We have always been baffled by the link between mind and brain. Even after dozens of years of research, people have not come to a general consensus on how the brain controls memories and thought. A team of researchers at Stanford University, however, recently made a breakthrough in this field in understanding how the brain acts in real-life situations.
Typically, studies on the human brain are run in extremely controlled environments to eliminate most variables. Patients of such experiments may be put in a dark, silent room, and asked to do one task while their brains are monitored by a magnetic resonance imagine (MRI) machine. An MRI is capable of creating extremely detailed images of the brain. Under constant monitoring, researchers are able to tell which parts of the brain react to certain stressors.
However, these experiments disregard the random events and myriad of variables that affect our daily lives. While they produce terrific results in strictly controlled environments, these experiments do not further our understanding of our brain’s actions in normal conditions.
Therefore, Dr. Mohamman Dastjerdi and his team used electrocorticography to observe patients outside of a controlled environment. This method allowed the team to monitor patients’ brain activities while they engaged in their daily routines. Their actions were of course confined to within the hospital. Three candidates were chosen from a group of seizure patients who were hospitalized to be monitored for seizures. Electrodes were implanted in their brains so their brains’ electrical activity can be mapped and recorded in order to detect the patients’ seizures.
During their stays at the hospital, the patients were mostly tethered to a monitoring device, but otherwise were not hindered from any task. These patients were elected for Dastjerdi’s experiment because they were also monitored by video cameras during their hospitalization. The research team was able to track the patient’s actions and conversations with the concurrent brain behavior recorded by the monitoring device. At certain periods, patients were also asked various questions, each of a certain category such as in mathematics or literacy.
Researchers found that when patients answered questions with a quantitative measure, such as phrases like “more,” “many,” or “bigger than the other one,” there was a noticeable spike in electrical activity in the intraperietal sulcus of the brain- the same region that was activated when the patient was doing strict mathematical calculations in controlled experiments.
This showed that the brain may process mathematical problem solving and imprecise qualitative measurements in a similar way. For example, doing an integral on a complex function in calculus may be activating the same region of the brain that compares the amount of food in you and your sibling’s plate.
While this discovery is certainly a novel and exciting one for neuroscience, perhaps a greater excitement may be evoked within researchers because of the ability to essentially listen in on the brain’s actions during trivial, uncontrolled situations.
Thoughts in a real-life context are influenced by a changing environment that depends on factors such as human interaction and surroundings. Naturally, there is a large challenge in studying the brain in such a context, where countless variables can determine the reactions that occur in the brain. However, for the first time, this group of researchers found a link between certain thoughts and activity in the brain that is consistent in both a controlled environment and a natural one.