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Spontaneous Brain Activity and Human Behavior

Zonk posted more than 6 years ago | from the argh-me-precious-brains dept.

Biotech 141

Dr. Eggman writes "Ars Technica is featuring an article summarizing an interesting and perhaps controversial paper which finds links between spontaneous brain activity and human behavior. Spontaneous, yet organized brain activity has been observed without stimulation and even in humans under anesthesia. This paper attempts to link this activity to the observed variability of human performance in even simple, repeated tasks, hoping to establish a new avenue of research into alternative brain processing theories. 'The subtraction provided a much cleaner connection between the button press and brain activity in the left SMC. Once spontaneous activity was accounted for, noise was down by 60 percent, and the signal to noise ratio in the experiments doubled. Putting this another way, spontaneous activity accounted for about 60 percent of the variation between tests. The authors say that these results show that spontaneous brain activity is more than simply a physiological artifact; it helps account for some of the variability in human behavior. In that sense, they argue for a greater acceptance of the view that our brain may have some intrinsic activity that's somewhat independent of sensory input.'"

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Brain activity and behavior (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20874485)

Given the state of the world, I'm surprised there's any correlation at all.

Re:Brain activity and behavior (1)

Reason58 (775044) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874523)

Sadly, they are usually inversely proportional.

Re:Brain activity and behavior (2, Funny)

mrbluze (1034940) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874723)

Spontaneous, yet organized brain activity has been observed without stimulation and even in humans under anesthesia.
This may be so, but it has also been shown that all organized brain activity ceases once on becomes President.

MOD PARENT DOWN (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20878331)

Not funny, doesn't even make sense.

Re:Brain activity and behavior (offtopic?) (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20877677)

How is this offtopic? There needs to be an Unfunny mod to cover poorly-executed "jokes" that are nonetheless on-topic.

Maybe that would cut down on the "I'm trying to be funny, look!" first-50-comment spam that has ruined discussion at slashdot.

!First post (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20874537)

Maybe it's this constant variability (Ha! Parse that!) which accounts for my never actually getting first post.

Uh Yeah.. (5, Funny)

imstanny (722685) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874563)

They argue for a greater acceptance of the view that our brain may have some intrinsic activity that's somewhat independent of sensory input.

This has been a postulate of mine for a while. It's the only rational explanation for me thinking about sex every 5 seconds - with our without sensory input.

Re:Uh Yeah.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20874753)

Is this why I get "spontaneous" boners all the time when my mind is as blank as a fart?

Re:Uh Yeah.. (1)

noshellswill (598066) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875473)

For this they spend our taxes. ... should be put in a Skinner BOX and stimulated ... ZAP!

Re:Uh Yeah.. (1)

Wordsmith (183749) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875927)

You keep your postulates to yourself, there, buddy.

Mind (3, Insightful)

Cuppa 'Joe' Black (1000483) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874579)

Your mind is not in your brain. Your brain is in your mind.

Re:Mind (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20874685)

Um. Given what we (we: scientists, not hippies) know nowadays, that's about the same as saying "Linux is not in your PC. Your PC is in Linux". Mind == software. Brain == hardware. No real mystery.

Re:Mind (1)

Cuppa 'Joe' Black (1000483) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874837)

Indeed. Most people do behave as if they were buggy software running on a meat box.

Re:Mind (1)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874959)

Indeed. Most people do behave as if they were buggy software running on a meat box.

The further they are up the ladder, the more they need an upgrade, eh?

There's a concept for Sci-Fi...(mebbe already been done?) the day they find they can actually reprogram brains (and I don't mean with a big helmet, which looks like a collender with lights and wires on it.) wooooo.

64,000 bugs in the bean, 64,000 bugs, whack one back with a service pack, 64,008 bugs in the head

Re:Mind (3, Interesting)

Artifakt (700173) | more than 6 years ago | (#20876679)

I'll give you one of the simplest real mysteries:

Let's go to a movie. We'll sit in a comfy chair, and watch Indiana Jones dodge boulders. What happens?

1. Usually, a person enters a state that can be described as focused monomania (just as Hypnosis can be described). For an hour and a half, they focus on the film so that they are unaware of anything beyond the edges of the screen. They believe the events shown are every bit as real as real life until the film is over. They jump when Ripley opens a hatch and the ship's cat pops out. They cringe when Michael Myers swings an axe. They get aroused when ... Ahem, I'll keep this within the realm of Slashdot. I don't want to think about what arouses many of you. In fact, it's very hard to enjoy a film at all without getting that deeply into it. People don't just forget their external environment, often they forget their bladders unless the need becomes really critical, or sit so still that a foot 'goes to sleep' or similar effects. It takes a real annoyance to snap many of them out of it, a cell phone ringing, loud talking, or worse (and it's perceived as a distinct annoyance to be 'snapped out of it').

2. A conscious person, typically of normal mental health, has had an out of the body experience lasting typically 90 minutes or so. The other things in life that can allegedly normally cause such an effect aren't present. There's no chemical disturbance of the brain (as from a hallucinogen). There's no physical disturbance (as from a blow to the head). There's no build up of fatigue toxins (as is sometimes used to explain sleep related mental effects). There's nothing but images, images which in the hands of a skilled artist can be so compelling that we choose to become entangled, enthralled, enraptured.

