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What Donkey Kong can tell us about how to study the brain

Unconventional test turns up weaknesses in brain research tools

By
3:31pm, August 23, 2016
brain and microprocessor

GAMING THE BRAIN  Neuroscience tools didn’t reveal much about the inner workings of a simple microprocessor (right), so how can they grasp the much more complex brain?

Brain scientists Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording had grown skeptical. They weren’t convinced that the sophisticated, big data experiments of neuroscience were actually accomplishing anything. So they devised a devilish experiment.

Instead of studying the brain of a person, or a mouse, or even a lowly worm, the two used advanced neuroscience methods to scrutinize the inner workings of another information processor — a computer chip. The unorthodox experimental subject, the MOS 6502, is the same chip that dazzled early tech junkies and kids alike in the 1980s by powering Donkey Kong, Space Invaders and Pitfall, as well as the Apple I and II computers.

Of course, these experiments were rigged. The scientists already knew everything about how the 6502 works.

“The beauty of the microprocessor is that unlike anything in biology, we understand it on every level,” says Jonas, of

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