Nobel Prize a Reminder of How the Brain Can Surprise Us

Brain cells that create our "inner GPS" among a list of others specialized for particular purposes.
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Aspiring London taxi drivers study maps and routes at the Knowledge Point school, building up their inner GPS.

Location, location, location: It's just as important for the brain as it is for real estate. Our brains help us find our way using specialized cells, and the discovery of this "inner GPS" earned three neuroscientists the 2014 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on Monday.

The find spotlights just one of the specialized parts of the brain that handle specific functions. (Related: "Why Haven't They Won? 10 Huge Discoveries Without a Nobel Prize.")

The prize honors "discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain." Half of the $1.11 million award goes to John O'Keefe of University College in London and half to Norway's May-Britt Moser of the Centre for Neural Computation and Edvard Moser of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience. (See: "Secrets of The Brain," in National Geographic magazine.)

Some of these location-finding cells are located in the hippocampus, an area recently found to be bulked up in the brains of London cabbies, presumably because they exercise this part of the brain intensely. (See:"The Bigger Brains of London Taxi Drivers.")

Along with an internal GPS, neuroscientists have uncovered a host of other special cells in the brain. Some have been revealed by patients suffering injuries in specific parts of the brain. Below are a few more of the brain's surprising specialties and some odd ways they can backfire.

1. Animal Motion Detector

Back in the old days, spotting a lion running toward you was pretty important—maybe that's why one part of the brain, the superior temporal sulcus, seems specially tuned to recognizing animal motion. A 2003Journal of Neuroscience study had volunteers compare a walking robot with a walking person and determined that this part of the brain is "sensitive to biological motion" and can distinguish between biological (or animal) and mechanical motion. In other words, your brain contains a robot-detecting center. Good news in case of the inevitable robot uprising.

2. Personality Swap

Perhaps the most famous tale in all of brain science is that of Phineas Gage, the railroad foreman who took an iron spike through the skull in an 1848 dynamite explosion. He lived, but the spike destroyed his frontal lobe, behind his left eye. The injury turned him from personable to truculent, according to reports from the time. Although Gage later seems to have recovered and his case remains much debated among neuroscientists, there is wide agreement that this part of the brain seems uniquely tied to our sense of judgment and attention span.

3. Seeing Faces in Toast

Located on the side of the brain that makes sense of what the eye sees is the so-called "fusiform face area." The cells in this small section of the brain are thought to tie together the firing of other brain cells related to vision and the ability to perceive faces. A 2010 study of pareidolia, the perception of random shapes as faces—such as seeing Mother Teresa in toast or a man in the moon—found that cells in the ventral fusiform cortex can fire similarly when a person looks at a face or just an object that's roughly facelike, such as an electrical plug with holes resembling two eyes and a mouth.

4. Gourmand Syndrome

Minor strokes that killed off cells in one small area on the right side of the brain seemed to trigger "gourmand syndrome" in 34 patients reported in a 1997 Neurology journal study. They lost interest in their careers—as a tennis pro or political writer, for example—and devoted themselves instead to fine dining. Essentially, the strokes seem to have killed off cells involved in self-control at the dinner table, triggering a Michelin Guide-flavored mania.

5. Rubber Hand Illusion

Touching volunteers' fingers while showing them the same kind of touch on a rubber hand creates a feeling of ownership of the rubber prosthetic, studies show. Hammer the rubber hand, and the new "owners" feel pain. A network of brain cells located in at least three regions of the brain seems to control this feeling of ownership, which under normal circumstances is necessary for controlling our own bodies. Some stroke patients suffering injuries to this network insist that their hands belong to someone else.

6. Out-of-Body Experiences

How can we sometimes tell what another person in thinking? People develop a "theory of mind" by age five, coming to understand that other people are thinking creatures with feelings and motives of their own. This capability seems centered on the temporal parietal junction toward the back of the brain, where the brain region involved in processing vision meets parts of the brain involved in other senses. Damage to this location can also trigger out-of-body experiences.

These findings come with caveats. Specialties aren't always written in stone, for instance. The Australian psychologist Cordelia Fine, author of A Mind of Its Own and Delusions of Gender, has noted that brain-imaging studies tend to lead neuroscientists into overlooking surprising examples of brain regions developing capabilities once thought exclusive to other regions. (Related: "Beyond The Brain.")

Luckily for the Nobel Prize committees, that means we have a lot left to discover about our brains, and about ourselves. Here's looking forward to new discoveries.

Special thanks to Phenomena bloggers Virginia Hughes and Carl Zimmer for adding brain regions to this list.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

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