What if we lose sight of the forest for the trees?

Jennifer Aniston has been on my mind recently – in the medial region of my temporal lobe, to be specific! (And you thought you could hide from her in this science blog. She can get in yo brain, she can get in yo science blog. Be afraid!) We learned in class that a few years ago, when operating on patients with epilepsy, a neurosurgeon stumbled upon what we now call the “Jennifer Aniston Neuron.”  He stuck a probe in their brains as he was operating (before some of you freak out, remember that this is totally normal and does NOT hurt!) and showed them a set of pictures. A curious thing happened: a singular neuron would flash every time he showed them pictures of Jennifer Aniston. Dogs, kittens, flowers, your Aunt Millie? The neuron would stay clammed up. Back to Jen? The neuron would go crazy again. What in tarnation?!

One alternate theory is that this is a bottom-up process. Some claim that she might not just be one neuron – instead, the Jennifer neuron might actually be at the top of a neuronal hierarchy, receiving signals from tens and thousands of other neurons at the bottom. Yoga. Brad Pitt. Friends. Together, the net effect is: JEN!!!!!!

So what does this mean in terms of memory? At the risk of getting too metaphysical on you guys, what exactly is a memory? From this finding, memory might not be as abstract as we think it is. If memories are just different neuronal patterns, then it stands to reason that maybe we can one day see them represented visually.


My boy Sebastian Seung has been advocating for a brain map – a “connectome” – claiming that once we understand neural patterns, we will functionally be able to read someone’s mind. We would finally be able to answer some age-old questions, such as: Are men and women really wired differently? What goes on in the brains of those with mental disorders? What drives a person to murder?

Currently, there are some projects underway that would help achieve Seung’s vision. For instance, the Human Connectome Project (http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/) has been around and kicking for a while. However, this project takes static images of the brain (think of the aerial views of Google maps) and does not record the connections in motion. The new Brain Activity Map (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/23/obamas-brain-activity-map_n_2747159.html) that has been proposed by Obama hopes to record these physiological connections in real-time, hoping to unpack what goes awry in disorders like schizophrenia and autism.

Is this necessary? In astronomy, we don’t have to see every star in order to understand what is going on. Do we need to see every neuron in a network to figure this out? Does this project make sense? Please discuss. Real-talk commence.


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