Brain Strain: Making Sense of the Elusive Organ
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Portrait of the mind

Brain Strain: Making Sense of the Elusive Organ

I think a lot about brains.

Aristotle, a reportedly pretty smart guy, also thought about brains. He thought that the brain existed primarily to cool the blood. This is interesting, because Aristotle also mapped out with exquisite and exact accuracy the human circulatory system. Leonardo Da Vinci, no dummy himself, postulated that the brain was the repository of the soul, but he didn’t go much beyond that. Nevertheless, he pretty much nailed the physiology of every other major organ.

What is it about the brain that has eluded the greatest minds of our species? Why can’t we get a grip on this elusive organ?

In part, my feeble attempts to grapple with these issues culminated in the creation of an entire novel about brains. Granted, my novel focuses on zombie brains, but I hoped in my story to accentuate the magnificence of the functional central nervous system by demonstrating how tenuously we grasp our fundamental humanity through the subtle machinations of our mysterious gray matter.

So, at least on the surface, I think about brains in the same way that I think about airplanes. How can a gazillion ton steel behemoth generate enough “lift” to fly?

I know the mathematical equations of flight, and I even remember explaining the principles of “lift” for exams in college. I described these principles then as if they made total sense to me, as if they were as natural in my eyes as my early recognition that when heavy things are dropped they fall to the ground.

In other words, I was not entirely genuine. Show me all the math you can muster, and I’m still not buying it. Damn plane shouldn’t fly.

It doesn’t really make “sense” to me, at least not in a sort of “every-day-kind of sense”, that a 737 ought to get off the ground. A Boeing 737 is just too damn big and too damn heavy. It is, essentially, an act of faith for me to “believe” in those very equations that I so blithely regurgitated on my college physics problem sets.

I remember trying to discuss this with one of my professors. “Of course a plane can fly,” he said. “Just look at the math.”

I’d like to know what my teachers really felt, because now I find myself much like my professors, stationed in front of a bunch of smart, young students, preparing once again to tell them about the marvels of the brain. I’ve thought about using grand phrases: “the new frontier,” or “one of the great unsolved biological mysteries.” I’ve considered showing intricate slides of complicated neural networks, stressing that we have only in the last two or three decades even begun to make sense of this organ. Still, I admit that any celebration of the brain itself must for me be almost unobtainably magnificent, perhaps even spiritual. After all, and inescapably ironically, it is my brain right now that is challenging me in my attempt to get across to my students the basic conundrums of how we define concepts as ethereal as thoughts and feelings.

Look: I still find myself doing something that feels an awful lot like praying whenever the plane in which I happen to be sitting prepares to take to the skies. Similarly, although I can at some level relatively confidently define neurobiological regions and make some sense of neurobiological function, at the end of the day all of this feels somewhat stale if in my teaching I fail to recognize the basic, primal, even mystical sense of wonder that this organ conjures.

Last week, I ordered a sheep’s brain through the mail. I used it to create a teaching video, but when the brain itself arrived, floating innocently in a little glass jar, I just stared at it for a while. It sat there all gray and gooey, happily preserved in some kind of nefarious chemical, and though it was smaller than a human brain, I gotta say it was bigger than I expected given my now abandoned and biased beliefs about deficits in sheep intelligence. There was a frontal lobe, for example. What, exactly, does a sheep’s frontal lobe do? What are the “executive” functions of a sheep? There was a cerebellum, two clearly demarcated hemispheres, gyrations, intact vasculature and so forth. I felt a kind of kinship with the marvels of life, and I felt it precisely because kinship is a much easier emotion for me to tolerate than despair.

This of course begs the question of how all this wonder and pontificating can, paradoxically, lead to despair.

The brain is the seed of poetry, of music, of lime ricky sodas and the crazy 1970’s devotion to pet rocks.  It also has spawned wars and ill will and disease and pestilence. It is the organ where all of the answers sit, and yet it is only in the last twenty or so years that we’ve been able to make any real sense of what in the world it does.

I despair because there is so much to learn about this mess of worm-like tissue, so much to understand, and yet we have as a species a perverse tendency, maybe even a compulsion, to lose this sense of wonder or to act as if science somehow is incompatible with awe. I am concerned that these tendencies are fundamental to our equally maddening desires to do some pretty awful things to each other.

We use an organ we barely understand every day to do irrevocable harm and amazing good, and yet we don’t even stop (enough) to wonder about the very organ that drives all of this.

Google “brain images” and stare at some pictures for a while. Try to imagine every great song that the Rolling Stones ever wrote coming from that mess. Try to imagine a blind poet named Homer surviving in the most barbaric of times by using his noggin, that bland looking structure now on your computer screen, to tell one of the greatest stories ever spun. Try to imagine that it is your brain, much like the one you’re staring at right now, that is thinking all of these things and that is at the same time reminding you to breath and reminding your heart to beat and helping you to stay upright when you walk.

And then explain to me again how a plane can fly.

Originally posted on Psychology Today.

The photo above may look a lot like an aerial view of a flower field, but it’s really a microscopic photograph of a rat hippocampus from Carl Schoonover’s amanzing book entitled Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century

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