An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have

By Deborah M Gordon

Like a brain, an ant colony operates without central control. Each is a set of interacting individuals, either neurons or ants, using simple chemical interactions that in the aggregate generate their behaviour. People use their brains to remember. Can ant colonies do that? This question leads to another question: what is memory? For people, memory is the capacity to recall something that happened in the past. We also ask computers to reproduce past actions – the blending of the idea of the computer as brain and brain as computer has lead us to take ‘memory’ to mean something like the information stored on a hard drive. We know that our memory relies on changes in how much a set of linked neurons stimulate each other; that it is reinforced somehow during sleep; and that recent and long-term memory involve different circuits of connected neurons. But there is much we still don’t know about how those neural events come together, whether there are stored representations that we use to talk about something that happened in the past, or how we can keep performing a previously learned task such as reading or riding a bicycle. 

Any living being can exhibit the simplest form of memory, a change due to past events. Look at a tree that has lost a branch. It remembers by how it grows around the wound, leaving traces in the pattern of the bark and the shape of the tree. You might be able to describe the last time you had the flu, or you might not. Either way, in some sense your body ‘remembers’, because some of your cells now have different antibodies, molecular receptors, which fit that particular virus.

Past events can alter the behaviour of both individual ants and ant colonies. Individual carpenter ants offered a sugar treat remembered its location for a few minutes; they were likely to return to where the food had been. Another species, the Sahara Desert ant, meanders around the barren desert, searching for food. It appears that an ant of this species can remember how far it walked, or how many steps it took, since the last time it was at the nest.

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Could consciousness all come down to the way things vibrate?

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What do synchronized vibrations add to the mind/body question?
agsandrew/Shutterstock.com

By Tam Hunt, University of California, Santa Barbara

Why is my awareness here, while yours is over there? Why is the universe split in two for each of us, into a subject and an infinity of objects? How is each of us our own center of experience, receiving information about the rest of the world out there? Why are some things conscious and others apparently not? Is a rat conscious? A gnat? A bacterium?

These questions are all aspects of the ancient “mind-body problem,” which asks, essentially: What is the relationship between mind and matter? It’s resisted a generally satisfying conclusion for thousands of years.

The mind-body problem enjoyed a major rebranding over the last two decades. Now it’s generally known as the “hard problem” of consciousness, after philosopher David Chalmers coined this term in a now classic paper and further explored it in his 1996 book, “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.”

Chalmers thought the mind-body problem should be called “hard” in comparison to what, with tongue in cheek, he called the “easy” problems of neuroscience: How do neurons and the brain work at the physical level? Of course they’re not actually easy at all. But his point was that they’re relatively easy compared to the truly difficult problem of explaining how consciousness relates to matter.

Over the last decade, my colleague, University of California, Santa Barbara psychology professor Jonathan Schooler and I have developed what we call a “resonance theory of consciousness.” We suggest that resonance – another word for synchronized vibrations – is at the heart of not only human consciousness but also animal consciousness and of physical reality more generally. It sounds like something the hippies might have dreamed up – it’s all vibrations, man! – but stick with me.

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How the brain tracks time

Emily Singer writes:

Our brains have an extraordinary ability to monitor time. A driver can judge just how much time is left to run a yellow light; a dancer can keep a beat down to the millisecond. But exactly how the brain tracks time is still a mystery. Researchers have defined the brain areas involved in movement, memory, color vision and other functions, but not the ones that monitor time. Indeed, our neural timekeeper has proved so elusive that most scientists assume this mechanism is distributed throughout the brain, with different regions using different monitors to keep track of time according to their needs.

Over the last few years, a handful of researchers have compiled growing evidence that the same cells that monitor an individual’s location in space also mark the passage of time. This suggests that two brain regions — the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex, both famous for their role in memory and navigation — can also act as a sort of timer.

