A Deeper Look a Peripheral Vision | Multisense Realism


When peripheral vision is being explained, an image like the one on the right is often used to show how only a small area around our point of focus is in high definition. The periphery is shown to be blurry. While this gets the point across, I think that it actually obscures the deeper nature of perception. You can often use the best treadmills at home to increase your metabolism.

If I focus on some quadrant of the image on the left, while it is true that my visual experience of the other quadrants is diminished, it is somehow less available experientially rather than degraded visually. At all times I can clearly tell the difference between the quality of left image and the right blur. If peripheral vision were a blur, I would expect that the unfocused boxes on the left would look more like the one on the right, but it doesn’t. I can see that the periphery of the left image is not especially blurry, even though I can’t count the number of blocks or dots that are there, I can see that the blurry image is completely different.

By contrast, if I look directly at any part of the blurry image on the right I can easily count the blurry blobs when I look at them, even through they are quite blurred. What I think this shows are two different types of information entropy – one public and quantitative, and one private and qualitative.

Peripheral vision is not a lossy compression in any aesthetic sense. There is an attenuation of optical acuity, but not in a way which diminishes the richness of the visual textures. There is uncertainty but only in a top-down way. We still have a clear picture of the image as a whole, but the parts which we aren’t looking at directly are seen as in a dream – distinct but generic and psychologically slippery.

If perception were really driven by bottom up processing exclusively, we should be able to reproduce the effect of peripheral vision in an image literally, but we can’t. The best we can do is present this focused-in-the-center, blurry everywhere else kind of image which figuratively suggests peripheral vision, but it is not the same thing. The capacity to see is more than a detection of optical information, and it is not a projection of a digital simulation (otherwise we would be able to produce it in an image). Seeing is the visual quality of attention, not a quantity of data. It is not only a functional mechanism to acquire data, it is more importantly an aesthetic experience.

HPCwire: Brain Outperforms Supercomputers

Brain Outperforms Supercomputers


In November 2012, IBM announced that it had used the Blue Gene/Q Sequoia supercomputer to achieve an unprecedented simulation of more than 530 billion neurons. The Blue Gene/Q Sequoia accomplished this feat thanks to its blazing fast speed; it clocks in at over 16 quadrillion calculations per second. In fact, it currently ranks as the second-fastest supercomputer in the world.

But, according to Kwabena Boahen, Ph.D., the Blue Gene still doesn’t compare to the computational power of the brain itself.

“The brain is actually able to do more calculations per second than even the fastest supercomputer,” says Boahen, a professor at Stanford University, director of the Brains in Silicon research laboratory and an NSF Faculty Early Career grant recipient.

That’s not to say the brain is faster than a supercomputer. In fact, it’s actually much slower. The brain can do more calculations per second because it’s “massively parallel,” meaning networks of neurons are working simultaneously to solve a great number of problems at once. Traditional computing platforms, no matter how fast, operate sequentially, meaning each step must be complete before the next step is begun.

Boahen works at the forefront of a field called neuromorphic engineering, which seeks to replicate the brain’s extraordinary computational abilities using innovative hardware and software applications. His laboratory’s most recent accomplishment is a new computing platform called Neurogrid, which simulates the activity of 1 million neurons.

Neurogrid is not a supercomputer. It can’t be used to simulate the big bang, or forecast hurricanes, or predict epidemics. But what it can do sets it apart from any computational platform on earth.

Neurogrid is the first simulation platform that can model a million neurons in real time. As such, it represents a powerful tool for investigating the human brain. In addition to providing insight into the normal workings of the brain, it has the potential to shed light on complex brain diseases like autism and schizophrenia, which have so far been difficult to model.

The proven ability to simulate brain function in real time has, so far, been underwhelming. For example, the Blue Gene/Q Sequoia supercomputer’s simulation took over 1,500 times longer than it would take the brain to do the same activity.

Cheaper brain simulation platforms that combine the computing power of traditional central processing units (CPUs) with graphical processing units (GPUs) and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to achieve results comparable to the Blue Gene are emerging on the market. However, while these systems are more affordable, they are still frustratingly slower than the brain.

As Boahen puts it, “The good news is now you too can have your own supercomputer. The bad news is now you too can wait an hour to simulate a second of brain activity.”

When you consider that the simulations sometimes need to be checked, tweaked, re-checked and run again hundreds of times, the value of a system that can replicate brain activity in real time becomes obvious.

“Neurogrid doesn’t take an hour to simulate a second of brain activity,” says Boahen. “It takes a second to simulate a second of brain activity.”

