Making and breaking habits

As part of our Ask the Brain series, science writer Shafaq Zia explores the question, “How are habits formed in the brain?”


Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to break free of bad habits like nail biting or obsessive social networking?

When we repeat an action over and over again, the behavioral pattern becomes automated in our brain, according to Jill R. Crittenden, molecular biologist and scientific advisor at McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. For over a decade, Crittenden worked as a research scientist in the lab of Ann Graybiel, where one of the key questions scientists are working to answer is, how are habits formed?

Making habits

To understand how certain actions get wired in our neural pathways, this team of McGovern researchers experimented with rats, who were trained to run down a maze to receive a reward. If they turned left, they would get rich chocolate milk and for turning right, only sugar water. With this, the scientists wanted to see whether these animals could “learn to associate a cue with which direction they should turn in the maze in order to get the chocolate milk reward.”

Over time, the rats grew extremely habitual in their behavior; “they always turned the the correct direction and the places where their paws touched, in a fairly long maze, were exactly the same every time,” said Crittenden.

This isn’t a coincidence. When we’re first learning to do something, the frontal lobe and basal ganglia of the brain are highly active and doing a lot of calculations. These brain regions work together to associate behaviors with thoughts, emotions, and, most importantly, motor movements. But when we repeat an action over and over again, like the rats running down the maze, our brains become more efficient and fewer neurons are required to achieve the goal. This means, the more you do something, the easier it gets to carry it out because the behavior becomes literally etched in our brain as our motor movements.

But habits are complicated and they come in many different flavors, according to Crittenden. “I think we don’t have a great handle on how the differences [in our many habits] are separable neurobiologically, and so people argue a lot about how do you know that something’s a habit.”

The easiest way for scientists to test this in rodents is to see if the animal engages in the behavior even in the absence of reward. In this particular experiment, the researchers take away the reward, chocolate milk, to see whether the rats continue to run down the maze correctly. And to take it even a step further, they mix the chocolate milk with lithium chloride, which would upset the rat’s stomach. Despite all this, the rats continue to run down the maze and turn left towards the chocolate milk, as they had learnt to do over and over again.

Breaking habits

So does that mean once a habit is formed, it is impossible to shake it? Not quite. But it is tough. Rewards are a key building block to forming habits because our dopamine levels surge when we learn that an action is unexpectedly rewarded. For example, when the rats first learn to run down the maze, they’re motivated to receive the chocolate milk.

But things get complicated once the habit is formed. Researchers have found that this dopamine surge in response to reward ceases after a behavior becomes a habit. Instead the brain begins to release dopamine at the first cue or action that was previously learned to lead to the reward, so we are motivated to engage in the full behavioral sequence anyway, even if the reward isn’t there anymore.

This means we don’t have as much self-control as we think we do, which may also be the reason why it’s so hard to break the cycle of addiction. “People will report that they know this is bad for them. They don’t want it. And nevertheless, they select that action,” said Crittenden.

One common method to break the behavior, in this case, is called extinction. This is where psychologists try to weaken the association between the cue and the reward that led to habit formation in the first place. For example, if the rat no longer associates the cue to run down the maze with a reward, it will stop engaging in that behavior.

So the next time you beat yourself up over being unable to stick to a diet or sleep at a certain time, give yourself some grace and know that with consistency, a new, healthier habit can be born.

Why do we dream?

As part of our Ask the Brain series, science writer Shafaq Zia answers the question, “Why do we dream?”


One night, Albert Einstein dreamt that he was walking through a farm where he found a herd of cows against an electric fence. When the farmer switched on the fence, the cows suddenly jumped back, all at the same time. But to the farmer’s eyes, who was standing at the other end of the field, they seemed to have jumped one after another, in a wave formation. Einstein woke up and the Theory of Relativity was born.

Dreaming is one of the oldest biological phenomena; for as long as humans have slept, they’ve dreamt. But through most of our history, dreams have remained mystified, leaving scientists, philosophers, and artists alike searching for meaning.

In many aboriginal cultures, such as the Esa Eja community in Peruvian Amazon, dreaming is a sacred practice for gaining knowledge, or solving a problem, through the dream narrative. But in the last century or so, technological advancements have allowed neuroscientists to take up dreams as a matter of scientific inquiry in order to answer a much-pondered question — what is the purpose of dreaming?

