September 16, 2010
A guest post by neuroscientist and synaesthesia specialist Thomas Wright from the University of Sussex on just how he found himself in a muddy field with a singing brain.
Picture the scene if you will. I’m in a hot, stuffy cupboard hunched over a computer. Behind me are Jen (from Guerilla Science), Mink and Doc (both from Coney) and Jamie (my supervisor, by now quite nervous). A webcam hangs limply from Doc’s hand and the speakers are ominously quiet. Nobody has made the trip down to Brighton for this.
Which is why, when the software suddenly, imperiously, decided to jump into life, I think I may have giggled with relief.
Weeks earlier, my lab group had been contacted for advice on how to create a game exploring a phenomenon called synaesthesia, whereby two senses become entwined.
The idea: to produce a computer program that would have synaesthesia so festival-goers could experience the condition (without the need for hallucinogenic substances).
Unbeknownst to Guerilla Science though, I was already working on a program that would do just this. Apart from the fact that my version is for blind people rather than festival-goers, that first email from Coney contained an uncanny description of my day-to-day research: They wanted to build an “artificial brain machine which turns visual input into music” – and I study systems for blind people which convert visual input into sounds.
It seemed like a match made in heaven.
This explains why the six of us were meeting, although not why we were crammed into my cupboard-cum-laboratory (don’t ask). But this leaves one important question unanswered…
What, exactly, is synaesthesia?
September 5, 2010
This summer I learnt many new skills: how to be a judge, build an island, cook pannacotta. But perhaps the strangest task I got to grips with was the creation of alarmingly-coloured spaghetti and ‘caviar’ out of agar and pureed vegetables.
Making gelatinous green beads and red spaghetti is a messy process involving rubber tubing, pipettes, syringes, and spraying hot red sauce all over your kitchen (or that might just be me) but I think the results were well worth it, as I hope you can see from the pretty pictures below.
So why engage in such culinary oddities, I hear you ask. Well, for the fourth time this summer we dished up a Flavour Feast to the punters at the Green Man festival and my curious creations were on the menu.
Joining us for the feast were the fabulous Becki and Rachel, dressed in matching white smocks and hairnets, while I did my best butler impression.
I won’t go into the details of the science behind the Flavour Feast as I covered it in a previous post, but I think the audience had a good time eating, drinking, talking and painting their tongues blue…
You can see more photos of our Flavour Feast here.
September 2, 2010
Carefully carving through the surface of the shiny, quivering pink cortex with his scalpel, neuroscientist Guy Billings traced out a small area of the marvellous human cerebrum. “This,” he said, “is Broca’s area – crucial for the ability to produce language. People who have suffered damage to this region have lost the ability to speak.” The crowd peered in for a closer look.
“Let’s just cut that out then,” said Guy, and plopping the pink shiny piece onto a plate, he handed it out with a shiny pink spoon. It was instantly devoured (and declared delicious).
August 26, 2010
We met Wayne Coyne – lead singer of the Flaming Lips – on the way back to the car.
“Wow check this out,” he said, and stopped to chat with us over the brain, the centrepiece for the Synaesthesia Game. Turns out he had also made a giant brain himself for Hallowe’en, about a storey tall. For a man who wears giant hands so he can spray the audience with laser beams, this is hardly surprising.
“Hang on, let me get a photo – I’m going to tweet this.”
And so he did.
Sometimes – not all the time, but sometimes – being unable to escape the internet, even in a wet field in Wales, is a pretty cool thing.