3. Now describe it in evolutionary terms: We observe some members of a species that has just developed many of its unique brain functions over the last million years. They have lived for 99.999% of that time in small groups typically numbering less than 30. The single most common predator for that entire time was members of other small groups of humans, who typically were just as virulently cannibalistic as we observe today in chimpanzees. Without any of the causes we normally consider to cause a brain dis-function, these members of that species have become totally oblivious to large numbers of strangers, not of their tribe, they have made a deliberate, determined effort to become so, and to stay in that state for an extended time.

4. The mystery is, why, after doing that once, do humans not realize what they have done, run out of movie theaters screaming, and never return?

Re:Mind (1)

invalid_user (253723) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877801)

If you had given (not necessarily accurate) reference to every piece of your information you would've sounded exactly like one of my favorite pseudo-fiction writers --- the ever bewildering Lyall Watson.

Thanks and keep up the good work! :)

You cannot see the sky by painting the window blue (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20876683)

The brain's complexity is still too great for us to model in exacting detail. While the conceptual jumps between the functioning of a neuron to the subtleties of human behavior are small, they are nonetheless present (and numerous). It is faith, and nothing more, that inclines you to say that we (the scientists) "know" that the mind is nothing more than the brain's software.

Don't get me wrong, I love science. It's fruits are in evidence and I study neuroscience as a hobby. However, I do not love arrogance, and I especially do not love the very unscientific practice of drawing conclusions that are outside the scope of the available evidence.

Our present models of human behavior make some useful predictions, though they are not perfectly accurate and they have a huge gap: the models do not express our common experience of consciousness. The word "conscious" is often used (in a scientific sense) to mean little more than "responsive." However, the connotations that impregnate this word did not come about by accident. The mystery of consciousness, and most importantly its staunchly indeterministic and non-mechanical nature, is a moment-by-moment immediate reality for all humans.

Some of us have played conceptual games with ourselves in order to rationalize away its existence, because of its theoretically problematic nature. And who am I to say that some of us may not actually be philosophical zombies (i.e., soft machines that perfectly mimic conscious beings)? Be that as it may, my consciousness is far more real to me than anything I could ever read or study via objective experimentation. Any model that excludes it is simply incomplete, and any model that defines it as nothing more than emergent phenomena of deterministic, mechanical processes is simply incorrect.

I am not a religious man. I do not embrace mythology as reality, even if it comes from a scientist.

Re:You cannot see the sky by painting the window b (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20877695)

You're just wrong, hippie. It's easy, with surgery or lately with transcranial magnetics, to demonstrate that the mind is a software function of the brain, in a manner similar to cracking smart cards (interfere with them physically to interfere with their running). You underestimate the progress of science during and after WWII.

Re:You cannot see the sky by painting the window b (1)

invalid_user (253723) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877863)

You are a neuroscientist sympathetic to the Chalmers school?

No offense, does that have anything to do with your anonymity? I am just curious about the landscape in today's neuroscience research community.

Re:Mind (3, Insightful)

BillyBlaze (746775) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874725)

How can a physical entity exist inside a non-physical entity? Dualism may be a compelling philosophy for some, but lacking any evidence of violations of known physical laws in the brain, it's scientifically useless.

Re:Mind (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20875195)

Dualism may be a compelling philosophy for some, but lacking any evidence of violations of known physical laws in the brain, it's scientifically useless.
Ok... since when is mind-body dualism incompatible with any known physical law?

Re:Mind (1)

SpinyNorman (33776) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877763)

Ok... since when is mind-body dualism incompatible with any known physical law?

Ever since man discovered that the physical world is 100% controlled by the laws of nature. The neuronal activity in your brain and everything that your brain and rest of your body does is caused by the laws of physics, not by little green aliens living in an invisible 5th dimension that don't contrubute (dualism) to those laws.

Re:Mind (1)

jotok (728554) | more than 6 years ago | (#20878581)

We didn't discover that. We assumed it.

I have never seen my brain (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20875317)

Everything I know about my brain is mediated knowledge. Other people (lots of other people whom I never met) with specialized equipment (which I will never get to use) have been studying the brain for generations. They have formed many elaborate models about how it works, what it does, and how it accounts for human behavior. Then, they shared these models with the world (including me).

My experience of my mind, however is immediate. I sense it directly. I didn't become aware of it by being told it was there, I became aware of it by feeling it.

So, in a very concrete sense, my mind is more real to me than my brain. I have experienced my mind directly, whereas I have only heard about my brain second-hand. What sense does it make for me to believe that something which I experience moment-by-moment isn't real because of its incompatibilities between some idea of how things work which I have only experienced, and can only ever experience, second-hand?

Scientists model our experience of reality. These models are not perfect; they have gaps. We shouldn't respond to these gaps by pretending that reality has them too. We should simply recognize them as gaps and continue to study what we can.

Re:Mind (1)

marcello_dl (667940) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875693)

> How can a physical entity exist inside a non-physical entity?

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/in [reference.com]
in: (...)

2. (used to indicate inclusion within something abstract or immaterial): in politics; in the autumn.

> lacking any evidence of violations of known physical laws in the brain, it's scientifically useless.

This is a tautology. Introducing concepts that are beyond what can be scientifically experienced is useless from a scientific POV, like e.g. the concept of color is useless from the point of view of counting from one to ten.