Falling asleep

The human brain is a fascinating place. It is composed of approximately 80 billion neurons and it is their combined electrical chatter that generates oscillations known as brain waves. There are five types of brain waves —  alpha, beta, theta, delta, and gamma — that each indicate a different state between sleep and wakefulness.

Using EEG, a test that records electrical activity in the brain, scientists have identified that when we’re awake, our brain emits beta and gamma waves. These tend to have a stimulating effect and help us remain actively engaged in mental activities.

The differently named frequency bands of neural oscillations, or brainwaves: delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma.

But during the transition to sleep, the number of beta waves lowers significantly and the brain produces high levels of alpha waves. These waves regulate attention and help filter out distractions. A recent study led by McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone, showed that people can actually enhance their attention by controlling their own alpha brain waves using neurofeedback training. It’s unknown how long these effects might last and whether this kind of control could be achieved with other types of brain waves, but the researchers are now planning additional studies to explore these questions.

Alpha waves are also produced when we daydream, meditate, or listen to the sound of rain. As our minds wander, many parts of the brain are engaged, including a specialized system called the “default mode network.” Disturbances in this network, explains Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and a McGovern Institute research affiliate, have been linked to various brain disorders including schizophrenia, depression and ADHD. By identifying the brain circuits associated with mind wandering, she says, we can begin to develop better treatment options for people suffering from these disorders.

Finally, as we enter a dreamlike state, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, responsible for keeping impulses in check, slowly grows less active. This is when there’s a spur in theta waves that leads to an unconstrained window of consciousness; there is little censorship from the mind, allowing for visceral dreams and creative thoughts.

The dreaming brain

“Every time you learn something, it happens so quickly,” said Dheeraj Roy, postdoctoral fellow in Guoping Feng’s lab at the McGovern Institute. “The brain is continuously recording information, but how do you take a break and then make sense of it all?”

This is where dreams come in, says Roy. During sleep, newly-formed memories are gradually stabilized into a more permanent form of long-term storage in the brain. Dreaming, he says, is influenced by the consolidation of these memories during sleep. Most dreams are made up of experiences, thoughts, emotion, places, and people we have already encountered in our lives. But, during dreaming, bits and pieces of these memories seem to be reorganized to create a particularly bizarre scenario: you’re talking to your sister when it suddenly begins to rain roses and you’re dancing at a New Year’s party.

This re-organization may not be so random; as the brain is processing memories, it pulls together the ones that are seemingly related to each other. Perhaps you dreamt of your sister because you were at a store recently where a candle smelt like her rose-scented perfume, which reminded you of the time you made a new year resolution to spend less money on flowers.

Some brain disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, have been associated with vivid, unpleasant dreams and erratic brain wave patterns. Researchers at the McGovern Institute hope that a better understanding of mechanics of the brain – including neural circuits and brain waves – will help people with Parkinson’s and other brain disorders.

So perhaps dreams aren’t instilled with meaning, symbolism, and wisdom in the way we’ve always imagined, and they simply reflect important biological processes taking place in our brain. But with all that science has uncovered about dreaming and the ways in which it links to creativity and memory, the magical essence of this universal human experience remains untainted.


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How do illusions trick the brain?

As part of our Ask the Brain series, Jarrod Hicks, a graduate student in Josh McDermott‘s lab and Dana Boebinger, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Rochester (and former graduate student in Josh McDermott’s lab), answer the question, “How do illusions trick the brain?”


Graduate student Jarrod Hicks studies how the brain processes sound. Photo: M.E. Megan Hicks

Imagine you’re a detective. Your job is to visit a crime scene, observe some evidence, and figure out what happened. However, there are often multiple stories that could have produced the evidence you observe. Thus, to solve the crime, you can’t just rely on the evidence in front of you – you have to use your knowledge about the world to make your best guess about the most likely sequence of events. For example, if you discover cat hair at the crime scene, your prior knowledge about the world tells you it’s unlikely that a cat is the culprit. Instead, a more likely explanation is that the culprit might have a pet cat.

