Readings: Camera Head, Brain on Metaphors

Here are two excellent reads from this week:

1) “Sir, There’s a Camera in Your Head” [Wall Street Journal] – An Iraqi assistant professor in the photography and imaging department of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Wafaa Bilal, intends to undergo surgery in coming weeks to install a camera on the back of his head. Why? It’s a commission by a museum in Qatar:

For one year, Mr. Bilal’s camera will take still pictures at one-minute intervals, then feed the photos to monitors at the museum. The thumbnail-sized camera will be affixed to his head through a piercing-like attachment.

Mr. Bilal’s camera-based work will be overseen by the Qatar Museums Authority where:

For one year, Mr. Bilal’s camera will take still pictures at one-minute intervals, then feed the photos to monitors at the museum. The thumbnail-sized camera will be affixed to his head through a piercing-like attachment.

It remains to be seen whether this project will see the light of day, as NYU administrators have raised privacy concerns (students being filmed without their consent/knowledge). Of course, Mr. Bilal isn’t new to controversial projects. In a 2008 project, Virtual Jihadi, Mr. Bilal hacked a video game to insert an avatar of himself as a suicide-bomber hunting President George W. Bush. In his 2007 work, Domestic Tension, Mr. Bilal trapped himself in a Chicago museum for a month, inviting the public to go to a website where they could “shoot” the artist remotely by firing a paintball gun at him. His other projects are interesting as well: Mona Lisa (the exploration of that enigmatic smile) and One Chair, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

2) “This is Your Brain on Metaphors” [New York Times] – this is a brilliant piece by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of Biology, Neurology and Neurosurgery at Stanford University. In this piece, Sapolsky explains how human brains are wired to understand metaphors surprisingly well. He explains:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act.

It’s interesting how our brains can be primed with sensory inputs, such as touch. For instance, I found this remarkable:

Volunteers were asked to evaluate the resumes of supposed job applicants where, as the critical variable, the resume was attached to a clipboard of one of two different weights. Subjects who evaluated the candidate while holding the heavier clipboard tended to judge candidates to be more serious, with the weight of the clipboard having no effect on how congenial the applicant was judged. After all, we say things like “weighty matter” or “gravity of a situation.”

The question is: knowing this information, how can you use it to your advantage in daily life? Next time you want someone to consider your question or idea, perhaps give them a cup of coffee or some item to hold while explaining yourself. Of course, now that you’ve read about this effect, you may be more attuned to it so that it doesn’t play as large a factor in your future decisions (I hope).

Perhaps the most interesting study profiled is that on cleanliness:

Another truly interesting domain in which the brain confuses the literal and metaphorical is cleanliness. In a remarkable study, Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University demonstrated how the brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. Volunteers were asked to recall either a moral or immoral act in their past. Afterward, as a token of appreciation, Zhong and Liljenquist offered the volunteers a choice between the gift of a pencil or of a package of antiseptic wipes. And the folks who had just wallowed in their ethical failures were more likely to go for the wipes.

Sapolsky’s piece is one of the best short expositions I’ve read explaining how our brains are wired; the references to every day situations are particularly interesting. If you’re into neuroscience and want to learn more about the forces in our lives that shape our decisions, I cannot recommend Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational enough. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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