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April 21, 2024

Toast Jesus, dead salmon and taxi drivers: the Ig Nobel Prizes

By DUY PHAN | December 1, 2016

For instance, this year’s Ig Nobel Prize in biology went to two scientists who pretended to live as wild animals in their natural habitat. (One of the scientists made artificial limbs so that he could “live” as a goat.)

Here is my list of what I think are the top three funniest Ig Nobel Prizes given for neuroscience-related discoveries:

“Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia”

Have you ever looked at a tree bark and seen faces? Why is there an image of Jesus on your burned toast? Pareidolia describes the very common phenomenon in which individuals perceive the presence of faces on inanimate objects. Yet, nobody actually knows the neural mechanisms in the brain that give rise to such a perception.

Researchers in China and Canada imaged neural activity in people in an attempt to reveal the neural processing that might explain why we can see non-existent faces on objects. They found that the right side of a brain region called the fusiform face area lights up during face pareidolia.

“Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in the Post-Mortem Atlantic Salmon: An Argument For Multiple Comparisons Correction”

This study is quite interesting in light of the recent technological developments that allow people to image neural activity in more sophisticated ways.

Scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara put a dead salmon inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, commonly used to image brain activity in live humans while they perform behavioral tasks. The scientists showed that depending on how the data was analyzed, it was possible to show that the dead salmon had “meaningful” brain activity. Of course the dead salmon was not participating in cognitive tasks, yet the ability to seemingly extract brain activity from a dead fish highlighted the importance of careful statistical analysis.

“Navigation-Related Structural Change In the Hippocampi of Taxi Drivers”

Becoming a taxi driver in London is no joke. London Cabs have no GPS; The taxi driver has to essentially memorize the entire map of London, including numerous routes to take and locations of public attractions. London taxi drivers know their city like the back of their hands. A group of researchers from University College London studied the brains of London taxi drivers and found that the taxi drivers had more developed hippocampi, a region in the brain responsible for learning and memory.


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