Cognitive scientist shows how the brain can assemble new ideas from old ones

10/01/2013 5:33 PM

10/01/2013 9:13 PM

People routinely encounter familiar components from everyday life in new combinations, such as when a co-worker takes on a new role or a sentence uses a word in a new way.

We typically excel at interpreting these new experiences, but researchers do not yet understand the neurological basis of this phenomenon. How does the brain assemble new ideas from familiar parts?

Using computer simulations of the human brain, Professor David Noelle and his colleagues have uncovered an answer to this question, reported this week in a paper highlighted in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This research suggests that parts of the brain might use a trick that is commonly used by modern computer programmers.

Noelle and his colleagues have been studying the prefrontal cortex – a large brain region at the front of the head that is important for reasoning, planning and controlling behavior in novel situations.

They found that over the course of brain development, portions of the prefrontal cortex could come to function in the same way “pointers” do in computer science. They don’t store information, but they store the location of information.

These neural “pointers” make it easy for the brain to recombine familiar concepts in radically new ways, supporting our abilities to think about novel situations and entertain flights of the imagination.

This research was conducted with Trenton Kriete – the first person to receive a doctorate in cognitive science from UC Merced and a former graduate student in Noelle’s laboratory – along with with collaborators at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Princeton University.

Together, these researchers have offered an account of how “pointers” might arise in the brain, called the prefrontal cortex-basal ganglia working memory model.

“For decades, cognitive scientists have wrestled with this issue of how the mind can ‘slot in’ new concepts into old slots,” said professor Michael Spivey of the UC Merced Cognitive and Information Sciences program. “If you hear, for the first time, the sentence ‘John porched the newspaper,’ you can instantly make your own new version, such as ‘Larry porched the magazine,’ even though you’ve never heard that particular sentence.

“This amazing ability to assign new values to existing variables has led some theorists to propose cognitive mechanisms that are successful at this process but are not biologically plausible,” he said. “Dave Noelle’s work here is a truly groundbreaking step toward a biologically plausible model of how prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia may cooperate to perform this complex function.”

While this research focuses on understanding how biology gives rise to complex aspects of cognition, it could also shed light on deficits seen in a variety of learning disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity and autism spectrum disorders.

Police Mentor Program hosts fundraiser to help youth

The UC Merced Police Mentor Program’s third annual Light Up the Lantern fundraising dinner will be held at 5p.m. Oct.26 in the Library Lantern to thank all who are involved in the program and to raise money for future efforts. The program, which pairs university students with at-risk youth as mentors, operates solely on grant funding and donations.

Tickets are $25, must be purchased online and are tax-deductible. There will be no sales at the door. Donations from individuals and businesses will be sold during live and silent auctions. The event is open to anyone who would like to support the mentor program. For more information, go to or call (209)-228-8273.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email

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