Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Navigating Our Thoughts: Fundamental Principles of Thinking

09.11.2018

It is one of the most fundamental questions in neuroscience: How do humans think? Until recently, we seemed far from a conclusive answer. However, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany, and the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim, Norway, among them Nobel prize laureate Edvard I. Moser, offer a new proposal in the current issue of the journal Science—Humans think using their brain’s navigation system.

When we navigate our environment, two important cell types are active in our brain. Place cells in the hippocampus and grid cells in the neighboring entorhinal cortex form a circuit that allows orientation and navigation.


Doeller and his team combine individual threads of evidence to form a theory of human thinking.

Ella Maru Studio & MPI CBS | © Doellerlab

The team of scientists suggests that our inner navigation system does much more. They propose that this system is also key to ‘thinking’, explaining why our knowledge seems to be organized in a spatial fashion.

“We believe that the brain stores information about our surroundings in so-called cognitive spaces. This concerns not only geographical data, but also relationships between objects and experience,” explains Christian Doeller, senior author of the paper and the new director at the MPI CBS.

The term ‘cognitive spaces’ refers to mental maps in which we arrange our experience. Everything that we encounter has physical properties, whether a person or an object, and can therefore be arranged along different dimensions.

“If I think about cars, I can order them based on their engine power and weight for example. We would have racing cars with strong engines and low weights as well as caravans with weak engines and high weight, as well as all combinations in between,” says Doeller.

“We can think about our family and friends in a similar way; for example, on the basis of their height, humor, or income, coding them as tall or short, humorous or humorless, or more or less wealthy.” Depending on the dimensions of interest individuals might be stored mentally closer together or further away.

A Theory of Human Thinking

In their proposal, Doeller and his team combine individual threads of evidence to form a theory of human thinking. The theory begins with the Nobel Prize-winning discoveries of place and grid cells in rodents’ brains, which were subsequently shown to exist in humans.

Both cell types show patterns of activity representing the animal’s position in space, for example, while it forages for food. Each position in space is represented by a unique pattern of activity. Together, the activity of place and grid cells allows the formation of a mental map of the surroundings, which is stored and reactivated during later visits.

The very regular activation pattern of grid cells can also be observed in humans—but importantly, not only during navigation through geographical spaces. Grids cells are also active when learning new concepts, as shown by a study from 2016.

In that study, volunteers learned to associate pictures of birds, which only varied in the length of their necks and legs, with different symbols, such as a tree or a bell. A bird with a long neck and short legs was associated with the tree whereas a bird with a short neck and long legs belonged to the bell. Thus, a specific combination of bodily features came to be represented by a symbol.

In a subsequent memory test, performed in a brain scanner, volunteers indicated whether various birds were associated with one of the symbols. Interestingly, the entorhinal cortex was activated, in much the same way as it is during navigation, providing a coordinate system for our thoughts.

“By connecting all these previous discoveries, we came to the assumption that the brain stores a mental map, regardless of whether we are thinking about a real space or the space between dimensions of our thoughts. Our train of thought can be considered a path though the spaces of our thoughts, along different mental dimensions,” Jacob Bellmund, the first author of the publication, explains.

Mapping New Experience

“These processes are especially useful for making inferences about new objects or situations, even if we have never experienced them,” the neuroscientist continues. Using existing maps of cognitive spaces humans can anticipate how similar something new is to something they already know by putting it in relation to existing dimensions. If they’ve already experienced tigers, lions, or panthers, but have never seen a leopard, we would place the leopard in a similar position as the other big cats in our cognitive space.

Based on our knowledge about the concept ‘big cat’, already stored in a mental map, we can adequately react to the encounter with the leopard. “We can generalize to novel situations, which we constantly face, and infer how we should behave”, says Bellmund.

Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

Prof. Dr. Christian Doeller
Director MPI CBS & Department Psychology

Phone: +49 341 9940-2275
E-Mail: doeller@cbs.mpg.de

Jacob Bellmund
Scientific researcher

Phone: +47 73598256
Email: bellmund@cbs.mpg.de

Originalpublikation:

http://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.eaat6766

http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aat6766

Weitere Informationen:

http://www.cbs.mpg.de/departments/psychology

Here you find the original publication in Science:

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6415/eaat6766

Bettina Hennebach | Max-Planck-Institut für Kognitions- und Neurowissenschaften
Further information:
http://www.cbs.mpg.de

More articles from Health and Medicine:

nachricht Finding new clues to brain cancer treatment
21.02.2020 | Case Western Reserve University

nachricht UIC researchers find unique organ-specific signature profiles for blood vessel cells
18.02.2020 | University of Illinois at Chicago

All articles from Health and Medicine >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: High-pressure scientists in Bayreuth discover promising material for information technology

Researchers at the University of Bayreuth have discovered an unusual material: When cooled down to two degrees Celsius, its crystal structure and electronic properties change abruptly and significantly. In this new state, the distances between iron atoms can be tailored with the help of light beams. This opens up intriguing possibilities for application in the field of information technology. The scientists have presented their discovery in the journal "Angewandte Chemie - International Edition". The new findings are the result of close cooperation with partnering facilities in Augsburg, Dresden, Hamburg, and Moscow.

The material is an unusual form of iron oxide with the formula Fe₅O₆. The researchers produced it at a pressure of 15 gigapascals in a high-pressure laboratory...

Im Focus: From China to the South Pole: Joining forces to solve the neutrino mass puzzle

Study by Mainz physicists indicates that the next generation of neutrino experiments may well find the answer to one of the most pressing issues in neutrino physics

Among the most exciting challenges in modern physics is the identification of the neutrino mass ordering. Physicists from the Cluster of Excellence PRISMA+ at...

Im Focus: Therapies without drugs

Fraunhofer researchers are investigating the potential of microimplants to stimulate nerve cells and treat chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, or Parkinson’s disease. Find out what makes this form of treatment so appealing and which challenges the researchers still have to master.

A study by the Robert Koch Institute has found that one in four women will suffer from weak bladders at some point in their lives. Treatments of this condition...

Im Focus: A step towards controlling spin-dependent petahertz electronics by material defects

The operational speed of semiconductors in various electronic and optoelectronic devices is limited to several gigahertz (a billion oscillations per second). This constrains the upper limit of the operational speed of computing. Now researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter in Hamburg, Germany, and the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay have explained how these processes can be sped up through the use of light waves and defected solid materials.

Light waves perform several hundred trillion oscillations per second. Hence, it is natural to envision employing light oscillations to drive the electronic...

Im Focus: Freiburg researcher investigate the origins of surface texture

Most natural and artificial surfaces are rough: metals and even glasses that appear smooth to the naked eye can look like jagged mountain ranges under the microscope. There is currently no uniform theory about the origin of this roughness despite it being observed on all scales, from the atomic to the tectonic. Scientists suspect that the rough surface is formed by irreversible plastic deformation that occurs in many processes of mechanical machining of components such as milling.

Prof. Dr. Lars Pastewka from the Simulation group at the Department of Microsystems Engineering at the University of Freiburg and his team have simulated such...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting: Around 70 Laureates set to meet with young scientists from approx. 100 countries

12.02.2020 | Event News

11th Advanced Battery Power Conference, March 24-25, 2020 in Münster/Germany

16.01.2020 | Event News

Laser Colloquium Hydrogen LKH2: fast and reliable fuel cell manufacturing

15.01.2020 | Event News

 
Latest News

Turbomachine expander offers efficient, safe strategy for heating, cooling

25.02.2020 | Power and Electrical Engineering

The seismicity of Mars

25.02.2020 | Earth Sciences

Cancer cachexia: Extracellular ligand helps to prevent muscle loss

25.02.2020 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>