Fiction | How the brain perceives space and time?




Fiction | How the brain perceives space and time?


“… Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to disappear into the shadows, and only a kind of union between the two of them retain an independent reality.”

This famous phrase uttered Hermann Minkowski in 1906. In it he expressed the spirit of the special theory of relativity, Albert Einstein published recently. Einstein’s mathematical genius helped him to show that space and time as independent mathematical constructs were only illusions in the equations of relativity, losing four-dimensional structure, which is called the Minkowski space-time. And while most people are familiar with the influence of Einstein’s understanding of the physical universe, not many people know that the same revolution time and space erupted in experimental psychology and neuroscience.

The space in my head


Spatial reasoning – is the subject of studying how cognitive architecture of consciousness perceives, organized and interacts with the physical space. This question has long interested philosophers and scientists, and is probably the most important historical step carried Immanuel Kant in the “Critique of Pure Reason” (1781/1787). Kant argued that space as we know it, is the organizing function of the human subconscious mind, the scaffold on which we are able to understand the physical world of objects, expansion and movement. In a way, the space for Kant was a window into the world, and not the means of its realization.

While philosophers since Kant argued about his theory of perception of space, it became the basis of empirical studies of the 20th century on the topic of how the mind recreates the space that we study. A key understanding of how this happens, introduced the American psychologist Edward Tolman in 1948.

The main subject of research Tolman – the behavior of rats in a maze. In particular, he was interested in understanding whether rats environment due to purely behavioral mechanisms or based on their navigational abilities are cognitive processes. In operation, Tolman found that rats could effectively navigate through the maze, especially without relying on behavioral motives. This allowed to make the assumption that the rats spontaneously form a mental representation of the maze, thereby determining the right places and planning routes to reach the destination. Such a mental representation of a scientist called a “cognitive map”. Tolman suggested that the concept should be the primary method of understanding the spatial environment in mammals – rats and humans.

Although the concept of a cognitive map is widespread in the 1960s with the development of cognitive psychology, Tolman itself is not very much made for the study of the formation and use of cognitive maps. In particular, it was unclear how cognitive maps are different from other potential strategies for navigating and understanding of space, and whether the scientists to determine its neural basis.

In 70 years these issues took up John O’Keefe and his colleagues, expressing his studies in an elegant theory called “Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map” (1976). In O’Keefe and Lynn Neydel suggested that a specific set of neurons in the hippocampus – a brain region involved in the various processes of memory – is responsible for the encoding of space in the mammalian brain. These cells are called spatial (place cells). Direct writing processes in the hippocampus of rats showed that the activity in this area of ​​the brain as flaring the rat falls in a certain space.

It is remarkable, but the locations in which intensified spatial cells were fixed in the multiple effects of the environment, turning into a kind of spatial reference points. O’Keefe and Neydel believed that these spatial cells form the neurological basis of cognitive map, and the map is determined by the interaction of the various elements that make up the environment. Research the early 2000’s to epilepsy patients have confirmed the existence of spatial cells in the human hippocampus, which operate in a similar way as in mammals.

Spatial cells themselves cope successfully with the description of the location in the environment. However, because of their susceptibility to certain locations in the experimental manipulations as rearranging spatial cues, it remains unclear whether they can create a spatial framework through which we construct our perception of the world.

The second cell type was found for the first time the family of Edward and May-Britt Moser and their students in 2005. So-called mesh cell rather neurons pattern formed is extremely resembling hexagonal grid. Unlike the spatial cells patterns observed in the mesh cells not derived from the properties of the environment or any type of sensor information. Instead, they encode spatial patterns were formed directly into the brain, and create an environment for the substrate almost in the same manner as suggested by Kant. Tellingly, the mesh cells (grid cells) are directly in the region of the brain called the entorhinal cortex, one of the major neural inputs to the hippocampus, and thus mesh cells may well be the source of the spatial structure, which, in fact, formed a cognitive map of the spatial environment .
Time to head


Time has proved more elusive concept for psychology and neurobiology to. Despite decades of research, most of what we know about the representation of time in the brain comes from two directions: a cross events are broken down into individual scenes and how these episodes are arranged sequentially in time.

In the 70 years it has been suggested that the hippocampus is critical to the experience of templates to determine the independence of the episodes that make up the contents of our system of episodic memory. However, this hypothesis has been built largely by the work of neuropsychology, where brain damage in the hippocampus impairs the ability to share and make the episodes, as well as on computer models showing the system of episodic memory.

In the early 2000s there were the first evidence of the significant role of the hippocampus in the analysis and sequencing of episodic events, both in animals and in humans. Using an array of experimental techniques has allowed scientists to discover that the hippocampus is critical in the coding of visual stimuli – whether images shown on the computer screen or orientation in space – and thus creates unique patterns of activity during the cross-show route segments during advancement through the environment by route.

The latter fact is extremely important, as it demonstrates a clean work space cells in the hippocampus during navigation. In this model, one would expect that the hippocampus is constantly active while overcoming the route segments, while the physical location of the person remains the same. This suggests that the hippocampus is involved in the creation of presentation, and not merely determines the spatial position in the environment.

A key breakthrough in identifying the types of details involved in the work of the hippocampus, carried Howard Eichenbaum and his colleagues at Boston University. In 2011, the authors proposed a new type of hippocampal neurons, designated as “temporary cell» (time cells), i.e. the cell time. Several experiments conducted in rats showed that the temporary cell uniquely coded sequence of events can disambiguate cross events forming ordered in time scenes.

Speaking of normal language, these findings are extremely important in order to understand how the hippocampus works and what processes are supported: episodic memory, navigation and imagination. In particular, it does suggest that the hippocampus is able to work with both space and with time, depending on what type of information need to be converted.
Space and time in the head


If our perception of space and time have similar neural correlates of being born a serious question of whether space and time are different in our minds or are they the product of a generalized neurocognitive system that allows us to understand the world? Although Kant spoke more about space than about the time, modern cognitive neuroscientists have begun to form complex theory, addressed this issue. One of the assumptions Demis Hassabisa and Eleanor Maguire implies that the primary function of the hippocampus – is an understanding of the past and the future, or the promotion through space as such. On the contrary, thanks to the collaboration with the overall system, developed throughout the brain, the hippocampus enables us to design a representation of the world in the space-time context, that allows us to simulate the experience of the past to predict the future, and ultimately to apply the information directly to the present.

However, although this role of space-time context attracts eminent scholars past ten years, there is discrepancy between the perception of space and time. For example, the perception of the space we have remained stable, while the time is stretched by the need to regularly – moments occur faster or slower depending on the preference of our attention and action in the world.

No matter what side was found true in the years to come, no doubt we will learn more about how the mind perceives space and time perception and how it affects our understanding of the world. Here, rats, for example, do not believe in virtual reality (rats definitely know something), and what virtual reality is not space-time?
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