Scientists have found a way to track the journey of a human thought through the brain, from start to finish.
Video uploaded by UC Berkeley
Our thoughts may seem like abstract things that don’t have a physical manifestation until we act on them, but that’s actually not the case. In a groundbreaking study, neuroscientists have managed to track the path of a thought, discovering hitherto unknown details about how the brain’s prefrontal cortex operates. How, though, can it be possible for scientists to be able to follow a thought from its conception to its conclusion?
Complicated processes help us accomplish simple tasks.
A technique called electrocorticography allowed the researchers to monitor the activity of the brain’s neurons. This technique involved the placement of hundreds of electrodes—small ones, of course—against the cortex. The results of this technique are more detailed than those of electroencephalograms, or EEGs. Undergoing electrocorticography is of course a lot to ask of the usual volunteers for scientific studies. Thus, the researchers opted to recruit epilepsy patients who have undergone preparation for surgery.
The participants were then asked to complete a set of simple tasks, like repeating a word or figuring out a word’s antonym. Electrocorticography allowed researchers to follow the electrical activity in neurons as it shot to different parts of the brain. This was how the researchers were able to figure out that all roads in the brain eventually led to the prefrontal cortex. Thus, the researchers were able to see how the prefrontal cortex determines our actions in response to our perceptions.
The prefrontal cortex is considered to be the command center of the brain.
Understanding the prefrontal cortex
As a result, this study became instrumental in efforts to understand why we behave the way we do. This isn’t actually the first time that researchers have managed to follow the progress of brain activity from stimulus to response, but the focus on the pathway of brain activity all the way to the prefrontal cortex makes this research groundbreaking.
"This sustained activity is even present when we fail to generate a response, but when we are still deliberating and thinking about it," said lead author Avgusta Shestyuk. "What is also unique about our study is that we were able to show that this type of activity is universal, as it is present across multiple tasks of different complexity."
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