Sunday, October 14, 2018

This post may be in eleven dimensions.

Maybe I'll make this brain month. Last week I talked about knitting my sugar skull cowl; the skull, of course, houses the brain. So today I'm going to peer inside the skull at the brain, or something very like it.

geralt | CC0 | Pixabay
I admit that I don't make an effort to stay up-to-date on scientific breakthroughs, so I wasn't  surprised to learn that this bit of news slipped through the cracks last year: A couple of experts in algebraic topology (who knew that was a thing?) published a paper in which they described the brain as being capable of thinking in eleven dimensions. These dimensions don't actually exist, mind you. What the researchers did was apply algebra to the firing of neurons in a rat's brain, and kept track of the number of neurons involved in a particular stimulation. The connection between two neurons, as between any two points, is a line, which is two-dimensional; when more become involved, in what researchers call a clique, the interaction becomes three- and four-dimensional (the fourth dimension being time). When cliques begin interacting with one another, though, they routinely operate in seven dimensions and even up to eleven. Mathematically, at least. It's not something tangible, and the clique connections dissolve when the information exchange is done. One of the researchers likened these virtual structures to sand castles that fall apart at the next high tide. Another thing: cliques form around empty space, and this researcher speculated whether those empty spaces are where memories are stored.

I'm no scientist, but I can't help but wonder whether those empty spaces are not so much storage pods for memories as crucibles for creativity. Sometimes when my brain catches hold of an idea and begins pinging it around inside my skull, making associations on the fly, it feels a little like I'm building something out of thin air. A virtual sand castle, maybe?

I wondered whether these eleven-dimensional structures had anything to do with neural networks, so I looked it up -- and they don't. A neural network is a set of algorithms that allows computers to make decisions based on evolving sets of data. Neural networks are supposed to mimic human brain activity -- but they're pretty clearly primitive compared to the sort of thing these researchers in algebraic topology have found.

Anyway, the mathematicians behind this are affiliated with the Blue Brain Project, which aims to create a digital simulation of the brain. It's been in operation since 2005 and it's headquarted at a university in Geneva, Switzerland. The organization plans to simulate a rat brain first, and then move on to simulating the human brain.

If rats can model eleven dimension in their tiny rat brains, it makes you wonder how many dimensions humans can do. Maybe more! Or maybe less. Time, I guess, will tell.

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These moments of multi-dimensional blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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