The price of a vote

The ferret Matrix

It’s quite rare for a scientist to stumble upon a bold new insight about cognition. It’s even more rare to do so while experimenting with a bunch of ferrets that are being forced to watch The Matrix.

But Michael Weliky may indeed have won this surreal trifecta. Weliky, a brain researcher at the University of Rochester, had long assumed — as do many cognitive scientists — that the brain is somewhat inactive in the absence of stimulation. It’s kind of like that old joke that we only use 10% of our brain. Cognitive scientists don’t really believe that old saw, but they do generally assume that the brain is considerably less busy when it’s deprived of stimuli.

Weliky, however, decided to test this assumption. He took a group of adult ferrets, wired up their visual cortexes with probes, and then subjected them to three different forms of stimuli: a) A pitch-black room; b) a TV screen displaying nothing but static; and, last but not least, c) the movie The Matrix. His findings? As you might expect, viewing the movie and the TV static caused the ferrets’ visual cortexes to fire at 100%. But what was truly weird was the the pitch-black room registered 80% activity.

The first question, obviously, is — why are our brains doing so much visual work when there’s nothing to look at? Weliky suspects it’s because our ability to see and recognize things is contingent on cognitive models that are firing all the time, even when we’re not looking at stuff. That 80% activity rate is the baseline work the ferrets needed to do just to generate their mental model of reality. As he said in a press release:

“This suggests that with your eyes closed, your visual processing is already running at 80 percent, and that opening your eyes only adds the last 20 percent. The big question here is what is the brain doing when it’s idling, because it’s obviously doing something important.”

Fair enough. But there’s a much bigger question here, which is — ferrets? Ferrets WATCHING THE MATRIX?

As it turns out, Weliky has been studying ferret visual-cortical activity for some time, so his choice of that particular animal was driven merely by the fact that he’s extremely familiar with their neurophysiology. In previous experiments, he apparently used to shine lights into the eyes of unconscious ferrets to see if it produced any brain activity. (Which, when you think about it, is not really much less strange than sitting them down to watch Carrie-Anne Moss kick ass in bullet time … but whatever.) As to why he picked The Matrix, it seems pretty clear that Welicky could have used any visual stimulus he wanted, but that he simply couldn’t resist the metaphoric hilarity: What better movie to use for a study about how the brain develops mental representations of reality? Heh. While it is hard to tell whether Welicky is headed towards a Nobel prize or an IgNobel one, there’s no doubt that his findings are quite intriguing. If his data are solid, then they point to the fact that our brains are much busier than we suspect. As he concludes:

“In a way, our neural structure imposes a certain structure on the outside world, and all we know is that at least one other mammalian brain seems to impose the same structure. Either that or The Matrix freaked out the ferrets the way it did everyone else.”

(Thanks to Robin at Snarkmarket for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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