Stuck in my brain: memory, failure and paradigm shifts

Yesterday I wrote about creative breakthroughs coming from unexpected places. Artists and scientists who get stuck in a dead end have learned to reverse engineer creative solutions. Today, while sick in bed, I meandered down internet paths and came upon more fun stuff, completely without meaning to. Or, maybe it was intuition. Who knows?

In 1942, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a magical realism story called “Funes the Memorious.” In it, a young man, whom we would today identify as an autistic prodigy (innate sense of time, doesn’t like people), falls off a horse and bumps his head, resulting in a peculiar neurological condition. He can remember everything from his past with perfect clarity down to the sensations he felt in any given moment. What he cannot do is think conceptually. And he is overwhelmed by the totality of his memories. It was fiction at the time, but science would come around to meet young Funes more than 60 years later.

Scientists in the 20th century really believed that there was a neuron dedicated to every tiny specific function. Jerome Lettvin, a famous neurobiologist, made fun of this theory in 1969 with a story about a fictional neurosurgeon who successfully removed only those brain cells that pertained to a patient’s memory of his mother, leaving the conceptual understanding of the word “mother” intact.

The term “Grandmother cells” caught on for these hypothetical cells; a single neuron dedicated to the recognition of one’s grandmother’s face at a certain angle. They are hypothetical because no one was ever able to find them.

For decades, scientists pursued the theory, even as supportive results failed to materialize. Why did they keep searching for the existence of Grandmother cells for so long? For that, we go to mathematics philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The following is a famous anecdote that illustrates the point:

Meeting a friend in the corridor, Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “Tell me, why do people always say that it was natural for men to assume that the sun went around the earth rather than the earth was rotating?”

His friend said: “Well, obviously, because it just looks as if the sun is going around the earth.”

To which the philosopher replied: “Well, what would it look like if it had looked as if the earth were rotating?”

Wittgenstein was pointing out that your theory of knowledge determines your perception. Not the other way around. Epistemic orthodoxy frames what the viewer sees. As James Burke said:

The brain imposes visual order on chaos by grouping sets of signals, rearranging them, or rejecting them. Reality is what the brain makes it. The same basic mechanism functions for the other senses. This imposition of the hypothesis on an experience is what causes optical illusions. It also modifies all forms of perception at all levels of complexity. To quote Wittgenstein once more, “You see what you want to see.”

All observation of the external world is, therefore, theory laden. The world would be chaos if this were not so.

So, of course, neuroscientists continued looking for Grandmother cells. They were trained in reductionist thinking, which most western scientists had become beholden to. Their logic was linear. The sum was always the total of its parts. If you knew the parts, you could make the whole. And, in the other direction, you could deconstruct the whole into its most finite parts. A neuron is the most finite part of the brain organ. So, it was completely plausible that a particular memory could be localized to a single cell in the brain. They failed to consider alternative explanations because their theoretical viewpoint constrained them from conceiving of alternatives. Without some neutralizing force that would unstick the neuroscientists’ own brains, they would continue futilely for decades.

James Burke’s Connections is chockfull of inventors who went looking for one thing and discovered something altogether unexpected. Working within existing theories, using available technology, inadvertent groundbreakers came up with technological advances that didn’t just add to the existing understanding. It changed how people thought. Advancements happen when 1 + 1 = 3. Three is the game changer. It’s the end of the existing paradigm and the inception of a new one.

To quote Wittgenstein, “What Copernicus and Darwin really achieved was not a new theory but a fertile new point of view.”

The fact that Grandmother cells were never found isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In order to discover things we don’t know, we must traverse the edges of the things we do. Ann-Sophie Barwich said this in her examination of the Grandmother cell failure:

What makes failure in science theoretically interesting? Dealing with failures constitutes an active engagement with the limits of understanding. Successes primarily enforce current research strategies and models. Failures encourage us to broaden our perspectives on the nature of a particular problem and to open exploration to alternatives. Notably, this view amounts to more than merely saying ‘failure forces you to think of something new.’

In other words, before you can have a breakthrough, sometimes you have to have a breakdown. Kinda cool, huh?