In research published in November [2015], Howard Eichenbaum, a neuroscientist at Boston University, and collaborators showed that cells in rats that form the brain’s internal GPS system, known as grid cells, are more malleable than had been anticipated. Typically these cells act like a dead-reckoning system, with certain neurons firing when an animal is in a specific place. (The researchers who discovered this shared the Nobel Prize in 2014.) Eichenbaum found that when an animal is kept in place — such as when it runs on a treadmill — the cells keep track of both distance and time. The work suggests that the brain’s sense of space and time are intertwined. [Continue reading…]

Navigation through the world and through the mind may involve the same neural pathways

Steven Novella writes:

Have you ever been in a semi-familiar location but couldn’t quite place where you were, then suddenly the landmarks line up and you know where you are? This might happen when entering a familiar location from an unusual direction, for example. Also (a seemingly unrelated question), when you visualize abstract ideas, do you arrange them physically. For example, do you visualize time (like days, weeks, months, years), and if so is there a particular physical relationship by which you mentally organize the progress of time?

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) and the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim, Norway have published a paper in which they propose these two mental phenomena are directly related. One of the scientists, Edvard I. Moser, won the 2014 Nobel Prize for some of this work.

For background, researchers discovered that there are a type of neuron called place cells in the hippocampus (specifically area CA1) that store the memory for specific locations. When you are in a familiar location, a unique pattern of place cells will light up. Further, there is a second type of cell called grid neurons, which are arranged in a hexagonal pattern in the nearby entorhinal cortex. These grid cells light up in sequence as you move through your physical space – the physical arrangement of the grid neurons map to the physical arrangement of your environment.

This is an elegant system – your brain basically has a movable grid map, the grid keeps track of your local navigation, while the place cells keep track of where the map is.

This is also not the only example of so-called “somatotopic mapping” in the brain, where the physical location of neurons maps to their function. The other obvious example is the primary visual cortex. There the arrangement of neurons maps to the image itself, like a bitmap built of pixels, with each pixel being a neuron.

This kind of physical mapping is easy to understand, but now here is where the new paper comes in and where things get interesting. The authors propose that we navigate our abstract thoughts using the same neurons as for navigating physical space. [Continue reading…]

A tiny change in brain organization without which humans never could have evolved

Douglas Fox writes:

Suzana Herculano-Houzel spent most of 2003 perfecting a macabre recipe—a formula for brain soup. Sometimes she froze the jiggly tissue in liquid nitrogen, and then she liquefied it in a blender. Other times she soaked it in formaldehyde and then mashed it in detergent, yielding a smooth, pink slurry.

Herculano-Houzel had completed her Ph.D. in neuroscience several years earlier, and in 2002, she had begun working as an assistant professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. She had no real funding, no laboratory of her own—just a few feet of counter space borrowed from a colleague.

“I was interested in questions that could be answered with very little money [and] very little technology,” she recalls. Even so, she had a bold idea. With some effort—and luck—she hoped to accomplish something with her kitchen-blender project that had bedeviled scientists for over a century: to count the number of cells in the brain—not just the human brain, but also the brains of marmosets, macaque monkeys, shrews, giraffes, elephants, and dozens of other mammals.

Her method might have seemed carelessly destructive at first. How could annihilating such a fragile and complex organ provide any useful insights? But 15 years on, the work of Herculano-Houzel and her team has overturned some long-held ideas about the evolution of the human mind. It is helping to reveal the fundamental design principles of brains and the biological basis of intelligence: why some large brains lead to enhanced intelligence while others provide no benefit at all. Her work has unveiled a subtle tweak in brain organization that happened more than 60 million years ago, not long after primates branched off from their rodent-like cousins. It might have been a tiny change—but without it, humans never could have evolved. [Continue reading…]

Octopuses on ecstasy reveal genetic link to evolution of social behaviors in humans

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine:

By studying the genome of a kind of octopus not known for its friendliness toward its peers, then testing its behavioral reaction to a popular mood-altering drug called MDMA or “ecstasy,” scientists say they have found preliminary evidence of an evolutionary link between the social behaviors of the sea creature and humans, species separated by 500 million years on the evolutionary tree.

