neuroscientist Rodrigo Cuyan Quiroga talks to us about memory, neurons and visual perception with extraordinary lightness. To explain the nooks and crannies of the brain, Quiroga relies on figures unusual in his field: this is the case of Borges, Rembrandt or Aristotle.
This scientist is also the Director of the Center for Systems Neuroscience and Head of Bioengineering at the University of Leicester (England). He also studied physics at the University of Buenos Aires and earned a Ph.D. in the formation of memories.
Bertrand Russell wrote that “the generation that does not tolerate boredom will be of little value.” Why does boredom get such bad press, and why do we have to be at full speed (or seem to be)?
It is not pleasant to be bored and it is not pleasant to have nothing to do, but without these moments, big changes in our lives do not occur, and great ideas do not appear. Often the boldest creativity or most important decisions we make come from looking at clouds or landscapes; That is, by unconsciously allowing thought to flow into important things, but we would never consciously think about them. It’s okay to indulge in this kind of drift, and see what happens… What hurts is always following a routine that leaves no room for those moments of “thinking about nothing”.
(See also: This year marks the 53rd anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11.)
How do you know the basic? The philosopher Malebranche thought a lot about interest which he considered to be the quality of the soul. However, so many stimuli distract us that it is not easy to recognize – and I use the expression – wheat from the chaff.
What you suggest is the hardest of all: We do not know and cannot explain how to distinguish the essential. It is simply something that we have not yet been able to teach a computer. Among other things, because it is a subjective thing: in this talk, you will highlight ideas or issues that are central to you and that, on the other hand, may be secondary to another journalist. There is no rule: in the information content there is no single way to retrieve what is necessary. I remember my boss in Germany giving me a great example: If you’re listening to classical music at home and the car alarm goes off, the music is necessary and the alarm is the distraction, but if the alarm is in your car, the alarm is the key and the music is the distraction.
Some say we delegate too much to technology, especially in matters of memory. Albert Einstein said, “Never keep what fits in your pocket.” What things or data is important to keep? In other words, is it more necessary to know who Borges was than to know the capital of Kenya?
Technology is a double-edged sword. In my last book, I raise the same question that the Greeks asked themselves through writing: they considered the possibility that memory would begin to fail when writing things. Keep in mind that they, for example, spoke in the Senate from memory. There is a legend that Plato collected in Phaedrus: when the god Tut, the inventor of writing, presented his creation to King Tamos, he does not trust writing precisely because he believes, in his opinion, that it will undermine memory. Now we know it isn’t. Technology depends on its use, and it is useful. I don’t want to spend the whole day searching for data on the internet, I enter to search for certain information, but then I have to process it myself, without the help of any technology. There are things we can delegate to technology that are worth doing. For example, I don’t want all of today’s meetings to be on my mind: I delegate that to my iPad, which will let me know in due course.
What characteristics does an intelligent person possess?
For example, the ability to group concepts together, to connect ideas and images …
The truth is, I don’t know what intelligence is, but maybe everything is going where you say it is. What I do know, and that is a deep criticism of the educational system, is that we tend to confuse intelligence with memory capacity, and memory does not make us smart (although if I had no knowledge, without memory capacity, I do not. You have the foundations to be creative). What I said about Russell, for example, could remind me of something about Van Gogh, and from this association we can build something beautiful, but if I have no memory, I cannot form associations and build as one builds with Lego bricks. It’s not all memory, okay, but we need it. This is the part of intelligence that I care about the most, making meaningful associations between disparate facts. The example is Newton, who recounted the fact that the moon did not fall and the apple fell and concluded that they responded to the same principle: gravity. For me, this is a symbol of intelligence and genius.
(See also: When the Great Mastodons Walked Through Valle del Cauca.)
Information is presented to us today in fixed parts, as if it had nothing to do with it: the refugee crisis with populism, this with socioeconomic status, this with the mental health of society. We know that reality is a rhizome in which everything affects everything, but we pretend not to …
This happens a lot in science. Sometimes it’s just a defense mechanism because you can’t cover everything, but you’re right. Why don’t neuroscientists read Aristotle’s answer about what memory is to him? He’s a brilliant guy, you have to know what he thinks of it. Borges made me understand what I had discovered for myself in one of his stories. Another clear example: when it comes to visual perception, no one knows quite like Rembrandt. We cannot ignore what illustrators know about visual perception; Stupid. At least I like to get out of my box and seek knowledge from other aspects, and the more orthogonal it is, the better.
