How much do we really know about the human brain?

Kevin Loria
Writer, Business Insider
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Of all the physical components of the human body, the one we most associate with our “self” and our consciousness is the brain.

That fantastically complex organ is the main focus of several massive scientific research projects right now, including the more than $300 million Brain Initiative and the EU’s Human Brain Project.

What most people may not realize is how much this research is truly delving into the unknown. As central as the brain is to our existence, we understand very little about how it actually works, according to Dr. Thomas Insel, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who gave a talk on the topic at Smithsonian magazine’s “The Future is Here” festival.

As Insel explained:

In the 1970s, we had a pretty good understanding of how the kidney serves as a filter, how the heart serves as a pump, what lungs do and how they do it; but today, in 2015, I can’t tell you — nor can anyone else — how the brain functions as an information processing organ. How does it do it?

What is meaning, how is it stored, where does it exist, what does it look like in the brain? We really don’t have a sense of how the brain works, and if we’re going to be able to make the progress that we need against those disorders that we want during this century we’re going to have to get a deeper understanding of this problem.

Researchers who study the brain want to understand and be able to treat both psychiatric illnesses and disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia that we know are associated with deterioration of the brain. If we can understand the brain well enough to do that, we could also perhaps unlock the keys to hacking our intelligence, memory, and other mental skills.

Perhaps we’ll understand what consciousness is, what we are.

The first goal of these projects is just to map the brain, to be able to understand where everything is. But although that’s a starting point, it won’t be enough to explain what’s happening in our minds. In an interview, Insel explained that for that, you need “a way of looking at activity in real time, essentially at the speed of thought, so you’re able to capture what’s activated when and how that’s connected in a way that’s sufficient for behavior.”

While we’ve figured out how to see what’s happening in realtime in the brains of certain fish, we just don’t have the tools yet to see that level of detail in humans.

And that’s a crucial missing link. It’s the development of new tools, Insel says, that will really enable us to explore our inner selves, to see what’s going on.

Insel says we should think about exploring the brain as we do outer space. He cites astrophysicist Freeman Dyson, who he quotes as saying that our understanding of outer space has been most of all supported by an “ability to create new tools, which have given us new insights and… a sense of what questions need to be asked.”

Just as new tools enable our ability to explore outer space, they will hopefully do the same for our inner space. And while it may seem like we have an incredibly long journey to cover before we understand the 86 billion neurons in our skulls, each with 1,000 connections, it’s a process that’s moving fast.

Insel quotes Dyson again to show just how fast: “the technology is giving us a chance now to ask questions that we didn’t even know were worth asking even 5 years ago.”

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Kevin Loria writes about health and science for Business Insider.

Image: Plaster phrenological models of heads, showing different parts of the brain, are seen at an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London. REUTERS/Chris Helgren       

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