How Many Neurons Must One Man Have?

Every year, my colleagues and I put up a joke/satirical/thought poster at Annual Society for Neuroscience Meeting under the teaching section. This poster is usually finished last minute. More last minute than our regular posters (There was more controversy this year which I shall get into some other day as it deserves a couple of posts.)

However, coming back to November 2006:
Borrowing a riff from Bob Dylan, our poster posed the question, "How Many Neurons Must One Man Have? (Before you call him a man)". We have about a 100 billion of them, but how do these neurons makes us what we are? How do we remember? Why and how do we forget? As is usually the case, the poster sort of evolves over the week with us, the pranksters/jokers/dunces, feeding off ideas and encouragement from the gallery and adding ideas. While, Tim and Greg were getting parts of the poster printed after the conference began, I started scribbling a back-of-the envelope equation which was pretty close to this -

At some point, it struck me that there is no better place to put a back-of-the-envelope equation than an envelope itself. Everybody simply loved it! Nothing gets scientists/engineers more amused than jargon puns.

After coming back from the meeting, Tim and I decided to do something beyond a few laughs. Which means in scientific currency - a publication. We worked on it in our free time. It was an interesting question and as we scoured the literature, we discovered that the research on the subject was rather thin. We read interesting papers from Bell Labs, papers on pigeon learning, autistic savants (Daniel Tammett), phenomenal mnemonists (A.K.Luria), artificial brains (Jeff Hawkins). At one point, we both realised that we were just enjoying this garage science project so much, that we weren't really making any progress with a publishable manuscript. Our research was all over the place and it took some work to curb our enthusiasm and coalesce collected ideas into one coherent manuscript.

Even then the road was not easy. One unrelenting reviewer took a while to 'get it' and made us go through what seemed like endless and silly revisions. Yet, to his credit, the manuscript was a little less folksy-sounding and perhaps more rigorous than we were planning. Also, since we decided to go for hand-drawn illustrations harking back to a simpler and purer time in magazine publishing, it was somewhat of a chore to redraw the illustrations.

So, finally almost after exactly two years since that scribbling in an Atlanta Holiday Inn, the ideas have been honored to be oozed with ink in IEEE Potentials Magazine. Tim's friend Thad, a commercial artist, gifted a wonderful drawing to use as the opening cover. However, the editor disagreed with us last minute and decided to go ahead with an computer image over the wonderful black-ink sketch. We were a little upset with some of odd-looking coloring.

This is the actual IEEE Potential Article as it appeared.

This how the article would have appeared, had we got our way:
Our Aesthetically Pleasing Article. We leave you, the reader, to decide if you agree with us.
As they say: Ars longa, vita brevis

Previous post on the 2007 Poster:
Published in the Annals of Improbable Research: The Cingulate Cortex does Everything!


Kristina said...

Lovely!!! congratulations on having it published. I look forward to finding out what this year's topic is :)

-Kristina V (from boston)

Rakesh said...

I just finished reading your article. It is a very nice tutorial on memory models, actually got me interested into Brainy-Stuff. :)

Good luck for the future work!

Ashutosh said...

Great article, congratulations!