How Do Humans Think?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018 - 15:40

Researchers have recently presented a proposal about one of the most fundamental questions in neuroscience: How do humans think?

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany, and the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim, Norway, among them Nobel prize laureate Edvard I. Moser, offer a new proposal in the current issue of the journal Science -- Humans think using their brain's navigation system, Science Daily reports.

The team of scientists suggests that our inner navigation system is the key to 'thinking', explaining why our knowledge seems to be organized in a spatial fashion. "We believe that the brain stores information about our surroundings in so-called cognitive spaces. This concerns not only geographical data, but also relationships between objects and experience," explains Christian Doeller, senior author of the paper and the new director at the MPI CBS.

The term 'cognitive spaces' refers to mental maps in which we arrange our experience. Everything that we encounter has physical properties, whether a person or an object, and can therefore be arranged along different dimensions.

In their proposal, Doeller and his team combine individual threads of evidence to form a theory of human thinking. The theory begins with the Nobel Prize-winning discoveries of place and grid cells in rodents' brains, which were subsequently shown to exist in humans.

Both cell types show patterns of activity representing the animal's position in space, for example, while it forages for food. Each position in space is represented by a unique pattern of activity. Together, the activity of place and grid cells allows the formation of a mental map of the surroundings, which is stored and reactivated during later visits.

"These processes are especially useful for making inferences about new objects or situations, even if we have never experienced them," the neuroscientist continues. Using existing maps of cognitive spaces humans can anticipate how similar something new is to something they already know by putting it in relation to existing dimensions.

If they've already experienced tigers, lions, or panthers, but have never seen a leopard, we would place the leopard in a similar position as the other big cats in our cognitive space. Based on our knowledge about the concept 'big cat', already stored in a mental map, we can adequately react to the encounter with the leopard. "We can generalize to novel situations, which we constantly face, and infer how we should behave," said Jacob Bellmund, the first author of the publication.

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