Although it might not seem like it, this kind of detective work is what your brain is doing all the time. As your senses send information to your brain about the world around you, your brain plays the role of detective, piecing together each bit of information to figure out what is happening in the world. The information from your senses usually paints a pretty good picture of things, but sometimes when this information is incomplete or unclear, your brain is left to fill in the missing pieces with its best guess of what should be there. This means that what you experience isn’t actually what’s out there in the world, but rather what your brain thinks is out there. The consequence of this is that your perception of the world can depend on your experience and assumptions.

Optical illusions

Optical illusions are a great way of showing how our expectations and assumptions affect what we perceive. For example, look at the squares labeled “A” and “B” in the image below.

Checkershadow illusion. Image: Edward H. Adelson

Is one of them lighter than the other? Although most people would agree that the square labeled “B” is much lighter than the one labeled “A,” the two squares are actually the exact same color. You perceive the squares differently because your brain knows, from experience, that shadows tend to make things appear darker than what they actually are. So, despite the squares being physically identical, your brain thinks “B” should be lighter.

Auditory illusions

Tricks of perception are not limited to optical illusions. There are also several dramatic examples of how our expectations influence what we hear. For example, listen to the mystery sound below. What do you hear?

Mystery sound

Because you’ve probably never heard a sound quite like this before, your brain has very little idea about what to expect. So, although you clearly hear something, it might be very difficult to make out exactly what that something is. This mystery sound is something called sine-wave speech, and what you’re hearing is essentially a very degraded sound of someone speaking.

Now listen to a “clean” version of this speech in the audio clip below:

Clean speech

You probably hear a person saying, “the floor was quite slippery.” Now listen to the mystery sound above again. After listening to the original audio, your brain has a strong expectation about what you should hear when you listen to the mystery sound again. Even though you’re hearing the exact same mystery sound as before, you experience it completely differently. (Audio clips courtesy of University of Sussex).


Dana Boebinger describes the science of illusions in this McGovern Minute.

Subjective perceptions

These illusions have been specifically designed by scientists to fool your brain and reveal principles of perception. However, there are plenty of real-life situations in which your perceptions strongly depend on expectations and assumptions. For example, imagine you’re watching TV when someone begins to speak to you from another room. Because the noise from the TV makes it difficult to hear the person speaking, your brain might have to fill in the gaps to understand what’s being said. In this case, different expectations about what is being said could cause you to hear completely different things.

Which phrase do you hear?

Listen to the clip below to hear a repeating loop of speech. As the sound plays, try to listen for one of the phrases listed in teal below.

Because the audio is somewhat ambiguous, the phrase you perceive depends on which phrase you listen for. So even though it’s the exact same audio each time, you can perceive something totally different! (Note: the original audio recording is from a football game in which the fans were chanting, “that is embarrassing!”)

Illusions like the ones above are great reminders of how subjective our perceptions can be. In order to make sense of the messy information coming in from our senses, our brains are constantly trying to fill in the blanks and with its best guess of what’s out there. Because of this guesswork, our perceptions depend on our experiences, leading each of us to perceive and interact with the world in a way that’s uniquely ours.

Jarrod Hicks is a PhD candidate in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT working with Josh McDermott in the Laboratory for Computational Audition. He studies sound segregation, a key aspect of real-world hearing in which a sound source of interest is estimated amid a mixture of competing sources. He is broadly interested in teaching/outreach, psychophysics, computational approaches to represent stimulus spaces, and neural coding of high-level sensory representations.


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Two CRISPR scientists on the future of gene editing

As part of our Ask the Brain series, Martin Wienisch and Jonathan Wilde of the Feng lab look into the crystal ball to predict the future of CRISPR tech.


Where will CRISPR be in five years?

Jonathan: We’ll definitely have more efficient, more precise, and safer editing tools. An immediate impact on human health may be closer than we think through more nutritious and resilient crops. Also, I think we will have more viable tools available for repairing disease-causing mutations in the brain, which is something that the field is really lacking right now.

Martin: And we can use these technologies with new disease models to help us understand brain disorders such as Huntington’s disease.

Jonathan: There are also incredible tools being discovered in nature: exotic CRISPR systems from newly discovered bacteria and viruses. We could use these to attack disease-causing bacteria.

Martin: We would then be using CRISPR systems for the reason they evolved. Also improved gene drives, CRISPR-systems that can wipe out disease-carrying organisms such as mosquitoes, could impact human health in that time frame.

