Sunday, February 28, 2010

Origami and the Brain

Origami. The art of folding paper into shapes using a single sheet of paper without tearing or cutting. Perhaps, at an abstract level, this may be likened to what our brains do. We have one brain. We can't make big changes to it, like take one part of the brain and manually "connect" it to another part of the brain. Rather, we have to work within the limits of certain neural connection rules to establish a certain way to get to an end state.

For example, some rules may be related to the fact that our neurons have many short range local connections with neighboring neurons, as well as, some long range connections to more distant groups of neurons. Establishing and pruning these connections is dependent on time and stimulation from external as well as internal events. These events can be cognitive or biological or physical (e.g. the intention to retrieve a memory, or some neurotransmitter regulation, or some visual energy input, respectively). Within this system, our brains try to represent external information, and to generate certain actions or responses.

In a similar manner, in origami, each fold is like an imprint of an event that happens. The effect of folding, however, is limited by the thickness, elasticity, and size of the paper, as well as the force of the folding. Folding could be a sharp strong crease, a light depression, or a curve. Folding also occurs along specific lines or regions on the paper at a time. Finally, folding has temporal order. Through a combination of these factors, the paper encodes what forces have been exerted on it, and represents all of that in a particular physical form. The end state.

The end state maybe be a meaningful shape, or it may have a meaningful function. We can transform a simple piece of paper into a form of a crane, or a box, or a really complex shape (origami experts have been able to do wonders!). We can even use the tension inherent in the folded paper as a spring with tremendous kinetic energy when released. We can also use folding to allow a large piece of material that ordinarily would not fit in specific area to conform to the shape and therefore fit in the area.

Likewise, the brain performs an interesting function in incorporating sensory information from the physical world and representing all the rich material within a single piece of organic tissue. This "folding" of information from one state to another may be a framework to understand neural function.

Consider that we can quantify the physical forces and characteristics of a piece of paper and its folds. Based on low level parameters, we can then determine what the origami will look like, what it can do, what properties its resulting form maintains. Applying a similar method to parameterize neural function may allow us to better describe how the properties of the brain relate to cognition and behavior. For example, the ease with which a paper folds may be dependent on the thickness of the paper (for a given material elasticity/rigidity/brittleness). This will in turn determine how much force must be applied to the paper to achieve a fold of a certain angle. In the same way, one property of the brain may be how strong the connections in a certain neuronal region may be. The stronger the connections, the easier it may be for a signal in one region to affect the activity in another. Another case in point, the brain maintains a certain level to generate new neurons in key parts of the cortex. Neurogenesis is known to occur even in late adulthood in the hippocampus and the peri-ventricular walls. Importantly, recent studies have shown that neurogenesis may be helpful in overcoming drug addiction. A possible mechanism might be that the new neurons enable the brain to represent existing addiction behaviors (information "folding"), in a new way that discourages addiction [link to relevant post]. Moreover, it is possible that different individuals have different rates, or ability, of neurogenesis, and external events or neurochemical interventions may also encourage neurogenesis. It is this rate of neurogenesis that might be a candidate parameter that determines how much a particular brain can fold.

Of course, this is all analogical. There is no necessary association between paper and brain. But, this presents an interesting way to approach the problem of quantifying brain function. Paper folding has been applied to several interesting real life problems. For example, the folding of solar-energy panels into a satellite so that large plates fit into a small structure for launching, and unfold in space to achieve maximum surface area for efficient energy collection. In addition, protein folding occurs according to the electro-chemical forces at the molecular level. Paper folding has been applied to understanding and even manipulating these forces to make protein molecules that achieve specific helpful biomolecular functions. Here's an example of applying origami to practical problem from an MIT group [link].

After all, the reason why origami is meaningful, is because we perceive cranes in a few simple folds.

1 comment:

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