Category Archives: Individual differences

In Our Head Facts- The Reality Illusion

Your reality is a subjective illusion.

We are wired to believe that what we see and hear and feel is what is out there in the environment, that we perceive our surroundings as they are, as a video camera might record a scene.

What the environment actually contains however is a collection of physical laws and properties and what we actually perceive is what our bodily senses have picked up and our brains have interpreted for us. In this way the brain functions as something of an internal video editor constantly chopping and changing the selective information it receives to create a unique view of the world.

One particu120px-40_000_000_by_zbynek_baladran_7larly beautiful example of how our brain creates for us the world we know is in the anatomy of the visual system. Visual information enters our eyes as waves of light and is focused onto the back of our eyeballs to be sent along to the brain for interpretation. Unbeknownst to the average individual however, not all the information impinging on the eyes is sent along to the brain. There is a blind-spot located at the back of each eye with no connections to the brain whatsoever, any information from our field of vision that hits this spot is lost to us. In this case our brain steps up to literally fill in the blanks based on the surrounding information, giving us the illusion of a complete picture.

We can also appreciate how different each of our perceptions must be when we consider the fact that each and every brain is distinct in its neural connections and structures, in the memories it holds and the way in which it interprets and integrates information.

The human senses also vary greatly between individuals. For example; the average human adult can hear sounds at frequencies of 20-20,000 Hertz. As we grow older we tend to loose the hair cells that pass the highest-frequency sounds from the environment to our brains, children can therefore hear tones up to a higher frequency of 25,000Hz and the elderly often cannot hear tones as high as 20,000Hz (you can actually try a few online tests to work out your own hearing age).

Thus, our understanding of the world is but a conjuring trick, a rough model of what is happening in the environment based on unconscious integration within the brain of fragments of perception, memory and supposition.

What is truly amazing and really worth taking away from this is how we all get around as well as we do considering how differently each of us perceives the world, considering we are each living inside our own uniquely edited illusion…


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In Our Head Facts- Brain Dominance

In an age where a 140 character message can spread around the world like the wildest of wildfires or a pizza-slice can transform into a bikini model with the artistic flare of a photo-shop engineer, we should be adept at closing our ears to hearsay and tattle and all sorts of false truths. Every now and then however the intuitive appeal of certain ideas tend to seep through even the most stringent of BS filters, making their way into a common garden of popular misconceptions.

One such idea is the weed of a notion that one side of our brain is more functionally dominant than the other resulting in individual differences in traits such as creativity, analytic ability or orderliness.

With Facebook statuses sharing results from BuzzFeed brain-dominance tests, professional write-ups detailing the personality traits of those who use one hemisphere of their brain more so than the other, even guidance counsellors basing career recommendations on tests of brain-sidedness, this myth just wont die.


To slice the ever-growing misconception at its stem, it is simply not true that one side of the brain does reason and analytical thinking and the other emotion and creativity. Simply not true. It is not true that the left-hemisphere is 100% responsible for language, or that the right-hemisphere is entirely in charge of creative thought.

Not. True.

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Connections in colour

Following from an earlier piece on the unique features of individual brains, I thought I’d share these wonderful pictures with you. Using a technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), the neuroscientist Owen Phillips created the lowermost image by averaging the brain connectivity of 65 people. The image on top portrays Phillips’ own brain.


DTI renderings of brain connectivity (As if brain were cut down the midline and viewed from the side) Above image: Individual brain Below image: Average connectivity of 65 people (34F/35m)

The different colours in these pictures represent different directions of neuronal connections. So essentially, what you’re seeing here is the difference between the wiring of Phillips’ own brain compared to the average of 65 other brains. Very cool.

Phillips has done some other great artistic work with brain imaging technologies. If you like your pictures, as I certainly do, his website is well worth the gander.



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Your Brain

images-1In a recent post I emphasised how alike our brains are in the performance of many functions including processing, encoding, storing and recalling information. While this remains very much the case it’s also important to acknowledge the unique aspects of individual brains. As I put it before we are all walking the same internal path, but the details are different. The complex interaction between genes and environment mean that our brains, just like our bodies, come in different sizes, shapes and colours with individual features and peculiarities.

Through post-mortem dissections, brain-imaging studies and electrophysiological recordings of brain activity researchers have exposed many biological differences in individual brains, including variability in the

  • average speed at which synapses-the point on our brain cells at which information is exchanged- pass information to one another
  • pathways in which neural information flows from one area to another
  • size of the surface area of functionally independent neural regions
  • size and sensitivity of various neural structures
  • presence of various neurotransmitters and hormones

It should go without saying that differences in brain composition and function give rise to the varying dimensions of personality observed within a population. In fact, the developing field of personality neuroscience has been using the advanced methods and technologies of the neurosciences to correlate identified personality “types” with variations in brain organization, neuronal connectivity and cerebral structures.

As well as contributing to biological theories of personality however, the ability to measure and observe material differences in individual brains has important pragmatic implications. Within the clinical setting for instance, disparities in the brains of different individuals equates to variations in individual responses to a whole range of very common health issues including ageing, recovery from stroke, depression and other mental conditions. Physicians for this reason, have had to become adept at tailoring the treatment and treatment schedules prescribed for most medical conditions to the specific needs of the patient.

Identifying differences in individual brains may also soon be an invaluable aid1702-1252709341CgRp in the diagnostic process. For instance, recent studies have found a reliable association between the presence of an Alzheimer’s risk gene and differences in the volume of certain brain areas in young adults, long before the typical age onset of Alzheimer’s disease. With further research into such associations and the development of more advanced, user-friendly brain-imaging and recording devices it might some day be possible to diagnose a persons susceptibility to various medical conditions through an assessment of the individual morphology of their brain.

Other research into brain differences has revealed structural differences between male and female brains as well as how neuronal differences might influence peoples conscious experience of the world. Both areas I hope to explore in future posts.

For now however, I’ll leave you with a final thought. Much like your unique body, your brain is distinctly yours. As well as being endowed with specific neuronal characteristics from your inherited genetic program, certain details of your brain have changed themselves to suit you, to respond to your experiences, to adapt to your environment. Another thrilling feature of the neuronal galaxy that brings about our being. 


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