Experts have been comparing the brain to computers for years, but how the brain encodes information and makes decisions is still a huge mystery. But neuroscientists are getting incredibly close to having a literal picture of that process, as Luke Dormehl of Digital Trends reports.
Patterns hidden in your mind
Inside your brain are billions of neurons (nerve cells). These cells are connected to each other and fire in highly complex ways. Kathryn Hess Bellwald of the Laboratory for Topology and Neuroscience explains that, if you were to observe neurological activity like you're watching a movie, the activity would seem pretty random, with patterns being really hard to see.
The reality, though, is that there are patterns to what's going on. As you process and react to information, the firing of your neurons creates structures with varying degrees of complexity. For example, three neurons could connect for a 2D triangle. There can be as many as 11 dimensions to these shapes. Once the processing ends and you come to a decision or conclusion, those structures disappear. It's a lot like a firework, except that every point of the firework is connected like in a constellation drawing.
To figure all this out, Hess Bellwald and her team used something called algebraic topography. In layman's terms, this is a specific branch of math that uses algebraic structures (e.g., lattices and rings) to study spaces and their transformations (e.g., stretching, twisting). By applying algebraic topography to the data about neurological structure and function, Hess Bellwald is able to uncover mathematical signatures that describe the neurological patterns that otherwise would be hidden. Those signatures can be represented via graphs, meaning that neuroscientists can create visual portraits of the thinking and decision making process.
But what does it mean?
OK. So maybe talk of math doesn't make your heart flutter with excitement. But how about keeping your brain in tip-top shape for a long, wonderfully fulfilling life? Hess Bellwald says that, if neuroscientists come to understand what the pattern of response for a given stimulus looks like, they could use algebraic topography to assess brain health. If the pattern or shape the neuroscientists see is abnormal, for instance, that could indicate degeneration from disease. Even more broadly, looking at neurological patterns also could be useful in further understanding the brain's neuroplasticity, which has implications for a huge range of conditions and treatments. There's clearly tons to learn yet, but with Hess Bellwald's research, we've taken a big step.