Brainmap: Cognition is Rhythmic

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 - 12:00
Seminar room 2204, 149 13th St., Charlestown Navy Yard

Earl Miller
The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and Department of Brain
and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology,

How are some thoughts favored over others?  A wealth of data at the level of single neurons has yielded candidate brain areas and mechanisms for our best understood model: visual attention.  Recent work has naturally evolved toward efforts at a more integrative, network, understanding.  It suggests that focusing attention arises from interactions between widespread cortical and subcortical networks that may be regulated via their rhythmic synchronization.  This could extend to all cognitive processes, suggesting our brain does not operate continuously, but rather discretely, with pulses of activity routing packets of information.  Such discrete cycles would provide a backbone for coordinating computations (and their results) across disparate networks.  However, it comes at a cost: it is naturally limited in bandwidth; only so many things can be computed or carried in a single oscillatory cycle. This can explain the most fundamental property of conscious thought, its limited capacity, which is the reason why we evolved attention in the first place.