April 15, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

What's On Your Mind?

News on neuroscience that will stimulate you to think about your brain thinking about thinking.

Vision quest: “Brain’s ‘lowly’ visual processor is more complex than thought,” begins an article on Medical Xpress. The visual cortex does not just process incoming visual signals. It’s involved in higher-level processes and decisions, researchers at Johns Hopkins found.

Information flow: Neurons in the brain do not act in isolation. They are involved in networks, and like cities, have certain hubs where information gathers. This is the finding of researchers at University of Michigan Medical School. “One of the brain’s main jobs is information processing – what is critical, however, is that information in the brain gets transferred to the right places at the right times,” the press release begins. The neuroscientists compare to this to the hubs in an airport system.

Adding without replacement: How can you learn new information without forgetting the old? The modular arrangement of brain units, Science Daily says, allows us to learn more and forget less. By contrast, computer brains built for artificial intelligence (AI) tend to have the problem of “catastrophic forgetting,” the article says. An AI specialist at Curie University, working with another from the University of Wyoming, are on a “long journey” to mimic how the brain learns. Jean-Baptiste Mouret states, “The ultimate goal of artificial intelligence research is to produce AI that can learn many different skills and get better at each of them over time, just as humans and animals do.

Brain internet: The brain is set up like the internet, say researchers at the University of Southern California (USC. “The Internet has countless local area networks that then connect with larger, regional networks and ultimately with the backbone of the Internet,” Larry Swanson of USC explains. “The brain operates in a similar way.” He also says that the brain is hardwired for information flow. If that’s true for rats (their research subjects), it is certainly even more sophisticated for humans who write music, do calculus and discuss philosophy.

Computers no match: Computers that mimic the function of the brain are improving, PhysOrg reports, but the brain wins hands down, say researchers at Northwestern.

Amazing FactsResearchers are always searching for improved technologies, but the most efficient computer possible already exists. It can learn and adapt without needing to be programmed or updated. It has nearly limitless memory, is difficult to crash, and works at extremely fast speeds. It’s not a Mac or a PC; it’s the human brain. And scientists around the world want to mimic its abilities….

“Computers are very impressive in many ways, but they’re not equal to the mind,” said Mark Hersam, the Bette and Neison Harris Chair in Teaching Excellence in Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering. “Neurons can achieve very complicated computation with very low power consumption compared to a digital computer.”

Crazy genes: Do psychiatric disorders have a genetic basis? If so, which ones? Those are questions being addressed by scientists and students at Bournemouth University. Will this lead to “genetic counselling” for people with schizophrenia? Time will tell. “Ultimately, we want to educate the  healthcare professionals, policy makers and eventually the public – the patients and families who suffer from psychiatric diseases – so that they are better informed.”

Murder on the mind: In an Op-Ed piece on Live Science, Peter Kinderman of the University of Liverpool argues that individuals commit murder—not the “mentally ill.” So is he arguing for a return to personal responsibility? Not necessarily. He just doesn’t like the lumping of a variety of conditions into one category. Reflecting off the recent case of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who flew a plane into a mountain, killing himself, the passengers, and the pilot desperately trying to break into the cockpit after being deliberately locked out, Kinderman focuses on how to identify people expressing alienation and resentment before they cause harm. Calling it “depression” or “mental illness” doesn’t explain or help, he suggests (he notes that most clinically depressed individuals have no intent to harm themselves and others). His discussion of emotions and “belief systems” that sometimes contribute to murder-suicide speaks of traits (e.g., alienation, resentment, disillusionment, hopelessness) not reducible to material neurons. “We should all be on our guard for such traits, though demonising people with mental health problems will not prevent this kind of event from happening,” he says.

Keeping your tools sharp: Lauran Neergaard has some tips for aging brains to keep them at their best. In the Medical Xpress article, she quotes neuroscientists from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) who recommend the usual things like sleep, not smoking, being physically active, maintaining friendships, and controlling high blood pressure, but cautions against over-the-counter products or computer games that claim to improve cognitive functioning without sufficient evidence. Someone experiencing memory decline should see a doctor, the specialists advise.

Imagine building from a unit that divides, then divides again and again—at each stage specializing and committing to certain functional pathways—till you get a brain that can think, add, respond to sensory inputs, and make moral decisions. Paul Nelson discusses the wonder of development for a single roundworm (C. elegans), a one-millimeter creature, in a short video at Evolution News & Views. If the complexity of building a worm is so staggering, its elucidation won three biologists a Nobel Prize, think how much more the development of a baby is. [Yet millions abort these marvels of creation—see yesterday’s 4/14/15 entry.]

The brain’s hierarchical structure, like the internet, defies evolutionary mechanisms for its origin. Casey Luskin discusses the challenge of complex functions in his series at ID the Future on “The Top 10 Problems with Darwinian Evolution,” worth listening to as you take your vigorous health walk to keep your brain sharp.


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  • Gary says:

    All of the above begs the question: What exactly is the mind? Does it consist only of chemical reactions in the brain? Or is it the result of the interaction between those chemical reactions and the immaterial soul? God describes humans as consisting of body and soul, so the latter definition makes more sense. Thus no matter how much we learn about the human brain, we will never create a machine with the capabilities of the human mind. That also means it is unlikely we will ever be able to “fix” all mental ills, because some of them are a manifestation of the sick soul rather than a sick brain.

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