Feature: Mind, Body, Soul

Top Neuroscience Discoveries in 2012: Researchers Identify Specific Words and Thoughts in The Brain

Author: Darin L. Hammond
Published: December 15, 2012 at 5:44 am
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Marking Our Close Cousin's Thoughts in the Brain

The DNA of a chimpanzee is almost identical to our own, with more than 99% similarity. Our close evolutionary relationship provides great benefits to humans, such as helping us to gain knowledge about our own brains, as they too are similar. For example, studying chimps assisted in recent advances in neuroscience, allowing scientists to map the brain with greater accuracy. Learning more about the human brain empowers our species with greater knowledge of our minds, and assists in the creation of new technology as well.

On November 21, 2012, cognitive neuroscientists from MIT and Boston University revealed how they pinpointed a single thought in a chimp’s brain. They tracked the thought of a block's color, using an fMRI functional magnetic resonance imaging: this device employs spinning magnets to photograph the brain as it lights up with electrical activity.

Ensembles of Neurons Responsible for Thoughts

An image of one thought had been impossible to map previously, but the improved resolution refined and detailed microscopic areas of the brain, specifically neuron groups found to hold these single thoughts. Researchers named the small bundles of neurons that hold a thought an “ensemble.”

The original word refers to a small group of musicians playing in unison—just as music ensembles create beautiful sound, neural ensembles fire together in order to create meaning.

Pinpointing Two Thoughts as They Oscillate

Next, the scientists monitored an ensemble that encoded the shape of the block. Locating a second thought in the chimp’s brain represented a significant achievement because researchers could now track two related thoughts held in the conscious mind at the same time.

After finding the color and shape ensembles, the scientists could watch two conscious thoughts held in the mind simultaneously. We call this multitasking: an impressive ability shared by chimps, humans, and computers.

The scientists recorded remarkable, magical images: prior to this experiment, they had no idea how the brain would handle two conscious thoughts simultaneously. They found this surprising—the ensembles oscillated, meaning that the thought ensemble for color lit up, dimmed, and almost instantly the shape ensemble fired. On and off, the two brain areas blinked, allowing each ensemble to engage.

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