What will move gene therapy forward?

Martin: A breakthrough on delivery. That’s when therapy will exponentially move forward. Therapy will be tailored to different diseases and disorders, depending on relevant cell types or the location of mutations for example.

Jonathan: Also panning biodiversity even faster: we’ve only looked at one small part of the tree of life for tools. Sequencing and computational advances can help: a future where we collect and analyze genomes in the wild using portable sequencers and laptops can only quicken the pace of new discoveries.


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What is the social brain?

As part of our Ask the Brain series, Anila D’Mello, a postdoctoral fellow in John Gabrieli’s lab answers the question,”What is the social brain?”


Anila D'Mello portrait
Anila D’Mello is the Simons Center for the Social Brain Postdoctoral Fellow in John Gabrieli’s lab at the McGovern Institute.

“Knock Knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“The Social Brain.”
“The Social Brain, who?”

Call and response jokes, like the “Knock Knock” joke above, leverage our common understanding of how a social interaction typically proceeds. Joke telling allows us to interact socially with others based on our shared experiences and understanding of the world. But where do these abilities “live” in the brain and how does the social brain develop?

Neuroimaging and lesion studies have identified a network of brain regions that support social interaction, including the ability to understand and partake in jokes – we refer to this as the “social brain.” This social brain network is made up of multiple regions throughout the brain that together support complex social interactions. Within this network, each region likely contributes to a specific type of social processing. The right temporo-parietal junction, for instance, is important for thinking about another person’s mental state, whereas the amygdala is important for the interpretation of emotional facial expressions and fear processing. Damage to these brain regions can have striking effects on social behaviors. One recent study even found that individuals with bigger amygdala volumes had larger and more complex social networks!

Though social interaction is such a fundamental human trait, we aren’t born with a prewired social brain.

Much of our social ability is grown and honed over time through repeated social interactions. Brain networks that support social interaction continue to specialize into adulthood. Neuroimaging work suggests that though newborn infants may have all the right brain parts to support social interaction, these regions may not yet be specialized or connected in the right way. This means that early experiences and environments can have large influences on the social brain. For instance, social neglect, especially very early in development, can have negative impacts on social behaviors and on how the social brain is wired. One prominent example is that of children raised in orphanages or institutions, who are sometimes faced with limited adult interaction or access to language. Children raised in these conditions are more likely to have social challenges including difficulties forming attachments. Prolonged lack of social stimulation also alters the social brain in these children resulting in changes in amygdala size and connections between social brain regions.

The social brain is not just a result of our environment. Genetics and biology also contribute to the social brain in ways we don’t yet fully understand. For example, individuals with autism / autistic individuals may experience difficulties with social interaction and communication. This may include challenges with things like understanding the punchline of a joke. These challenges in autism have led to the hypothesis that there may be differences in the social brain network in autism. However, despite documented behavioral differences in social tasks, there is conflicting brain imaging evidence for whether differences exist between people with and without autism in the social brain network.

Examples such as that of autism imply that the reality of the social brain is probably much more complex than the story painted here. It is likely that social interaction calls upon many different parts of the brain, even beyond those that we have termed the “social brain,” that must work in concert to support this highly complex set of behaviors. These include regions of the brain important for listening, seeing, speaking, and moving. In addition, it’s important to remember that the social brain and regions that make it up do not stand alone. Regions of the social brain also play an intimate role in language, humor, and other cognitive processes.

“Knock Knock”
“Who’s there?”
“The Social Brain”
“The Social Brain, who?”
“I just told you…didn’t you read what I wrote?”

Anila D’Mello earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Georgetown University in 2012, and went on to receive her PhD in Behavior, Cognition, and Neuroscience from American University in 2017. She joined the Gabrieli lab as a postdoc in 2017 and studies the neural correlates of social communication in autism.


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Can I rewire my brain?

As part of our Ask the Brain series, Halie Olson, a graduate student in the labs of John Gabrieli and Rebecca Saxe, pens her answer to the question,”Can I rewire my brain?”


Yes, kind of, sometimes – it all depends on what you mean by “rewiring” the brain.

Halie Olson, a graduate student in the Gabrieli and Saxe labs.