If i get it right, our view of the world currently stops at quantum physics with potential states of particles that become actual for reasons that are mathematically modeled but can't be mathematically determined. If I say that there's the invisible pink unicorn that determines all the states according to his mood I'm scientifically useless, but currently science can't prove me wrong either.

So instead of the funny reactions I see to GP post, from the scientific point of view a better reply is "whatever".

Re:Mind (1)

alfs boner (963844) | more than 6 years ago | (#20876287)

> How can a physical entity exist inside a non-physical entity?

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/in [reference.com]

in: (...)

Go fuck yourself, asshole.

Re:Mind (2)

Spamboi (179761) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877001)

This is a tautology. Introducing concepts that are beyond what can be scientifically experienced is useless from a scientific POV, like e.g. the concept of color is useless from the point of view of counting from one to ten.

On the other hand, the concept of color is absolutely critical from the point of view of counting from one to tan.

Re:Mind (1)

marcello_dl (667940) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877889)

> On the other hand, the concept of color is absolutely critical from the point of view of counting from one to tan.

Oh noes, not the Church of Tantology again!

Re:Mind (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20877073)

You are writing as if 'physical' meant 'material,' but physics deals with energy as well as matter.

Re:Mind (1)

jotok (728554) | more than 6 years ago | (#20878659)

It means "the mind is not a result of the action of the brain" but rather "the brain is a construct that exists in your mind" (along with the rest of experienced reality).

Think of this...you have nerves that tell you when you are damaged by detecting the contents of cells (which can be released through necrosis, gross cellular damage, etc.). The experience of this information is "pain." Where does the experience occur?

If you attend the symphony, they make all the vibrations that tickle the mechanical receptors in your ear. Where does the experience of enjoying the sound of the cello occur?

The debate over whether reality exists independent of our ability to perceive it is nontrivial, IMO. Do we assume that reality exists and that we're just apprehending it through our sensors? Even when what the sensors detect isn't really the same as what we experience? How do we prove the assumption true?

Re:Mind (1)

19thNervousBreakdown (768619) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874785)

Ahh, the joys of pot.

Re:Mind (1)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874817)

Your mind is not in your brain. Your brain is in your mind.

It's all in your head.

Re:Mind (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20875145)

What's the ugliest
Part of your body?
What's the ugliest
Part of your body?
Some say your nose,
Some say your toes,
But I think it's YOUR MIND!

Re:Mind (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20875281)

The jar is under the bed.

Re:Mind (2, Insightful)

Johann Public (542327) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877095)

The functioning of brain processes produces the phenomenon of mind

Re:Mind (2, Funny)

Cuppa 'Joe' Black (1000483) | more than 6 years ago | (#20878077)

Believe what you will, pedants! Your nervous system is but an interface betwixt the shimmering perfection of mind and the karmic shithole to which you desperately cling. Wake up! Wake up!

Re:Mind (2, Interesting)

jotok (728554) | more than 6 years ago | (#20878741)

So, we have this idea of the "brain." When we say "brain" we'll just assume that it includes all data ever gathered about the brain by anyone on this planet, ever.

How did we get that info? Well, we used the senses we have at our disposal...but those are mediated in the brain. And they do not always reflect what we think of as "objective" reality. This is not about subjectivity; this is about our experience being distant from actual events, like how chemical data can be transmitted as either taste or as pain depending on which particular neuron binds to the stimulus molecule.

So IMO in order to say that the mind is a function of the brain you have to make a lot of assumptions about what the brain are, what the mind are, how they function, etc. I think they are obviously interrelated, but as yet poorly defined and poorly understood concepts.

Re:Mind (1)

iwulinux (655433) | more than 6 years ago | (#20878305)

In Soviet Russia, mind is in brain!

testing methods (3, Funny)

User 956 (568564) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874599)

an article summarizing an interesting and perhaps controversial paper which finds links between spontaneous brain activity and human behavior.

This study would have been way more exciting if they had used goatse to elicit the neural response.

Re:testing methods (1)

Plutonite (999141) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877481)

Close, but I think what they did was they sampled neural impulses of female drivers.

Maybe, but... (5, Insightful)

DragonWriter (970822) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874603)

authors say that these results show that spontaneous brain activity is more than simply a physiological artifact; it helps account for some of the variability in human behavior. In that sense, they argue for a greater acceptance of the view that our brain may have some intrinsic activity that's somewhat independent of sensory input.


While that may be the case, how does one rule out that the possibility that the activity is a delayed reaction to sensory input, rather than an immediate one? Even assuming that the anesthetization is really enough to rule out the possibility of it being the result of immediate sensory input...

Re:Maybe, but... (3, Insightful)

marcello_dl (667940) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875555)

> While that may be the case, how does one rule out that the possibility that the activity is a delayed reaction to sensory input, rather than an immediate one?

Might be, but if you are trying to force a "mechanical" model of the brain (which I don't assume you're doing) think about this: a degree of randomness helps avoiding stalling or deadlock situation (think about old toy cars with stupid algorithms to avoid obstacles that get stuck hitting the same spot over and over, or how ethernet devices cope with packet collisions).
On another perspective, the one of behavior, predictable patterns are weaker than randomized one, because the external world is subjected to chaotic changes and because you will never catch by surprise a competitor who's studying you. So a degree of randomness is likely an evolutionary advantage.

