The brain is still largely a mystery to modern science. Whilst we’ve mapped out the majority of what parts do what we’re still in the dark about how they manage to accomplish their various feats. Primarily this is a function of the brain’s inherit complexity, containing some 100 trillion connections between the billions of neurons that make up its meagre mass. However like all problems the insurmountable challenge of decrypting the brain’s functions is made easier by looking at smaller parts of it. Researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have been doing just that and have been able to recreate a critical part of the brain’s functionality in hardware.
The researchers have recreated the part of the brain called the hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s responsible for translating sensory input into long term memories. In patients that suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s this is usually the first part that gets damaged, preventing them from forming new memories (but leaving old ones unaffected). The device they have created can essentially replace part of the hippocampus, facilitating the same encoding functions that a non-damaged section would provide. Such a device has the potential to drastically increase the quality of life of many people, enabling them to once again form new memories.
The device comes out of decades of research into how the brain processes sensory input into long term memories. The researchers initially tested their device on laboratory animals, implanting the device into healthy subjects. Then they recorded the input and output of the hippocampus, showing how the signals were translated for long term storage. This data was then used to create a model of this section of the hippocampus, allowing the researchers to then take over the job of encoding those signals. Previous research showed that, even when the animal’s long term memory function was impaired through drugs, the prosthesis was able to generate new memories.
That in and of itself is impressive however the researchers have been replicating their work with human patients. Using nine test subjects, all of whom had the requisite electrodes implanted in the right regions to treat chronic seizures, the researchers utilized the same process to develop a human based model. Whilst they haven’t yet used that to help in the creation of new memories in humans they have proven that their human model produces the same signals as the hippocampus does in 90% of cases. For patients who currently have no ability to form new long term memories this could very well be enough to drastically improve their quality of life.
This research has vast potential as there are many parts of the brain that could be mapped in the same way. The hippocampus is critical in the formation of non-procedural long term memories however there are other sections, like the motor and visual cortices, which could benefit from similar mapping. There’s every chance that those sections can’t be mapped directly like this but it’s definitely an area of potentially fruitful research. Indeed whilst we still not know how the brain stores information we might be able to repair the mechanisms that feed it, and that could help a lot of people.
Back in my school days I thought that skill was an innate thing, a quality that you were born with that was basically immutable. Thus things like study and practice always confused me as I felt that I’d either get something or I wouldn’t which is probably why my academic performance back then was so varied. Today however I don’t believe anyone is below mastering a skill, all that is required is that you put the required amount of time and (properly focused) practice in and you’ll eventually make your way there. Innate ability still counts for something though as there are things you’re likely to find much easier than others and some people are even just better in general at learning new skills. Funnily enough that latter group of people likely has an attribute that you wouldn’t first associate with that skill: lower overall brain activity.
Research out of the University of California – Santa Barbara has shown that people who are most adept at learning new tasks actually show a lower overall brain activity level than their slow learning counterparts. The study used a fMRI machine to study the subject’s brains whilst they were learning a new task over the course of several weeks and instead of looking at a specific region of the brain the researchers focused on “community structures”. These are essentially groups of nodes within the brain that are densely interconnected with each other and are likely in heavy communication. Over the course of the study the researchers could identify which of these community structures remained in communication and those that didn’t whilst measuring the subject’s mastery of the new skill they were learning.
What the researchers found is that people who were more adept at mastering the skill showed a rapid decrease in the overall brain activity used whilst completing the task. For the slower learners many of the regions, namely things like the visual and motor cortexs, remained far more active for a longer period, showing that they were more actively engaged in the learning process. As we learn skills much of the process of actually doing that skill gets offloaded, becoming an automatic part of what we do rather than being a conscious effort. So for the slow learners these parts of the brain remained active for far longer which could, in theory, mean that they were getting in the way of making the process automatic.
For me personally I can definitely attest to this being the case, especially with something like learning a second language. Anyone who’s learnt a different language will tell you that you go through a stage of translating things into your native language in your head first before re-translating them back into the target language, something that you simply can’t do if you want to be fluent. Eventually you end up developing your “brain” in that language which doesn’t require you to do that interim translation and everything becomes far more automatic. How long it takes you to get to that stage though varies wildly, although the distance from your native language (in terms of grammatical structure, syntax and script) is usually the primary factor.
