Skip to comments.Under the Surface, the Brain Seethes With Undiscovered Activity (ferret alert)
Posted on 10/08/2004 8:09:35 AM PDT by ckilmer
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MEDIA CONTACT: Jonathan Sherwood (585) 273-4726 October 6, 2004 Under the Surface, the Brain Seethes With Undiscovered Activity Theres an old myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains, but researchers at the University of Rochester have found in reality that roughly 80 percent of our cognitive power may be cranking away on tasks completely unknown to us. Curiously, this clandestine activity does not exist in the youngest brains, leading scientists to believe that the mysterious goings-on that absorb the majority of our minds are dedicated to subconsciously reprocessing our initial thoughts and experiences. The research, which has possible profound implications for our very basis of understanding reality, appears in this weeks issue of the journal Nature.
We found neural activity that frankly surprised us, says Michael Weliky, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. Adult ferrets had neural patterns in their visual cortex that correlated very well with images they viewed, but that correlation didnt exist at all in very young ferrets, suggesting the very basis of comprehending vision may be a very different task for young brains versus old brains.
A second surprise was in store for Weliky. Placing the ferrets in a darkened room revealed that older ferrets brains were still humming along at 80 percent as if they were processing visual information. Since this activity was absent in the youngsters, Weliky and his colleagues were left to wonder: What is the visual cortex so busy processing when theres no image to process?
Initially, Welikys research was aimed at studying whether visual processing bore any resemblance to the way real-world images appear. This finding may help lead to a better understanding of how neurons decode our world and how our perception of reality is shaped.
Weliky, in a bit of irony, set 12 ferrets watching the reality-stretching film The Matrix. He recorded how their brains responded to the film, as well as to a null pattern like enlarged television static, and a darkened room. Movies capture the visual elements that are present in the real world. For instance, as Keanus hand moves across the screen for a karate chop, the image of the hand and all the lines and color it represents moves across a viewers visual realm essentially the same way it would in real life. By contrast, the enlarged staticblocks of random black and whitehas no such motion. Weliky was able to graph the movie-motion statistically, showing essentially how objects move in the visual field.
The test was then to see if there was any relationship between the statistical motion of the movie and the way visual neurons in the ferrets fired. Each visual neuron is keyed to respond to certain visual elements, such as a vertical line, that appears in a specific area of the ferrets vision. A great number of these cells combine to process an image of many lines, colors, etc. By watching the patterns of how these cells fired while watching The Matrix, Weliky could describe the pattern statistically, and match those statistics of how the ferret responded to the film with the statistics of the actual visual aspects of the film.
Weliky found two surprises. First, while the neurons of adult ferrets statistically seemed to respond similarly to the statistics of the film itself, younger ferrets had almost no relationship. This suggests that though the young ferrets are taking in and processing visual stimuli, theyre not processing the stimuli in a way that reflects reality.
You might think of this as a sort of dyslexia, explains Weliky. It may be that in very young brains, the processing takes place in a way thats not necessarily disordered, but not analogous to how we understand reality to be. Its thought that dyslexia works somewhat like thisthat some parts of the brain process written words in an unusual way and seem to make beginnings of words appear at their ends and vice versa. Infant brains may see the entire world the same way, as a mass of disparate scenes and sounds. Weliky is quick to point out that whatever way infant brains may interpret the world, just because theyre different from an adult pattern of perception does not mean the infants have the wrong perception. After all, an adult interpreted the visual aspects of the film with our adult brains, so it shouldnt be such a surprise that other adult brains simply interpret the visual aspects the same way. If an infant drew up the statistics, it might very well match the neural patterns of other infants.
The second, and more surprising, result of the study came directly from the fact that Welikys research is one of the first to test these visual neurons while the subject is awake and watching something. In the past, researchers would perhaps shine a light at an unconscious ferret and note which areas of the brain responded, but while that method narrowed the focus to how a single cell responds, it eliminated the chance to understand how the neural network of a conscious animal would respond. Accepting all the neural traffic of a conscious brain as part of the equation let Weliky get a better idea of the actual processing going on. As it turned out, one of his control tests yielded insight into neural activity no one expected.
When the ferrets were in a darkened room, Weliky expected their visual neurons to lack any kind of activity that correlated with visual reality. Neurologists have long known that there is substantial activity in the brain, even in darkness, but the pattern of that activity had never been investigated. Weliky discovered that while young ferrets displayed almost no patterns that correlated with visual reality, the adult ferrets brains were humming along, producing the patterns even though there was nothing to see. When watching the film, the adult ferrets neurons increased their patterned activity by about 20 percent.
This means that in adults, there is a tremendous amount of real-world processing going on80 percentwhen there is nothing to process, says Weliky. We think that if youve got your eyes closed, your visual processing is pretty much at zero, and that when you open them, youre running at 100 percent. This suggests that with your eyes closed, your visual processing is already running at 80 percent, and that opening your eyes only adds the last 20 percent. The big question here is what is the brain doing when its idling, because its obviously doing something important.
