Category Archives: brain

Computer metaphor not accurate for brain’s embodied cognition

It’s common for brain functions to be described in terms of digital computing, but this metaphor does not hold up in brain research. Unlike computers, in which hardware and software are separate, organic brains’ structures embody memories and brain functions. Form and function are entangled.

Rather than finding brains to work like computers, we are beginning to design computers–artificial intelligence systems–to work more like brains. 

Brain’s facial-recognition mechanism revealed

Caltech researchers have identified the brain mechanisms that enable primates to quickly identify specific faces. In a feat of efficiency, surprisingly few feature-recognition neurons are involved in a process that may be able to distinguish among billions of faces. Each neuron in the facial-recognition system specializes in noticing one feature, such as the width of the part in the observed person’s hair. If the person is bald or has no part, the part-width-recognizing neuron remains silent. A small number of such specialized-recognizer neurons feed their inputs to other layers (patches) that integrate a higher-level pattern (e.g., hair pattern), and these integrate at yet higher levels until there is a total face pattern. This process occurs nearly instantaneously and works regardless of the view angle (as long as some facial features are visible). Also, by cataloging which neurons perform which functions and then mapping these to a relatively small set of composite faces, researchers were able to tell which face a macaque (monkey) was looking at.

These findings seem to correlate closely with Ray Kurzweil’s (Google’s Chief Technology Officer) pattern-recognition theory of mind.

Scientific American article

BMCAI library file (site members only)

Mathematical field of topology reveals importance of ‘holes in brain’

New Scientist article: Applying the mathematical field of topology to brain science suggests gaps in densely connected brain regions serve essential cognitive functions. Newly discovered densely connected neural groups are characterized by a gap in the center, with one edge of the ring (cycle) being very thin. It’s speculated that this architecture evolved to enable the brain to better time and sequence the integration of information from different functional areas into a coherent pattern.

Aspects of the findings appear to support Edelman’s and Tononi’s (2000, p. 83) theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS, aka neural Darwinism).

Edelman, G.M. and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. Basic Books.

Please recommend sources on the evolution of political impulses and thinking

In preparation for the March meeting topic, Your Political Brain, please recommend any resources you have found particularly enlightening about why humans evolved political thinking. Also, please share references about how brain functions lead to political perceptions. I’m assuming political perceptions result from more fundamental cognitive orientations, and that those arise in part from one’s genetics and in part from environment (during development and afterward).

Let’s use the following description from Wikipedia:

Politics is the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance— organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (this is usually a hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities. (Wikipedia)

This description places political thinking in the realm of the brain’s/mind’s social processing.

Following are some candidate resources for our discussion preparation:

Edward’s recommendations

Mark’s recommendations

Mass and activity of brain structures correlate with political perspectives

Brain imaging research indicates some aspects of individual political orientation correlate significantly with the mass and activity of particular brain structures including the right amygdala and the insula. This correlation may derive in part from genetics, but is also influenced by environment and behavior.

“there’s a critical nuance here. Schreiber thinks the current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions—which would make sense in light of what we know about the plasticity of the brain. Simply by living our lives, we change our brains. Our political affiliations, and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes.”

Thanks to member, Edward, for recommending this article: 

In a similar vein, Bob Altemeyer conducted and reported on some seminal social science research and theory on political dispositions. See Note the free book link on the left.


Neuroplasticity at the neuron and synapse level – Neurons sort into functional networks

“Until recently, scientists had thought that most synapses of a similar type and in a similar location in the brain behaved in a similar fashion with respect to how experience induces plasticity,” Friedlander said. “In our work, however, we found dramatic differences in the plasticity response, even between neighboring synapses in response to identical activity experiences.”

“Individual neurons whose synapses are most likely to strengthen in response to a certain experience are more likely to connect to certain partner neurons, while those whose synapses weaken in response to a similar experience are more likely to connect to other partner neurons,” Friedlander said. “The neurons whose synapses do not change at all in response to that same experience are more likely to connect to yet other partner neurons, forming a more stable but non-plastic network.”

Read more at:

People’s brains store and recall stories the same way

New scientific findings support the idea that different humans’ brains store and recall story scenes the same way, rather than each person developing unique memory patterns about stories. Also, people generally do well recalling the details of stories. I want to see more targeted research that determines whether information packed in story structures (a person wrestling with a difficult challenge and changing as a result) is more readily and accurately transmitted from brain to brain via storytelling. This would be compared with information packaged simply to inform of facts (Wikipedia entries, technical reports, etc.). My experience agrees with this research: different people tend to recall stories equally well. (Oddly, people vary greatly in their recall of eye-witness tasks. Something about how information is delivered in storytelling greatly improves accuracy of recall.) I think our brains evolved a special facility for paying attention to stories and therefore to remember them. If true, storytellers should learn what we can about how the brain processes stories.

New gene editing method modifies non-dividing cells in brain

Until now, gene editing has relied on cell division to propagate modifications made with techniques like CRISPR Cas9. Researchers at the Salk Institute have devised a new method that can modify the genes of non-dividing cells (the majority of adult cells). They demonstrated the method’s potential by inserting missing genes into the brains of young mice that were blind due to retinitis pigmentosa. After the team inserted fully functional copies of the damaged gene responsible for the condition into the relevant visual neurons, the mice experience rudimentary vision.

Team leader Izpisua Belmonte says of the new method, homology-independent targeted integration (HITI), “We now have a technology that allows us to modify the DNA of non-dividing cells, to fix broken genes in the brain, heart and liver. It allows us for the first time to be able to dream of curing diseases that we couldn’t before, which is exciting.”

While the team, naturally and appropriately, envisions therapeutic uses, could this method be used to modify brain function non-therapeutically, to improve normal functioning, for example?