Thursday, June 19, 2008


I really do want to write every day. I do much better at posting meaningfully on a more regular basis when I'm posting on a more regular basis (and I mean that in a sense of proportion, not merely the obvious: a greater percentage of my posts are well-written and meaningful when I'm writing more than otherwise).

I've been thinking a lot, these last few days, about the brain. My research project is in computational neuroscience - in particular, in modeling memory in terms of the dynamics of small world networks. That's probably gibberish to most of you (as it was for me three weeks ago).

Most of you have probably heard of the Kevin Bacon Game. You try to find the shortest path any actor in Hollywood (sometimes, any famous figure at all) has to get back to Kevin Bacon. The same principle underlies the commonly repeated notion that there are only six degrees of freedom between you and anyone else in the world. While neither is quite true - it's actually been Rod Steiger, Donald Sutherland, and Dennis Hopper at various times in the last ten years, and Kevin Bacon has never cracked the top 1000; and the number is a bit higher than six on average - these get at a fundamental principle.

The shape (in more technical terms, the topology) of a network influences the way its members are connected. Social networks tend to be highly clustered - people form groups of friends and acquaintances, which often largely overlap with their friends' circles of friends and acquaintances. Shortcuts exist, however, between these groups, and the net result is that the number of people between you and anyone else, thanks to these connections, is surprisingly low, especially compared to the population size.

Now you're wondering what that has to do with the brain, in all likelihood. Neurons in your brain link to each other in networks, and research done in the last ten years has shown rather conclusively that these neural networks have many of the same properties as social networks of the sort described of. In short, your brain is a small world, after all, too. Out of this realization has been born all sorts of wonderful research into how the networks in your brain function, and how that relates to various questions - from the source of diseases like epilepsy, to how learning occurs.

It's also where my research comes in. I'm looking at what memory is, and that's a very difficult question to answer. I've a few hypotheses, and I'm curious to see where they lead. First, however, I have a great deal of work to do on understanding how to construct models of small-world networks and then applying that knowledge to modeling neural networks in particular. From there, I might be able to start moving toward developing and testing these ideas.

This is probably the most fun project I've ever worked on in my life. The brain is fascinating, and incredibly mysterious: it's one of the greatest mysteries in all of science at this point, and the little I understand of it amazes me. We see here the glory of God revealed in remarkable ways. I am also amazed that He has given us brains capable of understanding brains, minds capable of pondering what it is to have a mind, spirits capable of meditating on spiritual things.

There are glimpses of the glory and splendor and majesty of God in the brain that are visible nowhere else in all creation. Incredible!

- Chris

1 comment:

  1. This is so cool! And the way you explained it I actually get. :) Nice to be able to understand a tiny portion of what you are studying.

    Counting the days till you come home!


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