If you’re asking whether you can remove all memories of your ex from your head, then no. (That’s probably for the best – just watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) However, if you’re asking whether you can teach a dog new tricks – that have a physical implementation in the brain – then yes.

To embrace the analogy that “rewiring” alludes to, let’s imagine you live in an old house with outlets in less-than-optimal locations. You really want your brand-new TV to be plugged in on the far side of the living room, but there is no outlet to be found. So you call up your electrician, she pops over, and moves some wires around in the living room wall to give you a new outlet. No sweat!

Local changes in neural connectivity happen throughout the lifespan. With over 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections – or synapses – between these neurons in the adult human brain, it is unsurprising that some pathways end up being more important than others. When we learn something new, the connections between relevant neurons communicating with each other are strengthened. To paraphrase Donald Hebb, one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, “neurons that fire together, wire together” – by forming new synapses or more efficiently connecting the ones that are already there. This ability to rewire neural connections at a local level is a key feature of the brain, enabling us to tailor our neural infrastructure to our needs.

Plasticity in our brain allows us to learn, adjust, and thrive in our environments.

We can also see this plasticity in the brain at a larger scale. My favorite example of “rewiring” in the brain is when children learn to read. Our brains did not evolve to enable us to read – there is no built-in “reading region” that magically comes online when a child enters school. However, if you stick a proficient reader in an MRI scanner, you will see a region in the left lateral occipitotemporal sulcus (that is, the back bottom left of your cortex) that is particularly active when you read written text. Before children learn to read, this region – known as the visual word form area – is not exceptionally interested in words, but as children get acquainted with written language and start connecting letters with sounds, it becomes selective for familiar written language – no matter the font, CaPItaLIZation, or size.

Now, let’s say that you wake up in the middle of the night with a desire to move your oven and stovetop from the kitchen into your swanky new living room with the TV. You call up your electrician – she tells you this is impossible, and to stop calling her in the middle of the night.

Similarly, your brain comes with a particular infrastructure – a floorplan, let’s call it – that cannot be easily adjusted when you are an adult. Large lesions tend to have large consequences. For instance, an adult who suffers a serious stroke in their left hemisphere will likely struggle with language, a condition called aphasia. Young children’s brains, on the other hand, can sometimes rewire in profound ways. An entire half of the brain can be damaged early on with minimal functional consequences. So if you’re going for a remodel? Better do it really early.

Plasticity in our brain allows us to learn, adjust, and thrive in our environments. It also gives neuroscientists like me something to study – since clearly I would fail as an electrician.

Halie Olson earned her bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from Harvard College in 2017. She is currently a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences working with John Gabrieli and Rebecca Saxe. She studies how early life experiences and environments impact brain development, particularly in the context of reading and language, and what this means for children’s educational outcomes.


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Do thoughts have mass?

As part of our Ask the Brain series, we received the question, “Do thoughts have mass?” The following is a guest blog post by Michal De-Medonsa, technical associate and manager of the Jazayeri lab, who tapped into her background in philosophy to answer this intriguing question.


Portrat of Michal De-Medonsa
Jazayeri lab manager (and philosopher) Michal De-Medonsa.

To answer the question, “Do thoughts have mass?” we must, like any good philosopher, define something that already has a definition – “thoughts.”

Logically, we can assert that thoughts are either metaphysical or physical (beyond that, we run out of options). If our definition of thought is metaphysical, it is safe to say that metaphysical thoughts do not have mass since they are by definition not physical, and mass is a property of a physical things. However, if we define a thought as a physical thing, it becomes a little trickier to determine whether or not it has mass.

A physical definition of thoughts falls into (at least) two subgroups – physical processes and physical parts. Take driving a car, for example – a parts definition describes the doors, motor, etc. and has mass. A process definition of a car being driven, turning the wheel, moving from point A to point B, etc. does not have mass. The process of driving is a physical process that involves moving physical matter, but we wouldn’t say that the act of driving has mass. The car itself, however, is an example of physical matter, and as any cyclist in the city of Boston is well aware  – cars have mass. It’s clear that if we define a thought as a process, it does not have mass, and if we define a thought as physical parts, it does have mass – so, which one is it? In order to resolve our issue, we have to be incredibly precise with our definition. Is a thought a process or parts? That is, is a thought more like driving or more like a car?

