Understanding the Human Brain

In the past few years, amazing new technology for scanning and photographing brain activity that shows the sources of thought, emotion, and behavior. It is revolutionizing the way we are getting to understand the nature of the brain and the mind it creates.

Until recently, the best source of information about brain function was from damaged brains. In the 1950s, an American neurosurgeon named Wilder Penfield used an electrode to directly stimulate spots on the brains of hundreds of epilepsy patients while they were awake during operations. He discovered that “each part of the body was clearly mapped out in a strip of cortex on the brain’s opposite side. A person’s right foot, for example, responded to a mild shock delivered to a point in the left motor cortex adjacent to one that would produce a similar response in the patient’s right leg. Stimulating other locations on the cortical surface might elicit a specific taste, a vivid childhood memory, or a fragment of a long-forgotten tune.”

“Every person’s brain is as unique as his or her face,” says UCLA neurosurgeon Arthur Toga, who directs the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. “All this stuff is sliding around, and we don’t know all the rules. But by studying thousands of people, we may be able to learn more of them, which will tell us how the brain is organized.”

Through the use of new technology, the functional magnetic resonance imaging scan (fMRI), activity in the brain can be studied and mapped. Recently neuroscientists have been able to take scans of people who had looked at pictures and then were able to reconstruct those pictures viewed from the images on the scans.

This technique has been able to explore the brain circuits of people who are suffering from many neurological conditions   – like depression, dyslexia, and schizophrenia. Scientists are learning more and more about how the brain processes higher cognitive functions. They’re discovering that a sense of self involve various regions and circuits in the brain, depending on what specific sense one is talking about, and the circuits may develop at different times.

“Ten years ago most neuroscientists saw the brain as a kind of computer, developing fixed functions early,” says Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco, and a pioneer in understanding brain plasticity. “What we now appreciate is that the brain is continually revising itself throughout life.”

Although the plasticity of the brain’s neurons starts to degrade as we age, it may never be too late to teach an old brain new tricks. According to Merzenich’s preliminary lab study, even the memories of pre-senile individuals in their 60s and 70s can, with special brain training, be significantly enhanced. There are limits, however, to brain plasticity. If specific areas of the cortex–Broca’s area, for instance–are destroyed by stroke or tumor, the patient may never recover the function once performed by the now dead     circuits.

About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life. His CDs and memory products are also available online at BrainAthlete.com.


National Geographic — Beyond the Brain: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/mind-brain/#page=14

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