Over a dozen busy bees, 5 research projects, 4 hot weeks of July, countless data, iterations and coffee cups, one book of experiments to soak it all up and present to the wider audience — and the Backyard Brains 2023 US-Serbian Summer Research Fellowship rounds off. The result will hit the shelves this fall, with the new, Serbian edition of our book “How Your Brain Works” containing brand new experiments that our team started working on.
But if you expect to see a bunch of cockroaches, worms, moths and bees and other invertebrates buzzing around Belgrade’s Center for Promotion of Science lab makerspace where we spent the month, you’re in for a surprise. This time, we ventured into two completely different, even opposite realms, hoping to eventually tie them together. One is the realm of single-celled creatures who don’t seem to be hindered or bothered by their lack of brain. The other lies behind our all-powerful brain and borders on philosophy of awareness. What is consciousness and attention? How do we think what reality is — and how do we share it with others? Finally, is there a way for these two realms to inform and complement each other?
This year’s cohort was small but diverse, composed of three undergrads who flew in from the University of Michigan and four Serbian undergrads from the Universities of Belgrade and Novi Sad. One of the greatest values was the wide variety of backgrounds that came together: from neuroscience to electrical engineering, psychology, molecular biology and computer science.
So, just a quick recap – we were hoping to get as much data on the way we process the Pinocchio illusion by measuring different behavioral outcomes as well as the EMG in three timepoints. As far as the behavioral measures are concerned, we questioned participants on the illusion vividity (see my introductory blog post!), the extent of the nose elongation as well as through a recently published Pinocchio questionnaire (Prucell et al., 2021). On the neural side, we were comparing the EMG activity on the biceps and triceps between resting state, state of the illusion and the situation where the participants were actually instructed to contract the muscles.
Firstly, we found that all the participants reported sensation of the illusion and described it as moderately vivid – the average score was 2.6 on the five-point Likert type scale. They felt their nose extending by at least 50% and the questionnaire data suggest that sensations regarding arm tingling, nose and arm elongation represent the best predictors of the illusion vividity, whereas nose widening, pulsation in arm/nose/fingers or tingling in nose and fingers turned out to be less relevant.
We are all familiar with the Pinocchio story, right? A wooden boy whose nose would grow every time he lied. What if I told you that, with the right equipment, you could feel like Pinocchio in a just few minutes?
All you need is a massager (>50 Hz frequency and >1mm amplitude), either a blindfold or willpower to keep your eyes closed, and someone to help you conduct the whole thing (aka the experimentator).
Firstly, you will have to contract your arm muscle so that the experimentator can find your biceps tendon.
Close your eyes (or put on the blinfold) and position your arms, as shown in the illustration above.
It’s time for the experimentator to turn on the massager and position it on the biceps tendon of your contracted arm!
After aproximatelly one minute of the stimulation you should start feeling as if your arm is extending forward and taking the nose with it so that it feels like it’s getting longer. The more you stimulate, the more vivid the illusion becomes!
And that’s it – in just a few minutes, you can understand how Pinocchio felt like while lying. Unlike with Pinocchio, however, this illusion can occur without you having to lie to anyone’s face!