Have you ever lost something, yet had the feeling that you knew where it was?
Have you ever studied hours for an exam only to forget most of what you have learned?
I am sure you have had an experience in which you were frustrated by a spotty memory. Memory is an extremely complicated process. In a nutshell, it is the ability to store, connect, and retrieve information over time. The key stages are encoding, storage and retrieval. In the encoding phase, our minds process sensory information and convert it into enduring memories, a process that primarily occurs at the hippocampus. As its name suggest, the storage phase is maintenance of information in memory over time. Finally, retrieval is the process by which information is brought back to the consciousness from storage. There are various types of encoding, various types of memory storage, various retrieval cues, as well as many limitations to our memory process.
As an international student living in the U.S., one always misses their native country. Whether it be the food, the house, the parents or the friends, homesickness is a normal feeling. As strange as it may seem, my dog Baco is who I miss the most. Baco is a 3-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback. For those non-dog lovers out there, a Rhodesian Ridgeback is quite frankly the most beautiful, loyal breed of dog (no exaggeration). Baco has been like my fourth brother ever since my actual brother brought him home as a puppy. Together with my brother, we raised him since he was no more than 5 kilos (that is about 11 pounds for those who do not understand the metric system). Today, Baco stands at about 66 cm tall (about 2 feet) and weighs about 34 kilos (75 pounds). You might be wondering why I am bragging about how great my dog is in a neuroscience blog. Well, in the past few years, some very interesting research about the canine brain has been done…
I have always wondered if Baco truly loves me or if he just acts as though he loved me in order to get food. Like me, I imagine there are millions of dog owners who may ask themselves the same question. Interestingly enough, one such dog owner is recognized neuroeconomist and neuroscientist, Gregory S. Berns. Professor Berns and his team have been studying the dog brain for a while now, and there research has been nothing short of extraordinary. I found out about this research by reading Berns´ book, “How Dogs Love Us.” Of course I want everyone who reads this article to read that book so I will try not to spoil it for you.
Most of us have heard about them but only a few appreciate the power of them. It was more than 20 years ago that scientists discovered the fascinating mirror neurons. It was at the University of Parma, Italy where the first glimpse of mirror neurons occurred. The study’s focus was actually to examine motor neurons involved in hand and mouth actions in macaque monkeys. The basic procedure of the experiment involved monkeys reaching for food while researchers recorded firing in particular neurons. What these researchers found was that some neurons actually fired even when the monkey was not moving but was just watching someone else perform an action. So, one may easily deduce that mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when an animal performs an action and when an animal observes someone else perform an action. Nearly 20 years after the initial macaque monkey experiment mirror neurons studies are still generating fascinating results. The reason for this fascination is that mirror neurons are at the base of extremely important functions such as socialization, empathy and teaching.
More recent discoveries have shown that mirror neurons are critical in the interpretation of both facial expressions and body language. Moreover mirror neurons enable us to understand, empathize and socialize with others. As studies have shown, autistic individuals have trouble understanding other people´s intentions and feelings. Autistic individuals cannot understand the intentions of others while observing their actions. This is believed, at least in part, because autistic individuals have a malfunctioning mirror neuron system. This malfunctioning system disables these individuals’ ability to even try and comprehend someone else’s actions based on observation. In contrast to autistic individuals, people with well functioning mirror neuron system have no problem understanding other people’s intentions, which makes mirror neurons so important.
Have you ever seen someone else’s doppelganger? That is, have you ever seen someone who looks exactly like a friend or family member, but is in fact just a random person? I am sure most of us have. Now, imagine that doppelganger you see is actually your mother, and it’s your brain that’s deceiving you. It could happen. In a strange and very rare syndrome called the Capgras Delusion, patients believe that someone close to them has been replaced by an impostor.
When your brain perceives something, it actually undergoes a rather long and complicated process of perception. The image is first seen on the retina, where it travels to the occipital and temporal lobes. Within the temporal lobe of the brain, the fusiform gyrus is responsible for facial recognition (it’s known as the “face area” of the brain). Connections between the fusiform gyrus and amygdala, a structure usually associated with emotion, exchange the information and determine whether it is of emotional significance to the individual.
The Capgras Delusion is caused by damage to these connections. As the brain is no longer able to exchange information between the fusiform gyrus and the amygdala, the individual cannot assign an emotional importance to the sight of the person in front of them. In this case, the brain assumes that the person must be attempting to imitate their mother, as she looks eerily similar. There’s just too many similarities between this person and someone you know, and your brain reacts in a rather unpleasant way.
It’s a rather unfortunate syndrome, as it prevents the patient from assigning emotional significance to most things that they are able to see. However, the disorder is entirely visual: if a patient suffering from Capgras hears their mother or father (or other person close to them), they are able to easily conclude that it is actually their parent.
Imagine coming home to your parents. Except you don’t recognize them as your parents, only that they’re eerily similar to everything you know about your parents. They know your embarassing childhood stories, your scars, all your friends. Yet to you, they’re completely a stranger, a perfect replica who is undecidedly not your parent. It’s a pretty creepy thought.
-Roberto Barroso Luque
Ogden, J. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trouble-in-mind/201208/the-capgras-delusion-you-are-not-my-wife
Ramachandran, V. (0). Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/vilayanur_ramachandran_on_your_mind.html