Brain Waves and Beta Buzz: The Wild Story of Neural Oscillations

What are brain waves?  It’s no wonder the term sounds like science fiction.  In the 1920s, a German psychiatrist embarked on a highly personal quest to discover the supposed medium of telepathy.  By placing electrodes on the human scalp, Hans Berger found waves of electrical brain activity using a tool called electroencephalography, or EEG.  Physicists had recently shown that electromagnetic waves could propagate through space to carry information.  If the brain had its own waves, could they transmit thoughts to others like a radio broadcast?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

Seeing Invisible Colors Knowing Neurons

Seeing Invisible Colors

What would the world be like without color?  Imagine you are a neurophysiologist, who studies color perception.  You know that light is a wave and that humans perceive color according to differential activation of color receptors, known as cones, in the retina.  You know that red cones are sensitive to long wavelengths, green cones are sensitive to medium wavelengths, and blue cones are sensitive to short wavelengths.  There’s just one issue: your entire life, you have been confined to a dark room where your only access to the outside world is a black and white television monitor.  You have never seen color.Continue reading

Ghost in the Machine: The Neuroscience of Consciousness

Ghost in the Machine: The Neuroscience of Consciousness

Some questions cannot be addressed by science.  Like parallel universes, the consciousness of others is not something that can be directly observed, measured, or experienced.  Rene Descartes famously said,

I think, therefore I am.

a declaration that only knowledge of one’s own consciousness is absolute.  You assume that friends and neighbors have subjective, internal experiences similar to your own.  And yet, you will never know that these individuals are not mindless automatons, behaving in a manner similar to yourself yet lacking conscious experience.Continue reading

Surfing Brainwaves with EEG: A Classic Tool for Recording Temporal Brain Dynamics

Pictures are powerful tools for illustrating quantitative data and capturing public interest.  Each year, NASA releases many beautiful images of Martian dunes and distant nebulae which help win public funding.  Likewise, when it comes to grabbing headlines and commanding public attention, noninvasive studies of functional brain activity often do best when they beautifully illustrate said activity as colorful pixels dancing on the convoluted surface of the cerebral cortex.Continue reading