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The Gorilla You Might Miss

[ 0 ] July 13, 2010

Comic by Jeremy Finch

Something strange happened to me on my last day of elementary school.  I was twelve-years-old.  It was around lunchtime and I was sitting in the back of my homeroom class eagerly imagining the so-soon summer when suddenly—behind me—I heard an opening door.  The whole class turned around to see about the sound.  We were all of us utterly stupefied; for in walked a gorilla, followed by the school principal, followed by my mother holding a camcorder.  The gorilla sauntered over to my desk.  He handed me a bushel of bananas, lifted me out of my chair, and started shaking me violently—all while grunting great gorilla noises (“ooo-ooo-aa!-aa!-aa!” et cetera et cetera).  At this point—according to the video tape—my smile fell to a flat-line and I lost most of the color from my face and neck.  Yes, I knew that this was not a real gorilla but rather a human in a gorilla suit.  But still:  What the @#$%?  Finally the gorilla, afraid—he would later claim with uniquely human empathy—that I might faint, unmasked himself.  It was my father!  He gave me a sandwich, did a gorilla dance, fielded some questions, and then left.  By this point I was not too hungry.  Through the window, I saw him taking pictures with some younger children during their recess period.  Yes, I knew this was just my father being himself—a fun-loving ape.  But still:  What the @#$%?

According to the new book The Invisible Gorilla (Crown. 289 pp. $27)—by the cognitive psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons—if had I been more focused on Mrs. Lippman, the chalkboard, and intransitive verbs I might never have noticed that gorilla in my midst. The book, its title, and this retrospective insight derive from the now world-famous “Selective Attention Test(over 300,000 YouTube hits). Go ahead, try it.  This bizarre and brilliant experiment—which won the 2004 Ig Nobel prize, given to achievements that make people first laugh and then think—illustrates a phenomenal human limitation called inattentional blindness: if you are not paying attention, you might not see that which you are not expecting.  50% of people do not see the gorilla.  For Chabris and Simons, this result serves as the crowning example of one of the “Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us”—the book’s subtitle.

The Invisible Gorilla (Crown. 289 pp. $27)

The Invisible Gorilla has six chapters, each one devoted to an everyday intuitive “illusion:” of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential.  As evidence, each chapter features a mash-up of psychological research and pop culture reference—chiefly from film and television.  The writing is light and clear, though the anecdotes begin to run together and become redundant.  One particular gimmick really got to me, though perhaps it is the fault of an editor.  (After all, writers must stick together and stubbornly blame the editor).  I am talking here about the title of chapter three: “What Smart Chess Players and Stupid Criminals Have in Common.”  Or a section of chapter five, the chapter about cause that has the most serious implications—though woefully under-explored—about our meaning-making species, “What Mother Teresa, Quentin Tarantino, and Jenny Mchy All Know.”  Call it the illusion of relevant relatedness.  To quote the stand-up of Craig Ferguson, that great Scottish sage:  “Yes . . . I have noticed that some things are like other things.”

Chabris and Simons never claim to be writing a hard science book, though.  They are in favor of soft intellectual foodstuffs, which are easier to chew and more likely to be digested by the lay public.  The Invisible Gorilla is appealing and accessible, an undoubtedly triumphant application of the popular psychology formula, and sales will most likely reflect this smooth and shiny presentation.  It is likely, therefore, that Chabris and Simons will have the privilege of publishing another book, which is certainly a good thing.  If you enjoyed Freakonomics and any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books—though Mr. Gladwell is at times a direct target of the Gorilla‘s poop-flinging—you should pick up a copy of The Invisible Gorilla.   Because you never know when your life might be interrupted by an ape.

For more, listen to Daniel Simons, co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, interviewed on this month’s Beautiful Brain Podcast:

Interview with co-author Daniel Simons (MP3)

Consciousness Squandered

[ 1 ] June 7, 2010

Contributor Ben Ehrlich reports on Saturday evening’s “Consciousness: Explored and Explained” event at the 2010 World Science Festival in New York City.

