Magical Mice


Before I get into the magic mice, I should probably explain about the magic ravens.

Even if you don’t follow the old Nordic religion of Asatru, you’ve probably heard about the one-eyed god Odin (maybe from Thor or Sandman comics, both of which are epically fun to read). Rack your connectome a little, and you might remember that Odin had two super-intelligent ravens, Huginn and Muninn* (Thought and Memory). While Odin chilled on his throne in Valhalla, Huginn and Muninn would fly around the world, then return to tell him everything they saw.

Odin chillin' with Huginn and Muninn, evidently making some kind of medieval Trollface.

I think the stories about Huginn and Muninn are trying to explain that thought and memory seem almost magical, when you stop to think about it. Do they just fly around each other in endless strange loops, or are they reporting back to something else…?

It’s questions like these that keep neuroscientists (and philosophers, and nerds like me) up at night. That’s why I do a happy dance whenever I read about research like this, because it means I get to learn a learn a little more about how memory works.

It breaks down a little sum’n like this: a research team at Princeton have genetically engineered mice with ultra-powerful memories. These furry little dudes can coast through the AP honors program in Mouse School (which seems, mainly, to involve a lot of Not Getting Lost in Confusing Places) in about half the time it takes an average mouse. One of these rodent geniuses – the star of the program, you might say – is a mouse named (seriously) “Doogie.” He can solve complex mazes in a flash, and he remembers his previous solutions effortlessly. A Sudoku addiction clearly lies in his future.

To show why this particular article gets me all hot ‘n’ bothered, I’m gonna quote a quote that was quoted in another quote:

“There’s something magical about taking a mind and making it work better,” says Alcino Silva, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles and one of the pioneers of the enhanced cognition field. “In neuroscience, we’ve learned so much from loss-of-function mutants. But we’re only beginning to learn from these smart animals.”

Meanwhile, the smart animals continue to study the scientists, watching and plotting…always plotting…

If that's a raven, this may be a depiction of the ultimate animal super-team.

There’s a clear upshot to all this mouse engineering: the more scientists learn to isolate genes related to memory and learning, the brighter the light at the end of the tunnel for people suffering from dyslexia, ADHD, and a slew of other mental troubles.

And that’s only the beginning. I mean, imagine what it’d be like to have a truly perfect memory…to always be able to find the word that’s on the tip of your tongue… to never forget where you left your keys… to never forget anything… Ohhh wait; this is headed into Cautionary Tale of Hubris territory now, isn’t it?

Yep. Because it raises the question of what, exactly, a “deficit” in memory is. You don’t need me to tell you that there are some things we’d all rather forget. I mean, one of my very favorite movies is about that exact need. So you kinda have to feel some sympathy for the mouse described here:

When placed in an enclosure where days before it had received a mild electric shock – a jolt so minor, most mice don’t even react to it – this mouse cowers in the corner frozen with fear. Its enhanced memory is both blessing and burden.

So, basically, he has lifelong post-traumatic stress. How delightful.

The article also mentions a medical case that really got me thinking (or maybe remembering).

Sherashevsky had such a perfect memory that he often struggled to forget irrelevant details. For instance, [he] was almost entirely unable to grasp metaphors, since his mind was so fixated on particulars.

…which sounds a little weird, until you think about the last time you tried to explain a joke that your audience just didn’t “get.” The more you explain the details, the less funny the joke becomes – the more the humor seems to vanish behind the words. Here’s where it gets absolutely mind-blowingly fascinating (for me, anyway):

Other researchers have used computer models of memory to demonstrate that memory is actually optimized by slight imperfections, which allow us to see connections between different but related events. “The brain appears to have made a compromise in that having a more accurate memory interferes with the ability to generalize,” Farah says. “You need a little noise in order to be able to think abstractly, to get beyond the concrete and literal.”

So, in short, we need to forget some of what we experience in order to think about what we’ve experienced. Even a magical mouse needs to forget in order to learn.

Now, if he could just get that other mouse named “Pinky” to stop asking him so many inane questions…

____________

*On a random tangent, I realized that the word “Muninn” sounds almost exactly like the first word of the Iliad, Μῆνιν (“rage”…or “of rage” if you’re gonna get all grammatical). Anyway, I found this so completely awesome that my hands spontaneously typed this footnote, then burst into flames.

Other researchers have used computer models of memory to demonstrate that memory is actually optimized by slight imperfections, which allow us to see connections between different but related events. “The brain appears to have made a compromise in that having a more accurate memory interferes with the ability to generalize,” Farah says. “You need a little noise in order to be able to think abstractly, to get beyond the concrete and literal.”

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