Six things on my mind about the brain!
What I’m reading:
My experience of the world is constructed by my brain, locked away in the dark of my skull, with no direct contact with the reality it describes. Constructed seems the appropriate word, because reading David Eagleman’s The Brain: The Story of You is the realization that we do not so much perceive with our senses, but rather live in the brain’s interpretation of the senses. I do not see with my eyes but rather see with my brain; there is 10 times as much information and connections flowing from the brain to the eye as the eye to the brain. Mind and brain are linked in ways in which we are only beginning to understand. Change one changes the other. And everything is always changing. Think about what you are feeding your head!
How do I learn new skills, control my impulses and tame my “monkey mind”, recall my memories, perceive time, experience empathy? Is the subjective sense of who I am tied to the unique physical architecture of my brain? Or could I migrate my consciousness to other material substrates and, if so, who or what would survive the passage?
Cartographer of the brain:
A connectome is a map of the neural connections in a brain, and Dr. Sebastian Seung is a pioneer in using machine-learning techniques to dramatically accelerate the map-making process. Brain tissue is sliced, imaged, and reconstructed in 3D using a method called serial block-face scanning electron microscopy. Reaping the benefits from billions of dollars poured into AI in recent years, these images have their architecture traced out in a vastly accelerated human-machine collaboration. Taking the technology further, the ambition is to create a complete reconstruction of a human brain in all its wired-up glory, a record of everything that makes you you.
Introduction to the Electroencephalogram (EEG):
This video is excellent at explaining EEG terminology, how it is recorded and displayed for interpretation, common EEG patterns, and how EEG can be used in neurology. I definitely plan to check out the rest of the series. My ambition is to make a self-assembled EEG to measure brain activity during my daily meditation sessions!
Alzheimer’s disease without cognitive loss:
From 1994 through 2011, the Religious Orders Study recruited more than a thousand Catholic nuns, priests and brothers, from across the United States, and collected over 350 brains for autopsy. Participants were drawn from a stable background of similar life experiences, education, and living standards (minimizing variables). Primary goals were to collect brain tissue from donors without dementia, and also from persons on whom clinical information had been collected prior to the onset of dementia.
Researchers were surprised to discover in post-mortem examinations that some of the brains displayed all the symptoms of full-blown Alzheimer’s, but the persons had exhibited no cognitive loss while alive. After studying risk factors, the study suggests that a rich cognitive environment and a positive psychology foster a “cognitive reserve” that the brain can enlist as it routes activity around damaged regions. Conversely, clinical depression showed a strong correlation with cognitive decline.
Brain heal thyself:
Cameron Mott began experiencing life-threatening seizures at three years old. As her condition deteriorated, doctors chose a radical solution: remove the damaged half of her brain, a procedure known as a hemispherectomy. After intensive rehabilitation, she made a remarkable recovery and is now living the life of a normal teenager. The natural property of neuroplasticity empowered her brain to remap the functions of the removed tissue on to the surviving hemisphere. Not all brain surgeries have such successful outcomes, but what kind of technologies could we develop to augment the brain’s natural abilities to self-heal?
Quote I’m pondering:
Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly, I awake, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming that I am a man.
— Zhuang Zhou (369-286 BC)