Previous measurements of brain neurons have indicated that brain functions are inherently noisy. The Princeton research, however, separated sensory inputs from the internal mental process to show that the former can be noisy while the latter is remarkably reliable, said senior investigator Carlos Brody, a Princeton associate professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI), and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
"To our great surprise, the internal mental process was perfectly noiseless. All of the imperfections came from noise in the sensory processes," Brody said. Brody worked with first author Bingni Brunton, now a postdoctoral research associate in the departments of biology and applied mathematics at the University of Washington; and Matthew Botvinick, a Princeton associate professor of psychology and PNI.
The research subjects four college-age volunteers and 19 laboratory rats listened to streams of randomly timed clicks coming into both the left ear and the right ear. After listening to a stream, the subjects had to choose the side from which more clicks originated. The rats had been trained to turn their noses in the direction from which more clicks originated.
The test subjects mostly chose the correct side but occasionally made errors. By comparing various patterns of clicks with the volunteers' responses, researchers found that all of the errors arose when two clicks overlapped, and not from any observable noise in the brain system that tallied the clicks. This was true in experiment after experiment utilizing different click patterns, in humans and rats.
The researchers used the timing of the cli
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