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Mark ChangiziRSS Feed of this column.

Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella 2009) and Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed... Read More »

Many illusions are like spherically curved space. Below on the left (fig. 1 ) is a geometrical illusion, and on the right is a ball with some great arcs drawn on it.

Notice the similarities: the distortions in the illusion are qualitatively similar to the non-Euclidean nature of the contours on the ball.

Why? Is there something in perception that’s like curved space?

figure 1

Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant and author of the recent book Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind (Free Press). You may have heard of him. For example, most people first became aware of the existence of Iceland upon hearing that Tammet learned Icelandic in a week.

This is also the fellow that rattled off the first 22,514 digits of pi in five hours, enough for even the most exacting civil engineer, and far more accurate than the 19th century Texas town that passed an ordinance that pi would be approximated as 4. If ever there were a real human with superpowers, then Tammet fits the bill. Although stricken with adversity, his brain nevertheless is in certain respects blessed with something extra, smarter, almost magical.
Dear TV and Movie Producer Person,

I realize that you receive letters all the time complaining about the gratuitous sex and violence on television and in movies. This is not one of those letters. In a sense, I want more sex and violence. Let me explain.

It is worth reminding ourselves why we watch TV and movies. First and foremost, we watch to be entertained. And, secondly, we watch because we get to watch. That is, we watch TV and movies because the visual modality of the experience brings an evocativeness of its own, one that we seem to like. Sure, we like the dialog and the plot twists, but we could have dialog and plot twists via reading or listening to books. We watch TV and movies because, in addition, we get that visual evocativeness.
“Come on into the hot tub,” I told my three year old boy. But he wouldn’t budge. No way was he joining his older sister in there. “It’s warm, and it feels nice!” I urged, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” But it was only when I turned off the jets that I could eventually coax him in.
No one draws pictures of heads with little gears or hydraulics inside any more. The modern conceptualization of the brain is firmly computational. The brain may be wet, squooshy, and easy to serve with an ice cream scooper, but it is nevertheless a computer. 

However, there is a rather blaring difficulty with this view, and it is encapsulated in the following question: If our brains are computers, why doesn’t size matter? In the real world of computers, bigger tends to mean smarter. But this is not the case for animals: bigger brains are not generally smarter. Most of the brain size differences across mammals seem to make no behavioral difference at all to the animal.
Recently I was interviewed by Pouria Nazemi, Science Editor of the Jam-e-Jam Daily Newspaper.  Jam-e-Jam is the principal Iranian newspaper and is controlled by the government.  In the wake of Iran shutting down its leading business newspaper last week and three pro-reform newspapers in October I thought this would be interesting to readers, since it appeared between these two events.