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Old science and new horizons

August 5, 2015

 

The human brain is one of the true wonders of the world; after all, it contained the source material for building each of the seven famous Wonders. 

 

From Twinkies to arugula, just about any scrap of digestible matter can power it: a machine that runs nonstop for an average of seventy years, somehow composed largely of fat.

 

So it's no wonder that we're fascinated. Understanding how the brain works is front and center for the scientific community. In April of 2013, President Obama announced that the U.S. government had budgeted a hundred million dollars to begin a project to map the human brain, his call to action nearly an echo of Kennedy's imperative to land on the moon some fifty years before.

 

Brain exploration leads us to Michael Gazzaniga. Not exactly a household name—and no, he's not latest new Republican candidate for presidency.) He is, however, one of the founding fathers of cognitive neuroscience, a field which seeks to find the connection between human behavior and the circuitry of the brain.

 

In 1961, Gazzaniga received a Ph.D. in psychobiology from the California Institute of Technology. Early in his career, he teamed up with famous brain pioneer Roger Sperry. 

 

Gazzaniga worked on split-brain patients. These were individuals who, as treatment for severe epilepsy, had undergone an operation severing the bridge between their brain hemispheres. Cutting this corpus collosum was an attempt to isolate and contain the epilepsy so it couldn't spread to both sides of the brain. 

 

Gazzaniga's research led to the discovery of what's called the functional lateralization of the brain, and how the two halves communicate with each other.

 

In the mid-sixties, the media seized on these findings and ran with them, morphing the data into a still-familiar story of the artistic, creative right brain and the methodical, analytical left brain. But although you can find some degree of speciality, there's also a tremendous amount of overlap and redundancy between the hemispheres. The right brain vs left brain model is at best, a tremendous oversimplification and at worse, just wrong.

 

The story has nonetheless achieved urban legend status, alongside the likes of sewer gators, vanishing hitchhikers, and Walt Disney's cryogenically frozen body. Judging from the right brain/left brain books and articles still circulating today, scientists have their work cut out for them.

 

Still, they push on. A single human brain contains more neural connections than there are stars in the Universe, but enterprising men and women continue their study, mapping a new kind of galaxy. Not, they would tell you, because it is easy, but because it is hard.

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