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This Week in Research: Ritual Drunkenness in Ancient Egypt & the Brain’s GPS

1 Written by: | Friday, May 10, 2013 9:00am

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The ancient Egyptians did holidays right. For instance, the ritual dedicated to the cult of the lion goddess involved blackout levels of drinking, ritual drumbeats — oh, and sex.

According to Hopkins Egyptologist Betsy Bryan, the Festivals of Drunkenness had to do with ensuring the community’s well being. We’ll let her explain the mythology behind the festival, because it’s complicated:

“In ancient Egyptian myth, the sun god is unhappy with mankind. He finds they are rebellious. And he orders, together with the Council of Gods, mankind’s destruction. He calls on his daughter, Hathor, to become a lion, whereupon she turns into Sakhnet (which simply means magical power — female power). The sun god sends her down to kill mankind, which she does in this lion form, running up and down the Nile River Valley eating people.

“Eventually her father tells her to stop. But by this time, she has developed a lust for blood and she won’t stop killing. To foil her, the Council of Gods floods the fields of the valley with beer that has been tinted red, to look like blood, with ocher. Blood-thirsty Hathor drinks it, becomes inebriated and falls asleep, and mankind is safe.”

Although Bryan has found enough evidence to piece together a rough sketch of the drinking aspect of the festival — for example, that in most places it took place once a year, mostly in temples but also in desert shrines — less is known about the sexual aspect. But songs and inscriptions saying things like “Let them drink and have sex in front of the god” indicate that  some sort of, um, fertility ritual took place.

Makes your annual birthday bash seem pretty tame by comparison, right?

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How do you get from here to there? This seemingly simple question obscures a complex cognitive process, one that Johns Hopkins neuroscience researchers are hoping to learn more about by monitoring rats’ brains as they navigate through familiar territory.

To watch what happens in the brain, neuroscientist David Foster and his colleagues implanted microwires into the hippocampus of four rats. They were aiming for a cluster of hippocampus neurons known as “place cells,” which were already known to activate when animals are in a familiar location. What wasn’t known — and what Foster and his team hoped to find out — was how the brain used that location-based information.

First, the team spent two weeks familiarizing the rats with the testing area (and rewarding them with liquid chocolate!). Then they devised a series of navigation tests that encouraged the rats to travel at random through the area, looking for that liquid chocolate. They found that the same spots in the rats’ brains lit up when the animals traversed a familiar spot, essentially constructing a virtual map in the brain. They weren’t just remembering where they went last time; they were actually mentally reconstructing the familiar space.

In an image compiled over a few milliseconds, a rat’s imagined trajectory from point A to its chocolate reward at point D. Unique combinations of the brain’s place cells fire in sequence (red lights) to represent each part of the path (A to B to C to D) that the rat will take. (Image via David Foster/Nature)

In an image compiled over a few milliseconds, a rat’s imagined trajectory from point A to its chocolate reward at point D. Unique combinations of the brain’s place cells fire in sequence (red lights) to represent each part of the path (A to B to C to D) that the rat will take. (Image via David Foster/Nature)

“Unlike a Hansel and Gretel bread crumb trail, which only allows you to leave by the same route by which you entered, the rats’ memories of their surroundings are flexible and can be reconstructed in a way that allows them to ‘picture’ how to quickly get from point A to point B,” Foster explains.

Foster is hoping that the research will help doctors and scientists better understand what cognitive processes result in disorientation for humans suffering from things like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

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