Sometimes it is helpful to be reminded that certain things can go wrong even in spite of right intentions.  Tell me that the appealing actor Alan Alda will moderate a conversation about consciousness featuring the expert neuroscientist Dr. Giulio Tononi and the inimitable screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and I might even offer to bring the donuts.  As part of the World Science Festival, such an event did in fact take place Saturday night in the Kaye Auditorium at Hunter College.  But a billing is never a guarantee.  Unfortunately, “Consciousness:  Explained and Explored” was infinitely less enlightening than it might have been.  I fault a lack of donuts.

In March I had the pleasure of watching Charlie Kaufman share a Brainwave stage at the Rubin Museum with the physicist Brian Greene (see our review of that event here).  I was moved.  Not only did the two men bravely explore a most enticing and daunting intellectual realm—Time, part of the Conceptual Pantheon that also includes Consciousness—they did so with the utmost respect for one another and for the spirit of intellectual exchange.  Their chemistry, born from a combination of mutual curiosity and humility, was refreshing to witness.  After all, such a public forum exists to hatch and incubate the hardest questions, not to engineer easy answers.  But the questions must lead somewhere that is definitively away from nowhere.

Charlie Kaufman, Alan Alda, and Dr. Giulio Tononi

Left to right: Charlie Kaufman, Alan Alda, and Dr. Giulio Tononi

That is why I was so frustrated to hear a moderator—Mr. Alda—who spoke too much and said too little.  Yes, he represents the layman and thus seeks out the simple explanations that sooth most audiences.  This is undoubtedly an important role.  But Mr. Kaufman is also a scientific layman.  Only, he has proven so naturally capable as a questioner.  Conversely, Mr. Alda cultivated a completely uneven discourse that was skewed towards Dr. Tononi and—it must be said—towards Mr. Alda himself as well.  This left Mr. Kaufman as tragically disengaged as a silent songbird.  Moreover, Mr. Alda was incapable of stopping himself from interjecting insistent shtick into the mix.  Why include such a performer, I wonder?  When there are but ninety minutes to discuss the most fascinating and complicated topic in neuroscience, a topic that inspires universal interest because of its inextricable essentiality to the human experience, why waste even a second on anything else?  The immoderate steering of Mr. Alda—who ought to have taken a back seat—leadfootedly zoomed the audience past the truly unique scenery that exists in the mind of Mr. Kaufman.

But, in fact, most of the words during the event belonged to Dr. Tononi, who made repeated, valiant attempts to provide a metaphorical tie-together for the scattered discussion by comparing our conscious experience to a film.  Dr. Tononi’s theory of consciousness—the integrated information theory—is based on two important principles.  First, there is the fact that we always experience consciousness as being wholly unified—integrated.  It is impossible to separately focus on the sub-components comprising a certain stimulus.  A red ball can only be interpreted as a red ball and not merely as a ball, or a red object.  Second, there is the fact that our brain somehow contains an innumerable repertoire of percepts.  Think of the diversity of distinct moments in a minute, or a day, or a life.  The brain is able to generate uniqueness, to chose from a seemingly infinite amount of information in order to form specific and coherent experiences.

I like Dr. Tononi’s theory just fine, but I wonder about the material evidence that would seem to have to come with a discovery of neural correlates.  Where is this inconceivably rich repertoire of information stored?  But this is nonetheless a serious and important theory.

One neuroscientist told me with appreciation after the event that Dr. Tononi does not dumb his science down.  This is true; although he used a quarter of his slides, he explained a few important concepts such as “binocular rivalry,” a bizarre and fascinating phenomenon of visual perception.  If a different image is presented to each eye, the brain can only alternate between them.  It cannot combine them to form one picture.  Dr. Tononi also introduced some relevant clinical examples of abnormal consciousness, staples of classical neurology that always serve as effective illustrations.

But the Internet can be such a teacher too; in my opinion, the reason to attend a live dialogue such as “Consciousness: Explored and Explained” is to witness the participating parties pushing themselves forward with the synchronized back-and-forth of an intellectual handcar.  Although this particular event ran off-track, it did lead me to once more appreciate when something like it was done so well.  After all, nothing can go right every time.  But that will not stop me from attending.

