My first talk of the Festival and I’m in at the deep end contemplating how the brain actually allows me to contemplate anything. Good thing I had that extra cup of coffee this morning and did a little research on the four speakers before I turned up.
The four talks painted a picture of the mysterious cognitive world of how the brain enables the mind to exist, how computation and cognition might not be really independent, and the emotional connection behind abstract words such as logic and algorithm. The best question asked during the event was, “does that mean that physicists are more in touch with their emotional side?” Unfortunately the study had not been designed to answer that question.
So what did I learn from this event? Firstly, sea-squirts, marine filter feeders, have a brain in the juvenile stage but it is ingested when they find a rock to attach to, and secondly just hearing an action associated with a body part is sufficient to induce activity in the neural network associated with movement of that area of the body. In fact “all cognitive processes, including abstract use of language and math, is based on bodily and neural perception, action and emotion”. What does all this mean for the way we learn? Arthur Glenberg showed that linking embodiment and education improves learning, stating that “one of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of moment by itself, as something apart from the higher functions”. Linking physical action to learning is not a new concept, Maria Montessori wrote that “development of (a child’s) mind comes about though his movements…mind and movement are part of the same entity” back in 1967 but it is only now that the scientific experiments are being done to back this up.
And finally a question to ponder on posed by Gun Semin: why do women buy Diet Coke whilst men would prefer to pick up a Coke Zero? Well it might have something to do with the advertising but before deciding that let’s try a simple experiment. Imagine a waiter brings out a cappuccino and an expresso to Mark and Sophie; or maybe he brings out a Sprite and a Coca-Cola, or a glass of white wine and another of red. Without being told who ordered what, which of each these options would the waiter give to Mark. Well the answer most people would give is Mark would get the expresso, cola and red wine – all the darker options. Social influence has associated dark colours with masculinity and light with femininity, but this relationship runs deeper than just suggesting that women would prefer a lighter beverage. Cultural conventions have an effect on the brain, for instance recognition of female names will be quicker if they are presented in a light colour and slower if presented in a dark colour, and a similar phenomenon is seen when presenting male names where a dark colour would facilitate recognition. Coca-cola might be on to something in the colour of their cans, but then again advertising Coke Zero with James Bond jumping out of a helicopter might also appeal to a particular audience.
Beckie Port is a Cancer Research UK funded PhD student in the School of Cancer Sciences, University of Birmingham. You can follow her on Facebook or @beckieport. Beckie is attending the Festival as part of a Scientific Public Engagement Award from the University of Birmingham and the Festival Student Bursary Scheme.