Windows Into the Brain’s Operating System
The soft squishy lump in your skull has capabilities that defy understanding, but some of them seem vaguely familiar.
Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out (Medical Xpress). An operating system is the part of the computer that wakes up a hunk of metal and silicon, endowing it with intelligently-designed processes that provide services to the user. The boot-up operating system activates all the parts, like memory and disk drives and networks, and then starts the main operating system that runs apps and coordinates all that the user wants to do. A baby’s brain, similarly, has to wake up from its fetal state and develop to the point of conscious, intentional activity. After birth, this article says, a baby’s brain is running background processes the child will need to grow and learn a multitude of new things. Parents can relate to the opening paragraph:
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.
Researchers at Penn State are using new statistical analysis methods to compare how we observe infants develop new skills with the unseen changes in electrical activity in the brain, or electroencephalography (EEG) power. They found that most babies appear to learn new skills in irregular bursts, while their EEG power grows steadily behind the scenes.
What this means is that the brain was running background processes all the while, quietly and secretly knowing what would be needed in the future. When the time was right, the new skill would suddenly show up, astonishing the parents. The research only gave the crudest insight into what goes on behind the scenes, as if an electrician monitored flows of electrons on a computer motherboard, unaware of the program and plan making electrons flow the way they do.
The brain’s GPS has a buddy system (Medical Xpress). We’ve heard of buddy systems. We’ve heard of GPS. But did you know the brain’s GPS has a buddy system?
To be successful as a social animal, you need to know where you stand relative to others. Brain cells that perform precisely this function—locating the ‘self’ and others in space—have now been identified. In rats, the same brain area that stores the animal’s own location also maps the movements of other rats. Sometimes these representations are processed jointly by the same cells, depending on a rat’s goals and actions. This discovery, from Japan’s RIKEN Brain Science Institute, deepens our understanding of the hippocampus and its role as the brain’s positioning system.
The hippocampus is not a college for fat African mammals, but a portion of the brain that runs numerous helpful services. These include memory storage and positional navigation. The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for for research into ‘place cells’ and ‘grid cells’ in the hippocampus that provide us with a built-in mental map that is updated constantly with incoming sensory data. New research at RIKEN shows that these maps are highly dependent on firing times of adjacent neurons. “We think the cognitive map in the hippocampus is not just for knowing where the self is located,” says research leader Shigeyoshi Fujisawa, “but also for plotting the locations of other people, animals, or objects, and to comprehend the spatial environment surrounding the self.”
Coding of episodic memory in the human hippocampus (PNAS). This paper investigates the fascinating phenomenon of how memory is stored in the brain. The best scientists can do is watch individual neurons and measure how they fire in response to stimuli, but that’s as crude as watching the magnetic arm in a hard disk drive move when the user types a word. How is the information represented? As this paper shows, successful models need to think of information being encoded somehow. The opening paragraph uses a lot of jargon unfamiliar to most people. Just watch for the word code:
Neurocomputational models hold that episodic memories are represented by sparse, stimulus-specific neural codes. In tests of episodic memory, single-unit recording studies of the human hippocampus have found neurons that operate as general novelty detectors or general familiarity detectors. Here, we investigated whether neurons can be found that sparsely code some recently studied items and not others. In the left hippocampus, but not the amygdala, we found that small fractions of neurons exhibited strong responses to specific repeated words. The remaining large fractions of neurons exhibited a concurrent reduction in firing rates relative to novel words. Both findings are consistent with predictions made by neurocomputational models of how episodic memory is coded in the hippocampus.
What’s interesting in the new research is that memory formation can involve not only firings of some neurons, but the suppression of firings of other neurons. For instance, “In the left hippocampus, the distribution of single-neuron activity indicated that only a small fraction of neurons exhibited strong responding to a given repeated word and that each repeated word elicited strong responding in a different small fraction of neurons.” The firings changed and moved to other neurons when the word was repeated, indicating that the brain’s operating system can distinguish between novel and familiar inputs and figure out where to store the information.
This finding reflects sparse distributed coding. The remaining large fraction of neurons exhibited a concurrent reduction in firing rates relative to novel words. The observed pattern accords with longstanding predictions that have previously received scant support from single-cell recordings from human hippocampus.
We can relate to that by trying to understand communication by watching a single key on a keyboard. It’s not possible to decipher the code until you back up and see the big picture. The information is in the pattern, not the individual neurons. Certainly much more research will be required to see how the brain moves short-term memory to long-term memory and calls up long-forgotten memories that are still present in storage.
Creativity may rely on ‘teamwork’ in the brain (Medical Xpress). Creativity—the ability to envision new things and bring them about, whether or not they aid survival—is surely one of the most distinctive traits of humans. A Harvard study shows some interaction between three brain regions in creative people. That connectivity, however, can only be considered an effect, not a cause of original work by an Einstein or Shakespeare. Does writer Amy Norton provide a Darwinian explanation of the evolution of creativity? In a word, no.
Use of primate ‘actors’ misleading millions of viewers (Phys.org). Finally, here’s a news item that underscores the difference between humans and apes. This article reminds readers that chimpanzees in plaid suits smiling and doing human-like antics for movies misleads their real nature. Smiling may be an expression of fear or submission, they say. Primatologist Brooke C. Aldrich considers the practice unethical. He says that the use of apes in film trivializes their needs and conservation issues, making it seem as if they are happy and not endangered. Interestingly, the use of ‘primates’ in the article refers only to the apes, even though evolutionists classify humans as primates and believe they are simply more-evolved versions of the same beings.
The key to understanding the PNAS paper is the concept of information. We know from human experience that information can be represented, or instantiated, in physical forms, like the flashing lights of Morse Code or the symbols in an alphabet. The number “2” for instance is only a shape. It only has meaning if the reader understands what it refers to: a concept, not just a sound or a squiggle on paper. Similarly, neurons by themselves are not memories. It is only in the code that their firings and positions represent ideas in the conceptual realm.
As Dr Dr Dr A. E. Wilder-Smith would explain, the communication of information requires a language convention. Both parties (sender and receiver) must understand that the shape 2 means “two” (an abstract concept) before communication takes place. In the same way, your conscious mind or soul must understand what the hippocampus has stored in neurons to understand the concepts that are represented there. This provides more evidence that the brain is not the mind. The mind uses the brain. The mind must interpret the language convention of the neural code to understand and use the information. Can anyone think of any instance where coded information did not originate from an intelligent cause?
Souls are not physical. We are created beings inhabiting bodies, given brains like people are given computers – only in our heads resides the most complex and powerful physical computer in the known universe. Let’s be thankful for them and use them wisely.