Besides, if there were a delay it would be quite variable not to have been yet detected as such by all but superficial analysis, so a more general theory of something random inside the brain would hold.

Re:Maybe, but... (1)

fimbulvetr (598306) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877207)

On another perspective, the one of behavior, predictable patterns are weaker than randomized one, because the external world is subjected to chaotic changes and because you will never catch by surprise a competitor who's studying you. So a degree of randomness is likely an evolutionary advantage.


It can also be selected against evolution-wise. If you had predictable patterns, a predator of comparable evolution-al tendencies would evolve to exploit such behaviors.

Another theory (1)

mveloso (325617) | more than 6 years ago | (#20876537)

Another theory is that the "spontaneous brain activity" is normally suppressed, and it exists because it allows for a faster reaction time if necessary.

When I find myself at my witty best (1)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874623)

1. Early in the morning when I'm fresh

2. When I'm really really tired or slightly drunk and think I'm funny.

Also tend to come up with humourous ideas when I'm under pressure and mind is racing through problems -- I'll think, "Hey what if this were like so..." and the inevitable side-tracking happens. The Bob only knows how many funny things I'm come up with over the years and remember bugger all about any more. Good to know the well doesn't run dry though, there's always a fresh batch of insanity right around the corner to inspire another joke.

I think my brain patterns were trained on early issues of MAD and Monty Python.

Re:When I find myself at my witty best (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874691)

Do you think you're funny, or do you think other people don't think your funny because you've been drinking?

Re:When I find myself at my witty best (1)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874747)

Do you think you're funny, or do you think other people don't think your funny because you've been drinking?

That, I think was what I referred to with the italic think. I was at the pub last evening and someone interjected a bit of humour about something I was talking about. It was a clunker, perhaps because the jester was 3, nay, 4 sheets to the wind and working on adding another.

We may think we're funny at times, but it's all subjective. Some people really are funny (frinstance a humourous book sells well because many people mutually agree it is indeed funny, otherwise it would appear strange, bizarre even) and some, usually your boss, think they are funny but clearly are not.

Re:When I find myself at my witty best (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20875001)

You know that FUBAR is spelled FUBAR and stands for "Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition" right?

Re:When I find myself at my witty best (1)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875083)

see journal entry

Re:When I find myself at my witty best (1)

nilbud (1155087) | more than 6 years ago | (#20876339)

There's many a slip twixt cup and lip

Random Number Generator (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20874649)

So basically what this paper is saying is that everybody has a random number generator running in his head to slightly alter his action from what everybody else would do.

Re:Random Number Generator (1)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874707)

So basically what this paper is saying is that everybody has a random number generator running in his head to slightly alter his action from what everybody else would do.

I wonder if they can explain that rate at which people create humour. Clearly some are so witty they require a sledgehammer to the foot to get them to settle down and be serious for once, while others, such as Mr. Bent (of TP's Making Money) have suppressed or severly underdeveloped funny bones.

Re:Random Number Generator (1)

aproposofwhat (1019098) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875589)

Nope - I think that what the paper is saying is that there is a certain base level of brain activity that is independent of external stimuli.

This is a natural product of interconnected neurons, and can be observed in minimal systems, such as ganglia, as well as in the brain.

Think of it as an emergent property of suitably connected finite state automata, and it makes sense - the brain is constantly active with more or less noisy signals passing through it, and it is the modulation of those signals by sensory inputs that give rise to sensations as we experience them.

Personally, I don't see it as at all controversial, but then I'm probably wired differently to those who do.

Re:Random Number Generator (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20876159)

> Think of it as an emergent property of suitably connected finite state automata

Thank you.

By way of PC analogy, there's a hell of a lot of electrical activity on my PC, even when it's just waiting for input. There's even a lot of electrical activity (DRAM refresh, independent bits of hardware polling for I/O, the GPU waiting for something to happen on the bus, etc) that continues when the CPU is idle and/or halted for power management purposes.

There doesn't have to be computation happening for there to be tons of activity, even on a boring-ass purely deterministic machine like an idle PC.

Re:Random Number Generator (3, Insightful)

Anne Thwacks (531696) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877703)

Nope - its saying that the majority of processing is not directly connected with I/O. Which means there are other tasks that handling I/O - and this comes as a surprise to who?

Whah? (2, Insightful)

yali (209015) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874661)

First paragraph of the Neuron article (which is paraphrased in Ars Technica):

Historically, there have existed two alternate perspectives for understanding brain function (Llinas, 2001). The first conceptualizes the brain as an input-output system primarily driven by interaction with the external world. The second suggests that the brain operates on its own, intrinsically, with external factors modulating rather than determining the operation of the system. The former perspective has motivated the majority of neuroscience research, but accumulating evidence is emphasizing the importance of the latter.

Does anybody who has spent more than 2 minutes thinking about the human mind really believe that first argument? Somebody should introduce these guys to William James [yorku.ca] :

It is astonishing what havoc is wrought in psychology by admitting at the outset apparently innocent suppositions, that nevertheless contain a flaw. The bad consequences develop themselves later on, and are irremediable, being woven through the whole texture of the work. The notion that sensations, being the simplest things, are the first things to take up in psychology is one of these suppositions.

The experiment may well be scientifically interesting, but not for the reason advertised.

Re:Whah? (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 6 years ago | (#20876775)

Does anybody who has spent more than 2 minutes thinking about the human mind really believe that first argument?

