Neuroscientists Debate A Simple Question: How Does The Brain Store A Phone Number?
In mind for just a few seconds? These bits are stored in something called working memory. And Earl Miller of the Massachusetts Institute of technology says this type of memory affects just about everything the brain does working memory is the sketch out of your mind. It's the contents of your conscious thoughts. It's how you hold thoughts in mind. Are you deliberate over thoughts? How you choose when the act or not act and Christos constantinidis from Wake Forest university says that's not all working memory is a core component of higher cognitive functions like planning or language or intelligence, the two scientists agree about the importance of working memory. But they disagree about how it works at the society for neuroscience meeting each was presenting research that supports their position constantinidis backs. What he calls the standard model which has been around for decades. It says that when we need to remember a phone number neurons in the front of the brain start firing and keep firing. And it is this persistent activity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex that allows you to maintain this information in memory. So if those neurons were to stop firing that that number would go way precisely but Earl Miller says it's not that simple. His team used the latest technology to study clusters of neurons in working memory. And they found that instead of firing all the time. Most of these neurons were firing in brief coordinated bursts. This doesn't sound like a big difference, but actually has huge functional vacations. One is that the brain must have some way of retaining the bits of information in working memory between bursts Miller explanation is that the neurons are communicating with other parts of the brain, including networks involved in long term memory. This allows information from working memory to be stored in a late and for much the way long memories are Miller says that would explain how we can hold onto a phone number. Even if we get distracted momentarily, if you drop your coffee in on the way to the phone, you activity, rain switches to the dropping of the coffee, but then because these memories are stored in late and form, they can be reactivated Miller says if working memory really does communicate with other parts of the brain it could explain one of the great mysteries of neuroscience. We'll opens up is the most difficult, but the most exciting question by working Mary volition, how you gain control of your own thoughts. Christos constantinidis says Miller is correct that working memory neurons do produce rhythmic bursts of activity, but he says the rest is speculation theory is very attractive on theoretical grounds. The problem with the theory is that so far there has been no experimental evidence. Linking these critical variable with behavior. Constantinidis says changes in the amount of rhythmic firing don't seem to have much effect on working memory, and he says Miller's contention that working memory is linked to long term memory. Just doesn't hold up. We have clinical cases of patients for whom working memory is profoundly impaired. And yet, they're long term memory is intact. So for the moment constantinidis is standing by the standard model, and he says during the neuroscience meeting he'll be taking a skeptical. Look at the research coming from Miller's lab as scientists. That's what we do. We tried to poke holes in its others theories. And this debate I think that's what makes science fun. John Hamilton, NPR news. This is NPR news.