• Thu, Apr 5 2012

Scientists Discover “Jennifer Aniston Neuron”

(You're actually thinking about the ocean)

Occasionally, we wonder why Jennifer Aniston is one of the most famous women in the world–she seems perfectly likeable and, man, she’s in great shape! But for someone at the top of the A-list, it’s sure been a while since she made a good movie (and holy shit, did you guys see Derailed? Yikes). But maybe science has uncovered an explanation for Jennifer Aniston’s ubiquity: she’s in our brains.

A few years ago, a UCLA neurosurgeon named Itzhak Fried, discovered what he calls the “Jennifer Aniston Neuron.” Fried was operating on patients who suffer from debilitating epileptic seizures. Now, apparently during brain surgery, patients are often fully conscious (!) and Fried decided to take advantage of this. He asked some if they’d like to participate in a little visual survey.

During surgery, he showed them a series of photographs: Julia Roberts, not-famous people, animals, locations. When he showed an image of Aniston, one specific neuron lit up. Back to animals, nothing. Back to Aniston and the neuron would flash again, multiple times. He found this “Aniston-specific” cell in a number of peoples’ brains. Of course, since Fried shared his findings, other A-lister neurons have been discovered: Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Kobe Bryant, etc. We know what you’re thinking (“They’ve discovered the starfucker gene!”) but it’s obviously not that simple.

NPR says one theory is that Aniston is a “summit of associated neurons,” (or “hierarchical organization” as MIT professor Sebastian Sueng calls it) that when we think of Aniston, we think of her clear blue eyes, her tan, her toned arms, her red carpet style, etc. In doing so, our brain calls upon “lower-down neurons,” responsible for basic associations like color, lightness and darkness, shape and volume etc. Aniston, apparently, represents all the stuff she’s made of in our brains.

In other words:

That neuron shouting “Jen!” is receiving signals from thousands, maybe tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of neurons down below. Each time, the pattern is a little different. Thinking about Jen in “Bruce Almighty” is one pattern. Thinking about Jen having twins (Is she? They keep telling us that, but it’s never…) is another. Each recollection probably slightly different from the ones before, but everytime, because it’s Jen we’re thinking of, the neuron at the top of the pile always flashes “Jen!”

There’s a deeper idea here: that when we remember someone, anyone, maybe what we’re doing is making a specific neural connections in our brain. In physiological terms, what is a memory? Sebastian Sueng thinks it’s a particular pattern of brain cells.

One day, says Professor Seung, it will be possible to look into a person’s brain, (mine, say) and if Seung sees a certain sequence of flashes in me, he might exclaim, “Ah! I recognize this. This is Robert thinking about Jennifer Aniston’s chin!”

NPR goes further into the controversy surrounding these findings and what a “neuronal theory of memory” would mean but it’s pretty early in the day for phrases like “neuronal theory of memory” here at this fashion blog, so we recommend heading over there.

Brainmaps and mind-reading aside, who’s surprised to learn that Jennifer Aniston may represent a whole lot more than just “tabloid fodder” and “yoga butt”?

(NPR)

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