Well it's way simpler and much more deterministic. Perhaps a good first try, but, like you, I think it's not even wrong [wikipedia.org] . But I'm not a neuroscientist.....

Re:Whah? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20876963)

William James is a tad obsolete. You make a good point, but I think you should realize that this article doesn't imply much "controversy" as /. and ars make it out to. This is a typical case of media spin on science.

It is an over-simplification (4, Interesting)

Christianson (1036710) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877497)

Does anybody who has spent more than 2 minutes thinking about the human mind really believe that first argument?

In the sense that it is an oversimplification, useful to establish things in a word-count limited introduction, but whose primary role seems to be to lead laypeople to grotesque and frightening misapprehensions, no, neuroscientists don't believe that first argument.

It is unquestionable that there is neural activity in the absence of sensory stimuli or motor response. It is also known that this activity is not unstructured but correlated across the neuronal population (though the significance of this fact is a point of dispute). Nor does anyone assume that this activity does not have the ability to influence the response of an organism -- neuronal activity is neuronal activity.

At the same time, the paramount task of the nervous system is to process the environment around the organism and respond to it appropriately. To be successful in the natural selection sense, you cannot ignore pain, mating signals, fire, loud noises, sudden movements, etc., and when something comes up, you must be able to formulate and implement a strategy which can actually deal with the situation that stimulus describes. Sensory experience is a huge part of neural activity, and if deprived of it long enough -- so that the only activity is the spontaneous activity mentioned above -- the brain enters a degenerate state. Or, to put it another way, you go insane.

The nervous system, then, is a massively complex system which has a baseline pattern of activity, is receiving constant input from a variety of sensory organs (even when you close your eyes, or plug your ears, you receive input from them; it's just meaningless), all of which is being modulated by "supervisory systems" (e.g, the dopaminergic and serotonergic systems) that control meta-response properties such as attention, anticipation, learning, expectation, and so on. The debate can be reduced to two issues. The first is: once you have accounted for stimulus-driven activity and the effects of the higher-order supervisory systems, does the baseline activity contribute any significant fraction of the organism's final response? And if so, is the baseline activity no more than the muddled-together echo of past stimulus-driven activity rattling around the recurrent network that is the brain and can thus be regarded as simply random noise, or is it meaningful in its own right?

The paper in question [neuron.org] tries to address the first of these questions. Their results seem to demonstrate that a large fraction of the inter-trial variability in a motor task cannot be explained by known modulating factors such as attention, and thus can be attributed primarily to the baseline activity. Thus, baseline activity would appear to be a major influence on response. The second question remains open, and it is really the core of the issue. These results, however, go a long way towards making it a pressing issue.

The experiment may well be scientifically interesting, but not for the reason advertised.

The experiment is scientifically interesting, and for exactly the reasons advertised. There is a fundamental difference between neuroscience and psychology. One studies the operation of the nervous system, and the other studies the nature of the human mind. The basic element of study of neuroscience is spikes, of which you are never aware; psychology interests itself in thoughts, which (from the perspective of a neuroscientist) we can't even meaningfully define, let alone measure. Perhaps one day we might be able to unite the two, but at this point, a criticism of neuroscience based on psychological principles is no more well-founded than lambasting the mathematics of game theory because it runs afoul of sociological thought.

Re:It is an over-simplification (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20877925)

...is no more well-founded than lambasting the mathematics of game theory because it runs afoul of sociological thought.

Oh, dear... I wonder who is doing that. I am sure sociological thoughts are considered the scums by mathematicians.

I wouldn't mind lambasting the work of the financial analysts because it runs afoul of being nothing more than a game (in the game theoretic sense), however.

Re:It is an over-simplification (1)

jotok (728554) | more than 6 years ago | (#20878929)

Sensory experience is a huge part of neural activity, and if deprived of it long enough -- so that the only activity is the spontaneous activity mentioned above -- the brain enters a degenerate state. Or, to put it another way, you go insane.

I prefer the term "rampant," thank you very much.

caveat (1)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874667)

this is not about a fugue state or tourette's or about some novel variation on "the devil made me do it!" style legal defense

it has to with tiny variations, not large coordinated sustained activities

Re:caveat (1)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874829)

this is not about a fugue state or tourette's or about some novel variation on "the devil made me do it!" style legal defense

it has to with tiny variations, not large coordinated sustained activities

Perhaps variations, er, vary from person to person. Some vary widely, others very little. I recommend a massively expensive government subsidised research grant to follow this up.*

*the dribble-glass made me do it

aha (1)

v_1_r_u_5 (462399) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874675)

men for years have tried to explain to their wives what made them sleep with that other woman, but NO MORE! We now have a physiological excuse! "You see, dear, I was actually overcome by a spontaneous yet organized brain activity, perhaps spurred on by two or more guinnesses, perhaps not."

Re:aha (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20875425)

...and women, for years, don't even bother telling their husbands that we even slept with that other man.

Bah (5, Funny)

ericfitz (59316) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874713)

I wish my coworkers would show some spontaneous brain activity.

Re:Bah (2, Funny)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874793)

I wish my coworkers would show some spontaneous brain activity.

Rules of the Office
1. The boss's jokes are always funny.
2. When in doubt, see rule 1

Are you certain you want your co-workers (or are these cow-workers?) to be funny?

