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A Momentary Flow

Evolving Worldviews

What Our Brains Can Teach Us
By DAVID EAGLEMAN
Published: February 22, 2013
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AFTER President Obama’s recent announcement of a plan to invigorate the study of neuroscience with what could amount to a $3 billion investment, a reasonable taxpayer might ask: Why brain science? Why now?
Here’s why. Imagine you were an alien catching sight of the Earth. Your species knows nothing about humans, let alone how to interpret the interactions of seven billion people in complex social networks. With no acquaintance with the nuances of human language or behavior, it proves impossible to decipher the secret idiom of neighborhoods and governments, the interplay of local and global culture, or the intertwining economies of nations. It just looks like pandemonium, a meaningless Babel.
So it goes with the brain. We are the aliens in that landscape, and the brain is an even more complicated cipher. It is composed of 100 billion electrically active cells called neurons, each connected to many thousands of its neighbors. Each neuron relays information in the form of miniature voltage spikes, which are then converted into chemical signals that bridge the gap to other neurons. Most neurons send these signals many times per second; if each signaling event were to make a sound as loud as a pin dropping, the cacophony from a single human head would blow out all the windows. The complexity of such a system bankrupts our language; observing the brain with our current technologies, we mostly detect an enigmatic uproar.
Looking at the brain from a distance isn’t much use, nor is zooming in to a single neuron. A new kind of science is required, one that can track and analyze the activity of billions of neurons simultaneously.

What Our Brains Can Teach Us

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AFTER President Obama’s recent announcement of a plan to invigorate the study of neuroscience with what could amount to a $3 billion investment, a reasonable taxpayer might ask: Why brain science? Why now?

Here’s why. Imagine you were an alien catching sight of the Earth. Your species knows nothing about humans, let alone how to interpret the interactions of seven billion people in complex social networks. With no acquaintance with the nuances of human language or behavior, it proves impossible to decipher the secret idiom of neighborhoods and governments, the interplay of local and global culture, or the intertwining economies of nations. It just looks like pandemonium, a meaningless Babel.

So it goes with the brain. We are the aliens in that landscape, and the brain is an even more complicated cipher. It is composed of 100 billion electrically active cells called neurons, each connected to many thousands of its neighbors. Each neuron relays information in the form of miniature voltage spikes, which are then converted into chemical signals that bridge the gap to other neurons. Most neurons send these signals many times per second; if each signaling event were to make a sound as loud as a pin dropping, the cacophony from a single human head would blow out all the windows. The complexity of such a system bankrupts our language; observing the brain with our current technologies, we mostly detect an enigmatic uproar.

Looking at the brain from a distance isn’t much use, nor is zooming in to a single neuron. A new kind of science is required, one that can track and analyze the activity of billions of neurons simultaneously.

Notes

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