Each of Neurogrid’s 16 chips contains more than 65,000 silicon “neurons” whose activity can be programmed according to nearly 80 parameters, allowing the researchers to replicate the unique characteristics of different types of neurons. Soft-wired “synapses” crisscross the board, shuttling signals between every simulated neuron and the thousands of neurons it is networked with, effectively replicating the electrical chatter that constitutes communication in the brain.

But the fundamental difference between the way traditional computing systems model the brain and the way Neurogrid works lies in the way the computations are performed and communicated throughout the system.

Most computers, including supercomputers, rely on digital signaling, meaning the computer carries out instructions by essentially answering “true” or “false” to a series of questions. This is similar to how neurons communicate: they either fire an action potential, or they don’t.

The difference is that the computations that underlie whether or not a neuron fires are driven by continuous, non-linear processes, more akin to an analog signal. Neurogrid uses an analog signal for computations, and a digital signal for communication. In doing so, it follows the same hybrid analog-digital approach as the brain.

In addition to its superior simulations, it also uses a fraction of the energy of a supercomputer. For example, the Blue Gene/Q Sequoia consumes nearly 8 megawatts of electricity, enough to power over 160,000 homes. Eight megawatts at $0.10/kWh is $800 an hour, or a little over $7 million a year.

Neurogrid, on the other hand, operates on a paltry 5 watts, the amount of power used by a single cell phone charger.

Ultimately, Neurogrid represents a cost-effective, energy-efficient computing platform that Boahen hopes will revolutionize our understanding of the brain.

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Source: National Science Foundation

Aging Population – Preparing to Serve More Seniors | Caregiver Stress

Find home care near you or your loved one:


Barely 60 years. That was the average life expectancy when today’s 80-somethings were born. Exceeding that expectation by 20 years is a feat accomplished through healthy living, advanced medicine, and positive economic development.

But the increase in longevity also poses a problem, particularly for the senior care industry.

According to the experts, our current health system is not prepared to accommodate more people living well into their 80s and beyond, especially with the coming influx of Baby Boomers (persons born between 1946 and 1964) just now starting to reach their senior years.

To discuss how industry leaders can prepare for our aging society, the GlobalCouncil on Ageing hosted a session at the 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. During the session, seven different groups from around the world presented their recommendations to address the rapidly growing senior population.

Two recommendations of note for professionals in the senior care industry include:

  1. Redesign health systems to be more preventative and wellness-centric.
  2. Place greater value in the social capital of older people.

Redesign health systems to be more preventative and wellness-centric.

Some suggested steps to take based on this recommendation may include:

  • Advocate and provide incentives for routine wellness screenings and check-ups.
  • Emphasize the value of services like non-medical in-home care that can help seniors who live alone help avoid health-threatening situations such as a fall, a car accident or medication mistakes.
  • Insure brain imaging to facilitate a faster and more affordable diagnose of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Adopt new technology such as “telehealth” virtual doctor visits to make necessary consultations more accessible and convenient.
  • Refer services to patients that help prevent hospital readmissions, such as theReturning Home® Care program.

Place greater value in the social capital of older people.

Our society tends to emphasize the limitations of older people, rather than focusing on their capabilities and recognizing them for their valuable contributions to our society. As the 65+ population reaches unprecedented proportions, we must treat this group as a valuable and impactful part of society. Some ways to build the social capital of this group may include:

Get additional insights from the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Ageing’s 2013 session, reported by Paul Hogan, Vice Chairman of the Council and Founder and Chairman of Home Instead Inc., franchisor of the Home Instead Senior Care® network.

Speakers Of Tonal Languages Better At Processing Music


The brains of people who speak a “tonal” language—that is, a language in which changing the pitch of a word alters its meaning—are better able to process music, a new study finds. Wency Leung reports in the Globe and Mail:

“The research, conducted by scientists at the Rotman Research Institute and the University of Toronto, shows for the first time that there is a bi-directional relationship between how the brain perceives music and language. While previous studies have found musical training can enhance language abilities, the latest findings suggest the opposite is true as well: Language experience can influence one’s ability to process music. Listening to music while doing recumbent bike workout could be the best thing, especially when you are doing workouts with schwinn 270 recumbent bike at home.

‘Speaking a tone language does help you hear aspects of music better,’ says Gavin Bidelman, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis who led the study while at Rotman. ‘No one’s ever looked at that direction.’