I worked with someone once who was silly at the most inappropriate of times. I finally hit him (just a tap) in the shoulder and insisted he be serious. I regretted hitting him, but not because he didn't deserve it.

Re:Bah (1)

VENONA (902751) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875647)

Spontaneity, in terms of brain function, probably isn't always a Good Thing. I tend to think of brain function the way I do backups. Reliable, or counterproductive. In my experience of the average meeting, you can burn a lot of cycles trying to sort out whether the idiot in $arbitrary_chair actually made any sense this time around...

I got the joke. But I've just gotten out of a horrible end-of-week meeting, so I was forced to write this by Higher Powers.

This makes sense from a dynamical point of view (1)

bloody_liberal (1002785) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874721)

This work speaks against our (faulty, I claim) conceptualization of the brain as an information processing device, implementing some analysis algorithms a-la David Marr. Instead, think of the brain as a device whose function is to predict the immediate future. Since the environment is probably dynamic, it would be silly to stay put and wait for cues to indicate the changes outside. It is far more effective to try and guess ahead, go-with-the-flow, constantly stay in flux (some tai-chi overtones here, I admit). Hence spontaneous activity. Experimenters try to create an artificially-controlled environment which is nothing like what we have evolved for, and hence have hard time explaining these results. Does this make sense to you, fellow Slashdotters?

Re:This makes sense from a dynamical point of view (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20874855)

Yes. This paper seems to be one of many from people that have no fucking clue what's going on between their own two ears. When did people stop thinking about thinking?

Re:This makes sense from a dynamical point of view (1)

stranger_to_himself (1132241) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875201)

Our whole modern world is an artifically controlled environment that is nothing like what we have evolved for.

The only thing that's dynamic about my experience at the moment is the banner ads.

You there! (1, Funny)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 6 years ago | (#20876813)

The only thing that's dynamic about my experience at the moment is the banner ads.

Push your chair slowly away from the desk (use your legs). Disconnect the power cord to the computer (the black rubbery thing that is poking out of the wall).

Find the stairs - go UP them.

Find a door - go OUT the door. Keep doing this until you determine that you are out-of-doors (hint: no more roof).

Look around, walk a bit. Careful of the cars. Watch out for women - they're much more dangerous in real life.

Keep going.

How sad (3, Insightful)

exp(pi*sqrt(163)) (613870) | more than 6 years ago | (#20874755)

> One option it presents is that the brain is an input-output device: give it a stimulus, and it will process it and respond. The alternative view is that the brain is simply doing its own thing, and stimuli act to modulate its activity, rather than direct it.

Oh my God, this is so stupid. I bet people really argue about this.

Put it this way: does Linux respond to stimuli or do its own thing? Is there any experiment that could help us decide? Two people could know the entire Linux source code back to front and inside out, and the source of every application running on it, and still disagree over this stupid question. Don't these people have real and meaningful phenomena to investigate?

Re:How sad (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20874807)

well one thing is for certain, it is far more sentient than windows is. zombie pcs and all

How sad indeed (1)

stranger_to_himself (1132241) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875147)

Wow. I belive that trying to understand the human mind is about the most important thing anybody can be doing.

Seems an easy question to answer. (2, Insightful)

jd (1658) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875369)

If system A has a direct connection to external stimulus B, and system A moves to a deterministic state for any given fixed value of B, for all B, then A is a direct I/O device. (Chaotic systems are non-predictable, but they are wholly deterministic. The distinction is important.)

If system A has a direct connection to external stimulus B, and system A moves to a non-deterministic state for at least one value of B, then A is a quantum device. (Quantum systems are the only physical systems in which true randomness can exist.)

If system A has no direct connection to ANY external stimulus, but is rather operating solely off an internal model which may or may not ever get updated from an external source, then A not only exists independent of whether B exists, but cannot ever establish by any test as to whether B exists. Within normal operating conditions, A can be treated as though it were in a pocket universe, independent and isolated from the universe in which any B may exist, and should therefore be regarded as an isolated system.

The brain may be an I/O device, a chaotic system, or an isolated system. Arguments have been given for each. One thing it is NOT is a modulated system. That possibility does not really exist. The moment the connection becomes indirect, then you run into the limitations of knowledge and certainty. If you cannot distinguish between modulation by an external cause and a change of state due to internal causes, then you can't ever know if the external exists at all. It might all be a figment of your imagination. You can't conduct any test to establish otherwise, as any test which is definitely not a figment of your imagination cannot alter the external and anything that can definitely alter the external cannot be provably not a figment of your imagination.

As for Linux, the inability to determine a future state is NOT the same as the future state being non-deterministic. You cannot produce a quantum OS using Turing logic. You CAN produce an isolated system, and some research into strong AI and machine reasoning goes in this direction, but it hasn't been terribly useful so far.