It will be interesting to see if this research leads to some developmental techniques that allow us to essentially quieten down parts of our brain in order to aid the learning process. Right now all we know is that some people’s brains begin the switch off period quicker than others and whatever is causing that is the key to accelerating learning. Whether or not that can be triggered by mental exercises or drugs is something we probably won’t know for a while but it’s definitely an area of exciting research possibilities.
Nearly all of us are born with what we’d consider less than ideal memories. We’ll struggle to remember where our keys our, draw a blank on that new coworker’s name and sometimes pause much longer than we’d like to remember a detail that should be front of mind. The idealised pinnacle, the photographic (or more accurately the eidetic) memory, always seems like an elusive goal, something you have to be born with rather than achieve. However it seems that our ability to forget might actually come from an evolutionary adaptation, enabling us to remember the pertinent details that helped us survive whilst suppressing those that might otherwise hinder us.
The idea isn’t a new one, having existed in some form since at least 1997, but it’s only recently that researchers have had the tools to study the mechanism in action. You see it’s rather difficult to figure out which memories are being forgotten for adaptive reasons, I.E. to improve the survival of the organism, and which ones are simply forgotten due to other factors. The advent of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has allowed researchers to get a better idea of what the brain is doing at any one point, allowing them to set up situations to see what the brain is doing when it’s forgetting something. The results are quite intriguing, demonstrating that at some level forgetting might be an adaptive mechanism.
Back in 2007 researchers at Stanford University investigated the prospect that adaptive forgetting was potentially a mechanism for reducing the amount of brain power required to select the right memories for a particular situation. The hypothesis goes that remembering is an act of selecting a specific memory for a goal related activity. Forgetting then functions as an optimization mechanism, allowing the brain to more easily select the right memories by suppressing competing memories that might not be optimal. The research supported this notion, showing decreased activity in anterior cingulated cortex which is activated when people are weighing choices (like figuring out which memory is relevant).
More recent research into this phenomena, conducted by researchers at various institutes at the University of Birmingham and various institutes in Cambridge, focused on finding out if the active recollection of a specific memory hindered the remembering of others. Essentially this means that the act of remembering a specific memory would come at the cost of other, competing memories which in turn would lead to them being forgotten. They did this by getting subjects to view 144 picture and word associations and were then trained to remember 72 of them (whilst they were inside a fMRI machine). They were then given another set of associations for each word which would serve as the “competitive” memory for the first.
The results showed some interesting findings, some which may sound obvious on first glance. Attempting to recall the second word association led to a detriment in the subject’s ability to recall the first. That might not sound groundbreaking to start off with but subsequent testing showed a progressive detriment to the recollection of competing memories, demonstrating they were being actively repressed. Further to this the researchers found that their subject’s brain activity was lower for trained images than ones that weren’t part of the initial training set, an indication that these memories were being actively suppressed. There was also evidence to suggest that the trained memories showed the most average forgetting as well as increased activity in a region of the brain known to be associated with adaptive forgetting.
Whilst this research might not give you any insight into how to improve your memory it does give us a rare look into how our brain functions and why certain it behaves in ways we believe to be sub-optimal. Potentially in the future there could be treatments available to suppress that mechanism however what ramifications that might have on actual cognition is anyone’s guess. Needless to say though it’s incredibly interesting to find out why our brains do the things we do, even if we wished they did the exact opposite most of the time.
I used to think I was in almost total control of nearly every aspect of being. From learning to emotions to anything mental I felt like I was astutely aware of all the processes, variables and influences that affected me and could control them at my will. That was, of course, my wild teenage brain running amok with its abnormal chemistry and time has shown me that there’s an awful lot going on inside my head that I have absolutely zero control over. Indeed the more research we do into the brain and our genetics the more we find things that we aren’t consciously in control of and that raises some really perplexing questions.
The more we chip away at the apparent control we have over our own being the more the idea of free will starts to look like some form of cruel joke played upon us by our own biological systems. I’ve wrestled with this idea before when I tried to overcome some subconscious beliefs that I didn’t consciously agree with and I’m still struggling to rationalize it today. Indeed the evidence keeps mounting for some form of hard determinism being the absolute truth here but it seems that one of those nigh on unshakable beliefs is the fact that we have some kind of will that is not controlled by our chemical/biological processes.
