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

Songbird, Zebra Finch, Knowing Neurons, Michael Condro, Sing, Learn, Memory, Neuroscience, Brain,

What Can Songbirds Teach Us About Ourselves?

In my last post, “Vocal Practice is for the Birds” examined one similarity between human and songbird procedural learning: the necessity for practice before performance. Zebra finches sing a series of introductory notes to prepare before beginning their mating song, much like we warm up before playing an instrument or before an athletic competition. This is but one of the many similarities found between human and songbird behaviors. In fact, scientists have been using songbirds to study many common behaviors, like spatial memory and social interactions in addition to procedural learning. Songbirds are the ideal model system for studying the neurogenetic basis of vocal learning due to the similarity of the neural structures underlying this relatively rare behavior.Continue reading

“Free Bird:” How to Stay on Key

If you’ve ever done Karaoke, then you know how horribly some people sing, especially when the background music is too loud for them to hear themselves.  The ability to adjust to the environment is essential for all sensory systems, which use feedback mechanisms to modify behavior.  Usually the environmental cues are contaminated by noise, so your brain has to decide whether to modify behavior based on sensory feedback (and risk “adapting” to signals that do not accurately reflect performance) or to ignore sensory input (and risk leaving errors uncorrected).  So, how does your brain deal with this mismatch between the actual and expected sensory feedback, so you can have a better Karaoke performance?Continue reading

Towards A Better Brain Model

One of the fundamental goals of cognitive and systems neuroscience is to create a computer program that can simulate the activity of the human brain, from single neurons, through network level processing, to influences on behavior.  The only problem is that the human brain contains almost 90 billion neurons with an estimated total of 100 trillion synapses!  As staggeringly large as those numbers are, researchers actually aren’t too far away from producing such a complex computer program.Continue reading