In order to resolve our issue, we have to be incredibly precise with our definition of the word thought.

Both physical definitions (process and parts) have merit. For a parts definition, we can look at what is required for a thought – neurons, electrical signals, and neurochemicals, etc. This type of definition becomes quite imprecise and limiting. It doesn’t seem too problematic to say that the neurons, neurochemicals, etc. are themselves the thought, but this style of definition starts to fall apart when we try to include all the parts involved (e.g. blood flow, connective tissue, outside stimuli). When we look at a face, the stimuli received by the visual cortex is part of the thought – is the face part of a thought? When we look at our phone, is the phone itself part of a thought? A parts definition either needs an arbitrary limit, or we end up having to include all possible parts involved in the thought, ending up with an incredibly convoluted and effectively useless definition.

A process definition is more versatile and precise, and it allows us to include all the physical parts in a more elegant way. We can now say that all the moving parts are included in the process without saying that they themselves are the thought. That is, we can say blood flow is included in the process without saying that blood flow itself is part of the thought. It doesn’t sound ridiculous to say that a phone is part of the thought process. If we subscribe to the parts definition, however, we’re forced to say that part of the mass of a thought comes from the mass of a phone. A process definition allows us to be precise without being convoluted, and allows us to include outside influences without committing to absurd definitions.

Typical of a philosophical endeavor, we’re left with more questions and no simple answer. However, we can walk away with three conclusions.

  1. A process definition of “thought” allows for elegance and the involvement of factors outside the “vacuum” of our physical body, however, we lose out on some function by not describing a thought by its physical parts.
  2. The colloquial definition of “thought” breaks down once we invite a philosopher over to break it down, but this is to be expected – when we try to break something down, sometimes, it will break down. What we should be aware of is that if we want to use the word in a rigorous scientific framework, we need a rigorous scientific definition.
  3. Most importantly, it’s clear that we need to put a lot of work into defining exactly what we mean by “thought” – a job well suited to a scientifically-informed philosopher.

Michal De-Medonsa earned her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and philosophy from Johns Hopkins University in 2012 and went on to receive her master’s degree in history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh in 2015. She joined the Jazayeri lab in 2018 as a lab manager/technician and spends most of her free time rock climbing, doing standup comedy, and woodworking at the MIT Hobby Shop. 


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Can we think without language?

As part of our Ask the Brain series, Anna Ivanova, a graduate student who studies how the brain processes language in the labs of Nancy Kanwisher and Evelina Fedorenko, answers the question, “Can we think without language?”

Anna Ivanova headshot
Graduate student Anna Ivanova studies language processing in the brain.


Imagine a woman – let’s call her Sue. One day Sue gets a stroke that destroys large areas of brain tissue within her left hemisphere. As a result, she develops a condition known as global aphasia, meaning she can no longer produce or understand phrases and sentences. The question is: to what extent are Sue’s thinking abilities preserved?

Many writers and philosophers have drawn a strong connection between language and thought. Oscar Wilde called language “the parent, and not the child, of thought.” Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” And Bertrand Russell stated that the role of language is “to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.” Given this view, Sue should have irreparable damage to her cognitive abilities when she loses access to language. Do neuroscientists agree? Not quite.

Neuroimaging evidence has revealed a specialized set of regions within the human brain that respond strongly and selectively to language.

This language system seems to be distinct from regions that are linked to our ability to plan, remember, reminisce on past and future, reason in social situations, experience empathy, make moral decisions, and construct one’s self-image. Thus, vast portions of our everyday cognitive experiences appear to be unrelated to language per se.

But what about Sue? Can she really think the way we do?

While we cannot directly measure what it’s like to think like a neurotypical adult, we can probe Sue’s cognitive abilities by asking her to perform a variety of different tasks. Turns out, patients with global aphasia can solve arithmetic problems, reason about intentions of others, and engage in complex causal reasoning tasks. They can tell whether a drawing depicts a real-life event and laugh when in doesn’t. Some of them play chess in their spare time. Some even engage in creative tasks – a composer Vissarion Shebalin continued to write music even after a stroke that left him severely aphasic.

