Why don’t we know much about the brain?

This article will understand why we don’t know much about the brain. The article will also cover in depth the various advances made in understanding the brain and the things we now know about the brain. In the end, the article will answer some frequently asked questions.

Why don’t we know much about the brain?

Since the brain consists of not just neurons, but also glial cells, which are essentially cells supporting neurons, staining techniques were used to differentiate between the nuclei of the neurons as opposed to those of the glia. 

That’s just about the neurons. Apart from neurons, there are also synapses- the point of connection between two neurons where all the communication takes place. The number of synaptic connections in one brain is equivalent to the number of celestial bodies in 5000 milky ways, the galaxy in which we live. 

Each molecule then proceeds to have around a hundred thousand molecular switches in it. These synaptic connections that work as protein switches facilitate communication within the brain between neurons and are constantly communicating. 

While this is complex enough, add to it, that these neuronal connections are delicately and very tightly arranged within various brain regions. 

This is also one of the reasons why it is so difficult to study the human brain. As compared to other primates, while they’re a lot of similarities, one striking difference is that the human brain has a vast number of brain cells. 

These cells require a huge amount of energy to nourish and maintain. Experts say that human beings expend 25% of their energy on providing energy to cells in the brain. 

Another reason why it is difficult to study the human brain and why we are yet to learn more about is that the human brain is essentially a mass of tissue. 

This mass of tissue is very well protected by our skull, making it difficult for us to reach it. Even more so, gaining access to the brain is just one step, another important step is to gain access to the brain in a way that is effective and optimal.

On the other hand, when we talk about other organs of the body, they are easier to understand than the brain. For example, we understand the heart and how it produces a heartbeat and circulated blood throughout our body. We also understand our stomach and how it produces the enzymes necessary to break down and digest food. 

However, it is difficult to understand how the brain creates thoughts, actions and emotions. This is caused due to the fact that we still don’t know what a “thought” is and how we define it. In other words, the contribution of the brain and thus the output it yields is very abstract and intangible, as compared to those of the other organs that we understand better. 

Consider a simple cognitive task like learning. Learning requires attention, creativity, speed and many other aspects. Some of these aspects, just like “thought” are difficult to describe and understand. 

Understanding them in relation to processes like learning becomes all the more complicated. Thus, while we might know about how neural connections work, the complicated part about how information is processed is still largely unanswered. 

Why is the human brain so complex to understand?

The human brain is by far the most important organ of our body. However, there is a lot we are yet to discover about this fascinating organ. 

The brain and the spinal cord together constitute the central nervous system or CNS. 

It controls a vast majority of our everyday activities, information processing, collecting and allocating information received from our surroundings and our sensory organs, and giving out instructions to the rest of the body accordingly. This is done with the help of neurons, which are the building blocks of the nervous system. 

These neurons are connected to each other through a complex system of dendrites and axons, constantly firing signals to and fro in lieu of transmitting information, sending it throughout the body and even passing information within the brain from one brain area to another.

Although it was previously believed that the human brain consisted of some 100 billion neurons, Brazilian researcher Dr Suzana Herculano-Houzel found out that the actual number was closer to 86 billion neurons. 

Consider something that seems as simple as the number of neurons in the brain. A straightforward and simple approach would be to take a sample number of neurons in some part of the brain and then adjust that same number by taking into consideration the volume of the brain. 

However, the density of neurons varies in different brain regions- some brain areas are jam-packed with neurons while some aren’t as densely populated. As a solution to this problem, researchers came up with a method wherein they dissolved the cell membranes to be able to count the number of cell nuclei in a particular sample. 

All these factors make it extremely difficult for us to study the active human brain when it is engaged. But thanks to the cutting-edge technology of the present day, we understand the human brain a lot better than we did a few years back. In the past, neuroscientists would randomly place electrodes on different brain regions and hope for the best, in an attempt to find cells. 

We’ve come a long way from that. Technology has helped us to move from just sorting out a few thousand cells into different categories to mapping entire regions and seeing the composition of the cells of that area with precision from various angles. 

What are the techniques we use to understand the brain?

Thanks to brain imaging techniques like electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), computerized tomography (CT), electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG), and many more, we are better able to understand our brain. The advantage of these techniques is that we can use them to study the active human brain. 

That is, we can instruct people to be engaged in certain behaviours, for example, picking the picture they prefer or recognizing the emotion on a face, and study the brain simultaneously. These techniques are also non-invasive. 

One such technique is specific to studying brain cells. This technique is called Neuropixels and allows the record of 1000 to 5000 neurons at a time. 

This is a huge leap from recording neurons using a single electrode. Even with this technology, we should keep in mind that there are billions of neurons in the human brain, and we still have a long way to go before we answer questions like “What is a thought?”

While we don’t understand a lot about the human brain, hopefully with the advancement in technology, we can continue to learn more; as we have been for the past decades. 

Link Between Biopsychology and Human Behavior

One of the early attempts at understanding how human behaviour is controlled by different parts of the brain led to the emergence and development of a pseudoscience known as phrenology. According to this, human faculties can be linked to indentation and bumps of the brain and this could be felt on the surface of the skull. 

During the later years, phrenology was dismissed by scientists and the idea that certain parts of the brain were responsible for certain functions played an important role in the development of future brain research. 

The popular case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who suffered a devastating brain injury helped influence our understanding of how damage to certain parts can lead to the impact of various other functioning and behaviour of the brain. 

Conclusion

This article covers why we don’t know much about the brain. The article also covers in depth the various advances made in understanding the brain and the things we now know about the brain. In the end, the article will answer some frequently asked questions.

Frequently Asked Questions: Why don’t we know much about the brain?

What is the hippocampus?

Part of the larger structure called the hippocampal formation is the hippocampus. This is a curved seahorse-shaped organ which is located on the underside of each temporal lobe. The hippocampus receives information from the cerebral cortex and plays an important role in learning, memory, perception of space and navigation. 

What is the occipital lobe?

The occipital lobe is located in the back part of the brain and helps process visual information (Casillo et al., 2020). 

Does the brain work 24 hours?

Brains can work 24 hours a day with no rest.

References

Casillo, S. M., Luy, D. D., & Goldschmidt, E. (2020). A History of the Lobes of the Brain. World Neurosurgery, 134, 353-360.

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