Thursday, December 13, 2012

LMAYQ: seriously deep questions

And now, let me answer your Seriously Deep Questions. All questions answered can be found in the LMAYQ index. And as always these are real true search terms that the all-knowing Internet directed to The Cellular Scale. Let's begin.

Thoughts on grass (source)
 1. "Do thoughts look like trees?" 

Great question. Lots of things look like trees, certainly neurons do. But thoughts themselves? 

It is my personal opinion that thoughts do not actually look like anything. I've dissected many a brain and haven't ever seen one. However, let's suppose thoughts look like something, what would they look like?

One possibility is that the thought looks like what you are thinking about. A pretty ancient idea is that there are actually two of every object, one that is external (the actual object), and one that is internal which is our representation of that object. This can be taken quite literally in which case if you are looking at or thinking about a tree, your thought will look like a tree, but if you are thinking about a dog, your thought will look like a dog. This strikes me as unlikely.

So another way to look at it is what does the brain look like when it is having a thought? In this case there is some support for the 'thought looks like what you are thinking' hypothesis, but it is very limited.

Do thoughts look like nets? (source)
Above is a famous example of how a visual stimulus can be reflected in the brain in a very literal way. In this case a monkey looks at a grid and the activation pattern in the brain looks like a grid. But these days 'thoughts' usually look like this:
thinking (source)
And there is no obvious or literal relationship between the shape of the fMRI image and the thought that is thunk.

 2. "Why Neuroscience?"

Because neuroscience is our best chance at answering important questions like 'what do thoughts look like?' and 'How do we know what we know?'

 3. "Do neurons tell you how to move or do they fire in response?"

Another excellent and deep question. The answer is (of course) that they do both. 

People used to think of the brain as a black box, where sensory input comes in (like through your eyes) and gets 'processed' by the brain and a motor output comes out (like through your hands).

All of these steps, the sensory input, the motor output, and the processing in between take neurons.
But of course there is the Venus flytrap which doesn't have 'neurons' per se, but does receive sensory input and generate motor output.

But the processing part of this process, the black box, is really complicated. There really is an unanswered question there about whether neurons are responding to something or telling something. When studies find that mirror neurons fire 'in response to' seeing actions performed, or that some amygdala neurons fire in response to pictures of animals, the question is always why are these neurons firing? Are the neurons telling another part of the brain 'this is an animal'? or are the neurons responding to that information? 

© TheCellularScale

1 comment:

  1. Aren't we all just very intricate and complex black boxes? You have great answers to the questions. I enjoyed reading them.