Cognitive Neuroscience

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cognitive neuroscience

Imagine the astonishment of the early Greek philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, if they were able to step into a laboratory today and study the brain’s biology and anatomy.

The laboratory would have human brains taken post-mortem, being dissected next to the brains of monkeys and rats. Or it might display images on computer monitors showing real-time views of a human brain as a participant completes certain tasks or solves problems. Blue, red and orange colors light up certain regions of the brain as these areas become activated during brain activity.

Or they might stare at complex computational modeling of neuronal circuits and systems, or peer into a high-powered microscope to see brains cells or neurons, an aspect of brain chemistry and physiology not even remotely considered during their days at the Parthenon, pondering and questioning what it means to be human.

Now consider how you “imagined” what was just described – the visual images that you drew in your mind to make this analogy come alive for you. The process of being able to step back in time, to imagine past worlds, to pull up images and ideas of these philosophers from your old textbooks and place them in today’s world requires an unbelievable maze of automatic, physiologic interactions. This process activates certain areas of your brain, causing neurons to fire in milliseconds, making connections across synapses involving thousands, if not billions, of neurons.

The ability to imagine in this way separates humans from animals, describes a multitude of complex cognitive processes, and exemplifies the type of cognitive processing that captivates those working in the field of Cognitive Neuroscience.

But the technology and rapid advancements in the cognitive brain sciences would enthrall not only Greece’s Classical Greek philosophers. Today’s experiments and discoveries would astonish scientists working only 50 to 100 years ago as well.

What is Cognitive Neuroscience?

A scientist of 50 years ago investigating the brain’s functioning would have raised an eyebrow if someone had asked him or her what the field of Cognitive Neuroscience entailed - simply because the field didn’t yet exist. (Mike Gazzaniga, considered the godfather of cognitive neuroscience, and George Miller, a founder of the field of Cognitive Psychology, coined the name “cognitive neuroscience” in 1977.)

However, this same brain scientist would have undoubtedly been excited to explain the theories about brain functioning coming out of the 1950s because it was about this time that brain scientists began making the discoveries that laid the groundwork for today’s cognitive neuroscientists.

Fueled by advancements in molecular biology, cellular neurobiology began to show brain scientists how the brain’s nerve cells called neurons “signaled” other neurons. Scientists began to unravel the function and structure of these neuronal circuits, and started to develop the concept of “neuronal systems.”

During the 1960s, the new field of Cognitive Psychology developed empirical methods for analyzing behavioral-cognitive relationships. Combining cellular neurobiological research with the field of Cognitive Psychology became the basis for the field of Cognitive Neuroscience. It is a field that connects cognitive-behavioral outcomes with underlying neural systems.

From its earliest stages, cognitive neuroscience was interdisciplinary in nature, drawing on psychology, neurobiology, bioengineering, neurology, physics, chemistry, computer science, linguistics, mathematics – and even philosophy.

Intentionality and the Mind

Before the scientific advances of the last half-century, questioning the “essence” of what makes us “human” was usually left up to those studying philosophy. But some might wonder what philosophy has to do today with an academic field that concerns itself with the biological, physiological, and molecular underpinnings of human cognition. In at least in one area of cognitive neuroscientific research, a philosophical concept plays a significant role – the concept of “intentionality.”

In the PBS series “The Human Spark,” Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford explains intentionality in terms of a cognitive framework.

He believes that at the center of what makes us “human” or what differentiates our brains from that of other species has to do with our strong sense of community, or the ability to relate to and empathize with others. This ability to form community revolves around the word “intentionality.”

Dunbar said the meaning of this word is derived from the “philosophical mind,” meaning the ability of humans to understand or believe things about the world, resulting in “states of mind.” These states of mind cause individuals to reflect in ways such as “I believe” or “I think.” He calls this type of wondering or thinking “the first order of intentionality.”

Intentionality then focuses on individuals wondering or pondering how other people think - called the second order of intentionally. Children at about the age of 5 are able to realize or consider that others think differently, which in developmental psychology means developing a Theory of Mind.

The intentionality states go even further, such as “I’m wondering what this one person thinks about how I think about this other person. This is what Dunbar calls the third order of intentionality. As far we know, almost all species have a first order of intention, and Dunbar believes that apes have a rudimentary understanding of a second order of intentionality. But after the second order of intentionality, only the human mind can handle this complex process.

And after the fifth order of intentionality, this process becomes too cognitively complex even for humans. In fact, Dunbar said that through neuroimaging devices, scientists are able to see that brains simply can’t handle thinking beyond the fifth level of intentionality – it’s simply too hard computationally. “It’s sort of a machine constraint,” Dunbar said.

Neuroimaging devices also make it possible for researchers to exactly localize or pinpoint the areas of the brain that become activated when people use these “orders of intentionality.” So if a person thinks about how another person thinks, specific areas “light up” on a neuroimaging device, such as a CT scan or fMRI.

Interestingly, one of these areas, called the right temporal-parietal junction (RTPJ), also happens to be the area where another type of important cognitive functioning occurs.  Two contemporary cognitive neuroscientists have identified this area as the location where  “idle” thoughts and daydreams take place.

The Right Temporal-Parietal Junction - Time Travel!?

To demonstrate this discovery, PBS’s The Human Spark went to the laboratory of the two cognitive neuroscientists, Rebecca Saxe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Randy Buckner of Harvard University.

Saxe showed a brain scan of the RTPJ lit up as someone thought about another person’s thoughts – or the second level of intentionality. On the brain’s surface, or cerebral cortex, the RTPJ sits directly above the right ear. But these researchers also discovered that other areas deep within the brain’s midsection also light up when an individual considers anything about another person.

Buckner showed images from an fMRI that also showed these areas lit up or activated when a person is allowed to just sit and think of nothing in particular. Buckner hypothesized that it’s during these “idle” moments that humans, unlike animals, are able to plan for the future, or think about past events. It’s why, he explains, humans are able to exercise creativity – they use idle or down time to take themselves to another time and place.

These researchers concluded that idle time keeps individuals planning for the future, planning for their children’s future, planning worlds that won’t necessarily be built in their lifetimes, but will ultimately keep civilization moving forward. It’s a type of mind “time travel.”

Harvard Psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert explained the overlap of these areas in the brain for reflecting on what other people think, and this type of mind time travel as follows: “Both of them require that you escape your current point of view.”

More Worlds to Discover - A Career in Cognitive Neuroscience

The research of Saxe and Buckner is just one example of the many types of cognitive neuroscience research taking place at universities and laboratories across the world.

Cognitive neuroscientists study human participants. They study key cognitive concepts, such as memory, perception, action, language, and conscious awareness.

Most positions in cognitive neuroscience are research-oriented, taking place at universities and privately run laboratories, and most require a Ph.D.

If studying how the human brain processes human thought and cognition, and how cognitive processes affect behavior, you should consider a career in the field of Cognitive Neuroscience. A psychology degree is one avenue for exploring this career, and is good preparation for graduate studies. Contact psychology schools for more information.

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