Beret. Cigar. Blue dress
If "beret," "cigar" and "blue dress" mean anything to you, it's very likely that your brain is serving up a kind of map from 1998, a flood of neural firings still going strong. I'm referring to Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton's much-publicized (and forever branded in the collective memory) affair.
But I didn't need to clarify that, did I?
In fact, I could've just written "beret" and "blue dress," or even "blue dress" on its own and a slew of associations would magically coalesce, unearthing a time capsule of 1998.
But when you see these memory-symbol-specific words what's going on behind the scenes in your brain? What does it take to build up that kind of neural code of memory and tag it as a symbol for the whole?
One that - in the blink of an eye - brings to mind events from 16 years ago?
The Jennifer Aniston Neuron
Jennifer Aniston might be able to answer that, or rather studies about how much real estate Aniston is taking up in others' brains could help us get to the bottom of it all.
While operating on patients who suffered from epileptic seizures, UCLA neurosurgeon Dr. Itzhak Fried asked his (fully conscious) patients if they wouldn't mind looking at a few photos while he took a gander at how their brains reacted to the images.
The patients dwelled on pictures of non-famous people, Julia Roberts, animals and, finally, Jennifer Aniston. All was relatively quiet on the brain front until Dr. Fried presented Aniston's image. Then, in many of the patients, Dr. Fried observed a particular neuron flashing when they looked at a photo of her.*
In a piece for NPR Robert Krulwich put forth the idea that there is no singular Aniston, rather a plural one - with a "cascade of neural firings" pinned to different associations of her appearance, cultural significance, not to mention how Aniston figures into a person's own biography.
And every time we think of her, or see her image, those associations strengthen, and perhaps this is that spike of energy that Dr. Fried spied.
As Krulwich says, "That neuron shouting 'Jen!' is receiving signals from thousands, maybe tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of neurons down below."
This concept has been explored before in the form of the "grandmother cell," a hypothetical neuron that responds to stimuli that invokes, say, your grandmother - perfume, food, songs, the crinkling of skin around her eyes - essentially a collection of millions of details that create the whole.
But why Aniston, and for that matter, why "blue dress"? This is where we see that neural activity -- spurred on by the data we take in -- doesn't give a rat's about the value of that data. In fact if we stopped to think about the kinds of information we passively and subconsciously absorb we'd shut down; we have finite stores of mental energy after all.
And this is the reason why we've built such a robust database about Jennifer Aniston over the years given the sheer amount of images and information dedicated to the "idea" of her.
It's also the reason why blue dress and Lewinsky occupy space in our brains - Lewinsky, and her wardrobe, are particles of data, pixels of color, light and sound we experience.
Over and over and over again...
Until the parts become embedded in the data sieve of our minds, objectified, waiting to be reassembled and served up.
*There have been a raft of studies on Aniston and neuronal activity since Dr. Fried, and other celebrities seem to excite specific neuronal activities as well, including Halle Berry.