Although the bulk of his work involves deriving equations, Cowan’s findings mesh well with laboratory data generated on the cerebral cortex and electroencephalograms. His latest findings show that the same mathematical tools physicists use to describe the behavior of subatomic particles and the dynamics of liquids and solids can now be applied to understanding how the brain generates its various rhythms.
These include the delta waves generated during sleep, the alpha waves of the visual brain, and the gamma waves, discovered during the last decade, which seem related to information processing. “The resting state of brain activity seems to have a statistical structure that’s characteristic of a certain kind of phase transition,” Cowan said. “The brain likes to sit there because that’s the place where information processing is optimized.”
At this stage of his research, Cowan said it would be premature and speculative for him to try to relate how phase transitions in the brain might relate to neurological conditions or states of human consciousness. “That’s for the future,” he said.