A summary of the experiments is published Sept. 20 in Current Biology, and if the findings are validated, the researchers say, they may open opportunities for accurately studying the impact of psychiatric drug therapies in many animals distantly related to people.

“The brains of octopuses are more similar to those of snails than humans, but our studies add to evidence that they can exhibit some of the same behaviors that we can,” says Gül Dölen, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the lead investigator conducting the experiments. “What our studies suggest is that certain brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that send signals between neurons required for these social behaviors are evolutionarily conserved.”

Octopuses, says Dölen, are well-known to be clever creatures. They can trick prey to come into their clutches, and Dölen says there is some evidence they also learn by observation and have episodic memory. The gelatinous invertebrates (animals without backbones) are further notorious for escaping from their tank, eating other animals’ food, eluding caretakers and sneaking around.

But most octopuses are asocial animals and avoid others, including other octopuses. But because of some of their behaviors, Dölen still thought there may be a link between the genetics that guide social behavior in them and humans. One place to look was in the genomics that guide neurotransmitters, the signals that neurons pass between each other to communicate. [Continue reading…]

The digital corruption of the human brain

Maryanne Wolf writes:

Look around on your next plane trip. The iPad is the new pacifier for babies and toddlers. Younger school-aged children read stories on smartphones; older boys don’t read at all, but hunch over video games. Parents and other passengers read on Kindles or skim a flotilla of email and news feeds. Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

This is not a simple, binary issue of print vs digital reading and technological innovation. As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating. In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it. [Continue reading…]

Peter Tse: Free will — essence and nature

 

Brains keep temporary molecular records before making a lasting memory

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Like the day’s newspaper, the brain has a temporary way to keep track of events.
TonTonic/Shutterstock.com

By Kelsey Tyssowski, Harvard University

The first dance at my wedding lasted exactly four minutes and 52 seconds, but I’ll probably remember it for decades. Neuroscientists still don’t entirely understand this: How was my brain able to translate this less-than-five-minute experience into a lifelong memory? Part of the puzzle is that there’s a gap between experience and memory: our experiences are fleeting, but it takes hours to form a long-term memory.

In recent work published in the journal Neuron, my colleagues and I figured out how the brain keeps temporary molecular records of transient experiences. Our finding not only helps to explain how the brain bridges the gap between experience and memory. It also allows us to read the brain’s short-term records, raising the possibility that we may one day be able to infer a person’s, or at least a laboratory mouse’s, past experience – what they saw, thought, felt – just by looking at the molecules in their brain.

Electrical pulses carry signals along the branches of neurons.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, CC BY

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We are more than our brains

Alan Jasanoff writes:

Brains are undoubtedly somewhat computer-like – computers, after all, were invented to perform brain-like functions – but brains are also much more than bundles of wiry neurons and the electrical impulses they are famous for propagating. The function of each neuroelectrical signal is to release a little flood of chemicals that helps to stimulate or suppress brain cells, in much the way that chemicals activate or suppress functions such as glucose production by liver cells or immune responses by white blood cells. Even the brain’s electrical signals themselves are the products of chemicals called ions that move in and out of cells, causing tiny ripples that can spread independently of neurons.

Also distinct from neurons are the relatively passive brain cells called glia (Greek for glue) that are roughly equal in number to the neurons but do not conduct electrical signals in the same way. Recent experiments in mice have shown that manipulating these uncharismatic cells can produce dramatic effects on behaviour. In one experiment, a research group in Japan showed that direct stimulation of glia in a brain region called the cerebellum could cause a behavioural response analogous to changes more commonly evoked by stimulation of neurons. Another remarkable study showed that transplantation of human glial cells into mouse brains boosted the animals’ performance in learning tests, again demonstrating the importance of glia in shaping brain function. Chemicals and glue are as integral to brain function as wiring and electricity. With these moist elements factored in, the brain seems much more like an organic part of the body than the idealised prosthetic many people imagine.

