“The more you use these ideas, the more they become like old friends,” says one particle physicist.
Quantum particles exist and do not exist. Space is probably a moldable fabric. Dark matter is invisible, yet it binds the entire universe. And our universe, created by an explosion 13.8 billion years ago, is infinitely expanding into something. Or, maybe nothing.
Unless you’re a trained physicist, at least one of those statements probably makes your brain hurt.
We experience a kind of cognitive dissonance when trying to understand the vastness of such unimaginable, complex concepts. But theoretical physicists think about and even mesmerize these ideas all day, every day.
how do they do it?
Physicists’ brains grapple with counterintuitive theories by automatically classifying things as “measurable” or “measurable,” according to new research published Monday in the journal NPJ Science of Learning.
“Most of the things we encounter every day, like a rock, a lake, a flower, you can say, ‘Well that’s about the size of my fist…” psychologist and study author at Carnegie Mellon University First author Marcel Just said.
To study how physicists’ brains work, Just and fellow researchers gave 10 Carnegie Mellon physics faculty members — with varying specialties and language backgrounds — a ledger of physics concepts. Then, they used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans to examine the subjects’ brain activity as individuals went down the list.
Unlike normal MRIs, which help with physical studies, functional MRIs can detect brain activity based on fluctuations in blood flow, glucose, and oxygen.
Turns out, every physicist’s brain organizes concepts within the region into two groups. The researchers were left to figure out how to label each group.
“I looked at the list, and well said, ‘What are the concepts like potential energy, torque, acceleration, wavelength, frequency…’ Co-author Reinhard A. Schumacher, a particle physicist, explained.
The average person might associate Schumacher’s descriptions as mind-bending and inexplicable at the latter end of the spectrum, but he realized that the most important connecting factor is that they are measurable.
In brain scans, these concepts did not indicate activity in what he calls “extent,” a looser reference to imposing tangible restrictions on something.
The minds of physicists, the team concluded, automatically discern between abstract objects such as quantum physics, and understandable, measurable objects such as velocity and frequency.
Basically, the stuff that provokes feelings of anxiety in non-physicists doesn’t come with “extent” ideas. Maybe that’s why they can think about those things with relative ease, while we start worrying about scale.
Physicists’ powers come from brain evolution
Speaking from experience, Schumacher says that considering the ideas of abstract physics as a student can be very different from understanding them as a physicist for a long time.
“I think that as physicists get older, the concepts tend to crystallize in the mind, and you use them in a more efficient way,” Schumacher said.
“The more you use these ideas, the more they become like old friends.”
Brain scans also support that claim. Not only did the team test the faculty’s brain activity, they also looked at the brains of physics students.
“Among the older physicists who’ve been doing it for years,” Schumacher said, “it’s like the brain is more efficient. It doesn’t need to light up as much, because you’re going right to the thing right away.”
Additionally, Just noted that the professors had “greater right hemisphere activation, suggesting that they had a greater number of distantly associated concepts.”
While a physics student might associate velocity with acceleration, it seems likely that the professor was concerned with velocity for more specific subjects activated by distant locations of the brain. The velocity of expansion of the universe, perhaps?
Adjusting to new ideas isn’t just for physicists
Simply stresses how the brain develops with all of us to accommodate new, abstract ideas. Perhaps only theoretical physicists can easily understand duality or multiplexing, but those working in other fields, of course, tend to have complex ideas of their own.
For example, chemists have to imagine unseen orbital structures of atoms and bond configurations drawn only in textbooks. And the general public has, over time, adapted to inventions like the iPhones and the cloud. Think about it. we can understand Cloud, which is quite strange.
Imagine traveling back to the 1700s and explaining the workings of an invisible data storage mine to someone. They’ll probably feel the same way we do when we envision quantum domains – we’ll be “physicists” to them.
“We have this understanding now,” Schumacher explained. “Even if you develop some 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 some of the subject’s brains activated sections related to rhythmic activity. The organ reconstructed areas originally used in antiquity for general rhythms, such as perhaps music, to allow for modern physics concepts.
“The idea of sine waves is only two hundred years old,” Simply said. “But people have been watching the waves on a pond forever.”
Simply also suggests that it may be possible to actively help the brain remodel itself, harnessing its ability to adapt. If we allow children to expand their minds through education by introducing abstract concepts early and more rigorously, he says, perhaps one day they can easily imagine things the way scientists do. Huh.
Even further down the road, he says, the findings could inform the study of mental health – how do the brain’s organizational and adaptive abilities function in distress?
“I think this is the most fascinating question in the world,” simply commented. “‘What is the essence of the human brain? How can we make them healthier, think better?'”