HAVE you ever experienced that eerie feeling of a thought popping into your head as if from nowhere, with no clue as to why you had that particular idea at that particular time? You may think that such fleeting thoughts, however random they seem, must be the product of predictable and rational processes. After all, the brain cannot be random, can it? Surely it processes information using ordered, logical operations, like a powerful computer?
Disorder is essential to the brain's ability to transmit information and solve problems
Meyer-Lindenberg created a computer simulation of a small-world network with 13 degrees of separation. Each node was represented by an electrical oscillator that approximated a neuron's activity. The results confirmed that the brain has just the right architecture for its activity to sit on the tipping point between order and disorder, although the team didn't measure neural activity itself (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 103, p 19518).
That clinching evidence arrived earlier this year, when Ed Bullmore of the University of Cambridge and his team used brain scanners to record neural activity in 19 human volunteers. They looked at the entire range of brainwave frequencies, from 0.05 hertz all the way up to 125 hertz, across 200 different regions of the brain.
The work of Bullmore's team is compelling evidence that self-organised criticality is an essential property of brain activity, says neuroscientist David Liley at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, who has worked on computational models of chaos in the brain. But why should that be? Perhaps because self-organised criticality is the perfect starting point for many of the brain's functions.
The neuronal avalanches that Beggs investigated, for example, are perfect for transmitting information across the brain. If the brain was in a more stable state, these avalanches would die out before the message had been transmitted. If it was chaotic, each avalanche could swamp the brain.
The balance between stability and instability in the brain has been linked with intelligence, at least as measured by scores on an IQ test
He found that the length of time the children's brains spent in both the stable phase-locked states and the unstable phase-shifting states correlated with their IQ scores. For example, phase shifts typically last 55 milliseconds, but an additional 1 millisecond seemed to add as many as 20 points to the child's IQ. A shorter time in the stable phase-locked state also corresponded with greater intelligence - with a difference of 1 millisecond adding 4.6 IQ points to a child's score (NeuroImage, vol 42, p 1639).
Thatcher says this is because a longer phase shift allows the brain to recruit many more neurons for the problem at hand. "It's like casting a net and capturing as many neurons as possible at any one time," he says. The result is a greater overall processing power that contributes to higher intelligence.
Hovering on the edge of chaos provides brains with their amazing capacity to process information and rapidly adapt to our ever-changing environment, but what happens if we stray either side of the boundary? The most obvious assumption would be that all of us are a short step away from mental illness. Meyer-Lindenberg suggests that schizophrenia may be caused by parts of the brain straying away from the critical point. However, for now that is purely speculative.
Thatcher, meanwhile, has found that certain regions in the brains of people with autism spend less time than average in the unstable, phase-shifting states. These abnormalities reduce the capacity to process information and, suggestively, are found only in the regions associated with social behaviour. "These regions have shifted from chaos to more stable activity," he says. The work might also help us understand epilepsy better: in an epileptic fit, the brain has a tendency to suddenly fire synchronously, and deviation from the critical point could explain this.
"They say it's a fine line between genius and madness," says Liley. "Maybe we're finally beginning to understand the wisdom of this statement."
phase-shifting, social behaviour, IQ, EEG measurements, Meyer-Lindenberg, Power laws, self-organised criticality, "power law" distribution, epilepsy, "phase-locking", Global Development News,