Stereotypes about brain complexity also contribute to the mystique of the brain and its distinction from the body. It has become a cliché to refer to the brain as ‘the most complex thing in the known Universe’. This saying is inspired by the finding that human brains contain something on the order of 100,000,000,000 neurons, each of which makes about 10,000 connections (synapses) to other neurons. The daunting nature of such numbers provides cover for people who argue that neuroscience will never decipher consciousness, or that free will lurks somehow among the billions and billions.

But the sheer number of cells in the human brain is unlikely to explain its extraordinary capabilities. Human livers have roughly the same number of cells as brains, but certainly don’t generate the same results. Brains themselves vary in size over a considerable range – by around 50 per cent in mass and likely number of brain cells. Radical removal of half of the brain is sometimes performed as a treatment for epilepsy in children. Commenting on a cohort of more than 50 patients who underwent this procedure, a team at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore wrote that they were ‘awed by the apparent retention of memory after removal of half of the brain, either half, and by the retention of the child’s personality and sense of humour’. Clearly not every brain cell is sacred.

If one looks out into the animal kingdom, vast ranges in brain size fail to correlate with apparent cognitive power at all. Some of the most perspicacious animals are the corvids – crows, ravens, and rooks – which have brains less than 1 per cent the size of a human brain, but still perform feats of cognition comparable to chimpanzees and gorillas. Behavioural studies have shown that these birds can make and use tools, and recognise people on the street, feats that even many primates are not known to achieve. Within individual orders, animals with similar characteristics also display huge differences in brain size. Among rodents, for instance, we can find the 80-gram capybara brain with 1.6 billion neurons and the 0.3-gram pygmy mouse brain with probably fewer than 60 million neurons. Despite a greater than 100-fold difference in brain size, these species live in similar habitats, display similarly social lifestyles, and do not display obvious differences in intelligence. Although neuroscience is only beginning to parse brain function even in small animals, such reference points show that it is mistaken to mystify the brain because of its sheer number of components.

Playing up the machine-like qualities of the brain or its unbelievable complexity distances it from the rest of the biological world in terms of its composition. But a related form of brain-body distinction exaggerates how the brain stands apart in terms of its autonomy from body and environment. This flavour of dualism contributes to the cerebral mystique by enhancing the brain’s reputation as a control centre, receptive to bodily and environmental input but still in charge.

Contrary to this idea, our brains themselves are perpetually influenced by torrents of sensory input. The environment shoots many megabytes of sensory data into the brain every second, enough information to disable many computers. The brain has no firewall against this onslaught. Brain-imaging studies show that even subtle sensory stimuli influence regions of the brain, ranging from low-level sensory regions where input enters the brain to parts of the frontal lobe, the high-level brain area that is expanded in humans compared with many other primates.

Many of these stimuli seem to take direct control of us. For instance, when we view illustrations, visual features often seem to grab our eyes and steer our gaze around in spatial patterns that are largely reproducible from person to person. If we see a face, our focus darts reflexively among eyes, nose and mouth, subconsciously taking in key features. When we walk down the street, our minds are similarly manipulated by stimuli in the surroundings – the honk of a car’s horn, the flashing of a neon light, the smell of pizza – each of which guides our thoughts and actions even if we don’t realise that anything has happened.

Even further below our radar are environmental features that act on a slower timescale to influence our mood and emotions. Seasonal low light levels are famous for their correlation with depression, a phenomenon first described by the South African physician Norman Rosenthal soon after he moved from sunny Johannesburg to the grey northeastern United States in the 1970s. Colours in our surroundings also affect us. Although the idea that colours have psychic power evokes New Age mysticism, careful experiments have repeatedly linked cold colours such as blue and green to positive emotional responses, and hot red hues to negative responses. In one example, researchers showed that participants performed worse on IQ tests labelled with red marks than on tests labelled with green or grey; another study found that subjects performed better on computerised creativity tests delivered on a blue background than on a red background.

Signals from within the body influence behaviour just as powerfully as influences from the environment, again usurping the brain’s command and challenging idealised conceptions of its supremacy. [Continue reading…]