Neural networks of neural networks

Credit: brentsview under CC BY-NC 2.0

Brains receive input from the outside world, their neurons do something to that input, and create an output. That output may be a thought (I want curry for dinner); it may be an action (make curry); it may be a change in mood (yay curry!). Whatever the output, that “something” is a transformation of some form of input (a menu) to output (“chicken dansak, please”). And if we think of a brain as a device that transforms inputs to outputs then, inexorably, the computer becomes our analogy of choice.

For some this analogy is merely a useful rhetorical device; for…

What the pandemic revealed about scientific publishing

Image: athree23/Pixabay

I was reading my umpteenth news story about Covid-19 science, a story about the latest research into how to make indoor spaces safe from infection, about whether cleaning surfaces or changing the air was more important. And it was bothering me. Not because it was dull (which, of course, it was: there are precious few ways to make air filtration and air pumps edge-of-the-seat stuff). But because of the way it treated the science.

You see, much of the research it reported was in the form of pre-prints, papers shared by researchers on the internet before they are submitted to…

Why we can’t put your mind in the machine

Credit: Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Immortality awaits. As you draw your dying breath, we will inject a preservative into your brain that will fix in place every one of the trillion or so connections between your 86 billion neurons. We will then trace those wires, building the complete map of your brain’s connections, your “connectome”. Upload that complete wiring diagram to a computer, simulate the brain’s dynamics upon it — and you live again.

Such is the promise of mind uploading. It is predicated on a common idea: that the wiring between neurons is what stores your memories, is what makes you, well, you. Companies…

It’s how your brain works, after all

Credit: Princeton University Press

Neurons. Over the deep time of Earth’s history, these tiny bags of chemicals have joined forces, swarming together in gargantuan numbers, all to make a brain. In cahoots, these neurons do everything you do: sense, think, move; sleep, dream, and cogitate. Eat cake. Watch telly. Eat cake and watch telly, while ruminating on the possible locations of the biscuits you swore you bought two days ago.

Knowing ourselves means knowing our neurons. That one bunch of neurons are active at the exact same time is how you reach for your phone without knocking over your cup. The simultaneous activity of…

Hi everyone,

as it’s our first newsletter, I just wanted to say a big thank you to you all for following us at The Spike on Medium.

I’m so excited! Today sees the launch of my new book “The Spike: An Epic Journey Through the Brain in 2.1 Seconds” from Princeton University Press, in hardback, ebook, and audiobook. It’s a rollicking, rollercoaster ride through your brain, from eye to hand and everywhere in between, that sweeps through 30 years of the deepest neuroscience to the frontiers of what we know about how neurons work. It is a book about the…

A Dialogue

Credit: Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Have you heard? Scientists at Rockefeller University have just announced they can record one million individual neurons in the cortex of a mouse — at the same time!

Wow, one million. Is that a lot?

We got very excited about being able to record 10,000 neurons in the mouse brain just two years ago. And the biggest recordings of all so far have been tens of thousands of neurons in the brains of baby zebrafish.

So this is a huge leap! Why baby zebrafish, incidentally?

Because they have see-through heads. You can literally see the brain through their skin, which…

My new book about your life in spikes

Credit: Princeton University Press

Your life is lived in spikes. Your brain uses electricity to communicate, its neurons talking to each other by sending tiny pulses of voltage down a gossamer thin cable. We neuroscientists call those pulses “spikes”. And as spikes are how neurons communicate, they are how you do anything: talk, eat, and run; see, plan, and decide.

It is the spikes pouring forth from the end of motor neurons that make your muscles contract just so, into a broad grin, eyes wrinkling; into an outstretched arm, grasping that steaming mug; into the thumb swiping up and up, scrolling and scrolling and…

That Was The Year That Was

Credit: Pixabay

It seems we are cursed to live in interesting times. A year starting with the threat of conflict, Donald Trump authorising the assassination of the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Iran retaliating with rocket attacks on US military bases, and then tragically shooting down an airplane of its own citizens by mistake. All banished to distant memory by the global pandemic unfolding in slow motion.

And yet ironically I’d wager for most of us this year has been the least interesting on record, a year in two dimensions, endlessly staring at a screen in your own home, reading from it, typing…

The world of scientific publishing is unravelling fast

Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Psst, keep it to yourself, but I’ve got a one-time, never-to-be-repeated deal to offer you: give me several thousand dollars and I will write an illogical, error-strewn rant about the deep flaws of your life’s work, in prose that was either written at midnight under the influence of a triple espresso or by a narcoleptic mountain goat.

Tempted? That’s literally what the Nature family of scientific journals have announced this year: should you aspire to publish an open-access paper in Nature Physics, Nature Methods or Nature Genetics, you have to pay them 2190 euros ($2650) upfront for the privilege of…

The unruly offspring of machine learning and neuroscience

Credit: Michael Gaida via Pixabay

If there’s one thing we humans are good at, it’s finding patterns. Maths is awash with them — Fibonacci sequences, triangle numbers, the golden spiral. You’re doing it right now, these black marks on a screen making patterns you recognise as letters, words, sentences.

If there’s one thing we humans are bad at, it’s finding patterns where none exist. Balls of gas light years distant are not tracing the outline of a hunter, a plough, or a crab for the sole benefit of a bipedal primate on a blue dot near a middling orange star. …

Mark Humphries

Theorist and neuroscientist. Writing at the intersection of neurons, data science, and AI. Unceasingly British.

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