Quickie Post — Hippocampal Tagging and Access to Larger Data Structures Inside Our Brains


Graffiti, Universidad Nacional de Bogota, Colombia  2014? Can’t remember!

One of the subjects I spend a fair amount of time thinking about regarding neuroscience is how expert thinking works.  I know how, in my own perspective, I think it HAS to work — limbic tags to larger networked structures residing somewhere in the prefrontal cortex.  Of course, just because I think that it HAS to work that way, doesn’t mean that it does.  But from a structural/functional perspective, there are good reasons to argue why it does work that way.

How so?  First off, expert thinking is often very quick.  An expert will see a particular circumstance, and she will immediately relate that to a previous solution that is correct.  When any type of thinking is ‘fast’, it means there’s a high probability it has to start in the limbic system.  I also know that if you ask an expert to explain their thinking, it will take them a minute.  They’ll pause, and stutter along as they reconstruct the explanation — unless they’re a teacher, and explain all the time, in which case, that also will come quickly, which means it, too, is tagged in the limbic area.

How might all this work?  If we go back to Siegel’s explanation of how the brain processes trauma (or any higher learning/complex narrative) we realize that information that gets dumped on the left side of the neocortex has to be integrated and processed in the hippocampus, before ending up on the right side as a holistic memory.  The hippocampus itself must also have the equivalent of a computer’s fast cache memory, that can be used to hold onto a thread of the thought, as it passes out into the right side of the brain, for future use — otherwise there’s no way to yank that big long list of thoughts and structures out.  Simplified Siegel Brain

The Dunning-Kruger phenomenon (you’re so dumb, you don’t know how dumb you are, or you’re so smart, you don’t know how smart you are — overestimation or underestimation of competence) that we’ve discussed before also points to heavy duty limbic action.  Someone that doesn’t know what they’re talking about doesn’t have any tagged structure on the right side of the brain to reconstruct.  But that doesn’t stop them from opening their mouth.  Similarly, someone who’s smart has a bunch of stuff integrated on her right side of her brain, but it just comes so quickly, without appropriate self-awareness, egocentric projection, also rooted in the limbic system, rules the day.  Everyone else must know this stuff, right?  It’s only the slowdown required by rational empathy/perspective taking, that we’re forced to engage the slower, more methodical part of the brain that can connect with other’s perspectives.  Here’s a better picture of the expert brain, with a representation of the tagged structure.


Well, it’s certainly nice to find out that the neuroscience backs up my hypothesizing.  This popular press article written by Mark Humphries of the Manchester Systems Neurophysiology Lab, about the function of the hippocampus,  the part of the limbic system responsible for that explicit, fragmented knowledge – to – holistic knowledge transformation, confirms this.  It’s actually about research published in Science, about hippocampal area CA3, and its tendency to develop self-reinforcing networks inside the neural structure (can anyone say ‘tag’?) that gives it this ability.

Humphries describes the efforts of the Science article’s authors, mostly from the Institute of Science and Technology Austria in Klosterneuburg outside Vienna, as legendary, and he’s probably right.  Apparently, they had to do microsurgery to wire their various probes to hundreds of individual neurons to find the exact patterns, which were at most only a few neurons wide.  Or long.  Or connected-whatever.  And true to form, just as our knowledge structure/social structure theories would predict the researchers themselves are thinking, these guys are claiming a smaller and smaller piece of real estate, more exactly – Hippocampal Area CA3.  Sometimes it takes a little Authoritarian Legalism to figure out the exact way something works.

I’m aware that this research is only supportive — and not conclusive.  But I’d also welcome any others out there with their ‘It HAS to work this way’ perspective.  Things might be fun!

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