Here I collect some of the brain science questions that I have been asked about the brain. Click each question to read more.
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I’ve been interested in dreaming for some time now, my own research even touches on this topic, and I’m not alone. Dreaming has vexed people for thousands of years. Despite this, we still don’t have a definitive reason for why it occurs. For starters, the content of our dreams has been shown to change with the stage of sleep that you’re in. Dreaming primarily occurs during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, as well as the deepest stage, called Slow Wave Sleep (SWS). During REM sleep, dreams are recalled to be elaborate, vivid, and emotional. Dreams during other sleep stages are reported to be more conceptual, and less elaborate. This underlies the varying brain mechanisms that could underlie them.
Despite not knowing why we dream exactly, there have been a lot of good ideas proposed. One of these relates to dreaming being one way we store memories. Two brain regions you should know for this: the hippocampus and the cortex. The hippocampus is important for storing new memories, and the cortex important for long term, lasting memories. During sleep, the hippocampus has been shown to ‘replay’ activity, which may be our memories, back to the cortex. Without this process, it has been shown memory is impared. Thus, dreams may be our brains way of storing memories long term.
But like I had said, we still are trying to pin down exactly why this might be…
Blunt force trauma can be a debilitating injury. As mentioned, the most common cause is motor vehicle accidents followed by sports related injuries. There are two main types: concussion and contusion. We have heard of concussion, a shaking of the brain. Contusion is where the brain undergoes direct trauma. The severity of each depends on the amount of force of the injury, the location of the injury, the amount of times the injury has occured, and other factors
Sometimes these injuries are unavoidable, so then what can we do? In this case, our options are dependent on the timing. Inflammation surprisingly, more so than the injury itself, is one of the big problems to avoid. The injury has already occured, but inflammation can spread around the site causing more and more damage. Minimizing this inflammation is critical to minimizing the injury. The brain is also quite resilient to a small number of impacts, of course assuming they aren't too extreme. However, repeated impacts multiply these effects. If someone had suffered from a previous brain injury, being careful to prevent other impacts is quite important. A good friend of mine had once worked with the NFL on this very issue, which, given the severity and reports of brain and cognitive damage from these high-contact sports, has reached national attention. For instance, after a big hit, the NFL uses what they call “sideline testing”, where they check for general concussion symptoms (SCAT-5), oculomotor testing, and/or balance testing.
Unfortunately, while there is a lot of recent and promising work ongoing, there aren't ways to fully heal the brain after a longer period of time. However, there are chances to help regain some functions. Talking to a doctor about the possibility of a neuropsych test, occupational therapy, or even brain scanning to observe the location and extent of the injury would be the best bet to improve function. Many have seen some improvements, and there are brain rehabilitation therapies available which may help. Lastly, with most brain health, don’t forget to get plenty of sleep!
The brain is often likened to a computer, but to be more accurate, computers were first invented to be like brains! That is, the early scientists and engineers wished to develop a machine which would be capable of doing the things that humans could do. Back in the early 1900’s, computers as we know them didn’t exist, but many of the problems that they solved for us now still did. Sending messages? Running equipment? Solving mathematics? These tasks still had to get done, and it was people that did them.
In those days, to solve these equations, whether for finance, the military, or NASA, people, (and usually women) would sit and compute long complex equations by hand (with the only assistance being some tables of pre-computed values or slide rules). They, the people solving the equations, were called ‘computers’. There was a push to automate this task, and develop machines which could do the work, later those machines themselves took on the name computer. These are the same machines which evolved into what we use today.
Yet, if you look at what these computer’s evolved into, they won’t look much like, or function quite like, our brains do. A computer uses a microprocessor, hard drive, and some sticks of ram, all linked together by a motherboard. A brain uses 86 billion neurons all lumped together in our heads. Both use electricity to function, but the brain uses much less than a computer, as well as neuro-transmitter chemicals to communicate. This isn’t to say the brain doesn’t have it’s own “parts”, but they’re used for specific functions like vision, hearing, memory, movement, regulating your body, etc. Computer’s and brain’s are very different at this level.
There was a recent poll of neuroscientists who were asked if the brain is a computer. Most said no. Yet, when asked if the brain ‘computes things’, most agreed. I would answer the same way. The brain, like a computer, takes in information, does some operations on it, and produces an output. Yet to say it is like a computer, to me, has it backwards. Both computers and brains are objects which perform computation and information processing. Yet, as I described above, the brain isn’t a computer but the opposite: computers are our best attempt to try and build something that can do some of the things our brain’s can. (And as we build better and better AI, this attempt is inching closer and closer to the real thing.)