On like Donkey Kong

Ed Yong in The Atlantic

Can Neuroscience Understand Donkey Kong, Let Alone a Brain?

“Two researchers applied common neuroscience techniques to a classic computer chip. Their results are a wake-up call for the whole field.

Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording wondered, what would happen if they studied the chip in the style of neuroscientists? How would the approaches that are being used to study the complex squishy brain fare when used on a far simpler artificial processor? Could they re-discover everything we know about its transistors and logic gates, about how they process information and run simple video games? Forget attention, emotion, learning, memory, and creativity; using the techniques of neuroscience, could Jonas and Kording comprehend Donkey Kong?

No. They couldn’t. Not even close.”

In a very clever move, Jonas and Kording ‘broke’ individual transistors on the microchip to simulate a brain lesion – a stroke perhaps, or a traumatic brain injury. Certain transistor ‘lesions’ led to various catastrophic failures of the function of the chip – for instance the game Donkey Kong might not start. Steve Fleming, a cognitive neuroscientist, has written a brilliant post on the Jonas and Kording paper on his blog The Elusive Self, and points out

“these parts of the system were not responsible for fundamental aspects of the game but instead implemented simple functions that, when omitted, led to catastrophic failure of a particular set of instructions. This is similar to the disclaimer about lesion studies I learned as a psychology undergraduate – just because removing part of a radio causes it to whistle doesn’t mean that its function was to stop the radio whistling”

The challenge that Jonas and Kording’s paper present to the current approaches in neuroscience are best summed up by the author’s own words:

Unless our methods can deal with a simple processor [the entire function of which we already fully understand], how could we expect it to work on our own brain?

The recent brouhaha about the insula and pain highlights that this potential problem in neuroscience has real implications for the study of pain.

-Tim Cocks

 

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