Re:Seems an easy question to answer. (1)

mrogers (85392) | more than 6 years ago | (#20876027)

If you cannot distinguish between modulation by an external cause and a change of state due to internal causes, then you can't ever know if the external exists at all. It might all be a figment of your imagination.
That's true, but I don't see why you conclude that such a system can't exist. Our brains are in a constant state of uncertainty, weighing imperfect sensory data and imperfect memories, holding contradictory possibilities in mind while waiting for further evidence, often having to make decisions before that evidence arrives. We make a lot of mistakes, including mistaking the real for the imaginary. But natural selection prefers a good guess now to a perfect answer later. (You see something coiled on the floor - it could be a rope or a snake - how much information do you gather before reacting?)

sort-of matter (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20876123)

It could be modulated, just we don't have terms or hard evidence yet of the particles involved. If you assume some sort of external modulation as a premise, it helps explain occasional "paranormal" events that people experience, but are not 100% reproducible in the lab. It might also explain the lack of normal radio wave communications in the universe, why we aren't receiving any that we recognize, despite the odds being heavily in favor of more life elsewhere. They just might have fixated more on understanding and using these particles of "sort-of matter, sort-of energy" if I can invent a term for something we have no good name for yet.

And this helps explain this random spontaneous activity, because it wouldn't be "random"

which really makes ya stop and think on that one

Re:How sad (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20876051)

Listen you asshole, do you know how hard it is win grant money? No, you don't. What, we don't need to make a living?! You don't think we have wives and kids to feed? FUCK YOU!! AND SHUT THE FUCK UP. We're trying to make a living here.

Re:How sad (1)

SpinyNorman (33776) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877661)

One option it presents is that the brain is an input-output device: give it a stimulus, and it will process it and respond. The alternative view is that the brain is simply doing its own thing, and stimuli act to modulate its activity, rather than direct it.

Oh my God, this is so stupid. I bet people really argue about this.

It's stupid, but not because it's a non-question, it's stupid because it's a stupid question.

The brain doesn't have a Wake-on-LAN function - it is always on.

The question is like asking does the weather stop when the sun goes down, or will there still be ripples in the whirlpool if I stop throwing stones into it.

Free will. (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20874969)

About time some hard evidence confirmed what us duelists have known all along. Finally the old dogma of reductionism can be laid to rest.

Re:Free will. (2, Insightful)

EllisDees (268037) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875627)

How so? Even when I'm sitting in a dark, silent room I can be thinking about any number of things that could be activating different areas of my brain. Even when I'm sleeping, my brain is still active even though it is receiving no sensory input. What's so hard to believe about one part of your brain stimulating another part, and so on and so on in all sorts of strange patterns?

Or were you just joshing us? ;)

Re:Free will. (1)

Plutonite (999141) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877729)

His is a typical fallacy, and the answer to it is: randomness is not evidence of a "will", it is the complete opposite.

Having said this, nothing at all is "random". Everything abides by causality at some physical level; you cannot escape it, and there is also no reason to fear it. The free-will vs determinism debate is pointless. Science can only accept reason.

Re:Free will. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20878377)

Even when I'm sleeping, my brain is still active even though it is receiving no sensory input

There are almost no conditions under which the brain truly receives no sensory input. Touch & temperature receptors in your whole skin fire tonically; proprioceptors fire tonically; neuromodulatory hormones circulate continuously. The nervous system's sensitivity to these inputs increases as their amplitude decreases, potentially to the point that even miniature endplate potentials facilitate interneuronal firing, and "replaying" of experiences.

This claim of "spontaneous" activity, like similar claims of "background" activity, seems like little more than "activity whose source we have not yet identified." There's a whole population of neuroscientists who seem to think neurons are wired up like electronic circuits, with one or two neurons impinging on a third, that third directly stimulating a fourth, etc, etc. These models completely ignore the fact that most neurons, especially in the brain receive thousands or tens of thousands of inputs, all of which contribute to its function. 10,000 inputs generating EPSP, IPSPs, slow (metabotropic) potentials, looks exactly like noise, but it's not.

Re:Free will. (1)

graviplana (1160181) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875887)

Time to get out your dusty copies of Descartes! :p

Tin Foil Hat (1)

SpaceLifeForm (228190) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875067)

Remember, it works both ways.

Spontaneous activity (1)

t34g4rd3n (849608) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875609)

The idea of neurons that are spontaneously active, in the absence of synaptic input, is not in the least bit novel. The "canonical" neurons like spinal cord motoneurons and hippocampal pyramidal cells, striatal medium spinies, etc, certainly remain silent until they receive sufficient afferent input. However, there are tons of neurons that are perfectly content to spike away, all by themselves in a tissue slice, with all synaptic input blocked. Giant cholinergic interneurons in the striatum, dopamine cells of the substantia nigra, subthalamic nucleus, globus pallidus cells... all of these will fire rhythmically in the absence of any input. You can even isolate "networks" of them on a culture plate, and the network will fire in a rhythmic, antisynchronous bursting pattern, again in the absence of any external input.

Just putting that out there... spontaneous activity in the brain isn't nearly as "gee whiz" as it sounds. It's just part of the machinery of the brain.

Re:Spontaneous activity (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20875783)

thats also why the brain is so fucking complicated.

Hmm (1)

graviplana (1160181) | more than 6 years ago | (#20875847)

Excellent news. This may help to change more of the philosophical underpinnings of some of the various branches of science. Physics already is confronting some of these changes. I don't dare speak of them in this crowd yet, but they are coming. Offtopic comment: Leave the Tags alone!

