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Illustration of synapse and neuron on a blue background.
Illustration of synapse and neuron on a blue background.

Have Researchers Discovered Why Humans Are Smarter Than Animals?

According to a new study, human memories are not stored in patterns, like animal memories, but jumbled all together

Researchers have believed for fifty years that the hippocampus, the seat of memory storage in our brains, stores patterns of memories separately. That’s true in animals but not, it turns out, in humans, according to neuroscientist Rodrigo Quian Quiroga,

“In contrast to what everybody expects, when recording the activity of individual neurons we have found that there is an alternative model to pattern separation storing our memories…

Shockingly, when we directly recorded the activity of individual neurons, we found something completely different to what has been described in other animals. This could well be a cornerstone of human’s intelligence.”

University of Leicester, “Human intelligence just got less mysterious” at ScienceDaily

He found that, human neurons, by contrast, store all the patterns together.

Quiroga’s study argues that the finding “has profound implications that could explain cognitive abilities uniquely developed in humans, such as our power of generalization and of creative thought.”

The idea seems to be that—uniquely—jumbling everything in the human brain together produces generalization and creative thinking.

But wait… We can test that:

Suppose we took all the files out of a filing cabinet and jumbled them. That would lead to chaos, not to higher orders of thought. So Dr. Quiroga’s suggestion can’t be the answer, not all by itself.

On the other hand, what if we took all the files out, scanned them, and put them in an online database that we access via a search engine? Then we don’t, strictly, need a pattern of files to locate the one we are looking for. We only need to enter keywords in the search box.

That system would work quite well and in several ways better. But it is a completely different system. And Dr. Quiroga may be looking at a completely different system in terms of the way the human brain interacts with the human mind to process memories into abstractions and creative thought.

And yet the system, which functions very differently, uses the same basic structure as that of the chimpanzee:

Professor Quian Quiroga believes we should go beyond behavioural comparisons between humans and animals and seek for more mechanistic insights, asking what in our brain gives rise to human’s unique and vast repertoire of cognitive functions. In particular, he argues that brain size or number of neurons cannot solely explain the difference, since there is, for example, a comparable number and type of neurons in the chimp and the human brain, and both species have more or less the same anatomical structures. Therefore, our neurons, or at least some of them, must be doing something completely different, and one such difference is given by how they store our memories.

University of Leicester, “Human intelligence just got less mysterious” at ScienceDaily

So, to summarize, we have the same anatomical structures and number and type of neurons as chimpanzees but our neurons must be doing “something completely different.”

If our minds are using a “search engine” approach, they are indeed doing something different. All the more remarkably, they are using the same file cabinet but now it doesn’t matter where the files are located.

That, in turn, implies a capacity in the human brain/mind that is not just the neurons—in the same way that a search engine is not just the data. The search engine moves among the data guided by a purposeful intelligence seeking information.

Perhaps the expression “rummaging through my memories” will prove to be more than a mere expression. It might help us understand a key mind-brain interaction.

Paper. (Payment is required to read the article.)


You may also enjoy: What neuroscientists now know about how memories are born and die. Where, exactly are our memories? Are modern media destroying them? Could we erase them if we wanted to?


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Have Researchers Discovered Why Humans Are Smarter Than Animals?