Wait, What? Scientists Discover A Jennifer Aniston Neuron

Jennifer Aniston obviously plays an important role in American pop culture, but scientists have discovered that she also plays a prominent role in a more unexpected place: the medial part of the temporal lobe. Yep, there is a Jennifer Aniston neuron in our brains. Skeptical? Confused? Okay, here’s the deal …

A neurosurgeon at UCLA named Itzhak Fried asked his patients if he could show them some random pictures during surgery and observe their brains’ responses (patients are often kept fully conscious while their brains are being operated on). One of the results was, well, really weird. Here’s how NPR science blogger Robert Krulwich put it:

“[Fried] noticed when they came to a picture of Jen, very often a particular neuron would begin to flash, multiple times. When he showed these same patients pictures of Julia Roberts or random (not famous) people, or animals, or places, the neuron was quiet. Back to Jen? Back came the flash.”

Neurons  in our brains are always flashing, so there was nothing particularly noteworthy about that; the real shocker was that one particular neuron seemed to be dedicated to Jennifer Aniston. Here’s Krulwich’s theory:

“Maybe the neuron flashing “Jennifer!” isn’t acting alone. Maybe it’s the beacon atop a summit of associated neurons, each of which is flashing little bits of Jen. After all, when I say Jennifer Aniston, what comes to mind? Her blue eyes. Her chin (I’m slayed by her chin), her hair of course, her voice, her laugh, her fictive romance with Ross on “Friends,” her dresses at the Oscars, her marriage to Brad Pitt, the divorce, her movies….”

So the likely explanation is that one glance at a picture of Jen (such as the one accompanying this story) triggers a rush of memories and emotions that is much more profound way than we might realize. And apparently she’s not the only celebrity taking up residence in our brains: scientists have also found neurons that loyally flash for Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, and Kobe Bryant.

This research may seem random, but it actually tells us a lot. It shows the intense emotional connections we form with celebrities that we’ve never met. It underscores the complexities of human brain function. It even illustrates one of the most amazing things about memories themselves, that in a way, they are physical entities–little jolts of electricity that can be seen, measured, and manipulated.

Crazy, right? So the next time you effortlessly throw a “Friends” quote into a conversation or discuss the intricacies of the Brad/Jen/Angie love triangle, think about that little neuron in your temporal lobe: it’s probably lit up as bright and shiny as the beaded Valentino gown Jen wore to the 2009 Academy Awards. [NPR]

Ed. Note: I am convinced I must have a Ryan Gosling neuron. Explains so much!