Will we ever fully understand the brain?

This article answers whether we will ever fully understand the brain. The article will also address what we know and don’t know about the brain yet. In the end, the article answers some frequently asked questions about the brain. 

Will we ever fully understand the human brain? 

The answer is yes and no. Yes, because the more we learn about the human brain, the more we discover new things. And no, because the more we discover new things, the more we have new things to learn. 

The more we learn about the brain, the more we realise how little we knew about it, and how wrong we were about things in the past. Thus, learning about the human brain fully is only a matter of time. 

Human beings have come a long way from waiting for accidents or death of people to study the brain, to being able to look at pictures of the human brain while it is active.

Early philosophers and physicians like Galen, Questa ibn Luq, and Rene Descartes studied and brain and wrote a lot about the importance and functions of the pineal gland. 

Although not widely accepted at the time, Descartes even went a step ahead from just describing the contribution and description of the pineal gland, to denoting it as the “seat of the soul” and the brain region that is the generator of all human thought. 

As we know now, that is not the case and critics of Descartes and his pineal gland theory were not barking up the wrong tree.

As modern brain imaging techniques like PET, MRI, fMRI and the later, Neuropixels have shown us, there is no evidence that indicates which brain area is responsible for the production and awareness of thought. 

From what we know now, all brain parts, pathways and divisions work in tandem and contribute to thoughts, emotions, and behaviour. Every brain area has some part to play in everyday cognitive processes, goal-directed tasks and day-to-day living.

However, before we had this modern technology, scientists use various other methods to study the complexities of the human brain, its structure, functions and other mysteries left to unlock. 

Before these methods, physicians and researchers would simply wait for people to pass away before they had access to the human brain, which they could then extract from the human body after conducting an autopsy. 

Human brains thus obtained would be cut open to examine the various parts and regions of it. That helped us understand the structure of the human brain.

But what about the brain functions?

Enter phrenologists in the 16th century. Although now deemed a pseudoscience, phrenology was the study of bumps on the human skull. It was believed by phrenologists that specific brain areas would correspond to the various personality characteristics that human beings possessed, as well as thoughts and emotions. 

They conferred that as and when these brain areas develop, and thoughts, emotions and behaviour emerged, these bumps would mature further and could be felt on the skull as a pattern arose. 

And while phrenologists were wrong about many things, they were right about one thing- cerebral localization. Cerebral localization is the phenomenon that a particular part of the brain that could contribute to a particular type of thoughts, emotions and actions.

Another way in which brain functions were studied was with the unfortunate help of accidents and brain injuries. People who had a brain injury or met with accidents that impacted their brain would often be studied so we could understand the human brain a little better. 

While all these methods had their fair share of limitations, and some were downright redundant and are no longer used, they told us quite a lot about the human brain, as well as the structure and functions of the human brain.

A drawback of this method of studying the brain is that a lot of people with strokes and brain injuries live for a long time. While this is brilliant and life-changing for the injured person, giving them a second chance at life, it does interfere with the process of studying the human brain. 

This is not just in terms of a temporal delay, as that would be a very minor inconvenience. It is also a limitation and would be a confounding variable in any study of the brain because time heals all things. 

Brain injury survivors fortunately living for a long time, means that their brain damage is healing with time. The more time that passes, the more the injury heals and the lesser we’d learn about the brain. This hypothesis was confirmed by studies on the concept of neuroplasticity.

In such cases, as death, accidents, strokes or brain injury- we have absolutely no control over the areas of the brain that are damaged. Inducing injury is out of the question as it would be a violation of all moral and ethical codes of conduct, and would be cruel despite ethical standards and norms. 

For this reason, neuroscientists, psychologists, and physicians alike cannot control what brain area they are investigating. In order to do that, more studies and research would have to take place, more advancements in information and technology would have to occur, and human beings will have to make a collective effort if we really wish to understand the human brain for the betterment of the society.

It is this constant curiosity and pursuit of knowledge that has kept human beings going, to keep searching, trying to unravel the mysteries within this tightly packed pathway of networks between some 86 billion neurons firing away within their synaptic connections.

And so far, it has worked wonders!

We know much more about the human brain than we knew a century ago. In fact, in the last two decades, we have probably fast-forwarded and learnt more about the human brain than we did in the entire past century before that. 

This exponential growth keeps multiplying, and today, we make new discoveries about the human brain every single day. The rate at which we are learning new things about the brain is absolutely mindboggling, no pun intended.

The credit for this advancement, in the large part, goes to the impetus of modern science and technology that has propelled science, specifically neuroscience, into uncharted territory.

Conclusion

This article answers whether we will ever fully understand the brain. The article also addresses what we know and don’t know about the brain yet. In the end, the article answers some frequently asked questions about the brain. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Will We Ever Fully Understand the Brain?

What’s the difference between fMRI and MRI?

The fMRI looks at the function of the brain, whereas the MRI allows the physicians to examine the patient’s organs, tissue, or bones.

What is spontaneous EEG?

Spontaneous EEG reflects neuronal responses that occur unprovoked, i.e., in the absence of any identifiable stimulus, with or without behavioural manifestations. Spontaneous EEG has long been used in clinical settings to evaluate seizure disorders and has not been used often in cognitive neuroscience research (Williamson, Kaufman, Lu, Wang, & Karron, 1997). 

What is Magnetoencephalography (MEG) used for?

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is used to identify or map: the functional areas of the brain, including centres of sensory, motor, language and memory activities the precise location of the source of epileptic seizures.

What is Near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS)?

Near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) is a noninvasive technology that continuously monitors regional tissue oxygenation. Originally used for the assessment of oxygen saturation of the brain, its use has now been expanded to the evaluation of oxygenation of tissues other than the brain. 

What is Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) used for?

Current research has used Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)  to study the brain areas responsible for emotion and cognition and their roles in how people perceive intention and approach moral reasoning (Kalbe et al., 2010). TMS is also used as a treatment for a variety of psychological conditions, including migraine, Parkinson’s disease, and major depressive disorder.

References

Kalbe, E., Schlegel, M., Sack, A. T., Nowak, D. A., Dafotakis, M., Bangard, C., & Kessler, J. (2010). Dissociating cognitive from affective theory of mind: A TMS study. Cortex: A Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 46(6), 769–780.

Williamson SJ, Kaufman L, Lu ZL, Wang JZ, Karron D. Study of human occipital alpha rhythm: The alphon hypothesis and alpha suppression. Int J Psychophysiol. 1997;26(1-3):63–76. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

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