Exquisite Data: a Review of Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul

[ 1 ] February 8, 2010
Cajal

"Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul" by Javier DeFelipe. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Long before fMRI and EEG, the light microscope was the only way to illuminate the world of the infinitely small that exists inside the brain.  In the nineteenth-century, pioneering investigators of the central nervous system had to compensate for primitive technology with extraordinary artistic talent.  These men produced drawings of their experimental slides in order to preserve the revelations therein.  Strange, complex, and utterly gorgeous, these figures are the inspiration for Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul (2010) by Javier DeFelipe.  The book, published by Oxford University Press, contains two-hundred and eighty-two one-of-a-kind images, truly exquisite neuroscientific data.

But this is not merely a picture book; there is an abundance of valuable text.  The first part contains a detailed, well-told background and history of neuroscience and technology.  Like an art historian, DeFelipe separates the material into three periods: Benedictine, Black, and Colorful.  (“Black,” for example, refers to the revolutionary reazione nera, the chemical stain invented by Camilo Golgi that earned him a share, with Cajal, of the Nobel Prize in 1906).  I cannot imagine that a traditional textbook could do a better job of presenting this information.  The writing is approachable and engaging, and surely enhances the visual experience that follows in the second part.  After their introduction, the images become more than aesthetic stimulation; they acquire special meaning because they represent the seeds of early anatomical discovery that grew into the field of modern neuroscience.

Although the book includes the work of ninety-one scientists, Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul is named for only one:  Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Nobel Prize-winning “father of modern neuroscience” who compared himself to an entomologist and described pyramidal cells (neurons that he himself discovered) as “butterflies of the soul.”  Cajal, who said that “only artists are attracted to science,” originally wanted to be an artist.  He spent countless hours during his youth drawing natural scenes.  In the end he found aesthetic fulfillment in science, and his iconic figures are still used in textbooks.  Cajal is one of the greatest examples of a jointly artistic and scientific mind, one that could only have flourished in harmony.   (The book’s author, Javier DeFelipe, is a research professor at the Cajal Institute in Madrid).

Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul, with big, glossy pages and a fancy silver place-holding ribbon, is expensive ($75—$60 on Amazon).  But I contend that it is worth the price.  I would rather not attempt to translate the unique images into descriptive approximations.  I prefer instead to use my words to urge the reader to see for his or herself. To me, the rest of the images found in the book images suggest an epic range of expressive styles; some figures resemble cave drawings, some remind of surrealism.  It all amounts to an affirmation of the fundamental beauty of this holy human organ, something to never forget.

These unique works surely belong in a museum.  Indeed, that is the opinion of DeFelipe.  I was fortunate to be present at a small release event for the book that took place at last year’s Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago.  At the end of his engaging talk, DeFelipe showed slides of an imaginary museum that would display the astounding work we had all just seen through the projector and which appears in the pages of the book.  There were even, if I remember correctly, virtual ladies and gentlemen milling about the floor and admiring the featured art.  The small conference room was struck, I believe, by the normalcy of the scenario.  The message: this science is art.  And I will say that I, for one, look forward to the day when I can visit an exhibit in a real museum.

See the accompanying gallery of images from the book.

Exquisite Data: a Review of Cajal's Butterflies of the Soul

[ 0 ] February 8, 2010
Cajal

"Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul" by Javier DeFelipe. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Long before fMRI and EEG, the light microscope was the only way to illuminate the world of the infinitely small that exists inside the brain.  In the nineteenth-century, pioneering investigators of the central nervous system had to compensate for primitive technology with extraordinary artistic talent.  These men produced drawings of their experimental slides in order to preserve the revelations therein.  Strange, complex, and utterly gorgeous, these figures are the inspiration for Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul (2010) by Javier DeFelipe.  The book, published by Oxford University Press, contains two-hundred and eighty-two one-of-a-kind images, truly exquisite neuroscientific data.

