Chris Eliasmith, Director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience, received the prestigious John C. Polanyi Award and is also an inaugural member of the Royal Society of Canada's College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists.
The Superhuman Mind
Extraordinary mental abilities are often assumed to be something reserved for the lucky few with special genes that give rise to amazing minds—those of phenomenal artists like Michelangelo and Beethoven, tech moguls like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and brilliant mathematicians like Einstein and Gödel. But if this is indeed the case, then how do we explain the fact that extraordinary mental abilities can be acquired virtually over night? Consider the case of Orlando Serrell. He was a perfectly ordinary kid, leading a perfectly ordinary existence for the first ten years of his life. Then in January 1979 a ball smashed into the left side of his head while he was playing baseball with friends. He fell to the ground, but eventually got up and continued playing. He did not get any medical treatment because he did not tell his parents about the accident. For weeks he suffered from a headache, which eventually ceased. Shortly thereafter Orlando realized that he had the ability to perform calendar calculations about days following his accident. For example, if you say January 15, 2004, he will immediately say “Thursday.” He cannot do it for any days prior to the incident. He can also recall the weather, as well as where he was and what he has done for nearly every day since the accident.
This condition is known as savant syndrome, a phenomenon in which people show extraordinary abilities in a narrow range of capabilities, most typically in memory, music, art, calendar calculation, mathematics or spatial skills.
Cases of acquired savant syndrome show that it’s not only special brains that can achieve the ultimate level of cognitive performance. Acquired savants from being ordinary individuals with average intelligence to geniuses in their special area of talent. What’s interesting about such cases is that they seem to be not far away at all from how the neurotypical brain functions. In other words, superhuman ability is not an otherworldly and impenetrable attribute of arcane brains. It’s not a God-given deftness, but something closer to an innate aptitude that lies dormant in the great majority of us. Acquired savants show us that ordinary brains have hidden superhuman abilities. We just can’t normally access these abilities. Brain injury, in certain lucky cases, facilitates access to otherwise inaccessible pockets of talent.
Sabine Kastner (Princeton University, Neuroscience of Attention and Perception Laboratory)
Neural Dynamics of the Primate Attention Network
The selection of information from our cluttered sensory environments is one of the most fundamental cognitive operations performed by the primate brain. In the visual domain, the selection process is thought to be mediated by a static spatial mechanism – a ‘spotlight’ that can be flexibly shifted around the visual scene. This spatial search mechanism has been associated with a large-scale network that consists of multiple nodes distributed across all major cortical lobes and includes also subcortical regions. To identify the specific functions of each network node and their functional interactions is a major goal for the field of cognitive neuroscience. In my lecture, I will challenge two common notions of attention research. First, I will show behavioral and neural evidence that the attentional spotlight is neither stationary nor unitary. In the appropriate behavioral context, even when spatial attention is sustained at a given location, additional spatial mechanisms operate flexibly in parallel to monitor the visual environment. Second, spatial attention is assumed to be under ‘top-down’ control of higher order cortex. In contrast, I will provide neural evidence indicating that attentional control is exerted through thalamo-cortical interactions. Together, this evidence indicates the need for major revisions of traditional attention accounts.
Virtual Personalities: A Neuro-biologically Inspired Neural Network Model of Human Motivation and Personality
There are strong, stable between individual differences in personality (as captured in the Big Five structure of personality). Yet at the same time, people exhibit high levels of within-individual variability in personality related behaviors over time and situations. However, there is no widely accepted model of the mechanisms responsible for either phenomenon. We will present a neurobiologically-based theoretical framework, based on structured motivational systems, and embodied in a neural network model, that captures both phenomenon in the same model. Behavior at a specific point in time is a joint function of current motives, availability of motive affordances in the situation, current relevant bodily states, and competition among alternative active motives. We will also discuss how this model provides an account of everyday decision-making and behavior.
Sense from Randomness in Neural Circuits
Many neural circuits are interconnected with remarkable precision, but others appear to be wired randomly. How extensive is randomness and how can randomly connected circuits perform useful functions? I will address these questions using experimental data and models from a number of different systems.