Imagine an object that weighs a mere 2.5 kilograms, composed of flesh and blood, which has the capacity to comprehend the complex and idiosyncratic laws of the universe. Yes, this object rests directly on your shoulders and is the most perplexing mystery known to man.
What is Neuroscience?
Neuroscience is the branch of science that deals with the study of the human brain. It provides us a window to look directly into our mind. The earliest advancements in understanding our brain were limited by the prevailing technology at that time. Without the tools to dig deeper, scientists divided the brain into sections. The cerebrum is the largest section, and is subdivided into four lobes that are responsible for higher cognitive functions, such as language, reasoning, speech and vision. The cerebellum sits below the cerebrum and is responsible for lower or more primitive functions, such as movement and balance.
Advancements in microscopy led to the discovery of neurons – a series of specialized cells connected together that signal each other electrically. The brain interprets and reacts to the outside world via these signals. This led early experts to the conclusion that all of our emotions, from hunger or anger to more complex feelings like curiosity and wonder, are a product of these densely intertwined “wires”. How these electrical impulses are translated into emotions is yet another mystery.
How Neuroscience Works
Initially, the brain’s unique workings were studied by examining patients who were manifesting obtrusive or abnormal behavior, including people who experienced a sudden loss of color or hearing after an accident or stroke. Like an act of reverse engineering, the examiners would open up their heads in surgery and determine the parts of the brain that had been damaged in the accident to understand the loss of vision and therefore recognize its role in the functioning of our visual system.
Eventually, the technology progressed and tools such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) were used to study our brain in all its exquisite detail. Neuroscientists can study specific parts of the brain, as they light up in an image when scanned under a fMRI while performing different activities. For example, the illumination of your taste centers and reward centers is evident if you devour a bowl of your favorite ice cream while being scanned.
Why neuroscience will supplant psychology
Early efforts to make sense of our subjectivity or to understand why we are hardwired to form opinions wrought with our biases found that the brain’s function can be compared to an animal acquiring information and using it simultaneously with the sole objective of survival. The early scientists who believed this were called psychologists or behaviorists.
The science of psychology remains quite popular today, which is evident from our favorite shows and movies. For instance, consider my favorite crime thriller, ‘The Mentalist’, whose protagonist portrays a “psychic” who uses his psychoanalytic skills to read the minds of others and seek out their motivations. Pretty cool, huh?
Psychology is somewhat theoretical and is not considered a practical science in many circles. Most of psychological study is a means to justify your “animal instincts” with the help of correlations, not causations, along with some other cool-sounding jargon. Our brains are the most impressive supercomputers in the world, and in those terms, psychology tends to examine the machine’s behavior, while neuroscience inspects the processor and identifies what makes the machine act the way it does.
Why do we look inside?
Other than feeding our curiosity, another reason to peek into our heads is to find the root causes of our persistent miseries. Neuroscientists have found that these powerful emotions emerge from the amygdala, the fear center of our brain. Given the fear and painful memories that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients are subject to, combined with the help of some chemicals, neuroscience was able to send a human through a fMRI machine and determine where those fears hide and reside. With the help of these fMRI images, experimental medicines are being tested that can directly attack the key areas responsible for fear and anxiety, helping these patients calm down more rapidly, or eliminate the occurrence of those memories altogether!
Technology giant Elon Musk has talked about his grand vision of merging humans with Artificial Intelligence, which led to the founding of his new company, Neuralink. The general idea is to exploit our brain’s electrical properties and interface it to electrodes connected to a computer, resulting in a brain-computer implant. This could allow telepathy between two ‘connected’ people and provide advantageous AI relationships. However, due to the complexity of the concepts, development of this technology has currently been sluggish and implementation is only limited to theory.
Lastly, philosophers and artists have been puzzled by the nature of memory and its plasticity for a long time. Many of them have reflected on their lives, peering directly into the crucible of consciousness and contemplating its implications to produce their greatest works. On the other hand, neuroscience has taken a step further and employed a practical approach by attempting to map individual memories in our brain by inspecting the complex wiring and squishy hardware. Consequently, we have understood a great deal more about the mechanics of the delicate cogs in this beautiful machine, which has been shaped and sculpted by evolution over the course of millions of years.
- Phantoms in the Brain by V.S Ramachandran
- An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- New York University