But this is not merely a picture book; there is an abundance of valuable text.  The first part contains a detailed, well-told background and history of neuroscience and technology.  Like an art historian, DeFelipe separates the material into three periods: Benedictine, Black, and Colorful.  (“Black,” for example, refers to the revolutionary reazione nera, the chemical stain invented by Camilo Golgi that earned him a share, with Cajal, of the Nobel Prize in 1906).  I cannot imagine that a traditional textbook could do a better job of presenting this information.  The writing is approachable and engaging, and surely enhances the visual experience that follows in the second part.  After their introduction, the images become more than aesthetic stimulation; they acquire special meaning because they represent the seeds of early anatomical discovery that grew into the field of modern neuroscience.

Although the book includes the work of ninety-one scientists, Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul is named for only one:  Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Nobel Prize-winning “father of modern neuroscience” who compared himself to an entomologist and described pyramidal cells (neurons that he himself discovered) as “butterflies of the soul.”  Cajal, who said that “only artists are attracted to science,” originally wanted to be an artist.  He spent countless hours during his youth drawing natural scenes.  In the end he found aesthetic fulfillment in science, and his iconic figures are still used in textbooks.  Cajal is one of the greatest examples of a jointly artistic and scientific mind, one that could only have flourished in harmony.   (The book’s author, Javier DeFelipe, is a research professor at the Cajal Institute in Madrid).

Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul, with big, glossy pages and a fancy silver place-holding ribbon, is expensive ($75—$60 on Amazon).  But I contend that it is worth the price.  I would rather not attempt to translate the unique images into descriptive approximations.  I prefer instead to use my words to urge the reader to see for his or herself. To me, the rest of the images found in the book images suggest an epic range of expressive styles; some figures resemble cave drawings, some remind of surrealism.  It all amounts to an affirmation of the fundamental beauty of this holy human organ, something to never forget.

These unique works surely belong in a museum.  Indeed, that is the opinion of DeFelipe.  I was fortunate to be present at a small release event for the book that took place at last year’s Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago.  At the end of his engaging talk, DeFelipe showed slides of an imaginary museum that would display the astounding work we had all just seen through the projector and which appears in the pages of the book.  There were even, if I remember correctly, virtual ladies and gentlemen milling about the floor and admiring the featured art.  The small conference room was struck, I believe, by the normalcy of the scenario.  The message: this science is art.  And I will say that I, for one, look forward to the day when I can visit an exhibit in a real museum.

See the accompanying gallery of images from the book.

The Art and Brain Heavyweights

[ 1 ] January 27, 2010
Color-opponent cells in the primate visual cortex (Margaret Livingstone).

Color-opponent cells in the primate visual cortex (Margaret Livingstone).

In an essay I wrote to coincide with the first Beautiful Brain podcast, I discussed some of the current trends in neuroaesthetics research as presented at the 2009 Copenhagen Neuroaesthics Conference. I did not mention some of the heavyweights in the field who have shaped much of the current conversation between the arts and the brain sciences— figures whose work is alternatingly insightful and reductive, microcosms of where we currently stand in this attempt at Consilience.

The names Ramachandran, Zeki, and Livingstone are among the top tier of art and brain researchers, each of whom have made and are continuing to make important contributions to the field from a variety of approaches. Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone’s achievements are in the realm of visual perception, based mostly on electrode recordings from primate visual cortex. Her work has demonstrated the building blocks of color perception—something we share with primates—where individual cells are tuned to fire action potentials in response to certain parts of the spectrum, and are organized in a system where color opposites, such as red and green, arise from the excitation and inhibition of these neighboring color-opponent cells.

The cellular basis of luminosity is another of Livingstone’s contributions to understanding our basic systems of visual perception; one of her favorite examples of the luminosity phenomenon is Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” of 1872.

Impression Sunrise, Claude Monet, 1872.

Impression Sunrise, Claude Monet, 1872.

In this painting, the orange sun seems to glow against the darker sky for two reasons: first, the orange-blue color-opponent nature of our visual system sets the sun and sky apart in our color perception; second, the lack of any change in luminance between the sun and the sky activates our perception of the orange of the sun more intensely, and we perceive this wonderful glowing of the sun (if the image were grayscale, as below, we could not see the sun as well—thus, with luminance almost the same between sun and sky, our visual system seizes on differences in color, and the sun seems to pop out).

Impression Sunrise, grayscale.

Impression Sunrise, grayscale.

