A baby zebrafish is just half the size of a pea. A recent look inside its transparent brain, however, offers clues to the far bigger mystery of how we remember—and how we forget.
In an experiment that yielded insights into memory and the brain, a team of researchers at the University of Southern California taught the tiny creature to associate a bright light with a flash of heat, a temperature change the fish responded to by trying to swim away.
Using a custom-designed microscope, the team then captured images of the animals’ brains in the moments before and after they learned to associate the light and the heat. It’s the first known look at how a living vertebrate’s brain restructures itself as the animal forms a memory.
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The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Jones v. Mississippi makes it easier for judges to sentence children to life in prison with no chance of parole.
After 15 years of decisions that placed limits on the sentences given to juvenile offenders convicted of violent crimes, the Court reversed course in a profoundly antiscience decision written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The murderer in this case had just turned 15. This new ruling claims that the early teen years cast the die for how someone is likely to behave for the rest of their lives.
When criticizing this decision, legal pundits have been entranced by stare decisis, the legal doctrine that states a court will abide by precedent. But this argument woefully ignores the neuroscience that explains why juveniles should not be treated like adults—the very scientific evidence that influenced and guided previous court decisions
You do something strange every day. You consume fictions. It’s such an omnipresent habit, shared by all, that we rarely consider the oddity of it.
I’m a fiction writer myself, but I’m also a neuroscientist, so this activity fascinates me. What’s the cognitive utility of learning things that aren’t true? We’re evolved biological beings who need to understand the world to survive, and yet all facts we learn about Hogwarts are literally false. How can any of this information be useful?
Still, fictions surround us. I grew up in my mother’s independent bookstore and I’ve been a writer since I can remember. A significant change in my lifetime is that media, like TV channels, books, magazines, and films, have been condensed into a single one-stop shop: the screen. I call this the supersensorium. Screens are now supermarkets for entertaining experiences. Such easy access to fictions means we often binge watch, we stuff our faces.
Before the pandemic, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen’s patients might come into his consulting room, lie down on the couch and talk about the traffic or the weather, or the rude person on the tube. Now they appear on his computer screen and tell him about brain fog. They talk with urgency of feeling unable to concentrate in meetings, to read, to follow intricately plotted television programmes.
“There’s this sense of debilitation, of losing ordinary facility with everyday life; a forgetfulness and a kind of deskilling,” says Cohen, author of the self-help book How to Live. What to Do. Although restrictions are now easing across the UK, with greater freedom to circulate and socialise, he says lockdown for many of us has been “a contraction of life, and an almost parallel contraction of mental capacity”.
This dulled, useless state of mind – epitomised by the act of going into a room and then forgetting why we are there – is so boring, so lifeless.
But researchers believe it is far more interesting than it feels: even that this common experience can be explained by cutting-edge neuroscience theories, and that studying it could further scientific understanding of the brain and how it changes. I ask Jon Simons, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, could it really be something “sciencey”?