The world’s most complex number

The world’s most complex number

The world’s most complex number

Instead of fixing the string of 0s, they would run it a few times and see how it looked.

Instead of fixing the string of 0s, they would run it a few times and see how it looked.

If you wrote down the string of 0s, would you be able to figure out what counterexamples the string is supposed to represent? Would you be able to figure out that the string is supposed to represent a series of 1s that stretches to 57,00,001? If the string doesn’t match the rows and columns that you would be supposed to use it to represent, that’s a problem. If you are in disagreement over the string’s terms, your results might be rubbish.

It’s possible that for an even more powerful and comprehensive example of the human brain, we’d need to start thinking about neurons. They don’t control the string of 0s; the string is there for a purpose, of course, but it isn’t a specific operation with a precise command. It’s just there, and if it doesn’t match with something, it shows up in your brain as noise—a hiccup in your process.

To see how this might work, imagine you are considering splitting a chain of counting beyond a certain distance, or adding 4 million ones to 1 million twenty-dollar bills to some figure. Is the string of 0s separate enough from the string of 1s? Your brain might have a measure for that, such as splitting the string of 0s into many smaller ones. In a surprising new study, an international team of neuroscientists from McGill University and Columbia University discovered how our brain responds to the string of 0s—or its possible variations—in various human tasks.

When brain operations get frustrating and strange

Some of the research is among the most ambitious ever done, like analyzing specific neural activity in the brains of people with unique challenges—people who develop conditions like epilepsy or dementia. Other parts of the work involve taking historical archive memories and calculating how those memories grow with time.

At the Montreal Neurological Institute, two distinct teams are studying differential behaviors. One group includes McGill scientists and colleagues from Columbia University’s School of Medicine and Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Brain Sciences. It’s a unique collaboration, and one that brought the team a definitive answer to one of the most important questions ever—why our brain works so well when everything seems so simple: A human is 0-0.

Let’s say you asked a brain researcher, “OK, what does it mean when I say ‘a person’ is 0-0?” What’s the answer? There isn’t one—but based on what the researchers have analyzed, they find that the brain seems to do a very sophisticated juggling act to match the human position, a bit like playing the math game Fibonacci sequence. They’ve been studying the brain from the perspective of a decimal, so they discovered that the brain forms different variants of “people,” each of which displays some additional complexity. “They’re obviously set apart in terms of number of partners, but functionally they all share things in common, and somehow that doesn’t work,” says Aparna Natarajan, a postdoctoral fellow in neuroradiology at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and an author of the paper.

Neuroscientists with different projects are joined in their efforts to understand the brain’s complex nature by a common interest in finding the smallest truths of neuroscience. Taken together, the findings from these two studies could lead to even more powerful new ways to understand how the brain works, according to Edouard Jeanneret-Guyard, an organizational psychologist at Columbia University who is a senior co-author of the paper.

“That’s one of the reasons it is so exciting to learn from neurobiological research the smallest truths about the world—it will shed light on how complex lives have evolved,” Jeanneret-Guyard says. “Our brains are not static. They’re constantly changing and sometimes it seems there is nothing we can do about that. But neurobiological research can lead us to understand some of the fundamental rules by which our brain works.”

The new research has important implications for doctors. Diagnosing patients and prescribing medicines is one of the most difficult aspects of modern medical care. Indeed, Jeanneret-Guyard believes that the studies that he and other researchers are doing now are the first step in better treatments. He hopes that if these neuroscientists can find the underlying principle for a defect, it will help explain how to find a solution.

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