Black holes and multiverse: decoding how physicists’ brains work

Richard Feynman with Yang Chen Ning, American physicists, circa 1950.

Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Contributor

Quantum particles exist and do not exist. The space is probably a moldable fabric. Dark matter is invisible, yet it binds the entire universe. And our universe, created from an explosion 13.8 billion years ago, stretches into something infinite. Or, maybe nothing.

Unless you’re a physicist by training, at least one of these claims is probably causing your brain ache.

We experience a kind of cognitive dissonance when we try to understand the immensity of such complex and unimaginable concepts. But theoretical physicists think about and even bring up these ideas all day, every day.

How do they do?

According to new research, published Monday in the journal npj Science of Learning, the brains of physicists grapple with counterintuitive theories by automatically categorizing things as “measurable” or “immeasurable”.

“Most of the things that we come across every day, like a rock, a lake, a flower, you can say, ‘Well that’s about the size of my fist … but the concepts that people think of. physicists do not have this property, “said Marcel Just, psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University and the study’s first author.

To study exactly how physicists’ brains work, Just and his fellow researchers gave 10 faculty members at Carnegie Mellon – with different specialties and language backgrounds – a register of physics concepts. Then they used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans to look at the subjects’ brain activity as individuals moved down the list.

Unlike normal MRI scans, which help with anatomical studies, functional MRI scans can detect brain activity based on fluctuations in blood flow, glucose, and oxygen.

It turns out that every physicist’s brain organizes the concepts of the field into two groups. The researchers just had to figure out how to label each group.

“I looked at the list and said, ‘What do concepts like potential energy, torque, acceleration, wavelength, frequency… have in common? At the other end of the same scale, there are things like dark matter; duality ; cosmology; multiverse, ”explained co-author Reinhard A. Schumacher, particle physicist at Carnegie Mellon University.

The average person might cluster Schumacher’s descriptions on the lower end of the spectrum as mind-boggling and inexplicable, but the most important connecting factor, he realized, is that they are. immeasurable.

In brain scanners, these concepts did not indicate activity of what he calls “scope,” vaguely referring to the imposition of tangible restrictions on something.

The brains of physicists, the team concluded, automatically discern between abstract elements, like quantum physics, and understandable and measurable elements like speed and frequency.

Basically, what causes a sense of bewilderment in us non-physicists does not elicit thoughts of “expanse” in them. This is probably why they can think of these things with relative ease as we start to worry about the scale.

The powers of physicists come from the evolution of the brain

Speaking from experience, Schumacher says that viewing ideas from abstract physics as a student can be very different from viewing them as a long-time physicist.

“I think as physicists get older concepts crystallize in the mind and you end up using them more effectively,” Schumacher said.

“The more you use these ideas, the more they become like old friends.”

Brain scanners also support this claim. Not only did the team test professors’ brain activity, they also examined the brains of physics students.

“In the old physicists who have been doing this for years,” said Schumacher, “it’s like the brain is more efficient. It doesn’t need to light up that much, because you’re going to the right one right away. end.”

Additionally, Just noted that the professors “had more right hemisphere activation, suggesting that they had more kinds of concepts associated with distance.”

While a physics student might relate speed to acceleration, it seems professors relate speed to much more specialized subjects activated by places far from the brain. The speed of expansion of the universe, perhaps?

Adapting to new ideas isn’t just for physicists

Simply emphasizes how changing the brain to accommodate new abstract ideas is happening to all of us. Maybe only theoretical physicists can easily understand duality or a multiverse, but people working in other fields, of course, are thinking about their own complex ideas.

Chemists, for example, must visualize invisible orbital structures of atoms and bond patterns only drawn in textbooks. And the general public, over time, has adapted to inventions like iPhones and the cloud. Think about it. We can understand the cloud, which is pretty weird.

Imagine traveling back in time to the 1700s and teaching someone how an invisible data storage mine works. They would probably feel what we feel when we imagine the quantum realm – we would be the “physicists” for them.

“We have that understanding now,” Schumacher explained. “Even if you develop a new scientific concept, we can more or less predict what the brain is going to do with it.”

For example, during exercise, when asked to think about oscillations, Just said that some subjects’ brains activate sections related to rhythmic activity. The organ had essentially reassigned areas used in ancient times for general rhythms, perhaps like music, to allow concepts of modern physics.

“The idea of ​​sine waves is only a few hundred years old,” Just said. “But people have been watching the ripples on a pond forever.”

It also suggests that it may become possible to actively help the brain reorient itself, by harnessing its adaptive capacity. If we allow children to develop their minds through education by introducing abstract concepts earlier and more rigorously, he says, maybe one day they can easily imagine things the way scientists do.

Even further, he says the findings could inform studies on mental health – how do the brain’s organizational and coping skills work in distress?

“I think this is the most fascinating question in the world,” Just remarked. “What is the essence of the human brain? How can we make them healthier? Think better? “

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