Wired: "Your Brain Is a Mess, but It Knows How to Make Fixes"

Awesome kluge example this week in Wired, in this article by Carl ZImmer, a great discussion of the problem of neural noise, how it might have been avoided, and what the brain does to cope.

The trouble with neurons, as scientists from Cambridge University write in the new issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, is that the channels don’t always do what they’re supposed to. The channels are continually wobbling and twitching, and sometimes they open up a little earlier than they should, splitting a single wave in two. Sometimes they open late, or not at all. These delinquent channels can make a short, sharp wave blur into a longer, weaker one. Channels sometimes open up when there is no wave, creating an entirely false spike.

As a result, as Zimmer puts it

much of the brain's organization is dedicated to fighting noise. One way to fight it is to calculate the average of several signals. When we hear a sound, hair-like structures on neurons in our ears wiggle. Their wiggling creates a pattern of voltage spikes, which the neuron then passes on to 10 to 30 other neurons. All of those neurons then carry the same signal toward the brain, where they can be compared. Each neuron degrades the signal in a uniquely random way, and by averaging all of their signals together, the brain can cancel out some of the noise.....To [further] compensate for noise, our brains send out continuously updated commands to correct for previous ones.Impressive? Absolutely. Our brains unconsciously carry out sophisticated calculations that engineers are trying to mimic to build better computers and communication systems. And yet all of this complex math serves a paradoxical purpose: to make up for the mistakes built into our very biology.