Studying the brain
Some ways neuroscientists study the brain
How do we know what we know?
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Neuroscientist Jeanette Norden cites Hippocrates to remind us that there have always been individuals and minds that have been well ahead of their time. (Understanding the Brain, 2007)
"Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter, and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear and know what are foul and what is fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet, and what are unsavoury. ... And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us. ... All these things we endure from the brain" (On the Sacred Disease, Hippocrates, 5th century BC).
Since ages past, people have been interested in understanding the workings of their minds. From ancient times until roughly around the 15th century, peoples around the world generally believed the heart to be the seat of intellect, memory, emotions, and spirit of the individual. In the 15th and 16th centuries, paradigm shifts occurred that changed the locus of these brain processes from the heart to the head—but not necessarily to the brain. And in the 17th century, Thomas Willis, the “father of neurology,” helped establish that perception, movement, cognition, and memory were all functions of the brain.
Neuroscience has drawn from philosophy, psychology, science and medicine to study and understand the brain. Until relatively recently, evidence connecting the brain and the mind depended on "natural experiments" - victims of head injuries would be treated and studied during their lifetime, and their brains would be examined after they died. Advances in science and technology, including an understanding of electricity, revolutionized neuroscience. However, not until the last few decades, with the arrival of brain imaging machines, have scientists had the technology to observe both the structures and the functions of the living brain.
In addition to advanced technology, scientists continue to investigate the brain using a wide range of research methods, including interviewing and observing patients, studying case histories, collecting and analyzing statistical information, designing and conducting experiments involving human participants, and various types of controlled studies requiring strict adherence to scientific research methods.
In his recent book, The Brain's Way of Healing, Norman Doidge emphasizes that the "view of an imperial brain is not accurate.... Not only does the brain send signals to the body to influence it; the body sends signals to the brain to affect it as well, and thus there is constant, two-way communication between them. The body abounds with neurons, the gut alone having 100 million. Only in anatomy textbooks is the brain isolated from the body and confined to the head."
Neurons also abound in the heart, and scientists tell us that the heart produces the strongest electrical and magnetic fields in the body. The question of whether the heart and the gut are our second and third brains also gives rise to much speculation.
Outside mainstream science, many researchers have been investigating the association of the heart with feeling, emotion, and even belief. Although this research takes place mainly outside the neuroscience mainstream, many scientists take them seriously, including scientists at the Institute of Heart Math, who share their understanding of the human heart in this video, Mysteries of the Heart.
Clearly, the human brain is a complex organ we may never be able to fully understand. New findings will continue to generate new research. Unanswered questions and unresolved problems will continue to baffle neuroscientists as well as lay individuals interested in the workings the brain in general, and their brain in particular.
By learning about the brain, we can use the knowledge that our brains are changeable to understand ourselves better and improve our daily lives.
Stuart Firestein brings an interesting perspective to the topic of brain research in this TED Talk.
Stuart Firestein - TED Talk- The Pursuit of Ignorance
Allan Jones - TED Talk - A map of the brain
MIT News - article on Alzheimer's research
PBS - Scanning the Brain
Vilayanur Ramachandran - TED Talk - 3 Clues to Understanding Your Brain
Oliver Sacks - TED Talk - What Hallucination Reveals About Our Minds
U of Utah - Brain Imaging Technologies