The Bill Clinton Neuron And The Sweat Neuron

In the world of science, there is excited speculation about recent discoveries of individual neurons in the brain, with striking capabilities. They had discovered a neuron, which fired on recognition of just one special face. Scientists spotted this using microelectrodes, which could identify the firing of a single neuron. Buried deep in the amygdala of a female patient, they discovered the so-called "Bill Clinton" neuron. The cell fired on recognizing three very different images of the former President; a line drawing of a laughing Clinton; a formal painting depicting him; and a photograph of him in a crowd. The cell remained mute when the patient viewed images of other politicians and celebrities. In other patients, scientists found similar cells that responded selectively to actors, including Jennifer Anniston, Brad Pitt, and Halle Berry.

Most neuroscientists had believed that specific nerve cells handled individual pixels as on a television screen. Suddenly, a single neuron could identify Clinton. Could there be a "thinking neuron?" Scientists felt it impossible for an individual cell to be clever enough to make sense of a concept as subtle as Clinton. Even the world's fastest supercomputers would have difficulty performing that pattern-recognition feat. So, how could a single neuron ever learn to recognize a President? Such speculation on the nature of neurons continued ceaselessly in scientific circles. This was surprising. How could scientists remain blind to the significance of the Nobel Prize awarded in 2004 to Lynda Buck for the discovery of the recognition processes in the olfactory system?

There, Buck had already reported a "Sweat" neuron and an "Orange" neuron. Those experiments concerned the recognition of smells. She reported that octanol smelled like oranges and octanoic acid, like sweat, even though their chemical structures were similar. Yet, different neurons fired for each smell. Was this just more evidence of thinking neurons? Yet, Buck had a simple explanation. The olfactory system recognized different combinations of firing for different odors. First, a single receptor recognized multiple odorants. Second, a single odorant was recognized by multiple receptors. And third, different odorants were recognized by different combinations of receptors. It was this combinatorial coding system, which enabled the olfactory system to recognize millions of odors. So, there were Sweat neurons, Rose neurons and Orange neurons. And millions more. Could it be that Clinton and Berry neurons were no different?

Was it only the olfactory system, which used combinatorial coding? The mind received kaleidoscopic combinations of millions of sensations. Could instant combinatorial recognition extended beyond the olfactory system? Could it be the essence of the neural system? A new book, The Intuitive Algorithm, suggested just this. The mind used combinatorial coding and pattern recognition to propel recognition through many neural regions like a lightning streak. The mind saw, recognized, interpreted and acted. Data was reported to move from input to output in a bare 20 milliseconds. In the blink of eye. Myriad processes converted light, sound, touch and smell instantly into your nerve impulses. Special regions recognized those combinations as objects and events. The limbic system, another region, interpreted those events to generate emotions. A fourth region responded to those emotions with actions. The mind perceived, identified, evaluated and acted. Pattern recognition and combinatorial coding got you off the hot stove in a fraction of a second.

Abraham Thomas is the author of The Intuitive Algorithm, a book, which suggests that intuition is a pattern recognition algorithm. This leads to an understanding of the powerful forces that control your mind. The ebook version is available at http://www.intuition.co.in. The book may be purchased only in India. The website, provides a free movie and a walk through to explain the ideas.

In The News:

This Week in Science  Science Magazine
It's just louder this time  Science Magazine
Untapped computer scientists  Science Magazine
News at a glance  Science
Webinar on career in sciences  The Tribune India
Supplementary Materials  Science Magazine
The Science of Nerdiness  Scientific American
Should I stay or should I go?  Science Magazine
Yes, Science Is Political  Scientific American

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