Thursday, March 08, 2012

Nobody Really Understands How the Human Brain Works

This ladybug walked across my office desk today.

One of my doctoral dissertation professors at Northwestern was James Ashbrook. Dr. Ashbrook was a neuro-psychologist and neuro-theologian. His The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet was nominated for the Templeton Prize in Religion and Science.

I remember talking with Dr. Ashbrook as he talked about the first time he held a human brain in his hands. His eyes were filled with wonder in the face of what is arguably the greatest of God's accomplishments. I was fascinated as he talked.

My research in the philosophy of language had taken me into the relatively new field of neurolinguistics, especially how the physical brain processes metaphor. It turns out that, e.g., what happens in the brain when making a metaphor is structurally different than when making a simile. This, among other things, helps debunk the old, Aristotelian idea that metaphor is but an elliptical simile.

My own independent neuro-studies have continued. My interest has in no way diminished, and my fascination has only increased.

How much do we know about the human brain? Sebastian Seung, professor of brain science at M.I.T., says: "Every day we recall the past, perceive the present and imagine the future. How do our brains accomplish these feats? It's safe to say that nobody really knows."

McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, in "The Ultimate Brain Quest," writes:

"Neuroscientists posit that all of our hopes, desires, beliefs and experiences are encoded in the brain as patterns of neural firings. Just how this happens is not precisely understood, as the author attests, but we have made great strides in understanding how neurons communicate with one another. Progress has also been made in mapping which brain systems control which kinds of operations (my own field of research)."

As advanced as we are, why do we understand so little about the brain? Because:
  • the human brain contains 100 million neurons
  • each neuron, on average, makes thousands of connections
  • each distinct connection pattern gives rise to a distinct brain state
  • This means that "the number of brain states exceeds the number of known particles in the universe."
  • "The next big frontier is mapping those trillions of neural connection patterns to their brain states. By observing a particular network of neurons firing, researchers should know (in theory) whether you are thinking about love or money, beer or burgers."
Levitin says that Seung's book Connectome is "the best lay book on brain science I've ever read (Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are)

I just bought it. I'm pulling it up on my Kindle. I'm about to find out more of what I don't understand about the human brain.