I’m thinking of his discovery, the “Jennifer Aniston Neuron.” What is the benefit of having a super-specialized neuron, which comes to prove its contribution?
It appears that these neurons are in the memory area. This helps us understand that the key to memory formation are concept representations, which makes sense given the fact that we tend to remember concepts and associations around concepts and forget details. It is essential that the neurons in our brain encode concepts, because this is how we remember things: we tend to remember general ideas of what happened in certain situations, and the rest is a construct. We use common sense to fill in the information, but we do not remember the details and, in fact, do not want to remember them: it will take a lot of resources; We prefer to use the brain to reconstruct situations. The brain does not seek to remember so much as to understand it: you do not want to remember this hadith, you want to understand what we have talked about. This process literally involves not remembering.
Fiction, abstraction or memory, what distinguishes us as a species?
Abstraction is very human and counter-intuitive, as it involves neglecting details. Sometimes intelligence does not remember things. Borges and his story, Funes, el Memorioso, appear again, which tells of a man, who remembers every detail of what he lived, and cannot think: he has no space for it, he is full of details. The ability to abstract and extract important information and leave the rest aside is related to our intelligence, which is why I found those neurons we are talking about. We remember from the perspective of abstraction, this is related to creativity and imagination as we see in Newton’s example. If he looked at the color of the moon, or the phase it was in, or whether the apple was red or green, he might not have discovered anything.
How random is science?
very much. I usually say a half-silly phrase:In science, you have to be lucky, but you have to help with luck, because luck is not enough for you“. For example, one of the most important discoveries in neuroscience was the principles of visual perception, developed by two scientists, David Hubel and Thorsten Wiesel, who discovered that the brain’s optic neurons primarily detect movement, orientation, and contrast, not an image.” It earned them a Nobel Prize, but the discovery was serendipitous: they discovered abnormal behavior of some cells and stayed up all night investigating. Everyone else might see a neuron moving in a strange way and going to bed. They were lucky, true, but the effort was also enormous.
(See also: They identify where the most famous meteorite on Mars came from.)
I read that one of his favorite movies is Until the End of the World, Where Dreams Take a Lot of Weight. What are your dreams: a decompression valve, or another way of speaking about language or the area in which the other self, the subconscious, manifests itself?
There is a lot written about them, but the truth is that very little is known. We know about sleep, the neurophysiology of sleep, and what sleep does in terms of strengthening memory and its effect on learning, but we don’t know the function of sleep. Previously, sleep was considered an omen, while Freud asserted that it is a place where we can be ourselves without any self-awareness. The most popular theory now, although not confirmed, is that sleep is like sea foam, a secondary phenomenon, the result – without any function – of the random activation of bondless memories. For me, it does the job of allowing us to make the most contrasting correlations. Intensifies creativity. When you want to make awake connections, like the ones we talked about before, you’re limited by reality, and you don’t tend to make crazy associations; Rather, in a dream yes. It is devoid of the senses and the coherence that rationality requires of you. Getting rid of such corsets allows you to explore unusual associations, which is why it is not uncommon for many people to dream of such discoveries as a sewing machine: Elias Howe, its inventor, has been trying for some time to solve the problem of how the thread catches in a sewing machine needle . He even dreamed that he was being attacked by a group of aborigines with spears in their pit limbs. Yesterday’s song by the Beatles is also the fruit of a dream. The same thing happens with the benzene molecule, a closed ring of 6 carbon atoms linked by chemical bonds that resonate between single and double bonds: its discoverer Friedrich Kekulé had a dream about a snake biting its own tail.
In these years of studying and analyzing the brain, what still impresses you?
The most surprising thing I learned about how it works is that Everything is constructive. The vision, the idea of your vision, the memory…everything. I will have a memory to know that I spoke with you and I will remember some anecdotes from this conversation, but if we meet after a while and talk about this interview, I will fill in many more details using common sense. Everything is a construct: awareness, a sense of self, free will… The brain doesn’t work by conjuring up information stored in your neurons, it builds or reconstructs things based on very little information.
Ethics is a knowledge ecosystem for change in which the latest global trends are analyzed through a commitment to information quality and under an inalienable liberating premise: progress without humanity is not really progress.
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