Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Pickard Brain Talk

Highlights from Prof Robert Pickard's fascinating talk about the Honeybee and human brain. For full transcript and recording click here

We take our lives for granted and we spend all our time worrying about money and income tax, and where the next crumb is coming from, yet here we are with a state of consciousness, sitting in a body that took 2500m years to evolve. An incredible machine. Most of us are able to walk, see, breathe, sense our environment, think about the universe, right the way up to 80 without losing more than 5% of our intellectual capability.
You start to lose your ability to recall memory from about 35 onwards. The important thing there is to rehearse the memories that you want to retain.

  One thing we learn from the study of the bee brain is that if you rehearse the memories that you want to retain, then they will be the last to go. And that’s very interesting, because the nerve cells respond to their usage. If they store information that you don’t use, they will eventually let it go. But if you use it, and coming to BBKA lectures like this is one of the best ways of keeping your brain at optimum performance, because if you don’t use it, you lose it. 
 We spend our lives worrying about all sorts of things that we shouldn’t be doing. When you look over your existence over 80 years, you remember very little. You just actually mark out the memories of special moments. The births, the deaths, the marriages, the BBKA Conventions, and you string these together in the necklace of your life. So I would say to you, remember those special moments, and rehearse them, because they are what life is all about at the end of the day. Don’t try to remember everything, keep your brain cells working on exactly what you want to remember. People often say to me ‘ you’ve got a very good memory. That’s not what my wife tells me because I don’t even know where the coffee and tea are kept! But that’s because I spend all my time thinking about science, so I keep all the cells in my brain concentrating on that, so that it’s the last thing that I’ll forget as my brain gradually deteriorates.

 Honeybee’s brain. When I first started working in neurophysiology I looked for a brain that was small enough to study in a lifetime, but had all those amazing capabilities that we associate with brains and the complex brain of the human being. I first started out working on ants. But I found that when I drilled through the head to get to the brain, there wasn’t much brain left! So I had to go up, so I went up to the honeybee. And in the honeybee you find everything. The only thing I’ve not been able to demonstrate in honeybees is a sense of its own mortality, but in every other respect: short term memory, long term memory, social communication, all sorts of emotional states which I’m not embarrassed to talk about, because words like frustration can be applied to some of the behaviours of honeybees without being anthropomorphic. Because you can meet all the measurements that are required by psychologists to illustrate frustration in human beings. So this is a very, very complicated creature. I must say that when I first started to work on the honeybee I wanted to use the honeybee’s brain to get a better understanding of the human brain, but over the years have come to appreciate that the honeybee is far less robotic than I thought she was in the 1960’s when I started my biological work. The corollary is I’ve come to believe that human brain is an awful lot more robotic than I previously thought it was.

 Complex capability of the honeybee brain. It’s only got 860,000 cells; to be able to do in essence everything that we can do is spectacular. People sometimes, when I say that the human brain is a machine, just like the honeybee brain – they feel quite offended, but they’re really feeling offended because the machines that human beings make are very simple. But if you brought 2500m years of research & development to build a machine, then you can build something which is incredibly sophisticated. So the human brain, like the honeybee brain, is a machine, built to do a job, but an incredible machine. 
Another important thing I need to say here is there’s no such thing as a distinction between physical and mental disease. All disease is a consequence of physics and chemistry. There’s nothing metaphysical or ethereal about a brain that is malforming. If a brain is performing badly, it is because there is a chemical or physical imbalance, and the electrical fields, or the chemical signals that the cells are sending to one another, eventually can be corrected when we know enough about the detail.

When you read about the dance language you see them as robotic, but honeybees are so far from being robotic. They have the dance language, the antennal tip-tapping communication, sound communication – bees can hear airborne sound contrary to what you often read in textbooks. Escov demonstrated that bees have hairs on the back of their shoulders that respond to airborne sound waves.

 The whole communication between bees is fantastically personal and individual.

The basic embryological plan for humans and bees is to build a metamerically segmented worm. It’s not just men who are worms, men and women are evolved from a wormy ancestor,

and each metamerical segment can generate two legs, and genetically they are modified then for each species that you’re associated with that has any complexity at all. And in the honeybee the first 6 segments go into forming the head. The first pair of legs become the antennae by genetic modification, and occasionally you’ll see a bee with two legs hanging out in front of its head, where there’s been a mutation back to produce the legs. And then you’ve got pairs of legs converted into the mandibles or the mouth parts, all packed together. And then you go into the thorax with its three basic segments and pairs of legs.

