On July 17, 1793, a French woman, Charlotte Corday, had her head severed by the use of a guillotine for assassinating radical journalist and revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat. Immediately the blade dropped and Corday's head fell, the executioner's assistant picked up Charlotte Corday’s head and slapped her cheek. Corday's eyes turned to look at the man. Witnesses to the French Revolution reported that the expression on Corday’s face changed to that of indignation.
The brain is a funny thing. If I can take my brain out of my skull and have a good look at it, I will. But that will not help me understand how it works.
There are 7 billion people moving around in the world today. Nobody, not even one of us, understands how the brain in our heads works. And somehow, that reality does not scare us. We are like people who live in a house but do not understand anything in the room that contains the thermostat for the heater, circuit breaker for the electricity, the pressure guage for the water pump, the control valve for the sewage system and other networks that keep the house functional. In fact, no one can claim to be a homeowner if he or she does not understand or have access to such a room. But that’s how we operate as humans.
This has a wide range of implications. Are we the owners of our brains or are we just the brain’s toy? What if we are not really here- as in this earth? Think about it. What if the brain is just tricking us all to believe the things we believe? Everything! What if our brain is being remotely controlled by some other beings somewhere far away? What happens if sections of our brains start to shut down? What are we going to do? What if there are things hidden in our brain that manipulates us into behaving in auto-pilot ways most of the time?
What if our brains are not different from that of a goat? Does that still mean that we are special beings? Is our consciousness inside our brain, or is our brain inside our consciousness? Does our brain generate our thought or does our thought generate our brain? Are we using our brain or is our brain using us? Why does our left side of the brain interact with the right side of our body? Why is it that the human brain has been shrinking in the last 28,000 years? Why did Albert Einstein’s brain weigh 10% less than the average brain?
Most of us are not worried about any of these questions. We are so lost in the struggle to climb up from the very bottom of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that we hardly notice that we even have a brain. And if you don’t notice your brain, chances are that you don’t use it. But these are real questions. They become more urgent as we confront brain disorders like autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer, stroke, depression and all others.
Aristotle thought that the brain’s job was to cool the blood and that it had nothing to do with thinking. We have come a long way from that level of understanding. What we know now is that our brain is the center of the nervous system. It is believed to have 15-33 billion neurons that are always stimulated and active even when we are asleep. The neurons are connected to each other by what is called synapses. There are over a trillion synapses. The neurons communicate with one another through long protoplasmic fibers called axons. The axons carry trains of signal pulses to other parts of the brain and the rest of the body. There are 100,000 miles of blood vessels in the brain, enough to go round the world four times.
The brain essentially controls the organs in the body, sometimes by manipulating the secretion of hormones. The brain grows from a single cell to 80 billion cells in just nine months. It processes over 70,000 thoughts each day. It collects, stores and processes information in ways more complicated than a computer’s Central Processing Unit, CPU. At just 3 pounds it is the most complicated object in the whole wide world, if not in the universe. In fact, some refer to the brain as “a three-pound universe.”
To study the brain will generate unimaginable amount of data. That notwithstanding, studying the brain is what serious minded people want to do.
On April 2, 2013, President Barack Obama launched what is called the Brain Initiative. The $100 million a year scientific quest hopes to map out the structure of the brain in ten years. "As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away," Obama said during the announcement. "We can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears."
Some have called the mission to map the brain an impossible one. That was exactly what was said when in 1964 Peter Higgs proposed that there is an elementary particle that explains why particles have mass. And to find this particle, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) built a $10 billion dollar Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland. For 50 years, scientists set out to prove Higgs’ theory that the so-called God particle exists. In the LHC, protons moving in a 17-mile long circular tunnel at near the speed of light smashed against each other at 11,000 times per second. It created mini-Big Bangs each second. In 2012, after months of analyzing data, scientists announced the discovery of the God Particle. That discovery alone changed all we know about the physical world and opened new doors for new understanding of where we are and how we got here.
Again, in 1984, the US government announced plans to embark on Human Genome Project aimed at understanding the 3 billion chemical units in the human genetic set. It was immediately considered impossible. In 1990, the 15-year $3 billion dollar project kicked off with the goal of identifying and mapping out all the genes in human genome. In 2003, the project was completed two years ahead of schedule by scientists working in the US, China, UK, Germany, Japan, Spain and China. Though the interpretations of the results are still at the early stage, the benefits of the Human Genome Project are being discovered each day. The sequencing of the human genome has been a source of advancement in molecular medicine as well as in the understanding of human evolution. In years to come, finding genetic root of diseases, treating diseases, and designs of medicine are going to be greatly impacted. New generation of doctors will not treat illnesses the same way that current doctors do. The understanding of the evolutionary trend between us and other animals will be enhanced.
While the rest of us are busy pursuing physiological and safety needs and burying our minds in ancient stories and superstitious beliefs that have no scientific bearings, the people who are interested in understanding how things works are moving ahead. Each day science is bursting myths, filling blanks and revealing puzzles once considered mysteries. They are making enquiries that will help us understand who we are and how we are related to our environment. These are the same concerns that over centuries have sprung up one religion after another.
Our brains are carrying the genetic memories of thousands of generations before us. As we make new findings, we can pose more informed questions on the brain. We can squeeze the genetic memories out of it. We can rewire the brain. Uncovering the secrets of the brain will reveal the unknown matrixes of life. Tomorrow’s brains are going to be a lot better than today’s brain. It begins with a clear understanding of the brain not a foreclosing belief in its direct connection to a paradise somewhere in the heavens.
The greatest lie your brain tells you is that you know more than you really know. The truth is that you don’t know jack. Your brain won’t let you know how much you need to know before you know how little you know. That will be self-sabotage if it does. Your brain lies to you for a good reason- “you cannot handle the truth.”