A blast from the past

August 22, 2020 • 10:30 am


by Matthew Cobb

About six months ago, in the time before lockdown, I gave a talk about my then new book, The Idea of the Brain, at the Royal Institution in London. About a week later, the country went into lockdown and because the RI staff were furloughed, they could not work on the video. Reader Christopher mailed Jerry last night to tell him that the video was now online – I didn’t know! Anyway, here you are:

The talk was chaired by my pal the science journalist and author Adam Rutherford, who fell ill with covid a couple of days later and is still not fully recovered. Be careful out there. . . 

JAC: The question-and-Answer section of Matthew’s talk has surfaced, and I’m posting it below:

11 thoughts on “A blast from the past

  1. Thanks for this, Matthew. I enjoyed it a great deal.

    I especially appreciated the very early part, where you explain that it wasn’t until fairly recently that we accepted the idea that thinking takes place in the brain. That seems obvious to us, doesn’t it? But it’s obvious to most of us because that’s what we’re told, not something we’ve worked out in detail from observation.

    On visual neurons with specific response properties, some years ago I read work by the late Charles Gross about, I believe, macaque neurons particularly responsive to hands or faces. Somewhat later I learned of the Jennifer Anniston neuron and, perhaps, a Bill Clinton neuron. Well, just before the turn of the century I was corresponding with the late Walter Freeman about his work. As you know, he was interested is distributed representations in masses of neurons and used complex dynamics as his formal tool. Like you, he investigated the olfactory system. I asked him about these very specific neurons. He replied that we’re likely to see individual neurons with all kinds of weirdly specific response characteristics, but we shouldn’t conclude from that that they’re all operating on the grandmother-cell principle.

    And then we have those cortical columns. I’ve developed a very peculiar way of thinking about them. Reading about them got me to thinking about a science fiction novel that knocked my socks off when I was 12 or 13: Man of Many Minds, by E. Everett Evans. It’s about George Hanlon, a man who had the ability to project his mind into other creatures. At a critical point in the book, when – I believe – Hanlon is about to be tortured, he projects his whole mind, every last bit of it, into a swarm of bees, thereby escaping the pain of torture. I thought that was pretty neat.

    Could the human brain be something like a hive of bees? The point of the metaphor is that, just as individual bees are autonomous agents (which must, nonetheless, feed and reproduce in a group), so the cortical columns are autonomous agents (which are physically coupled to many other such agents). Bees go about their business by sensing optical and chemical gradients and features and by moving their bodies and excreting chemicals. The columns are not directly connected to the external world, but they have extensive inputs and outputs to other columns and to other regions of the brain and nervous system. From a purely information processing point of view, they are as capable of action as are bees. They “sense” neurochemical gradients in the intersynaptic space and act on those sensations by excreting chemicals into that space.

    If a single columns contains (many) more neurons than we can make sense of, what do we do with a large colony of them? I wrote a blog post about that fancy.

    The cartoonist Nina Paley took the idea of the busy-bee-brain and put it into a cartoon.

  2. I was there! I may have asked a question… cannot recall! It was my last proper social activity – ever???

    It is about the longest period for maybe 6 or 7 years that I have not been to the RI as I attend the monthly RI Fiction Lab book group there. The idea is to read fiction – NOT science-fiction- that features scientists. The group is run/led by US born Jenny Rohn of UCL.

    1. As I recall, we went to Kathy Sullivan’s talk at the RI the week before (also available online now) and it was one of three lectures you were attending there in barely a week? I seem to think you planned to give Matthew a stegosaurus – well, not a real one…

  3. I am about 60 pages from the end of The Idea of the Brain. The book is information dense and still remains clear and concise. I find it a pleasure to read. Matthew Cobb’s writing is a great example of communicating complex ideas with accessible language. The index is extremely well done so I can quickly go back to check on people and ideas covered earlier. He calls the next section Consciousness. I expect it will be illuminating but still leaving an unresolved puzzle. The first page of the section includes a footnote quoting The Hitchhiker’s Guides to the Galaxy.

    1. I dare say there isn’t anything that can’t be improved by quoting The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Though nowadays I expect “digital watches” should be replaced by “mobile phones” if the kids are to get it.

  4. Sorry to hear about Adam Rutherford, who has written some informative and enjoyable books recently about genes and human history and migrations. He will surely fully recover, and hopefully very soon.

    In his ‘A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived’, I first learned many things, including that you, reader, and any remotely living Amazonian, and any Greenland Inuit, and all the New Guineans, and everyone else alive, including me of course, have a common g g g g….grandparent who lived as recently as about 1500 BC–not that being that closely related to Mass Murderer donald is a particularly desirable fact. I’d prefer a gorilla, even a salt water crocodile, every time.

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