 In the case of the human brain, more than 22 embryological segments are use to build our head, and that’s why we have a much more complicated brain. Every metameric segment can produce a pair of legs, it can produce a bit of nerve tissue centrally, and it can produce peripheral nerves coming out, and in the human brain of course because you’ve got 22 embryological segments crushed together, the nerves that come out, now called the cranial nerves, are really segmental nerves that have just been pushed together, and they’re all coming out in a bunch. It’s a wonderful thing, embryology, it’s the nearest thing to miraculous magic that you could ever observe – to watch the cells organising themselves is stunning.

You...put the electrode in, ... pass the current to deposit some metal ions from the ends of these terminals, which you can stain in the tissue, so afterwards you can cut a bee’s brain into 320 slices, using a piece of very sharp glass, shaving off, then you can finally leave little deposits, so you see exactly which nerve cells are sitting next to your micro electronic chip. So you can identify the cells that are doing the job. So using that we’ve been able to establish an atlas of the honeybee brain.
So now you’re travelling through the honeybee brain from front to back.

There you can see the Kenyon Cell axons coming down. The cell bodies are up here, and these little elipses are the branching points coming forward to the alpha lobe.

Here’s a little telephone exchange for relating the conscious to the subconscious. Just like us, most of their brain is subconscious. In human beings, we think we are in charge of our brains but we’re not. Our subconscious works out the answers to problems, and then informs the conscious. So you’re told secondarily what your view is on a particular subject. You don’t actually work it out and tell the rest of your body. That’s why people don’t respond very well to logical argument. Sometimes the image that the brain is responding to is created in the subconscious, but then the conscious is informed of what it’s going to do. That’s why it’s such a myth to think that if you think hard enough and long enough, you’ll understand yourself and your own character; it’s extremely difficult for the conscious brain to access the subconscious brain, and the honeybee has the same problem.

 Feedback is the key thing that maintains sanity in the human brain and bee brains. So when you create abnormal situations for a bee, the feedback is totally changed and the sanity goes out of the window. For example, putting a bee in a house where it flies against a window. The window is cutting out all ultraviolet light, which is one of the bees main contributors to its visual analysis. So when you bring a bee indoors and you wonder why it’s crashing against the window all the time, and doesn’t behave rationally in looking for a way out, it’s because you’ve put it in a feedback situation that is totally alien to the way it’s evolved over millions of years, and it’s not seeing naturally. If you put it in the presence of a light like this [fluorescent] , flickering 60 times a second. Now our flickerfusion frequency allows us to see it as a constant light, but the bee’s flickerfusion frequency is so acute, it can detect a light flickering at 100 times a second. So when you bring a bee into a room like this it’s in a discotheque. Everything’s flashing, so the poor old bee panics and just crashes against the window trying to get out of this hell that you’ve introduced it to.

 So feedback is the key thing. If you have any depression in your life, any real problem that you have to cope with, you have to put yourself into the ancestral environment in which your brain evolved. That means going for long walks through forests, so that you can recalibrate your nervous system by giving it the correct feedback. Sitting in an office all day at an air conditioned level, sitting up, standing up, sitting down, behaving like a robot, stopping when the light is red, going when the light is green – leading a life that is so robotic is so unnatural to our brains that no wonder that when you produce such unnatural feedback, you get distortions in the physics and chemistry of your brain. So feedback is absolutely critical.
 Here’s the unborn baby getting its first feedback as it sorts out its motor programme.

It’s sucking its thumb. Initially it’s done this, then it’s gone like that, then it hits the mouth, then the signal goes to the brain saying ‘whatever you just did, that’s a useful programme, because it results in this’. And then it tries its legs. This is why heavy smoking pregnant women do such a disservice to their children, because the child is so anaesthetised with nicotine in the uterus, it can’t develop its basic motor programmes. When a child is born to a heavy smoking mother, the child comes out like this- it hasn’t developed any of its basic programmes.

Here’s what these individual cells look like of course, and the impulses are travelling down the membranes here, receiving information, then integrating it, and then distributing it. What feedback does is allows the nerve cells to be plastered. So if you’re just receiving information, whether it’s a bee brain or a human brain, initially the junctions between the cells, what we call synapses, will pass the information. If the information is passed a lot, then the connections between the cells multiply, so they’re reinforcing the connection. And if the information is used even more, they will recruit other cells nearby, to join that particular programme.

 So you can see this is how obsessions build up. The human brain is designed to be obsessive, because of this flexible plasticity created by the feedback. If you did nothing else but go to football matches, your entire brain will eventually be recruited to deal with football matches. So if you have an obsession, whether it’s eating or whatever, that’s causing you all sorts of trouble, the way to get out of it is to create another obsession, that doesn’t cause you any trouble, but will recruit these cells to take them away. 

 if it’s a woman, say an unmarried mum living in a tower block, never having any proper conversation, just struggling with a newborn infant, no input of information, no exercising of the brain, large numbers of cells with nothing to do, they all get recruited for the obsession, because there’s one thing all brains do whether it’s a bee brain or a human brain, the cells respond to the information they’re carrying, which is totally different to a computer. Computers don’t change their circuitry in response to the information they’re carrying, but brains do. So if you want to become good at something, you rehearse that information. If you’ve got any spare cells around that are not fully occupied, they’ll be recruited to the information relationships that you’re working with.