While Grandmother cells still remain out there undiscovered like the Fountain of Youth or an alchemical formula for gold, a UCLA neurosurgeon did discover neurons that served almost entirely specific purposes. And quite by accident. During epileptic seizure surgery, neurosurgeons keep patients awake so they can ask them questions and make sure they’re targeting the right area of the brain. There is no comprehensive brain map currently in existence.

Out of curiosity, he asked his patients if they they’d take part in experiments while on the operating table. He showed them various pictures and found that one neuron fired only when they were shown a picture of Jennifer Aniston.

A CalTech neuroscientist began fMRI studies of patients’ hippocampus (hippocampi?)(the part of the brain that creates longterm memories) and watched for neurons to light up when shown various images of famous people, places and food. He observed the same phenomenon. But these neurons do not just fire at visual stimuli. They are conceptually triggered. For example, one patient had a neuron that not only responded to photograph of Halle Berry, but to caricatures of her and even her written name.

Here’s the theory, pasted from an 2012 NPR article:

“That neuron shouting “Jen!” is receiving signals from thousands, maybe tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of neurons down below. Each time, the pattern is a little different. Thinking about Jen in “Bruce Almighty” is one pattern. Thinking about Jen having twins (Is she? They keep telling us that, but it’s never…) is another. Each recollection probably slightly different from the ones before, but everytime, because it’s Jen we’re thinking of, the neuron at the top of the pile always flashes “Jen!””

Neuroscientists call this specialized response ‘sparse coding.’ It isn’t one neuron for every sensory input, but a series of neurons, activating in very specific pattern, or as theoretical physicist turned neuroscientist Sebastian Seung puts it, a “hierarchical organization,” that trigger a very specific memory.

Why not a single neuron? Well, a brain only has 80 billion neurons. That may seem like a lot, but it’s simply not enough to contain all of our memories broken down into their tiniest bits. But if you combine the neurons into responsive patterns, you come up with roughly a 100 trillion connections. Seung’s ambition is to map these patterns to attain a clear idea of how the brain works. He calls this map the “connectdome.” Its ambition is equal to if not greater than the already successful DNA map that came about from the Human Genome Project.

The Human Genome Project succeeded faster than anyone expected because of the advances in computing power stated in Moore’s Law. Basically, innovation happens at compound annual growth rate. One hundred trillion connection seems like an impossible task now, but only because we think of it in terms of the current paradigm. The connectdome might be a product of a new paradigm. Or, if history is any indication of future innovation, maybe the pursuit of the connectdome will lead to a completely unanticipated discovery or paradigm shift.

As for Borges’ protagonist, he had what neuroscientists call highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). It’s what Marilu Henner from Taxi has. You name a date and she can tell you everything about her experiences on that date. It’s actually kind of a curse though because the person has recall but cannot process memories. They go back to any given date and feel the emotion with the same intensity they felt on that day. There are only 60 diagnosed cases in the whole world.

HSAM wasn’t officially discovered until 2006. Maybe Borges actually knew someone with this type of memory, or, like I discussed yesterday, maybe it was his intuition, and not his intellect, that gave him the creative spark to come up with the idea. Intuition is an ephemeral thing that we still don’t understand scientifically.

But maybe we might…one day.

Anyway, all of this highly entertained me while sick in bed.

This post was inspired by a lecture I’ve been watching on and off today on reductionism and chaos by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford.

He talks about how reductive systems are linear and deviations from anticipated results got thrown out as aberrations when they might have been indicia of relevant phenomena. Linear systems don’t take chance into account.

It reminded me of something I read last winter in a random book I opened at J’s house while he went to the corner store.

An entomologist in the United States used the same method of rearing firebugs that had been carried out in Prague for ten years with expected results. They were housed in jars with paper towels.

But instead of the maturing into adult insects capable of reproduction like the firebugs in Prague, these beetles never progressed from nymphs into adults. They just kept molting. It turns out that paper towels in the United States were made from balsam fir pulp. Balsam fir contains a compound (juvenile hormone) that acts as a natural defense against firebugs by preventing the nymphs from turning into adults and reproducing. What’s more is that the compound also was an effective ovicide.

We’d never have this discovery if the entomologist hadn’t paid attention to the aberration and investigated the paper towels.

There is a maxim in science, attributed to Louis Pasteur, that chance only favors the mind that is prepared. I wouldn’t have learned that if I hadn’t remembered the paper towel story tonight.

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