Livingstone’s work presents some of the most exciting evidence we have for understanding the very basic phenomena of visual perception—yet because we’re talking about primates, it’s hard to get beyond these essential properties of color perception and optical illusions and move to an explanatory framework that could handle more of the complex subjectivity of human art. Knowing these visual basics can explain why Monet’s sun glows like it does, but this gets us only so far—the human brain quickly moves beyond base visual tricks and involves a much more subjective world of mood and memory.

V.S. Ramachandran is best known for both his work on synesthesia and his controversial “principles” to explain trends in art over millennia. While his synesthesia work is largely fMRI based, the “principles” combine fMRI data with predictions for what we may see on a cellular level during the perception of art. One of the principles Ramachandran most often uses as an example is that of the peak-shift phenomenon: he claims that across cultures and across art forms, pleasurable features of objects and figures are accentuated (such as the curves in a feminine figure) which target reward mechanisms in our brain, and could, in part, explain why we find certain art beautiful. In more modernist work, he argues that artists intuitively used techniques that played into the peak-shift phenomenon, such as Picasso’s faces, which present multiple perspectives of the same object to our visual system at the same moment, leading to a stronger activation of a category-specific “face cell” at the top of a hierarchy in the cortex, and thus a more pleasurable reaction. His principles feel exciting in their speculation into specific cellular mechanisms at hand during the perception of art, yet highly reductive in their lack of attention to the vast worlds of personal and cultural memory we bring to each viewing experience. As in Livingstone’s work, we can find starting points in these principles, but can never assume we are explaining the totality of the perceptive experience.

Lastly, Semir Zeki takes a similar bottom-up approach to cognitive science and aesthetics— studying, like Livingstone, the neural basis of color perception. His search has taken him from work on retinal cells to the visual cortex to the study of the neural correlates of the subjective states of love, beauty, and more recently, hate, mostly through fMRI work. “Perceiving something as ugly or beautiful involves activation of the medial orbito-frontal cortex,” he explained in a recent interview. “The [electrical] activity measured in these areas through scanning is much more pronounced when pictures considered to be beautiful are perceived.”

Zeki claims that artists are instinctive neuroscientists, innately understanding fundamental perceptual processes in the brain and exploring them in their art. Zeki’s writing gives much credit to artists who in reality, at the time they were working, had no idea of the actual physical properties of the brains they were using to create their art. This is neuro-revisionism, and it pervades much of the art/brain conversation in popular media—Virginia Woolf on consciousness, Monet on color processing, Stravinsky on cognitive dissonance—take your pick. Any art that anyone has ever produced can be mined for neuroscientific implications—it is more a product of the neuro-craze we live in at this juncture in the 21st century than any sort of real or even metaphorical “prediction” these artists had about future scientific findings. One will find predictions about what’s inside wherever you want to find them—humans have brains, and we use them for everything. Is it such a wonder that our art has reflected fundamental principles of the thing that made it?

The artist as a portal (and only a portal—none living before modern neuroscience truly predicted any cellular findings) is an interesting way to approach brain science, especially for those unfamiliar with the science of cells and synapses. But it is dangerous in the evolution of this conversation between art and neuroscience because it has stopped, for the time being, in the aforementioned fMRI studies of individuals’ brains while they create and perceive art. These studies have lent important insights into the locations and role of brain regions, and could thus be used to generate hypotheses for future research at the cellular level—but because of the need to remain noninvasive with human subjects, we may be working with fMRI data combined with primate-based cellular speculation for many years to come. One hope to move beyond the delayed magnetic traces of blood-transported iron that fMRI machines detect is a modeling endeavor such as The Blue Brain Project, which seeks to simulate an entire human brain on IBM supercomputers, neuron by neuron, within ten years. If we have a functioning model of a brain, filled out with a life’s worth of experience, then perhaps we could really see what is happening in the dark jungle when art is made or seen.

We’re approaching a time in modern neuroscience where we can move beyond the fascination in correlating artistic output with cognitive neuroscience, beyond the loose association of an artist’s work with a modern fMRI study about a function of the brain that happens to have something to do with the art at hand. As some scientists—such as Livingstone and Ramachandran—have already began, we can start talking about cells and synapses, the most fundamental language we have, and appreciate the beauty of the brain by tracking the movement of a work of art through its dense networks that feedforward, feedback, and always associate, beginning to populate our understanding of art in the brain with higher and higher degrees of complexity.