Lead time (1)

ynotds (318243) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877129)

I can dream too, but it takes generations for even the most obvious paradigm shift to start to inform even the wider academic populace. Communicating a genuinely new underlying physics [transforum.net] is going to present even more obstacles than a new life science paradigm. Even though they're a century old, no other theoretical field has yet drawn a serious metaphor from GR or QM.

well duh. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20876091)

I have dreams that usually don't have any connection to events at the time I'm having them. (well I'm sleeping, the stuff in the dream is spontaneous "experience" that has nothing to do with current sensory imput) and the dreams don't seem to have much to do with whatever else is going on in my waking life either. Not literally, not symbolically, not even emotionally. It's just stuff going on, and I can give it meaning (tempting, it's in our brains to ascribe meaning to experienceor recognize it as simplly stuff going on.

And actually, as I think about it, remembered sleep dreams are fairly rare. Day-to-day experience is largely a dream. A fairly tiresome one, as it turns out, but a dream nonetheless.

Independence from sensory input (0, Redundant)

skeftomai (1057866) | more than 6 years ago | (#20876093)

Spontaneous, yet organized brain activity has been observed without stimulation and even in humans under anesthesia.

they argue for a greater acceptance of the view that our brain may have some intrinsic activity that's somewhat independent of sensory input.

What did they expect to happen in their experimeents? Did they expect people to simply have no brain activity?

If a brain gets new sensory input, it's going to take some time to process that information, no? When you learn something new, it often takes a lot of time to think things through, and you can continue making new connections for quite some time without any new external inputs. This happens when we're sleeping, too, so maybe this happens under anesthesia as well.

I'm not quite sure what the hell they're thinking here. Are they trying to allude to a soul?

Stuck in a Strange Loop (4, Insightful)

Strange Ranger (454494) | more than 6 years ago | (#20876227)

According to some, consciousness and self-awareness arise out of Strange Loops [wikipedia.org]

I think, therefore I am.
I realize I am, therefore I think.
But after than I'm a broken record!

Horribly simplistic to keep the post short:
Without some "spontaneous activity" injected into the strange loop that is a self-aware entity, might we not get stuck in the loop, and end up being less cognizant than a fruit fly?

Someone with a knowledge of real-world AI can flog me, but you CAN program a computer to be self-aware. It patches itself, reports crashes in it's own log, recognizes intrusions (hopefully). But without that bit of "spontaneous activity" the system can never gain an outside perspective. It can never "unask the question" [wikipedia.org] . So it's just as dumb as a Bach fugue playing itself on a player piano.

To sum up, it's Self Referentiality PLUS this "spontaneous activity" that is at the very core of sentience.

At least that's how I understand it. :)

Re:Stuck in a Strange Loop (2, Funny)

Raenex (947668) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877529)

At least that's how I understand it. :)
As I understand it, it's all handwavy bullshit that doesn't provide any answers.

wow! (4, Funny)

m2943 (1140797) | more than 6 years ago | (#20876237)

So you're saying that some people actually think even when they're not receiving sensory input, and that their thinking might influence future behavior? What will they think of next?

(Of course, looking at the media and politicians, perhaps people do come to the conclusion that all humans are simple input/output response systems.)

Misunderstood, of course (1)

tgv (254536) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877245)

Well, the summary of the article says nothing of the kind (as usual, I'm tempted to say).

In some fMRI studies (I'm a post-doc in the field), the brain resting state is studied. Now, if you know what fMRI actually measures, you'll know that that means the blood flow through the brain while there is a minimum of external stimuli (plus the task to try to think of nothing, which is quite hard). So all this study claims is that some of the variability you see in normal fMRI studies (those that have stimuli and acting subjects) in a particular area are strongly related to the variations you see in resting state activity.

So, half of the blood flow fluctations (0.74 ^ 2) in a brain with a minimum of activity seems to return when the brain has a very simple task. Not really a big deal.

Caveat: I haven't read the full paper (I'm at home right now).

Re:Misunderstood, of course (2, Interesting)

pla (258480) | more than 6 years ago | (#20878899)

plus the task to try to think of nothing, which is quite hard

I don't think you can safely pass that off as a minor little clause in your point - The same problem this FP seems to make.

Of course we have "spontaneous brain activity" that influences our performance on certain tasks. Most of us call that "thinking", preferably about the problem, but also quite possibly about lunch or that cute tech's short skirt or about why the FSM lets good pasta get overcooked.

This seems like a non-article. No one seriously believes the human brain does nothing but react to sensory input. It just makes a good model since we have nothing but wild guesses about how our wetware really works.

Autism Link? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20877273)

Could this activity be somehow different in and a cause or symptom of Autism?
Also, could this activity itself be modulated in a co-ordinated manner thru carefully patterned sensory input ? Could explain the supposed effects of music, mantras, chants etc. on mood

What next? (1)

SpinyNorman (33776) | more than 6 years ago | (#20877355)

The resting brain is not silent, but exhibits organized fluctuations in neuronal activity even in the absence of tasks or stimuli. This intrinsic brain activity persists during task performance and contributes to variability in evoked brain responses. What is unknown is if this intrinsic activity also contributes to variability in behavior.

In follow-up research these scientists will investigate if there is any correlation between the loud humming noise cars make when they move and the wheels rotating.

Its Alive... uh err, I'm alive, I'M ALIVE (1)

3seas (184403) | more than 6 years ago | (#20878147)


I shall patent me. and then Charge to much for licensing.
That will solves all the worlds problem.

http://abstractionphysics.net/pmwiki/index.php [abstractionphysics.net]

On a more serious note, this /. news article may be pointing at the foundation of why software is not of patentable nature.
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