Some readers might find these results surprising, given that their own thoughts seem to be tied to language so closely. If you find yourself in that category, I have a surprise for you – research has established that not everybody has inner speech experiences. A bilingual friend of mine sometimes gets asked if she thinks in English or Polish, but she doesn’t quite get the question (“how can you think in a language?”). Another friend of mine claims that he “thinks in landscapes,” a sentiment that conveys the pictorial nature of some people’s thoughts. Therefore, even inner speech does not appear to be necessary for thought.

Have we solved the mystery then? Can we claim that language and thought are completely independent and Bertrand Russell was wrong? Only to some extent. We have shown that damage to the language system within an adult human brain leaves most other cognitive functions intact. However, when it comes to the language-thought link across the entire lifespan, the picture is far less clear. While available evidence is scarce, it does indicate that some of the cognitive functions discussed above are, at least to some extent, acquired through language.

Perhaps the clearest case is numbers. There are certain tribes around the world whose languages do not have number words – some might only have words for one through five (Munduruku), and some won’t even have those (Pirahã). Speakers of Pirahã have been shown to make mistakes on one-to-one matching tasks (“get as many sticks as there are balls”), suggesting that language plays an important role in bootstrapping exact number manipulations.

Another way to examine the influence of language on cognition over time is by studying cases when language access is delayed. Deaf children born into hearing families often do not get exposure to sign languages for the first few months or even years of life; such language deprivation has been shown to impair their ability to engage in social interactions and reason about the intentions of others. Thus, while the language system may not be directly involved in the process of thinking, it is crucial for acquiring enough information to properly set up various cognitive domains.

Even after her stroke, our patient Sue will have access to a wide range of cognitive abilities. She will be able to think by drawing on neural systems underlying many non-linguistic skills, such as numerical cognition, planning, and social reasoning. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that at least some of those systems might have relied on language back when Sue was a child. While the static view of the human mind suggests that language and thought are largely disconnected, the dynamic view hints at a rich nature of language-thought interactions across development.


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Why is the brain shaped like it is?

The human brain has a very striking shape, and one feature stands out large and clear: the cerebral cortex with its stereotyped pattern of gyri (folds and convolutions) and sulci (fissures and depressions). This characteristic folded shape of the cortex is a major innovation in evolution that allowed an increase in the size and complexity of the human brain.

How the brain adopts these complex folds is surprisingly unclear, but probably involves both shape changes and movement of cells. Mechanical constraints within the overall tissue, and imposed by surrounding tissues also contribute to the ultimate shape: the brain has to fit into the skull after all. McGovern postdoc Jonathan Wilde has a long-term interest in studying how the brain develops, and explained to us how the shape of the brain initially arises.

In the case of humans, our historical reliance upon intelligence has driven a massive expansion of the cerebral cortex.

“Believe it or not, all vertebrate brains begin as a flat sheet of epithelial cells that folds upon itself to form a tube,” explains Wilde. “This neural tube is made up of a single layer of neural stem cells that go through a rapid and highly orchestrated process of expansion and differentiation, giving rise to all of the neurons in the brain. Throughout the first steps of development, the brains of most vertebrates are indistinguishable from one another, but the final shape of the brain is highly dependent upon the organism and primarily reflects that organism’s lifestyle, environment, and cognitive demands.”

So essentially, the brain starts off as a similar shape for creatures with spinal cords. But why is the human brain such a distinct shape?

“In the case of humans,” explains Wilde, “our historical reliance upon intelligence has driven a massive expansion of the cerebral cortex, which is the primary brain structure responsible for critical thinking and higher cognitive abilities. Accordingly, the human cortex is strikingly large and covered in a labyrinth of folds that serve to increase its surface area and computational power.”

The anatomical shape of the human brain is striking, but it also helps researchers to map a hidden functional atlas: specific brain regions that selectively activate in fMRI when you see a face, scene, hear music and a variety of other tasks. I asked former McGovern graduate student, and current postdoc at Boston Children’s Hospital, Hilary Richardson, for her perspective on this more hidden structure in the brain and how it relates to brain shape.

