Pretty much everyone has heard about the Butterfly Effect. (We do not mean that Ashton Kutcher movie! You can go to IMDB for that, but first, stay here and read this.)
In sum: the butterfly effect states that a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere in the jungles of Asia can eventually start a tornado in Texas.
It’s a concept that has been used by people willing others to realize the unforeseen consequences of their actions. (Smoky the Bear may have summarized it best – if you leave a smoldering match near a campsite, you can start a forest fire.)
Did you stop to ever think that it could have a material effect on in the inner workings of your brain? (Butterfly effect, not a forest fire.)
According to recent research at University College in London, published in the June 2010 issue of Nature, there may be evidence of a butterfly effect happening within the brain.
The scientists at UCL decided to test this. They asked: would the firing of a single neuron quickly peter out, or would it have a material effect on the surrounding brain circuitry?
The researchers decided to present a single (artificial) synaptic spike into the neuron of a rat’s brain. To do this, the animals were first anaesthetized, then a single neuron was artificially “excited” with a current lasting either 100 or 200 milliseconds.
The surrounding area of the brain was closely monitored to check for any resultant synaptic spikes.
The researchers had expected that the single spike would extinguish itself and no continuing motions or actions would be found.
What they found was that this single spike did not extinguish, but instead, the single jolt produced at least twenty-eight separate synaptic spikes.
This would be like setting off a small firecracker near a pile of dynamite and having twenty-eight subsequent explosions!
And just in case you thought it ended there, it didn’t – each subsequent synaptic spike was shown to create more and more ripples of activity.
The researchers found that that single spike could potentially create over 1,500 new synaptic spikes within the brain.
Obviously, this avalanche of synaptic firings makes the brain a very busy place. The next question here, then, is: How does the brain deal with all the extra noise and still be able to function on a daily basis?
Within this same experiment, the researchers uncovered information about the brain’s rate code, which makes sure that computation in the brain is accurate.
A rate code essentially means that the more intense the stimulus is for a given action, the higher the frequency of firings and synaptic spikes for that particular action.
In other words, if the need and desire for the task is great enough, the concept of the task will “drown out” the added noise created within the brain.
The concept of the rate code sounds cool, but it is confusing… If there are any rate code experts reading this, please comment at the end of this article!
After reading this research, a couple of questions popped into my mind.
From the mental health conditions I have studied, it seems like noise might be too much for some brains to handle.
It would be interesting to know if there actually was a limit to how much noise a person could stand to have in their mind, but could still be able to function and perform necessary activities also.
Is there such a thing as too much noise? If so, what happens to someone’s mind? I am imagining a big, messy brain explosion with a loud sonic boom-type noise accompanying it, like a building imploding.
If your brain explodes, is it Ashton Kutcher’s fault?
London, Michael. “Sensitivity to perturbations in vivo implies high noise and suggests rate coding in cortex.” Nature. Volume 466, number 1: 123-128.
Image: Credit to http://www.celsias.com/article/group-declares-planetary-ecological-emergency/