The Neuroscience of Avatar

[ 3 ] January 5, 2010
The Tree of Life. Gustav Kilmt, 1909.The Tree of Life. Gustav Klimt, 1909.

“An animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it.”

– Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype

When a mainstream movie explores even the slightest hint of a contemporary scientific concept there is reason for excitement. Too often the world of science seems like an estranged sibling of the mainstream entertainment industry, the quiet cousin nobody is interested in talking to at the family gathering. And that is why, all other critical responses aside, one cannot help but feel joy for the central role of the nervous system in Avatar.

Gaps in logic also aside—and there are some significant ones—the biological world of Pandora in James Cameron’s film is modeled as a planet-wide neural network with animals living in it that can literally plug into one another’s nervous system. In one of the first examples of this animal-to-animal interface in the film, Neytiri, one of the indigenous Na’vi inhabiting Pandora, leads our protagonist to the top of a rocky outcropping and demonstrates her bond with an Ikran, a dragon-like bird. Neytiri extends her ponytail to reveal a cluster of nerve-like filaments at the tip, which she touches to a similar bundle on the Ikran. The filaments fuse, and we watch as she mounts the beast and is able to exert directional control over it. At first quite menacing and flapping about, the Ikran now becomes calm and controlled by means of the symbiotic bond achieved through the fusion of their nervous systems.

Another neuroscientific theme is presented when we learn that the neural interfaces extend beyond the level of the paired individual organisms and include the entire planet’s ecosystem, which is primarily composed of trees with roots that connect to one another and exchange electrochemical information like neurons in a brain. At various points we witness the Na’vi plugging into this tree network and hearing voices of their ancestors, as if their memories had been uploaded this planet-wide neural net to be accessed at a later date. During religious ceremonies, we see the Na’vi plugged into the forest floor around the central Tree of Souls, waving in unison.

The last ripple to the neuroscience of Pandora is the presence of a spirit in the planet’s nervous system, called Eywa, which suggests that the entire system has some sort of emergent sentience—but to investigate this line of deduction any further would only be to peek into one of the ultimately blurred logical systems in Cameron’s para-scientific world. The science works for the story: it gives us enough sense of an all-encompassing, all-connected life force to assuage the spiritualists but at the same time grounds this force in filaments and neuro-talk to keep things rooted in the physical world. To try to unify these forces into a logical, scientifically sound system or to explain how much intelligence the planet really has were tasks Cameron probably didn’t have time to fully develop, nor is it our concern here.

What Avatar does raise are some fascinating possibilities—and potential limitations—of brains, as we consider both the future of our own species and the potential of discovering a planet like Pandora with a highly interconnected, global nervous system. After a conversation with re:COGNITION author and sharp evolutionary biologist Sam McDougle, I began to think about many of the neuroscientific concepts in Avatar in terms of Richard Dawkins’ theory of the extended phenotype, which argues that we should look beyond the neat segregations of genomes into their “replicator vehicles” (the organisms themselves) and to instead try to see a broad biological community with extensive interaction between organisms and their environment. Examples abound in Dawkins’ text of animals whose genes lead them to create or scavenge for artifacts—shells, burrows, or perhaps a cathedral mound, in the case of the termite

Termite Cathedral Mound

Termite Cathedral Mound

—that end up playing a role in their fitness and reproductive success. Dawkins’ reasoning leads to the conclusion that the phenotype of animals should include objects that, like their heart or any other vital organ, become integral to their survival.

