He was once my tennis partner, but after 20 years, the man did not recognize me. He shook my hand mechanically and frowned.
“Samar,” I said. His mind seemed elsewhere. He appeared to struggle for focus. “Halarnkar,” I added.
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His eyes widened, and as his mouth creased in delight, his handlebar moustache turned upwards.
Forgetting something or someone can be frustrating, whether a person or keys. A new study, published earlier this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (in the US), indicates that your brain might be in a better state to recall things at some times than at others. It also reveals how little we really know about what Woody Allen once said was “man’s second favourite organ” (Actually, there’s no contest: the organ down under can come to attention only if it gets due consideration from the 1.4kg quivering, tofu-like mass of tissue inside our heads).
“We still don’t know why some memories are accessible and others are not,” Charan Ranganath, the study’s lead scientist, told me. “Our study...suggests that being in the right brain state might play a role.”
Ranganath, a professor at the Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology at the University of California (Davis), said the find could be of practical significance because things such as behavioural techniques, brain stimulation or medications could help get you into the right state.
The findings appear to go against the existing assumption that the brain is waiting to respond to stimuli from the outside world. Instead, the brain appears to be doing its own thing most of the time. What then, I asked Ranganath, is the brain doing?
“There is a popular idea that a small percentage of your brain is used at any time,” he said. “That is totally wrong! The entire brain is constantly active, but we don’t know what the meaning of this activity is, because about 95% of the energy consumption of the brain is for activity that is not externally driven.”
To call the human brain, with its 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, complex would be an understatement. It thinks, and so you are. The brain is the bank of consciousness, dispensing to us passion, emotion and motion. We’re trying to understand how.
Though it is closest to us, the brain harbours its secrets as firmly as the most distant galaxy. Neuroscience is one of science’s youngest offspring, gaining in confidence only over the past decade.
Neuroscientist Prof. V.S. Ramachandran, an awardee of India’s third highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan, and at present director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego), in his sprawling 2010 book, The Tell-Tale Brain, notes that it was only in the 1990s that neuroscience finally managed to advance beyond the Bronze Age to dramatically widen its scope, extending today from genes to cells to circuits to cognition.
“As heady as our progress has been, we need to stay completely honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we have only discovered a tiny amount of what there is to know about the human brain,” says Ramachandran, called “The Marco Polo of Neuroscience” by famed British evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins. “But the modest amount that we have discovered makes for a story more exciting than any Sherlock Holmes novel.”
Every day we hear of new mysteries uncovered, more secrets uncovered, some intricate detail revealed. On just one day, 14 June, as I write this, and a day after Ranganath’s study was released, these were just some of the advances listed in the website Science Daily:
• Under stressful conditions, the brain produces and later stockpiles stem cells—primordial cells that can become a variety of organs—which may later produce neurons under favourable conditions.
•You may not realize it, but your brain is a great statistician, making unconscious calculations about things and people you see, changing as it interacts with the world.
•Chinese speakers fluent in English translate English words into Chinese quickly, without consciously thinking about it. This doesn’t matter in daily life, but someday it could help us learn a second language.
Neuroscience delves into cells and other small things so it can address the big questions: Why do we paint? Why do we talk? Why do we lose memories?
So, Ramachandran, in the course of attempting to explore a very big issue—unlocking the mystery of human nature—spends three chapters telling us about a special type of nerve cell that appears especially crucial in making us human, the mirror neuron. This is the cell that may have played a role in humanity’s crowning achievement, language, and allows us to model aspects of others’ minds rather than merely their actions. In so doing, evolution turned culture into the new genome, he says, allowing humans to accomplish in a generation or two what would have taken thousands of generations of adaptations through genetic evolution. The grand journey through the brain is under way. Expect more exciting destinations.
Samar Halarnkar is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times and Mint. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology.
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