Neuroscientists capture the moment a brain records an idea

Jul 2, 2015

by Daniel Culpan

Cutting-edge brain imaging technology has offered the first glimpse into how new concepts develop in the human brain.

The research, carried out at Carnegie Mellon University and published in Human Brain Mapping, involved teaching people a new concept and observing how it was coded in the same areas of the brain through neural representations.

The “olinguito” — a largely fruit-eating carnivore species that lives in rainforest treetops, newly discovered in 2013 — was initially used as a concept. Marcel Just, a professor of cognitive neuroscience in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, commented: “When people learned that the olinguito eats mainly fruit instead of meat, a region of their left inferior frontal gyrus — as well as several other areas — stored the new information according to its own code.”

The findings revealed that this new knowledge of the olinguito was encoded in exactly the same parts of the brain by everyone who learned it, indicating that the brain may operate its own kind of universal filing system.

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4 comments on “Neuroscientists capture the moment a brain records an idea

  • those areas will be the scratchpad itself . the actual memory will be a small icon somewhere on the pad or distributed holographicaly over the pad

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  • I have a very old and dear friend who, among other things, is a convinced late-Wittgensteinian. He has a serious problem with concepts.—I sent him the Culpan article, and he sent me his response. I am taking the liberty of posting it here. I don’t share his views but his Wittgensteinian critique is (perhaps) worth thinking about. Here’s what he said:

    I read it.

    I know. The brain is still a big office building. The scientists have determined that some office lights go on when information comes into the building. They have discovered that this works generally with buildings, the same lights go on. That is the sum total of their discovery: in very controlled circumstances, when those lights go on, they deduce similar information is entering another building.

    And so for them, this is a description of learning! That’s all learning is! The sight of this bird-like animal, hearing it eats fruit. Now what if a very similar but slightly different bird like animal is then learned; and a third, with a Bluetail. And a fourth, that eats insects as well as fruit. Are each of these concepts separately stored? Or in “the same place”?

    What about among a people who hunted such birds?

    What about among a group of paleontologists who had been looking for similar birds for years?

    And with bird after bird and animal after animal, each with its own meticulous spot in the brain, one would fast run out of room.

    With five similar birds, could we still with confidence look at the lights in the building, and tell how many bird-like animals, and which ones exactly, were in there?

    Why or why not? is the q. to ask these brain scientists!

    Still one could say: “I would like to define “concept” as that initial “taking -up -of -space in the brain” that I can measure by looking at the brain.

    One could say, from now on, that’s what I mean when I say concept.

    That works for bright, new animals. What of the concept “fly”, the concept “not meat-eating”, and the concept “extinct” — do each of these concepts also have a particular location and home in the brain, — we just have not found them yet because of the big imprint left by the green bird?

    And how could we actually operate by limiting our use of the word concept in the way proposed? Would it be possible to say to someone, “you’ve just talked about a concept, but it is really a collection of various things already stored in my brain. It does not qualify as a separate concept.”

    And lastly, that is only the beginning of the problems with the idea that the brain is a filing system. For if there is something filed, who retrieves the file, and who knows to retrieve that particular file?

    Where is the I in the brain who operates as the clerk? Does the I move around, like in an office?

    Does the I later get a new image of a bird, and know to go to the previous spot to find whether this one really is the green dinosaur bird, or only similar?

    Does the place in the brain the bird gets stored also come with directions as to how to find it in the miasma of a million other images and concepts?

    These are just objections to the metaphor of a filing system. They suggest that there is a limit to the application of the metaphor – in other words, that many different complex things are going on, all of which have an unknown and uncertain relationship to meaning in the world as we normally experience it. And only insofar as we can and will do more with those images, and with direct observation of the brain, will we be creating a very simple language game about meaning that scientists can play.

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  • 4
    maria melo says:

    Ussually I record almost everything on post it sticks (not in the brain) and not too long ago, wrote a card code on the hand, but forgot it anyway (stress is the cause I think), when one works 12 hours a day, with 10 minutes for lunch, monbday to friday, recording the voice of a judge and everyword she says, not in a paused way.

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