Posted in biology, chemistry

Harnessing Your Marilyn Monroe Neurons

Pictures and images have a huge influence on us. Now, scientists have figured out a way to tap into the neurons that react to art (or faces, depending on what you’re looking at), and turn the tables, instead having the brain control the art/image.

From Carl Zimmer’s blog The Loom: Harnessing Your Marilyn Monroe Neurons.

In an unprecedented fusion of pop culture and neurosurgery, scientists at Caltech have invented a surreal brain-machine interface.

The history leading up to this discovery goes back to the 1990s, when Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon at UCLA, began to collaborate with neuroscientists who wanted to probe the brain from the inside. Fried would sometimes have to perform surgery on people with epilepsy in order to reduce their seizures. First he would implant electrodes in the brains of his patients, so that he could unleash small bursts of current from them. When one of the electrodes triggered epilepsy-like firing from the neighboring neurons, he knew he had found the patch of brain that had to be removed.

Fried’s collaborators discovered that some of these individual neurons responded faithfully to certain kinds of sights. Some only responded to faces with sad expressions, others only to happy faces. Some only responded to houses.

In a flash of mad genius, Koch and his colleagues wondered if people could use biofeedback to control the strength of these neurons. They superimposed two celebrities–in one case, Josh Brolin and Marylyn Monroe–on a computer screen. The patients were told to try to shift the picture to one celebrity or the other. The computer was programmed to alter the balance of the images in response to the firing of the Brolin and Monroe neurons. As the Monroe neurons got stronger and the Brolin neurons weaker, for example, the screen would go all Monroe.

read more and see the video


Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.