Things start to get really weird when you start looking at some real world examples of subconscious processes at work. Studies have shown that judges in Israel are far more likely to grant parole right after they’ve been fed with the approval rating tapering off steadily until their next meal. Whilst it may sound obvious when explained to you (it’s a Egg of Columbus type of thing) these kinds of influences pervade every nearly every aspect of our lives and it’s shocking just how little control we have over some of them. Indeed even being aware that those biases there isn’t enough to overcome them requiring a substantive effort to overcome.
I find this particularly interesting because it feeds into some of my other casual interests, namely the process of learning. There’s the oft repeated saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master something and understanding that our subconscious is doing most of the heavy lifting gives you insight into why that is. Rather than the 10,000 hours being training for our conscious selves it is in fact more to do with training our subconscious to take on all the tasks required for mastery that, at the beginning, reside only in the conscious part of our brain. It’s exactly why you can seemingly zone out when driving somewhere and not end up wrapped around a tree; the process of driving is largely a subconscious act. The same reason is behind why everyone has trouble with this seemingly ubiquitous skill at first, your subconscious just simply isn’t up to the task.
There’s also that rather sticky wicket of whether or not this means we actually have an agency at all, I.E. whether we truly are responsible for our actions. For what its worth I don’t have a good answer for this as society is very heavily predicated on the fact that we do have agency and I can’t seem to fathom how that idea could come about without it being true at some level. Of course this could just be a form of common delusion which just happens to work since it increases our survival rate and therefore allows our soma to continue on. Like I said, I don’t have a good answer to this and even my conjecture on the matter feels half baked.
Honestly I’m not altogether sure what this means for us as a species or society at large but I feel like its an important thing to understand. Awareness that we’re largely subconscious beings has helped me better understand the learning process and why people might say one thing then act in completely different ways. It’s a perplexing issue, one I’m sure that philosophers and scientists will struggle with for centuries to come and even then I’ll doubt that we’ll ever get a conclusive answer: scientifically or philosophically.
This blog can really be the bane of my existence sometimes. Whilst most days I’m able to rifle through a couple hundred articles in my RSS feeds and find a topic that I can blurt out a few hundred words over. However if I fail at that initial endeavour I find myself in the rather undesirable situation of not having anything that good to write about. Now this never used to be a problem I’d simply close the new post page and go about the rest of my day like nothing happened. A couple months after I decided to start blogging regularly however I found myself not being able to close the browser and move on, something was compelling me to blog.
I realised that I had just given myself OCD.
I can’t wholly blame the regular blogging dedication for my condition however as I think it’s due to a couple factors. You see I’m rather keen on hard numbers and the stats I run on this blog showed me that on the days that I don’t blog at least half of the people that usually come here simply don’t. Since the major source of visitors here are from Google I figure that’s because they kick me down a notch on off days in favour of more active content sources and it’s held true for the past couple years. Add that kind of aversion therapy to a regular habit and you’re onto a winner for developing an OCD without thinking about it. At least that’s been my experience anyway.
Interestingly though I’ve found these kind of writer’s block days that I get from time to time strongly correlate to those days that I haven’t got enough sleep. Today’s block then comes courtesy of the server that hosts this blog being a right ass again, slowing everything down to a crawl. Thus last night I was up late updating all my other blog’s WordPress installations and adding caching to them in the hopes that it’d become responsive again. It seems to have made it better but I’m still slamming the hell out of the 2 CPUs on this box, something which WordPress is notorious for doing. I’ll probably lose a few more hours on that tonight again as I try to optimize the database, which is just as fun as it sounds.
I was going to write a witty end to this, but I’ve run out of steam on this meta-rant 😛
I’ve often found that trying that sticking with a problem from start to finish is usually the least efficient way of getting it completed. Quite often if I take a 1 hour break whilst I’m in the thick of trying to solve something I’ll usually figure the answer out before I return, being able to move onto the next bit of work in far less time than if I had tried to struggle my way through. I think this is the main reason why the lawn gets mowed routinely during he summer months, that 30 mins~1 hour of basically mindless work let’s my subconscious tackle the problem in ways that I can’t do normally.
The most recent example I can think of was the problem of producing realistic gravity in the game I’m developing with a good friend of mine. I’ve had the basic gravity mechanics working for ages and even managed to get a planet into a near-circular orbit around a star. Unfortunately from there finding other stable orbits for varying distances and masses proved to be quite troublesome as there didn’t seem to be any kind of simple relationship that I could derive that would produce the same circular orbits as I had achieved after tinkering around with initial forces for a couple hours.
