16 September 2010

The Brain: Wired and Introspective

The brain contains tens of billions of neurons, and trillions of synaptic connections (plus unknown numbers of other types of connections). Scientists from several universities are collaborating in an attempt to improve our understanding of the brain's "wiring diagram." At its best, it will still be crude compared to the real thing, but it's a start.
Working with $30 million and just half a decade, the Human Connectome Project aims to create a first-of-its-kind map of the brain’s complex circuitry, detailing every connection linking thousands of different regions of the brain.

The team consists of 33 researchers at nine different institutions, including Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of Minnesota, the lead universities in the effort and the sites where much of the brain-scanning will take place. Their success will depend in part on another HCP grant to another research consortium headed up by Massachusetts General Hospital and UCLA that will develop advanced, custom brain scanners with higher spatial resolution and increased sensitivity. The funds themselves come from various bodies within the National Institutes of Health.

How big is the project? It’s at least 90 billion neurons big, but that doesn’t even convey the enormity and complexity of the human brain. There are something like 150 trillion synapses – the connections between neurons across which signals pass – that electrical signals must negotiate. These neurons and the connections between them make up the circuitry of the brain, and the HCP aims to create a better picture of that circuitry than we’ve ever had before. _PS

But brain researchers cannot sit around on their hands until others provide them with a more detailed map of the brain. They must continue to muddle through with what they've got, in trying to understand how the brain creates the world. One interesting aspect of brain function is the variation in accuracy between different persons' judgement of the accuracy of their own educated guesses. Scientists at University College London looked at this question of introspective accuracy recently.
A specific region of the brain appears to be larger in individuals who are good at turning their thoughts inward and reflecting upon their decisions, according to new research published in the journal Science. This act of introspection -- or "thinking about your thinking" -- is a key aspect of human consciousness, though scientists have noted plenty of variation in peoples' abilities to introspect...

...To begin, Fleming and Weil recruited 32 healthy human participants and showed them two screens, each containing six patterned patches. One of the screens, however, contained a single patch that was brighter than all the rest. The researchers asked the participants to identify which screen contained the brighter patch, and then to rate how confident they felt about their final answer. After the experiment, participants' brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

Fleming and the researchers designed the task to be difficult, so that participants were never completely sure if their answer was correct. They reasoned that participants who are good at introspection would be confident after making correct decisions about the patch, and less confident when they were incorrect about the patch. By adjusting the task, the researchers ensured all of the participants' decision-making abilities were on par with each others'—only the participants' knowledge of their own decision-making abilities differed.

"It's like that show, 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'" said Weil. "An introspective contestant will go with his or her final answer when they are quite sure of it, and perhaps phone a friend when they are unsure. But, a contestant who is less introspective would not be as effective at judging how likely their answer is to be correct."

So, although each participant performed equally well at the task, their introspective abilities did vary considerably, the researchers confirmed. By comparing the MRI scans of each participant's brain, they could then identify a correlation between introspective ability and the structure of a small area of the prefrontal cortex. An individual's meta-cognitive, or "higher-thinking," abilities were significantly correlated with the amount of gray matter in the right anterior prefrontal cortex and the structure of neighboring white matter, Rees and his team found.

...The new study will be published in the 17 September issue of the journal Science. Science is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society. _PO
This variation of introspective accuracy and depth is likely to play a crucial role in the development of cultures and civilisations. There should be little question that both environment and genetics play a role in the ultimate complexity of the pre-frontal cortex and other cortical and sub-cortical centers which are involved. Testing the participants additionally for both IQ and executive functions (EF) would almost certainly reveal strong correlations between the three concepts.

Thinkers who develop complex cognitive structures must be able to "hold" multiple thoughts in their heads simultaneously, while weighing the "fitness" of slight variations in the cognitive models. These models must often be of a dynamic nature -- particularly for engineers and scientists of several types.

Popular culture tends to downplay the importance of the mental skills of top-level theorists and explorers of knowledge fields, but these are the people who determine the ongoing prosperity and security of a civilisation over time.

Western civilisation is going through a period of time when generations worth of capital is being skimmed and scavenged by a de facto ruling class, which values political correctness over real world validity -- as a matter of ruling class survival. That is too, too bad for the rest of us, who very much need for our institutions to be under the discipline of real world checks and balances....

Given how badly the ruling class is fucking up, I am mulling over a series of posts on the topic of "peaceful insurrection." You may want to consider what that term might mean. Hint: I am referring to something a bit more determined and forceful than the "Tea Party" type of anti-big-government political movement. Yet still peaceful. How can that be? More later.

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Blogger Kinuachdrach said...

"peaceful insurrection"?

It might not be necessary. After all, those bureaucrat Ivy Leaguers with their big brains have screwed up so badly that governmental collapse is all but inevitable. All it will take is for bond buyers to stop buying -- which their own self interest will force them to do.

When the US goes down, then it is curtains for Germany and China and everyone else who has depended on exporting things to the US. And their economies are pretty shaky already, so it won't take much of a push.

If you don't like the "sit & wait" approach, how about hurrying things along with a scheme to reorient the money flows? If enough people started to send all their tax payments to their States, with a letter to the Feds telling them to go and collect their share from the States, the world would never be the same.

Thursday, 16 September, 2010  
Blogger al fin said...

Some good thoughts, K, thanks.

The use of cumulative economic clout is certainly one of the keys.

Friday, 17 September, 2010  
Blogger gtg723y said...

Or we can all itemize like a small business and pay taxes out of a separate account rather than allow withholding. Then at the end of the year we all just don't pay at all, the money must be kept in a separate account in the event of an audit, but they can't audit all of us. Only trouble is we all have to do it and we all have to trust each other to do it.

Friday, 17 September, 2010  
Blogger Borepatch said...

Simon Jester.

Friday, 17 September, 2010  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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