How the brain is flexible enough for a complex world (without being thrown into chaos) | Science & Technology

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Every day our brains strive to optimize a trade-off: With lots of things happening around us even as we also harbor many internal drives and memories, somehow our thoughts must be flexible yet focused enough to guide everything we have to do. In a new paper in Neuron, a team of neuroscientists describes how the brain achieves the cognitive capacity to incorporate all the information that’s relevant without becoming overwhelmed by what’s not.

The authors argue that the flexibility arises from a key property observed in many neurons: “mixed selectivity.” While many neuroscientists used to think each cell had just one dedicated function, more recent evidence has shown that many neurons can instead participate in a variety of computational ensembles, each working in parallel. In other words, when a rabbit considers nibbling on some lettuce in a garden, a single neuron might be involved in not only assessing how hungry it feels but also whether it can hear a hawk overhead or smell a coyote in the trees and how far away the lettuce is.

The brain does not multitask, said paper co-author Earl K. Miller, Picower Professor in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT and a…


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