Sunday, 8 March 2015

No Soul? Rats!

Nobel prize find: search for ‘soul of rat’ revealed brain’s navigation system | Science | The Guardian

I meant to write a commentary on this at the time, but it just kept getting shuffled down the stack as other topics intervened. Last year's Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was shared by Professor John O'Keefe, University College London, for his work on understanding how the brain maps the world around us so we can navigate. He jokingly claims he was looking for the soul of the rat when he discovered 'place cells'. It has now been found by Edvard and May-Brit Moser, that these 'place cells' form a grid of recorded coordinates.

We have known for some time that the hippocampus is involved since a UCL team led by Eleanor Maguire found that as London Taxicab drivers acquire 'The Knowledge' their hippocampus enlarges. 'The knowledge', for those who haven't heard of it is the detailed street knowledge London Black Cab drivers must demonstrate before they qualify for their licence to operate.

Researchers have found that place-cell activity patterns created by rats’ brains as they run through a new environment are "replayed" during sleep at a rate 16 times faster than the rate during running. More recently, place cells have also been found to code "time", clocking how many seconds a rat has been running on a wheel.
This involves describing to an examiner the shortest route between a whole series of pairs of randomly chosen locations in London and they have to get it spot on, including allowing for one-way streets, closed roads and bus lanes (which they are allowed to use). Wannabee cabbies spend hundreds of hours, usually on mopeds, learning 'The Knowledge' before they apply for their licence. It's something that seems almost inconceivable to anyone who looks at a map of London yet thousands of Black Cab drivers have it, and few of them could tell you how they do it. It's just 'The Knowledge, know what I mean?'

When I was younger and in a previous life, I worked as an Ambulance Paramedic and then station manager from a now-closed ambulance station in a small market town but also covering a large part of the surrounding county. I used to pride myself on my detailed knowledge of my area and ability to instantly orientate myself to go to an emergency anywhere, from wherever I was at the time.

In effect, I always knew exactly where I was on a conceptual map of the area. I could even talk another crew into any location, including isolated farms and houses, from anywhere in the county to a location in my area. I wasn't unique in this by any means. Most of my colleagues of more than a few years experience could do it for their area. It was regarded as much part of the job as was long working hours, no social life and poverty.

Later on, when I became an Emergency Operations Centre manager, I acquired a similar level of knowledge of the rest of the county and adjacent parts of neighbouring counties. This was 'The Knowledge' of a sort and I had no real idea of how I acquired it other than by looking at maps and actually driving all around the place. Myself and another of my colleagues used to pride ourselves in never being caught out with a location we didn't know.

Strangely, since I have been out of that environment for something over ten years now, a lot of it has been lost and I struggle even to name a road in some towns and villages that I used to be able to draw a detailed map of from memory, including the names of the pubs, shops and public buildings. It would have been interesting to have seen how my hippocampus grew and is now, presumably, shrinking back to its former state over the the last 40 years.

The larger point here, after that brief excursion into my past, which I hope wasn't too boring, is that we would regard this ability as a sign of intelligence and sentience. This knowledge and especially plotting these routes is done consciously, isn't it? It certainly involves self-awareness in order to pace oneself in the conceptual map in the first place, surely.

Well maybe, but if so, any other animal which can do it is also sentient, and the system was discovered in rats, not humans. In fact, it's hard to think of any vertebrate which isn't capable of doing it on some scale or others and some can navigate over prodigious distances, such as swallows and house martins returning to the nest they left in England 6 months ago, all the way from sub-Saharan Africa or penguins returning to the same beach in Antarctica after spending months months at sea, or wales returning to the Bay of Fundy or the feeding grounds off Boston Bay after travelling to South Africa or Antarctica. Or just any animal finding it's young in a nest, a den, a burrow or a patch of undergrowth.

Just 'instinct', or is it by using exactly the same 'conscious' neurophysiological process that we use and which, for wholly superstitious reasons and to make us feel special and unique, religions tell us are god-given abilities, unique to humans, and the thing that sets us apart from the other animals? In fact, as science is showing, these things do not set us apart from the other animals; they show how close to them all we are.

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