A team of researchers from MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital recently published a study linking social awareness to individual neural activity. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that evidence for the “theory of mind” has been identified on this scale.
Measuring large groups of neurons is the be-all and end-all of neurology. Even a simple MRI can highlight certain ones Regions of the brain and give scientists an indication of what they are used for and, in many cases, what kind of thoughts are happening. But figuring out what’s going on at the individual neuron level is a whole different achievement.
According to the paper:
Here, using recordings of individual cells in the prefrontal cortex of the human dorsomedial cortex, we identify neurons that reliably encode information about the beliefs of others in very different scenarios and differentiate self-representations from representations that relate to other beliefs. These results reveal a detailed cellular process in the human dorsomedial prefrontal cortex for representing another’s beliefs and identifying candidate neurons that might support the theory of mind.
In other words, the researchers believe that they observed individual brain neurons that create the patterns that cause us to think about what other people might feel and think. You identify empathy in action.
This could have a huge impact on brain research, especially in the areas of mental illness and social anxiety disorders, or in developing customized treatments for people with autism spectrum disorders.
Perhaps the most interesting part, however, is what we can potentially learn about consciousness from the work of the team.[Read: How this company leveraged AI to become the Netflix of Finland]
The researchers asked 15 patients who were about to undergo certain type of brain surgery (not related to the study) to answer a few questions and undergo a simple behavioral test. According to a Massachusetts General Hospital press release:
Microelectrodes inserted into the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex recorded the behavior of individual neurons while patients listened to brief narratives and answered questions about them. For example, participants were presented with this scenario to evaluate how they viewed someone else’s beliefs about reality: “You and Tom see a glass on the table. After Tom leaves, put the jar in a cupboard. Where does Tom think the glass is? ”
Participants had to draw conclusions about someone else’s beliefs after each story. The experiment did not change the planned surgical approach or clinical care.
The experiment basically took a great concept (brain activity) and dialed it in as much as possible. By adding this layer of knowledge to our collective understanding of how individual neurons communicate and work together to find out what ultimately is a Theory of other minds In our own consciousness it may become possible to identify and quantify other neural systems in action using similar experimental techniques.
It would, of course, be impossible for human scientists to find ways to stimulate, observe, and tag 100 billion neurons – if for no other reason than the fact that it would take thousands of years to count them, much less watch how they react to the provocation.
Fortunately, we’ve entered the age of artificial intelligence, and if there’s one thing AI is good at, it’s doing really monotonous things, like tagging 80 billion individual neurons, very quickly.
It’s not hard to imagine the Massachusetts team’s methodology being automated. While it would appear that the current iteration will require the use of invasive sensors – hence the use of volunteers who should already be undergoing brain surgery – it is certainly within the realm of the possibility of one day getting such fine readings with an external device can be.
The ultimate goal of such a system would be to identify and map every neuron in the human brain as it works in real time. It would be like seeing a hedge maze emerged from a hot air balloon after an eternity was lost in its turns.
This would give us a divine view of consciousness in action and possibly allow us to more accurately replicate it in machines.
Published on January 27, 2021 – 20:34 UTC