Illustration of person rappelling into the brain's sylvian fissure.
The Sylvian fissure is a prominent groove on each side of the brain that separates the frontal and parietal lobes from the temporaal lobe. McGovern researchers are studying a region near the right Sylvian fissure, called the rTPJ, which is involved in thinking about what another person is thinking. Image: Joe Laney

“One of the most fascinating aspects of brain shape is how similar it is across individuals, even very young infants and children,” explains Richardson. “Despite the dramatic cognitive changes that happen across childhood, the shape of the brain is remarkably consistent. Given this, one open question is what kinds of neural changes support cognitive development. For example, while the anatomical shape and size of the rTPJ seems to stay the same across childhood, its response becomes more specialized to information about mental states – beliefs, desires, and emotions – as children get older. One intriguing hypothesis is that this specialization helps support social development in childhood.”

We’ll end with an ode to a prominent feature of brain shape: the “Sylvian fissure,” a prominent groove on each side of the brain that separates the frontal and parietal lobes from the temporal lobe. Such landmarks in brain shape help orient researchers, and the Sylvian fissure was recently immortalized in this image, from a postcard by illustrator Joe Laney.


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How does the brain focus?

This is a very interesting question, and one that researchers at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research are actively pursuing. It’s also important for understanding what happens in conditions such as ADHD. There are constant distractions in the world, a cacophony of noise and visual stimulation. How and where we focus our attention, and what the brain attends to vs. treating as background information, is a big question in neuroscience. Thanks to work from researchers, including Robert Desimone, we understand quite a bit about how this works in the visual system in particular. What his lab has found is that when we pay attention to something specific, neurons in the visual cortex responding to the object we’re focusing upon fire in synchrony, whereas those responding to irrelevant information become suppressed. It’s almost as if this synchrony “increases the volume” so that the responding neurons rise above general noise.

Synchronized activity of neurons occurs as they oscillate together at a particular frequency, but the frequency of oscillation really matters when it comes to attention and focus vs. inattention and distraction. To find out more about this, I asked a postdoc in the Desimone lab, Yasaman Bagherzadeh about the role of different “brainwaves,” or oscillations at different frequencies, in attention.

“Studies in humans have shown that enhanced synchrony between neurons in the alpha range –8–12 Hz— is actually associated with inattention and distracting information,” explains Bagherzadeh, “whereas enhanced gamma synchrony (about 30-150 Hz) is associated with attention and focus on a target. For example, when a stimulus (through the ears or eyes) or its location (left vs. right) is intentionally ignored, this is preceded by a relative increase in alpha power, while a stimulus you’re attending to is linked to an increase in gamma power.”

Attention in the Desimone lab (no pun intended) has also recently been focused on covert attention. This type of spatial attention was traditionally thought to occur through a mental shift without a glance, but the Desimone lab recently found that even during these mental shifts, animal sneakily glance at objects that attention becomes focused on. Think now of something you know is nearby (a cup of coffee for example), but not in the center of your field of vision. Chances are that you just sneakily glanced at that object.

Previously these sneaky glances/small eye movements, called microsaccades (MS for short), were considered to be involuntary movements without any functional role. However, in the recent Desimone lab study, it was found that a MS significantly modulates neural activity during the attention period. This means that when you glance at something, even sneakily, it is intimately linked to attention. In other words, when it comes to spatial attention, eye movements seem to play a significant role.

Various questions arise about the mechanisms of spatial attention as a result this study, as outlined by Karthik Srinivasan, a postdoctoral associate in the Desimone lab.

“How are eye movement signals and attentional processing coordinated? What’s the role of the different frequencies of oscillation for such coordination? Is there a role for them or are they just the frequency domain representation (i.e., an epiphenomenon) of a temporal/dynamical process? Is attention a sustained process or rhythmic or something more dynamic?” Srinivasan lists some of the questions that come out of his study and goes on to explain the implications of the study further. “It is hard to believe that covert attention is a sustained process (the so-called ‘spotlight theory of attention’), given that neural activity during the attention period can be modulated by covert glances. A few recent studies have supported the idea that attention is a rhythmic process that can be uncoupled from eye movements. While this is an idea made attractive by its simplicity, it’s clear that small glances can affect neural activity related to attention, and MS are not rhythmic. More work is thus needed to get to a more unified theory that accounts for all of the data out there related to eye movements and their close link to attention.”

Answering some of the questions that Bagherzadeh, Srinivasan, and others are pursuing in the Desimone lab, both experimentally and theoretically, will clear up some of the issues above, and improve our understanding of how the brain focuses attention.

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