The dynamic process deep inside our brains fascinates Michael Anderson. Neurons fire, then they stop. Then they fire again, constantly oscillating in response to inputs from the environment. It’s a chemical-electrical show for the ages.
But there’s something else happening in brain tissue that captivates Anderson, an associate professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall. Freeze the brain at any given moment, he says, and you see that different areas are engaged in “functional partnerships.” Those relationships allow the brain to reconfigure itself, giving humans the ability to be flexible in their behavior and thought.
“We typically think of the brain as a computer, a collection of organs with specialized tasks,” Anderson says. “Instead, we should think of the brain acting—dynamically reconfiguring itself.”
Anderson believes the functional partnerships are best explained by what he calls neural reuse, a theory that suggests regions of the brain act in multiple coalitions. The idea runs against centuries-old thinking that areas of the brain are task-specific. When the professor first attempted to publish on the subject a decade ago, his work was often rejected for its nonstandard approach.
But Anderson has since made the jump from “crazy to innovative,” as one of his friends told him. His work on neural reuse has resulted in a book titled “After Phrenology,” which was published by MIT Press in December. Andy Clark, a professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh, calls the book a “groundbreaking treatment” of cognitive function. As further validation of his work, Behavioral and Brain Sciences—the top journal in Anderson’s field—will devote at least half of an upcoming issue to a discussion of the book, commissioning at least 15 reviews of the professor’s research.
“This book is going to have a big impact,” says Tony Chemero, professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Cincinnati and a former colleague of Anderson’s at F&M. “It is already generating a buzz, and I think it will place Mike among the world’s leading theoretical neuroscientists.”
“I wanted to tell the story of a more complicated framework of the brain and its implications for evolutionary history,” Anderson says. “The human brain is sitting at a juncture. It’s mediating the coupling between you and the world.”
The New Brain Science
German physician Franz Joseph Gall laid the groundwork for traditional research on mental function in the late 18th century with his development of phrenology, a discipline based on the idea that the brain is an organ of the mind, and that areas of the brain have specific functions. Scientists embraced similar theories of brain function through the years, including the computational model of the mid-20th century, which viewed the brain as an “information processor.”
But over the past decade, Anderson has been at the forefront of a sea change in neuroscience pushed by big data. Using the results of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), he and other researchers noticed that the regions of the brain work in multiple “teams,” or partnerships.
“The brain is much more complicated than previous models suggested,” he says. “When you look at the results of one experiment at a time, the brain looks like a collection of specialized processors. But when you look at 4,000 experiments at once, it looks much different. We needed to think about brain science in a much more flexible way.”
In 2012, Anderson’s research landed him prestigious fellowship at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where he worked among a diverse community of scholars in anthropology, economics, political science, psychology and sociology. There he sought a unified framework combining neural reuse and embodied cognition—the realization that the brain is not the sole organ of cognition—to develop a lens through which to view human cognition and behavior.
“There have always been countercurrents in cognitive science, and in that sense, my work is not unique,” Anderson says. “But the kind of analysis I was able to do, and part of the reason my data work, is that it’s based on integrating all of the evidence. We’ve long known that cells that fire together, wire together. But what we’ve discovered is a different mechanism for learning that puts the pieces of the brain into different functional configurations. We’re seeing large-scale dynamic cooperation between regions of the brain.”
Neural reuse is Anderson’s term, along with “massive redeployment;” others have called this phenomenon “neural recycling.” The upshot is a significant shift in the understanding of neural plasticity, or the brain’s ability to organize itself. And Anderson hopes it will change the way we think about thinking.
Reconfiguring the Mind
A deep understanding of the human brain has been elusive for scientists. For example, Anderson and his colleagues are still exploring how to represent local function in the brain—in his book, he introduces something called “functional fingerprinting” to get a sense of that. But he is quick to point out that other organs have been equally mysterious. Take the human heart, he says, which was poorly understood until William Harvey’s 17th-century work “On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals.”
“It took a long time to understand the heart. Did it heat blood? People didn’t know it was a pump until Harvey’s book, which is one of the best scientific arguments ever published,” Anderson says. “It will take time in the sciences of the mind, as well. We’re working our way through a series of metaphors—a slate, a hydraulic machine, a computer—but none of us have been able to capture it entirely. It turns out to be a step or two more complicated than any of our metaphors.”
However close we are to that understanding, Anderson remains fascinated by the ways in which humans develop skills and abilities as a result of the brain’s ability to reuse parts for multiple purposes. For instance, he argues in his book that our capacity for language represents the highest achievement of a brain originally evolved for managing action and interaction. The mind’s dynamic abilities make sense from an evolutionary perspective, he believes.
“We can’t be born with bigger heads—there’s only so much room to grow our brains,” the professor says. “Neural reuse makes it possible to make really efficient use of the neurons we have to extend our capacities in unique ways. We share capabilities with nonhuman animals, but we’re the only ones who have developed mathematics, symbol systems and language. But the interesting thing is that the way we interact with symbols is the same way we interact with objects. I think neural reuse makes that possible.”