Borges, ‘Funes el memorioso’ and Jennifer Aniston’s neuron

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Rodrigo Quian Quiroga. He had to give a talk at a secondary school in Argentina, boys between 14 and 17 years old. And I thought, I said: “Wow, I would love to convey to them how exciting what we do in neuroscience is”, because for me it is exciting and, sometimes, if you don’t get excited and say: “Wow, what the hell, I What is counting is that I failed. I failed like… Am I miscommunicating you?” So I was like, “How can I convey to them how great neuroscience is doing these days? So it occurred to me to say, instead of telling them about experiments, for example, to tell them that in a laboratory in Boston there is a group of people who stimulate neurons in the brain and can generate a memory, to say to them: “Do you know that what you… know that ‘Inception’ is real? In other words, the movie ‘Inception’, by Leonardo DiCaprio. They saw what they saw there, that they implant a memory, that this… Do you know that they are doing it in an MIT laboratory?” “Wow!” For example, there is a movie that I love. It’s not that well known. It’s called ‘Until the End of the World’. It is a film by a German cinematographer named Wim Wenders. And in this film it is the story of a man who travels around the world with a camera and with the camera he records what he sees and at the same time records his brain signals. Let’s call it that. Nope? It is a movie. It is not a real laboratory experiment. But what is interesting is the idea. The idea is that this good man is making these recordings because his father has a laboratory in the middle of the Australian desert. So, when this man arrives and gives the recordings to his father, what his father does is transmit the brain signals that he recorded while he was recording the footage to his mother, who is blind. So, the idea is: the mother cannot see, but the underlying idea is: if you can stimulate the neurons just as the eye stimulates them, that is, because the eye doesn’t do something magical. What the eye does is perceive. He has photoreceptors and sends nerve signals to the brain. Then you say: “Well, if the eye doesn’t work, I can send the signals, the nerve impulses, somehow, electrical, to the brain of this woman and make her have the sensation of seeing.” I thought the idea was brilliant for a science fiction movie. And now comes the click. So, through the film, of course, the scientist says: “If I can implant images in the brain of a blind person, maybe I can do the reverse process, I can read the brain signals and interpret what the person is thinking, can generate images from thoughts. So what he does is they begin to record brain records during sleep and they begin to interpret dreams. And a whole philosophical discussion ensues as to whether that… What consequences does that have? Does not have. But let’s put that aside. So, kind of to tie it back to things that I’ve been talking about, I… we found these Jennifer Aniston neurons that respond to Jennifer Aniston. I have one that Jennifer Aniston responds to, another that responded to Kobe Bryant, another that responded to me from the Tower of Pisa, another that responded to Pamela Anderson. These are all real examples, right? In the same patient, in the same experiment. I found about ten neurons that responded to different things. So, what I said is: “I want to do the Wim Wenders thing. I want to do the ‘Until the End of the World’ thing”. So, I asked myself: “Can I take the signal from these neurons, look at them online and predict what the patient is thinking? So, well, it’s very simple. I take a mathematical algorithm and it takes the signal from these neurons and, based on the activation of this group of neurons, try to predict what the patient is seeing. And yes, we did, we published it. Furthermore, we later said: “We can do something different. We can make it possible for the patient to project what he is thinking onto a computer monitor”. It sounds crazy. We publish it. We said to the guy, “Hey, think about Jennifer Aniston or Oprah Winfrey. Yes? And see if you manage to project your thoughts on the computer monitor”. And yes, he did. Basically for us it was very easy. We grab the neuron, we say: “When Jennifer Aniston’s neuron fires, insert Jennifer Aniston’s image, when Oprah Winfrey’s fires, insert Oprah Winfrey’s. And put a transparency between the two that goes from one to the other”. Yes, we did and we published it. It’s the guy projecting thoughts of him like in ‘Until the End of the World’. I was at a conference in the United States once, and a brilliant professor from San Francisco is giving a talk. The guy what he does is: he recorded signals on MRI, magnetic resonance imaging. So what he did is: he had people watch movies and he recorded the signal from the brain. And what he did next is: he doesn’t show any more movies, he records the brain’s signals and tries to predict what they’re thinking about, but he generates the image from the brain’s activity. When I see that talk, I was crazy, because what the guy got was the same as what I saw in the Wim Wenders movie. I’ll go later: “Do you know the movie ‘Until the end of the world,’ ‘Until the end of the world’? He tells me: “No.” “You have to see it, brother. I mean, this is the Wenders movie from the 90s. Your real images are the same as the ones in the film, the same, it’s like a very similar aesthetic. Diffuse media”. I tell you the final part, to close this story. In ‘Until the End of the World’, Wenders imagines reading dreams. Going back to the discussion about dreams. Project dreams. Generate images of dreams. A guy in Japan took what this guy from San Francisco did and said, “Let’s do the same thing, but when the guys are dreaming.” He then puts the subjects to sleep in the resonator, in the MRI, which is not easy, because if you ever had an MRI it’s: ta, ta, ta, ta. It’s a very loud noise, but hey, with music, with headphones, whatever. And what the guy did was read the signal that they measured when they were sleeping, when they were dreaming and trying to predict what they were dreaming about, the images of what they were dreaming about and they did not miss it. I mean, yes, they were wrong, but they were close. They also published it in some more important magazines. What I’m telling you didn’t happen 20 years ago. In other words, what I’m telling you about reading dreams was published, I don’t know if in ‘Nature’ or in ‘Science’, they are one of the most important science magazines, they are very solid and it is from five years ago. So, when I say to you: “Why is this neuroscience fabulous?” Because it’s happening now. I mean, I’m not telling you things that happened 50 years ago, I’m telling you things that happened in the last five or ten years.

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