The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part I: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Let’s imagine something crazy.

What if each person in China was ordered to simulate a neuron in a brain, making an enormous “China brain?” Every participant in this grand experiment would be given a two-way radio to communicate with other people, similar to how neurons talk to each other. Some people play the role of “effector neurons,” which control parts of a giant robot, just as motor neurons in our nervous system control bodily movements.

Basically, imagine that the entire nation of China became a giant robot’s brain. What might happen?

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What the Heck is a Claustrum?

Given its subjective nature, consciousness is already a controversial topic in the world of brain science. While some neuroscientists doubt that consciousness can even be studied, others still endeavor towards identifying parts of the brain that support subjective awareness. At a gathering of neuroscientists February 15 in Bethesda, Maryland, an announcement has thrust the quest to understand consciousness into the spotlight once again. A team of neuroscientists lead by Christof Koch has identified neurons in a relatively obscure brain region known as the claustrum that send fibers far throughout the entire cerebral cortex, well beyond where they are expected to project. One neuron shown in the presentation engulfed the brain like a “crown of thorns” with its colossal fibers. According to Nature News, “Koch sees this as evidence that the claustrum could be coordinating inputs and outputs across the brain to create consciousness.”

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What Happens If You Stick Your Head in a Particle Accelerator?

What would happen if you stuck your body inside a particle accelerator? The scenario seems like the start of a bad Marvel comic, but it happens to shed light on our intuitions about radiation, the vulnerability of the human body, and the very nature of matter. Particle accelerators allow physicists to study subatomic particles by speeding them up in powerful magnetic fields and then tracing the interactions that result from collisions. By delving into the mysteries of the Universe, colliders have entered the Zeitgeist and tapped the wonders and fears of our age.Continue reading

The Consequences of Illusory Superiority

On January 6, 1995, a large five-foot-six 270-pound middle-aged man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He didn’t wear a mask or any sort of disguise. And he smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank.

Later that night, police arrested a surprised McArthur Wheeler. When they showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in disbelief. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled.Continue reading

Learning from Disorder: The Paradox of Information in the Brain

In Dante’s Inferno, the fifth circle of Hell is a place where the wrathful fight each other for eternity.  Similarly, I often consider YouTube comments to be an extracanonical circle of Hell where the trolls fight each other for eternity.  You might, then, imagine my surprise when I found many thoughtful comments expressing wonder and intrigue on a YouTube video of brain activity in a zebrafish.  Continue reading

Jupiter and Beyond! The Unsung Friendship between Neuroscience and Space Exploration

This weekend, I attended a special event at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, CA to celebrate the Juno spacecraft’s July 4th arrival at the planet Jupiter.  Planetary scientists study outer space, while neuroscientists such as myself study inner space.  But as my visit to JPL revealed, the goals and challenges of each discipline are far more similar than you might think.  So, what is Juno, and how does its mission mirror that of many neuroscientists?Continue reading

Gliders, Blinkers, and Pulsars: Complexity and the Game of Life

Previously on Knowing Neurons, we considered self-organized criticality (SOC) and network science (AKA graph theory) as two possible sources of complex behavior in the brain and other physiological systems. As discussed in that piece, complex behavior as observed in quantifiable, physiological signals appears healthy, motivating the question of what gives rise to such behavior. In two prior posts, we established that studying individual parts per se in a physiological system will never yield a complete understanding of the system.Continue reading

How Do We Know? The Value of Scientific Models.

Last month, astronomers announced the prediction of a new giant planet in our solar system dubbed Planet IX, a genuine ninth planet with ten times the mass of Earth.  The announcement lead to some confusion on the Internet as to the whether the planet had actually been discovered.  In fact, no direct observation of this planet has been made. Rather, the planet has been predicted by a model, a simplified description of a system which often incorporates hypothetical elements to explain the variance in data.  Because many models use equations to describe a system, a model can often be thought of as a theory with a mathematical backbone.Continue reading

The Fugue of Life: Why Complexity Matters in Physiology and Neuroscience

People like simplicity. Each decade, corporate logos grow progressively minimalistic, pop songs use ever simpler melodies, and visual art embraces simpler compositions, as Monet gives way to Picasso and Picasso gives way Rothko.  This zeitgeist, summarized as “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” shapes our perceptions of physiology in interesting ways.  The thumping of a beating heart is often celebrated as nature’s beautifully simple rhythm.  Listening through a doctor’s stethoscope, one expects any deviation from perfect rhythmicity to be an omen of disease.Continue reading