Mind & Body

You Probably Have a Jennifer Aniston Neuron

Think as hard as you can about Jennifer Aniston. Now let your mind wander. Does it drift to thoughts of Smartwater, Rachel from "Friends," and the phrase "we were on a break?" Why do our brains draw connections so easily? It all comes down to our Jennifer Aniston neurons.

Related Video: How Your Brain Grows

So No One Said Your Brain Was Gonna Be This Way

Back in the 1960s, a biologist named Jerry Lettvin proposed the existence of a brain cell that lit up in response to particular stimuli, say, your own grandmother. For nearly half a century, these so-called "grandmother cells" were thought to be an absolute fiction and were even used in the classroom as an example of plain old bad science. But in 2005 (incidentally, a year after "Friends" went off the air), a team of epilepsy researchers accidentally discovered that Lettvin might not have been so far off after all.

Neuroscientist Rodrigo Quiroga and his team were trying to find the place in the brain where epileptic seizures originate, but they began to notice a strange pattern in one of their participants. Every time she saw a picture of Jennifer Aniston, a particular neuron would fire in her brain. They tried showing her the words "Jennifer Aniston," and again, it would fire. They'd try evoking Jennifer Aniston in other ways, and every time, it shot off. The conclusion was inescapable: For this particular individual, anyway, there was a specific neuron tied to the concept of Jennifer Aniston.

Other participants in the study demonstrated their own unique triggers for particular neurons. In one, they found a particular neuron associated with Bill Clinton, and in another, they found one for Halle Berry. Even if the actual individual was unrecognizable in the image (Halle Berry in her Catwoman costume, for example), the subject's brain would react as if it recognized her — as long as she knew beforehand that the actress had been unfortunate enough to win that role.

More Than Famous Faces

In case it's not clear, nobody is suggesting that we are all born with a particular neuron that fires for the first time when we see Ross and Rachel get in a fight about nothing. In fact, Quiroga believes that the Jennifer Aniston neuron that he first discovered likely fires for many other concepts that he simply didn't test for. And not only that, that there are probably many other neurons that fire in tandem with that particular one whenever the woman saw Jennifer Aniston. Instead, as we learn to recognize people, places, and things, our networks of neurons begin storing that data by developing particular patterns of activity. And what's more, it's surprisingly easy to manipulate that pattern.

The One With the Eiffel Tower

So it isn't exactly true that the researchers only spotted the Jennifer Aniston neuron firing for Jennifer Aniston. Actually, they sometimes saw it light up for Lisa Kudrow as well. That implied that part of the job the neuron was doing was making associations — Lisa Kudrow made her think of Phoebe from "Friends," which made her think of Rachel from "Friends," which made her think of Jennifer Aniston. So the researchers decided to try setting up a new association to find out how difficult it was to do so.

It didn't take long. All they did was show the woman several images of Jennifer Aniston at the Eiffel Tower, and before long, an image of the Eiffel Tower on its own was enough to make the Jennifer Aniston neuron fire. The takeaway? Making associations between two concepts could be one of the most effective ways to kickstart your memory. No wonder the "Memory Palace" is so effective.

Get stories like this one in your inbox each morning. Sign up for our daily email here.

For more on this fascinating subject, check out Rodrigo Quiroga's book "The Forgetting Machine: Memory, Perception, and the 'Jennifer Aniston Neuron'" (free with a trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas February 26, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.