Same Brain, New Ideas

Anna Dalmasso explores the possibilities underlying scientific thought and discovery through a neuroscientific lens

Over 1.2 trillion pounds are spent globally on research and development - a record high. Yet, fundamental progress in physics has stalled since the creation of the Standard Model in the mid 1970s, and in the opinion of many Nobel Prize winners, several other research fields are also “stuck” on the same inconclusive results. Why has science stagnated?

New ideas and theories are constantly being created, but the scientific method hasn’t evolved since the 17th century! To solve the problem, a new experiment explored the ability of our brain to develop brand new skills and knowledge by firstly understanding post-classical physics concepts, like fermions of duality.

At Carnegie Mellon University, physicists Robert Mason and Reinhard Schumacher, and the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology Martin Just, discovered where advanced scientific concepts reside in our brains and the skills attributed to that area. They asked a group of physicists to think about the properties of 45 different classical and post-classical concepts and rate how strongly the concepts agreed with the following dimensions: measurable magnitude, mathematical formulation, periodicity and time-dependence, and opposite relation to classical physics. By comparing this to an fMRI scan (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, used to record brain activity), a pattern emerged: each dimension corresponds to the activation of a specific neural pattern. Concepts like wave function, gamma ray, and light are strictly associated to the dimension of periodicity, which is processed in the inferior frontal and middle temporal gyrus; ideas like torque and acceleration strongly agree with the dimension of measurable magnitude, activating clusters like middle and superior temporal gyrus and parietal gyrus. But what about entities like multiverse, antimatter, or quasar?

The main new finding concerning these post-classical concepts is the distinguishable neural signature opposite to the classical ones. Actually, such complex identities evoked new cognitive processes that required a more speculative and hypothetical approach: a consilience-seeking perspective, a more relative and counter-intuitive idea of causality and the ability of linking a single concept to a broader topic. Most importantly, the abilities required to deal with modern physics are the same ones we already use to complete other, more ordinary tasks. The simple act of reading, for example, unlocks the same skills as thinking about dark matter. The concept of multiverse requires a knowledge-management ability comparable to completing multi-step exercises. As future ideas are developed, additional dimensions could also emerge.

Scientific thought comes from the plasticity of our brains - they are elastic enough to take advantage of our previous knowledge to create new concepts. Exploring how we process information can teach us how to improve our brain functions and allow us to specialize our teaching methods in order to learn faster and more efficiently by following the best neural pathways. Therefore, we can “unlock” new discoveries simply by redirecting our previous knowledge. We do not need to create something new, but recycle what we already have.

From SATNAV Issue 23, page 3.

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