Why is investigating the brain so difficult?

This article answers the question of why investigating the brain is so difficult. The article will also shed light on what we know and don’t know about the brain. In the end, the article will answer some frequently asked questions.

Why is investigating the brain so difficult?

While we understand a lot about other organs of the body, the same cannot be said about the brain. The reason why investigating the brain is so difficult is that, in order to fully understand the brain, scientists will have to use invasive methods. They might have to intentionally damage brain areas to understand the effects of the same on people’s behaviours.

This makes it very unethical and it is not advised to investigate the brain this way. Thus, investigating the brain is a complex as well as an ethical issue when it comes to medical science.

Over the past years, it has become increasingly important to understand the functions and processes of the brain. With the advancement in medical technology, the mortality rate has gone down and life span has increased. This means more and more people are getting older and living with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. 

Even though we still don’t understand the human brain very well, modern technology and the advent of brain imaging techniques have made it possible for researchers to study the human brain in its active state, in a non-invasive manner. 

If a researcher were to use these non-invasive modern techniques, even that does not ensure a complete understanding of the phenomenon being studied. Consider this, even at rest, the brain shows neural activity. 

Our brain never goes blank, even when we do not want to think. There is no switch to completely turn off the brain. In fact, when engaged in any specific cognitive activity like counting, reading through a grocery list, walking through your apartment, etc., brain activity changes only by a minute percentage.

Higher fluctuations are seen when there are spontaneous fluctuations in the brain that are inherent to the brain and not a result of any external stimulus or cognitive strains. 

Usually, two contrasting tasks are given to compare brain activity- for example, tapping your feet and resting. Then, researchers subtract the mental activity of one task, from that of another. 

ut, there is no way of knowing if two completely different brain areas are involved in the two contrasting tasks. It is assumed that whatever activity is taking place, is completely a result of the cognitive task or the contrasting task.

Moreover, the brain is capable of simultaneously carrying out more than one cognitive function. In such cases, it is difficult to be sure if the brain activity being observed is a result of the cognitive task, or of some other internal function. 

For example, if a participant in the study is supposed to recall their favourite song’s lyrics, they might also end up thinking about people or memories they associated with the song. 

In such a case, it is difficult to discern what part of the brain activity is due to the cognitive task and what part of it is due to background internal processes. 

It is difficult to investigate the brain as a lot of brain studies are done with the help of people with brain damage- either those who were born with certain defects or developed them as a result of some accident. It goes without saying that inducing any kind of damage to someone’s brain just for the sake of studying it is out of the question. 

There are so many parts of the brain and brain divisions. Multiple brain areas are involved in the simplest function. Seeing how these functions are impaired as a result of damage to one or more brain areas requires people to naturally or by accident, have those defects in the brain. 

The matter becomes even more complicated when the phenomenon under question would require surgeries or other invasive techniques. The brain is so tightly and intricately packed, that even the simplest surgery is not void of risk. 

Any investigation to be done, even if the patient is someone with some degree of brain damage, would involve a great level of risk. This is because no matter how minor an injury is, any sort of invasive procedure of one brain region risks damage to the brain regions adjacent to it. 

All brain regions are packed with bundles and bundles of neurons, so damage to even a small brain area could result in unprecedented impairment of the brain, resulting in dysfunctions in thoughts, emotions and behaviour.  

Even if the people participating in brain studies have brain damage as a result of a precondition or an accident, there are still many risks associated with brain studies, as well as ethical concerns. One such ethical constraint is getting the consent of people with brain damage to participate in scientific studies. 

While these patients could be immensely useful in trying to make connections between different brain areas and their functions, it would be unethical to carry out experiments on patients whose decision-making has been hampered as a result of damage to their brain. Patients who are not capable of making informed decisions should not be made to participate in such scientific studies. 

Apart from these technical difficulties and ethical dilemmas, there is one fundamental problem which makes investigating the brain extremely difficult: the complicated structure of the human brain. The human brain is divided into two hemispheres, which are further each divided into four lobes. 

These lobes are tightly and intricately connected to each other with the help of neurons so the different brain regions and parts are able to communicate not only with each other but can also send signals all over the body to different body parts. 

While it was believed that the human brain has some 100 billion neurons, it was found by Brazilian researcher Dr Suzana Herculano-Houzel that the actual number was closer to 86 billion neurons. 

Even the investigation to find the number of neurons in the brain was complicated by the fact that the number of neurons in different brain areas is not equally distributed- in some places it is denser as compared to those in other brain regions. 

Even though it is difficult to study the brain, it is not impossible. There are a lot of beliefs that were put under scrutiny by scientists using new and improved methods to study the brain; beliefs that did not stand the test of science and are now myths. 

One such myth is the “left brain versus right brain” dichotomy. Although it is still a commonly perpetuated idea that some people are ‘left brained’, meaning their left hemisphere dominates and some are ‘right brained’, indicating the dominance of the right hemisphere, studies carried out on brain scans in the University of Utah showed evidence indicating that neural activity for specific functions is not limited to one hemisphere. 

Thus, even though the brain is a difficult organ to investigate, it is not possible. With the advent of science and technology, we will progressively learn more and more about the human brain, as we have during the past decades. 


This article answers the question of why investigating the brain is so difficult. The article also sheds light on what we know and don’t know about the brain. In the end, the article will answer some frequently asked questions.

Frequently Asked Questions: Why is investigating the brain so difficult?

What are MRIs used for?

MRIs are also used to diagnose as well as monitor the escalation of disorders such as multiple sclerosis (Hashemi et al., 2012).

What is Magnetoencephalography (MEG)?

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a non-invasive medical test. This test maps the function of the brain and identifies the location and the source of epileptic seizures. This test measures the magnetic fields that are produced by the brain’s electrical currents. It is also used to map the various other functions of the brain such as the centre of the sensory, motor, language and memory activities.

How do neuroscientists detect changes in metabolic activities in the brain?

There are several techniques that are used to detect several changes in metabolic activities that including fMRI, blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) fMRI, and perfusion fMRI. 


Hashemi, R. H., Bradley, W. G., & Lisanti, C. J. (2012). MRI: the basics: The Basics. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.