Since the young ferrets do not display similar patterns, the idling isnt necessary for life or consciousness, but since its present in the adults even without stimulus, Weliky suggests it may be in a sense what gives the ferret its understanding of reality. The eye takes in an image and the brain processes the image, but 80 percent of the activity may be a representation of the world replicated inside the ferrets brain.
The basic findings are exciting enough, but you cant help but speculate on what they might mean in a deeper context, says Weliky. Its one thing to say a ferrets understanding of reality is being reproduced inside his brain, but theres nothing to say that our understanding of the world is accurate. In a way, our neural structure imposes a certain structure on the outside world, and all we know is that at least one other mammalian brain seems to impose the same structure. Either that or The Matrix freaked out the ferrets the way it did everyone else.
This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
PR 1898, MS 335
Ferret neurons, pong
Holy SETI, Batman, do you think they'll upgrade us to BOINC?
So, the analogy is that child ferrets are like Democrats in that they see something but do not process it as a function of reality?
I wonder if that activity is the brain's way of maintaining a record of its surroundings, so that it can react more quickly when the eyes are re-opened. Fascinating study. I'd be interested to see the experiment reproduced in humans, to see if the level of "idle" processing might be even higher (as a human would actually make plans about his surroundings while not looking at it).
More seriously, if adult brain activity seems to emulate our initial thought processes, doesn't that take away the Liberals' argument that a foetus isn't really a human being before a few months after fertilization ?
This explains the headache I get after injesting bile from the liberal media.
"... child ferrets are like Democrats in that they see something but do not process it as a function of reality?"
Whenever a sawbones uses the word "brain," it breaks my heart.
Thinking in pictures?
It's staying alive.
Seriously, it is probably a refreshing process.
"So, the analogy is that child ferrets are like Democrats in that they see something but do not process it as a function of reality?"
Fantastic insite i must say!
Here we have the ferret visualization program (appropriate name) http://ferret.pmel.noaa.gov/Ferret/
I didn't notice any mention of democrats on that page, though it was developed in Seattle.
This account has been banned or suspended.
Investor's Business Daily
As Internet Spreads, Some Luster Fading
Thursday October 7, 7:00 pm ET
It's the 10th anniversary of the Internet going mainstream, and Jeffrey Cole is once again taking stock of the medium.
In each of the last four years, Cole has written an extensive study on the social implications of the Web. Now with the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, he previously did the report at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The study provides a broad look at the influence of the Internet on Americans. It examines the behavior and views of a national sample of 2,000 Internet users.
In 1994 only about 2 million computers were connected to the Internet, and they were used mostly by academics, scientists and corporate researchers.
By the time Cole launched his Digital Future Project, there were more than 70 million users.
The Internet is used by 75% of Americans today, and online technology is present in 66% of homes. Cole spoke to IBD about some of his latest findings.
IBD: Any surprises in this year's study?
Cole: One new thing we found in this study is that parents are beginning to lose some enthusiasm about the Internet and are beginning to equate it with TV. The Internet provides some unusual issues for parents. There is lots of information that could be harmful to kids, but parents still think it's important to have access to the Internet.
Experienced users also show less interest in e-mail answering. The most experienced users check e-mails less frequently than they used to. Overall, people seem to be struggling to find some balance. Another thing is that the Internet is becoming the most important source of information for users, but its credibility is dropping.
IBD: How so?
Cole: Historically, Americans have trusted the major mass media and as such they never really developed good critical media skills, such as (checking) whether information they're getting is from reliable sources.
This trust was transferred to the Internet. They found lots of great information on the Web, but they also discovered lots of crap. Those who could not make that distinction were misled or got burned. Now users are picking out which sources they can believe, and that's good for the established media. Information posted by individuals has the lowest credibility.
IBD: You have urged for more research on the Internet's impact on society. Why?
Cole: It took a generation to understand how we incorporate TV into our lives. It took at least that long to understand things like the impact of TV violence. The Web is changing so fast and we understand the pace of change and what's occurring, but none of us understands the long-term consequences of what that is.
IBD: Can you cite some examples of that change?
Cole: It's changing politics and fund-raising. It's changing the music business. Children's relationships with friends have changed. Kids are using cell phones and e-mail to make contacts, and parents don't really know who their friends are.
Dating has completely changed. People who wrote letters and stopped doing so because of the phone are now writing letters again, using e-mail.
IBD: What did you identify in terms of the use of broadband?
Cole: The next time we go into the field, in January, we expect to find that a majority of homes, 52%, will have broadband. Broadband changes everything. As people get used to the higher speed, that changes the relationship they have with the Internet long term.
It has caused people to move the Internet out of the den and into a family room or kitchen. The fact that it's always on makes it easier to get information than through the phone or yellow pages. Wireless technology enables you to integrate that even further into your life.
IBD: Are consumers getting over fears about buying over the Internet and security?
Cole: Fears of privacy and security have been there from the beginning, but that gap is closing. People are buying more even though fears have not gone away.