54:06 Here in human brain, this is a slice through my own brain, I can’t understand anyone who doesn’t want to open the bonnet to see what’s in the engine – it’s like owning the car and not lifting the bonnet isn’t it?
 Here you can see my own brain, here’s the corpus colossus switching information from left to right brain. And here’s the key bit, the hypothalamus.
 You can take a cubic centimetre out of this big brain, the cerebral cortex here, which is responsible for a lot of our sophisticated behaviour. You can cut a cubic centimetre out of most places here and you’d hardly notice the difference. If you cut a cubic centimetre out of the hypothalamus here, you’d kill the person. Because this is the brain that we inherited from the synaptosaurian reptiles. They inherited it from the labyrinthodont amphibia. They inherited it from the crossopterygian fishes. It’s the true brain of the vertebrate, and all we’ve done over the evolutionary history of the vertebrate, is we’ve added this huge complexity on top of it, which is necessary to give us the level of consciousness that we humans enjoy at the moment: the ability to contemplate our own existence, the ability to contemplate the nature of everything.

 So here’s the hypothalamus, sitting on top of the pituitary gland. It’s responsible for all our emotional conditions. It has a pleasure centre at the front and a pain centre at the back here, and there’s a satiety centre that switches off our appetite, right next to the pleasure centre here.
 So if you’ve got any spare neurons with nothing to do, they’ll lock on, and then your only pleasure in life is eating, because the pleasure centre is the value judgement centre, which determines whether or not the behaviour you’re doing should be prosecuted. So if by accident eating nuts and bolts sent signals to the anterior hypothalamus, you’d sit in the corner eating nuts and bolts all day and you’d be as happy as a mudlark. That’s how mechanical this system is. It’s amazing. 
These are some of the wonderful aspects of the way in which we think, that create disorders now in modern human brains.
 Anorexics in yellow, abstaining, lack of confidence, obsession, peer pressure, unhappiness, bulimic, bingeing, depression, distorted self image, low self esteem, purging by making themselves sick, or by over exercising - the same aspect of bulimia - simple overeating, where you’ve got indiscipline and indulgence, and then all these other factors coming in. A huge level of complexity, determining whether you have an eating disorder or not.

Like red rag and bull. There used to be a psychology test where you said to a prospective employee, ‘here’s a red rag, what do you think of?’ and you recorded what they said. In one case the chap who got the job said ‘sex’. Afterwards the psychologist explained that this was a very good candidate for this particular aggressive salesman’s position. The managing director said to the guy when he was appointed ‘why did you say sex when you were shown a red rag?’ And he said ‘to be honest I don’t think of anything else!’ When you talk about a [male] one track mind, it really is one track!

 And just to give you my last example, in language:  All social creatures at the moment on the planet earth are controlled by the female. It’s only the males that control animals that are basically herding animals. and you’ve only got to go to football match to see that human beings are herding animals, and that’s why the male’s domination is still having an effect. But we’re going to gradually swap that the female behaviour has the dominating effect in politics, and as that happens we’ll become more social.

But it’s quite interesting, when we came out of the trees, we had two areas of brain that were totally devoted to three dimensional visual analysis. Huge numbers of cells, because if you leapt and you missed a branch, you’d die. You were caught by predators. You were injured. So we devoted huge numbers of brain cells on both sides of the brain. But when we came down out of the trees, and we started to form primitive societies and language was important, we didn’t actually have time to evolve a new brain lobe, so we redeployed the cells in our previous evolution that we used for three dimensional visual analysis. But there’s a sexual difference. One population is female, and one population is male, in this representation. And you’ll see that they’ve been given a language problem. In one group, the left hand side is lighting up, but in the other group, both sides are lighting up. They’ve modified three quarters of their three dimensional visual analysis capability for linguistic analysis. And I’m asking you now, which of them are the males, and which are the females?

So whose brain is this? Male. That is, the one track, single sided, one focussed, ‘I’ve got to be a goalie or a striker’ – male brain. Here’s the multi-tasking female brain – ‘you can be a striker today and I’ll be a striker tomorrow’, sharing, coordinating, multi-tasking, and it explains of course why females have difficulty in reading maps. Because they’ve switched it to something that’s far more important, because if you’re evolving a society, communication is the key thing that holds a society together. What the honeybee has, that so many other creatures don’t have, is an incredibly sophisticated communication system. Whoever communicates effectively will eventually control the politics of a society. So we’re in that transition now, between being a herding animal, and becoming truly social.

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