Taking Dawkins’ idea of the extended phenotype and applying it to a more neurocentric approach in Avatar, we can begin to detect some contemporary scientific work, such as modern brain-computer interface research and Ramachandran’s infamous phantom limb experiments that parallel some of the Avatar concepts of extended neural networks (and thus extended phenotypes) and “plugging in” to external banks of senses and memories. Ramachandran’s unveiling of the phantom limb phenomenon, in which a patient who has lost a limb is tricked through their visual system into feeling touch sensations being acted upon another individual’s hand as if it were their own, demonstrated that our nervous system is not a fully contained, self-centered purist—it can be tricked, perhaps through the activation of the always trendy “mirror neuron” systems which seem to fire while we observe someone else in action, into integrating the experience of another organism into our first-person experience, with activation seen in the same regions of cortex as the amputee’s “phantom” hand was being touched– a case of one sensory modality receiving foreign input but still making its way into conscious feeling. Likewise, in Avatar, as Jake mounts one of the horses on Pandora for the first time and plugs in his filaments, he feels the “heartbeat,” “muscles,” and “breathing” of the beast—then uses his own executive system to guide it through the landscape. Perhaps the future will bring more instances, building on Ramachandran’s experiments, where we more directly interface with the brains of other individuals (or even other animals) to receive sensory input and thereby extend our phenotype. In a way this has already started, albeit digitally: one of the most active fields of neuroscientific research around the world is that of brain-computer interfaces, where electrodes in pre-motor cortex can drive the action of a prosthetic hand, which can provide sensory input back into the cortex. These interfaces will undoubtedly yield some of the most remarkable developments in this century of scientific research.

Yet we are still on the level of the individual—what does modern neuroscience tell us about the possibility of a vast network of biologically stored memory in the trees of Pandora? Though we are still blind to the translation of cellular firing into subjective perceptions, researchers are already beginning to manipulate and understand small segments of neural tissue that can store patterns of activation. If larger and larger models are created and we can begin to correlate subjective memory retrieval in an organism to the precise patterns of spatiotemporal firing of neurons, then perhaps we will move closer to bridging the explanatory gap (massive modeling initiatives such as the Blue Brain Project could do just that). The question lingers of whether we could achieve anywhere near the kind of biological unity of the Na’vi in Avatar. Cameron may be right– our future could, whether we like it or not, consist of a lot of laying on our backs under a piece of machinery that takes us somewhere else and less of moving our actual physical body through space.

Even if our future is all digital, researchers are still attempting to unlock the biological secrets of how coalitions of neurons encode and store memories– we’ll need this information before we can hope to truly interface our nervous systems with another entity, be it biological or otherwise. Phillip Larimer and Ben Strowbridge of Case Western Reserve University published a study in this month’s edition of Nature Neuroscience in which they were able to store short patterns of activation in rat hippocampal slices that persisted after the removal of the original stimulus. Such studies mark the beginning of engineering memory into a neural network such as that on Pandora—if we can scale up our models and correlate subjective perceptions with cellular activity, it may be possible to offload—or at least digitally simulate and record—one’s own memories in an external network for safe keeping. Yet there are deep fissures in our understanding of what is possible when it comes to accessing another individual’s patterns of neuronal activity and the memory encoded therein: one can easily argue that you’d need to live an entire life of sensory experience in another person’s shoes in order to have access to the nuances of their memory, or even to see a color the way they do. Whether humans can ever have something like the Na’vi’s vast biological information network (not the Internet) in which the first-person memories of ancestors are stored and accessed will remain a question of science fiction for some time. Until then, long live the memoir.

In the end what is rewarding about the inklings of neuroscience in a film like Avatar is the fact that it will reach millions of viewers who may otherwise have had no exposure to these concepts. There is plenty of pseudo-science to be nitpicked, but the fact remains that physical neuroscience gets its share of the spotlight in the film, from the filaments that bond creatures together to the unveiling of the planet as a network of trees “communicating like neurons in a brain.” The tree is a fitting visual analogy– one with roots in the classic work of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, who turned a childhood fascination with the branches above him into a lifelong investigation of the branches within him. And now it could be the very analogy that excites millions more to take interest in the scientific field that will define the 21st century.

Science Mentioned:

Related Articles:

  • Pophumanism post on Pandora as a planetary immune system.
  • Jonah Lehrer on Clement Greenberg and the visual ingenuity of Avatar.
  • OpEdNews piece: Avatar’s tantalizing possibilities laced with disappointment.
  • Andy McKenzie on the possibility of uploading a brain.
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