Philosophers since the time of Plato have considered the extent to which we can truly perceive the physical world, or the so called ‘mind independent’ universe. Modern science has given us further insight into the question, through experiments designed to understand the way in which our brain receives and manipulates sensory information. While it has been known for some time that human perception is subject to various priming effects and spatiotemporal biases, psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley have discovered that visual perception is also influenced by something called the ‘continuity field.’
To put it simply, the continuity field is what allows us to view our surrounding environment as a continuous perception. In his recent article in Nature Neuroscience, David Whitney and his colleagues have shown that our perception of the orientation of a certain object in our visual field is actually strongly biased towards the orientation of that object 10 seconds prior. This means that our brain ‘smoothes out’ small changes in the physical world so that we perceive a continuous image. Without the influence of this continuity field, we would be hypersensitive to the smallest changes in our visual field, and presumably have trouble determining which changes in our surroundings would be most relevant to our immediate needs.
It’s just about that time of year again – in just over a week’s time we’ll be sitting down to a huge feast consisting of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes; we’ll be watching the Macy’s Parade soon to be followed by two football games; and we’ll be giving thanks for our reunion with our grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, parents, and more. Thanksgiving definitely holds a special place in my heart – however, up until recently, it always used to provide just a little bit of stress. That is because, at least in my family, somewhere between polishing off the last roll and preparing for pecan pie one relative or another always asks me, “so what are you studying in school again?” And when I answer “Neuroscience!” I typically get one of two responses: the confused look, followed by “Neuroscience? What is neuroscience?” (typically from the older crowd in the room), or the rolling of the eyes, followed by “What are you going to do with a degree in neuroscience?” (typically from the former engineers and business majors). I love neuroscience, and I know I’ve found my passion studying it here at BU, but those questions always seem to bring with them a certain pressure that I always felt I cracked beneath. However, I recently discovered the perfect way to address both of these questions, and I’m here to let you in on the secret so you can impress your relatives at the thanksgiving dinner table as well. This year, when Grandma or Uncle Tony ask me “why neuroscience?” my answer will be simple – because neuroscience is changing, and will continue to change, the world and how we approach it.
I can already imagine the taken aback look crossing my relative’s faces, and the comment that I’m perhaps being a little dramatic – neuroscience is changing the world? Not only will my answer definitely get their attention, but I’m confident that my answer is correct, and proving my point to my disbelieving family will only make Thanksgiving that much more fun. Neuroscience is the science of understanding the nervous system (that is the system that essentially allows for all of our functioning) on a basic scientific level, and then applying that knowledge to do a bunch of things, from eradicating the diseases that plague the system (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s), to applying the knowledge in the classroom so that students of all ages can learn to their full potential. If you take a step back and view the whole picture, it’s not surprising that neuroscience will change the world in our lifetime; as opposed to some other fields, neuroscience is constantly acquiring completely new information about systems that not too long ago used to be a complete mystery – this knowledge is overflowing and already being applied to the real world to make beneficial changes. I will quickly outline two fascinating new outlets of neuroscience that are changing the world right before our very eyes, so that you have solid proof to further widen the eyes of your relatives this holiday season.
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
One thing I have always struggled with in reading philosophy is the doctrine of Innatism, which holds that the human mind is born with ideas or knowledge. This belief, put forth most notably by Plato as his Theory of Forms and later by Descartes in his Meditations, is currently gaining neuroscientific evidence that could validate the belief that we are born with innate knowledge of our world.
Art is popular. There are many people that enjoy, support, or make a living off of art. It has the power to evoke emotion and also to allow one to express emotion through shapes, color, and patterns. Brains are popular too, but in a different sense. Everyone has a brain. Some may use it more than others, but it is something that all humans possess. This is, of course, excluding the various other life forms on earth that make use of a brain. What is not so popular is brain art. Especially brain art that is anatomically correct. The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art claims to be the largest collection of anatomically accurate representations of the brain made entirely from fabric. How exciting! The inspiration for each piece comes from dissections of the brain, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), neuroscience research, and positron emission tomography or PET (another medical imaging technique). These self-deemed “neuroartists” employ traditional art techniques such as quilting, knitting, and rug hooking to create their cranial masterpieces. Although extremely talented, these artists do warn not to use the accuracy of their art as a guide for any kind of surgical medical endeavor. More
I have some news that might be a bit disappointing to…well, pretty much anyone who would find themselves on a blog dedicated to the mind and brain. Bear with me (or not, if you’d like, really), but this is a post primarily about the heart.
I was recently introduced via a grad student in the (yes, neuroscience) lab I work in to the latest advancement in the race to perfect an artificial heart. That link is to an NPR article that really tells you everything you need to know…and you should absolutely read it. But to summarize the details you need to know for my purposes here, the design is completely novel, and unlike previous designs, it doesn’t use nature as its inspiration. More
Research has been conducted that proves that our thoughts can control the rate of firing of neurons in our brain. This research reveals the crucial advancement of brain-operated machines in the field. John P. Donoghue at Brown University has conducted research that uses neural interface systems (NISs) to aid paraplegics. NISs allows people to control artificial limbs; individuals simply need to think about commanding their artificial limbs and signals are sent down from their brain to control the movement of these limbs! This great feat is not the only applicable result of current research done by brain-machine interfaces. Dr. Frank Guenther of Boston University uses implanted electrodes in a part of the brain that controls speech to tentatively give a voice back to those who have been struck mute by brain injuries. The signals produced from these electrodes are sent wirelessly to a machine that is able to synthesize and interpret these signals into speech. This is specifically useful for patients suffering from locked in syndrome, wherein an individual with a perfectly normal brain is unable to communicate due to specific brain damage, and thus allowing these individuals to communicate with the world! These discoveries are not only incredibly useful, but they also reveal the astonishing feats that the field of computational neuroscience is accomplishing in the world today.