The very cool blog of former This Magazine editor Clive Thompson was voted “Best blog to make you seem smarter at cocktail parties” by the Village Voice in October.
I like reading Clive’s blog because it’s full of geeky things I love too, like cool science/technology facts, design ideas and video games (even though everything is political, sometimes you need a break).
The October 12 entry, “The Ferret Matrix” is a perfect example of why once you start reading this blog, it becomes required reading.
It’s quite rare for a scientist to stumble upon a bold new insight about cognition. It’s even more rare to do so while experimenting with a bunch of ferrets that are being forced to watch The Matrix.
But Michael Weliky may indeed have won this surreal trifecta. Weliky, a brain researcher at the University of Rochester, had long assumed — as do many cognitive scientists — that the brain is somewhat inactive in the absence of stimulation. It’s kind of like that old joke that we only use 10% of our brain. Cognitive scientists don’t really believe that old saw, but they do generally assume that the brain is considerably less busy when it’s deprived of stimuli.
Weliky, however, decided to test this assumption. He took a group of adult ferrets, wired up their visual cortexes with probes, and then subjected them to three different forms of stimuli: a) A pitch-black room; b) a TV screen displaying nothing but static; and, last but not least, c) the movie The Matrix. His findings? As you might expect, viewing the movie and the TV static caused the ferrets’ visual cortexes to fire at 100%. But what was truly weird was the the pitch-black room registered 80% activity.