Author: Ruchir Shah

Mind the Brain Podcast Episode 04 – Octopus Consciousness

octopus_picFor this edition of my neuroscience podcast series, I chat with David Edelman, who is a professor of neuroscience at Bennington College. David is well known for his work in establishing a theoretical framework for the study of consciousness in animals. He is interested in understanding the neural correlates of consciousness in animals, and whether they even have a form of consciousness that can be studied experimentally. His current work focuses on octopuses, which might seem strange, but in fact octopuses show a wide range of very interesting behaviors, including exploration and learning and memory. They also have a very sophisticated nervous system for an invertebrate, including a relatively large brain as well as a parallel and distributed nervous system. In fact, they actually have more neurons in their tentacles than in their central nervous system, which allows for a huge range of adaptive behaviors, including camouflage and mimicry, all of which suggests a certain type of awareness of their environment.

In this podcast, we’ll discuss the idea of using humans as a benchmark for consciousness, and then trying to demonstrate similar behavioral, cognitive, and neuroanatomical features of animals that might be related to a conscious state. In addition to octopuses, birds also show a number of behavioral and neural features that are very intriguing, including tool use and social learning. I’ll ask David about these features of the bird brain, as well as whether birds and octopuses are capable of “deliberative” actions and have a true awareness of their environments. We’ll end our discussion with a note on what types of experiments David is doing to establish the case that octopuses are indeed conscious, and how much farther we still need to go.

You can listen to and download the podcast here.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can ready some of David’s scholarly articles here and here.


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Mind the Brain Podcast Episode 03 – Hallucinations and Designer Drugs

Vaughan_imageFor the third in my neuroscience podcast series, I chat with Vaughan Bell, who is a clinical and research psychologist at King’s College in London. Vaughan has an active interest in all areas of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, and writes about many of them on his blog, Mind Hacks.

In this podcast, we discuss one of Vaughan’s clinical research interests, which is hallucinations. What are they, and how are they diagnosed? We start by discussing some examples of hallucinations, and why auditory and visual hallucinations might be more common than other types, like taste or smell hallucinations. We then discuss the role that culture might play, and the interesting phenomenon that certain types of hallucinations are actually more common in specific countries.

When then move on to another of Vaughan’s academic interests, that of psychoactive drugs, and their potential relationship to hallucinations and psychosis. Finally, we end with a discussion about designer drugs, and how labs all over the world are synthesizing new psychoactive compounds much faster than governments could possibly ban then, effectively making the “war on drugs” irrelevant.

You can listen to and download the podcast here.

Please enjoy, and if you’re interested in learning more, you can read much of Vaughan’s writing at Mind Hacks. You can also read one of his scholarly publications on hallucinations here.


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Mind the Brain Podcast Episode 02: The Neuroscience of Music – Anticipation and Reward

For the second in my neuroscience podcast series, I chat with Robert Zatorre, who is a Professor in the Department of Neurology at McGill University. His lab studies the function of our auditory systems, in the context of complex cognitive functions like speech and music. He studies not only the sensory perception of speech and music, but also what is happening in our brains when we try and understand and react to those sounds.

In this podcast, we discuss another major focus of this lab, which is the relationship between music, emotion, and reward. We start by discussing why neuroscientists like to study music, and what makes it unique in terms of its perceptual and emotional qualities. We then dive into some of the work Robert’s lab has been doing over the past ten years, in terms of the effects that music has on the reward systems in our brain. His lab has shown that not only can music evoke strong emotional pleasure, but that when it does, its effects in the brain are very similar to rewarding stimuli like food, sex, and drugs of abuse.

Finally, we talk about why this might be case. Why should music be so rewarding, if it’s not required for our survival? It could be related to the fact that one of the core features of music is a component of anticipation, which is computed in time. Our brains are extremely good at making predictions, and it’s very rewarding to us when we can make accurate predictions about future events, because that’s how we learn. So the anticipation that is inherent in music might be taking advantage of a very fundamental function of our brains.

You can listen to and download the podcast here.

Please enjoy, and if you’re interested in learning more, you can read Robert’s recent “Gray Matter” article in the New York Times.

You can also read some of this scholarly publications here, here, and here.


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Mind the Brain Podcast Episode 01 – The Neuroscience of Art, Beauty, and Aesthetics

Hello readers, my name is Ruchir Shah, and I am the newest contributor to the Mind the Brain blog. I am a neuroscientist by training, but have a passion for story telling as well. I will be contributing a regular neuroscience podcast series to this blog, and I want to thank my fellow Mind the Brain bloggers for the opportunity to present my work. I’m delighted to be joining this excellent group of scientists!

For my first podcast in this series, I talk to Bevil Conway, who is an Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Wellesley College. Bevil has studied visual art as well as the mechanisms of visual perception, and has an active interest in the intersection between those two disciplines.In this podcast, we discuss the nascent field of “Neuroaesthetics”, and whether neuroscience can actually help us understand our experiences of beauty and aesthetics.

The term “aesthetics” means different things to different people, and from a neuroscience perspective it can involve sensory perception, emotional processing, attention, decision-making, and reward. We discuss how philosophers and neuroscientists have attempted to define this concept, and what we currently do and do not know about the neural basis for experiencing beauty. We then dive into a neuroscientific analysis of artwork, and whether we can glean any universal principles of aesthetics from such an approach. Finally, we discuss some fascinating case studies of how specific brain diseases or lesions can actually enhance art production, and what this might mean for how we perceive and experience beauty.

You can listen to and download the podcast here.

I hope you enjoy, and if you’re interested in learning more, you can read more of Bevil’s work on neuroaesthetics here, here, and here.


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