It’s been a real pearler of a problem too as whilst I’ve been able to make steady progress despite this (my one little test planet is enough to get most things working) I still couldn’t figure out how to give a planet a stable orbit based on its mass and initial distance from the sun. I tried many different things, from trying to map an equation based on a couple stable orbits to pushing the planet around so it would stay on course (which hilariously flung planets out of sight). Then late one night just before I was about to fall asleep it hit me: I could use the force that was being applied to the planet by the sun as the magnitude for the initial force. I then just have to work out the components along the desired orbital trajectory (breaking out some good old fashion trigonometry) and I should be on my way. I haven’t tested this yet, but it’s the only idea I’ve had that hasn’t involved fussing around with variables for hours on end.
It’s that same process that jolts you awake in the middle of the night with that name that you couldn’t remember or that fact you were trying to come up with at a crucial time. I find it really intriguing as I obviously have the ability to solve these kinds of problems somewhere in my head however I just can’t have it on tap, I’ve just got to let my brain do its thing whilst I wait around for the solution.
The brain is a wonderfully complicated piece of organic matter and we’re still in the early stages in our understanding of how it all functions. For the most part the basic components are well understood, like neurons and synapses, however when the whole thing comes together we get some extrodinary emergent behaviour. One of the most interesting behaviours that we all experience is that of dreaming, and it was this behaviour that caused me to analyse the last year of my life whilst I was on Turtle Island.
Among the many theories about why we dream there are a couple that really stand out. The first being that dreams are in fact your brain’s way of training you for certain situations (Coutt’s theory). Whilst this might not make sense when you have a lot of fantastical dreams such as flying I can remember many dreams that mirrored real experiences later in life. Whilst I can’t truly estimate how helpful these dreams where some of them did get me thinking about certain ideals and beliefs I had held, sometimes resulting in me discarding them completely. It definitely feels like dreams do serve some form of cognitive evolution to strengthen yourself against the world.
The second, and I believe most important, is for the brain to process, link and organise your memories (R. Stickgold et al. “Sleep, Learning, and Dreams: Off-line Memory Reprocessing”). It goes hand in hand with studies done that show a prolonged lack of sleep affects memory. This also makes quite a bit of sense to me since, for the most part, my dreams usually have some theme from the day woven into them. You can then imagine my surprise then when on the second night on the island I had, and can distinctly remember, around 15 separate dreams with themes that I could trace back to events that happened well over a year ago. It didn’t take me long to formulate a theory on what happened based on the 2 dream theories I’ve described.
Now I don’t usually think I’m a stressed person, in fact I usually thrive in stressful situations. The last 6 months of my life could easily have been described as some of the most stressful in my life, what with the wedding, investment purchases going awry and almost being unemployed. As far as I could tell I can physically cope with stress pretty well, but this series of dreams and the mental clarity I had afterwards lends me to believe that there’s a possibility that my mind was somehow pent up processing my daily life and was in essence backed up on down time processing. With everything being provided for me and the stress of the last 6 months far behind me my brain when into over-drive catching up on processing and linking up those memories. It seems to line up nicely with the fact that I had been waking up tired for about the past 4 months no matter how much sleep I got, which would seem to indicate that my brain wanted more time to catch up on memory processing.
The next few days saw my thoughts become a lot more free flowing and the conversations at the dinner table all that more interesting. I’ve never really gone on a holiday where everything was provided for me so I guess the combination of relaxation and not having to think about anything allowed my mind to unravel itself from the tangled mess I had gotten it into over the past year. I guess the moral of the story is that we all need some downtime to let our brains relax and recover from the daily grind and mine just so happened to be the honeymoon.
Or maybe it was the Kava…
Whilst I’d love to waffle on about the spectacular weekend I had that begun with a kidnapping and ended up with me covered in bruises, welts and wounds I am lacking the mental capacity to do anything. Which is why I will sum up this short post with the following picture:
Hopefully I’ll recover my bout of dumb by tomorrow and keep spamming the Internet with the tangled mess of thoughts that is my brain. Or at least the pain will subside enough for me to be able to type for more than 5 minutes at a time 😉