The 30,000 futures of the brain
The technology is advancing - fast. Things that seemed impossible five years ago are being commercialized right now. But for all that the brain is still largely a black box that we can prod and poke without understanding what it is actually doing, or how it got there. It begs us to ask the question: what are the directions neuroscience is heading to make a sense of this neural hydra?
The beauty of brain science
At first glance, the brain is a mess. More like a tangled ball of yarn than a finely woven tapestry, every combination of neuron-to-neuron is in there, somewhere. Yet look a little closer and this complex structure devolves into very clear regularity. I could take you on a tour of the waves of Purkinje cells, straight-backed like military men, reaching their arms out to passing fibers shooting up from a distant province. I could show you the shapes of the hippocampus where memories are created, messages washing down step by step. I could show you the round columns of barrel cortex, clear to your eye, that precisely mirrors the pattern of whiskers that eventually stimulate them...
Why bother doing science?
I recently bought a fish. He spends most of his time hovering in a hypnotic stillness. Although he seems slow, when frightened he will make a sudden sharp turn around to get away. I see this and I know. I know how it works: it comes from a neuron called the Mauthner cell. Present in fish and amphibians, the tendrils of this cell reach out to provide fast information to other neurons to make the animal get away. This behavior isn't confined to fish, though. My precious little worms do the same thing. Animals, backing up, running away, doing the same thing.
No, Einstein was not smart because his brain was 'well-connected'
People will never tire of hearing how smart that Einstein fellow was. And following logically from that, apparently, is the truism that people will never tire of hearing about Einstein's brain. This organ is so fascinating that it has it's own wikipedia page full of information gleaned by its examination after it was stolen from the dear genius' head (before being lost and then found again). And every so often a new study will exclaim about the extravagant protrusion arising from one portion of it or another leading to a series of silly articles in the popular press claiming the secret to Einstein's smarts.
As a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, a neuron in your head veers slightly heavenward...
When you look at the edge of a table, there is a neuron in your head that goes from silence to pop pop pop. As you extend your arm, a nerve commanding the muscle does the same thing. Your retina has neurons whose firing rate goes up or down depending on whether it detects a light spot or a dark spot. The traditional view of the nervous system descends from experiments that have supported this view of neural activity. And perhaps it is true at the outer edges of the nervous system, near the sensory inputs and the motor outputs. But things get murkier once you get inside.