, go to our Web site, www.sciencefriday.com, where you'll find links to the topic.

So, Laura Sanders, what do magicians and neuroscientists have in common? I want to know about this.

Ms. SANDERS: Well, yeah, you wouldn't necessarily think of it right off the bat, but they both share a complete fascination with the human brain. Scientists, of course, want to study it and figure out how it works. Magicians, though, want to trick it and make it believe the impossible. So the reason that the magicians were invited to this meeting is that a lot of scientists, and neuroscientists in particular, started realizing that these magicians have a huge wealth of information. And they've honed these tricks over hundreds of years and tested it out in front of audiences all over the world. So they're good. They're good and tricking the brain, and neuroscientists want to know how they do that.

PALCA: Right. So I mean, I guess there's some serious things about consciousness and attention and things that you can learn from tricking the brain.

Ms. SANDERS: Yeah. One of the main things that they talked about, these two magicians that performed, a big, important thing was attention and how they're able to kind of twist your attention and manipulate it. One of the magicians, Apollo Robins(ph), when he started talking, you know, there was this big spotlight on the front of the stage, and he was nowhere to be found. And he said, you know, spotlights point out something that you should be looking at, and that's where your attention goes, but here he was, off in the shadow. I think at that point, he was actually pilfering through the pockets of some of the attendees and stealing their wallets and watches, and yeah…

PALCA: Well, that's a good thing to keep in mind and also to watch out for pickpockets. I guess thieves could do that, as well, but I doubt that they'd come and talk to the group.

Ms. SANDERS: Well, Apollo is actually known as the gentleman thief. He was a pickpocket in his former life, so he - yeah.

PALCA: All right, yeah, so there's precedent. Okay, what about - I heard also about this study of neuron-specific brain cells that respond when they see a picture of Halle Berry or Marilyn Monroe. I'm just surprised to find an individual cell for that.

Ms. SANDERS: Yeah, that was the really amazing thing about this study is they were looking at individual brain cells. You know, out of the hundred billion or so in our brains, they were able to pinpoint one that responded when Halle Berry's picture was flashed up on a screen. So they were using electrodes to kind of eavesdrop in on the activity of these cells.

PALCA: You know, okay, so many eons ago, I was in graduate school in psychology, and I remember hearing something about the grandmother cell, this idea that there was a single neuron in your brain that would respond to a particular person. Is this the same thing?

Ms. SANDERS: Yeah, well, it's kind of - not a lot of scientists think that's actually how it works these days. For one thing, you know, if you did just have one cell that recognized your grandma, you'd be in trouble if it died, and you might run into problems in your everyday life. But it's more of a question of how many of these cells are important for recognizing something.

The idea that just one would be, by chance, the one that these scientists found, you know, and they're only looking at a hundred or so, is not so likely. And it's also the thing that they weren't able to test these neurons' responses to everything. So they were only able to show a subset of pictures. And it's pretty likely that these neurons are kind of pulling double duty, in a sense, and responding to Marilyn Monroe and then also something like your toenail clippers at the same time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SANDERS: So yeah, it's - I think people are more interested these days in figuring out how big these circuits of cells are.

PALCA: I'm just curious. This meeting has got like 30,000 people. How do you go and find the interesting things? And was there - did people walk away with one thing and say oh, this year, now we know that the brain does X?

Ms. SANDERS: You know, there are a few themes that I could kind pick out of the noise at this meeting. It seemed like a lot of the new studies were focused on how good exercise is for the brain and how eating right is also very good for the brain. So that seemed to be a theme. There was, you know, a lot of interest in that, and it seems like something they were interested in sharing with the public is that, you know, exercise and eating right is good for your body, but it does a lot to your brain, too.

PALCA: Oh boy. Okay, fruits and vegetables and thinking a lot. We'll stay young forever. All right, well thanks, Laura Sanders, very much for coming and joining us.

Ms. SANDERS: Oh, thanks for having me.

PALCA: Laura Sanders is a writer for Science News in Washington, D.C.

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