The study involved 54 adults, including English-speaking musicians, English-speaking non-musicians and Cantonese-speaking non-musicians. While English is atonal, Cantonese is based on six tones. The three groups were asked to perform a series of tests that gauged their general cognitive abilities, such as general intelligence and working memory, and their ability to recall and discriminate between melodies and musical pitches.

The Cantonese group fared as well as the musicians on the musical tests, scoring up to 20 per cent better than the English-speaking non-musicians. In addition, the musicians and Cantonese participants showed greater working memory than the English-speaking non-musicians, leading the researchers to suggest that music training and tonal language experience may also be linked to increased general cognitive function.

Bidelman says that just because speakers of tonal languages are better able to hear music, it does not necessarily mean they are better able to play musical instruments. But he notes that, while it is yet unproven, ‘it is conceivable that they may learn them faster because they have the auditory acuity already built in.'” (Read more here.)

Fascinating evidence of how our experiences and our cultures shape our abilities, in ways we are not even aware of until science brings them to light. A cautionary note, too, for those who are quick to attribute differences between groups to genes.

Neuroscience and navigating the city | thInk


Hugo Spiers at Packed Lunch

At Monday’s Packed Lunch talk at Wonder season, lecturer in cognitive and perceptual brain science, Hugo Spiers, talked the audience through the latest research on the brain and navigation.

And here’s the turn. Left. Through these doors. Around the bend and then left, right, right, left. Up the street with the funny looking trees. And ah, I’ve arrived. Whether we are walking through familiar bits of London or try to find the way home outside of our comfort zone, our brains are active in helping us.

Say you’re in the back of a black cab heading home from a meeting on the other side of London. You have a vague idea that you are somewhere between Hyde Park and Bethnal Green when the driver makes a sharp turn. But would you bother asking him what’s going through his mind as he weaves between the cars and declares he knows a short cut?

“In most research in psychology you focus on asking people to press buttons or for their responses so you can measure everything very carefully. You never ask people what they are thinking, that’s a no no,” says Hugo Spiers, lecturer in cognitive and perceptual brain science at UCL.

Spiers and his team wanted to link brain activity, with what we are thinking as we make decisions about navigating. To do this he not only needed to bring the streets of London inside an MRI machine, but he needed the best navigators in the city to face his task. He needed taxi drivers.

Getting taxi drivers inside MRI machines turned out to be more tricky then Spiers was expecting. Metal can’t go inside an MRI because the magnets inside these machines are incredibly strong. “I’d say have you got any metal in your body and they’d say no, no there’s nothing except the bullet in my back or my false leg or something else,” says Spiers.

Bringing the streets into an MRI machine also had a metallic challenge. Spiers used the Playstation game Getaway, which recreates London in detail as a simulation for the drivers to navigate. But the team had to spend months rebuilding a Playstation controller that the subjects could use from inside the MRI machine as normal controllers have metal parts.

While the taxi drivers were doing the simulation the researchers would change the destination enroute to make them think more. After the experiment they would question the drivers about what they were thinking during different stages of the course and link this to the brain images they had.

The researchers already knew the hippocampus region of the brain was important and this research confirmed it. It is a key brain structure that looks somewhat like a seahorse and is linked to both short and long term memory, as well as helping you navigate. But research by another team showed that taxi drivers actually have larger posterior hippocampi then other people. “That endless repetition of taking people around London that taxi drivers do here seems to drive this change, the longer they keep driving as a taxi driver the bigger their posterior hippocampus grows,” says Spiers.

They also tested normal people with a slightly different method where they made them navigate a simulation of the inter-winding streets of Soho. They found something surprising in both the taxi drivers and the ordinary people. Spiers thought the brain would track distances either by calculating a straight line between the person and their destination or by plotting the actual route. He found that the brain actually does both, first thinking about the distance as a straight line, before thinking about the specifics of the journey. “If you are heading home there is a link between you and home, independent of all the buildings and features,” said Spiers. They noticed no difference between male and females in their ability to navigate. But Spiers says women are more prone to using the layout of an area while men can tap into the geometry of space more effectively.

Ongoing research in this area is exploring the idea that researchers might be able to grow people’s hippocampi by making them do daily navigation tasks. Spiers said this might be useful for people with diseases like Alzheimer’s, who could be made to do daily tasks to keep their brains active. But if this even worked, Spiers said they did not know if this new ability would translate into all aspects of their lives or just making them better at navigating streets.

Packed Lunch is a regular series of free lunchtime talks at Wellcome Collection in London. Visit the Wellcome Collection website to find out what’s coming up or stream/download podcasts of previous talks.

Image credit: Wellcome Trust