How Your Brain Works. Or Doesn’t.

Posted on January 25, 2014




National Geographic, in its February 2014 issue cover story, “The New Science of the Brain,” dares to go where no mortal has gone before, inside the human brain.

Science has, until now, known relatively little about the brain. We know what the brain can do, but we often don’t know how it does what it does. For example, is there really such a thing as a brain fart? A brain freeze? A brainiac? Ancient physicians believed the brain was made of phlegm, which is, uncannily, exactly how Life in the Boomer Lane would describe her brain during hay fever season. Until the Renaissance, doctors believed that all of our perceptions, emotions and actions were the result of animal spirits that swirled around in our heads and then travelled through the body. Although much progress had been made since then by dissecting the brains of animals and by becoming aware of the brain as an electrical entity, there are those who still maintain that “The devil made me do it.”

So, what exactly, you ask, has science learned recently? We are glad you asked. According to National Geographic, “There are approximately 100,000 miles of nerve fibers, called white matter, that connects the various components of the mind, giving rise to everything we think, feel, and perceive.”

All brains aren’t constructed alike. Yes, all brains look like anemic hamburger meat that has just come out of the grinder. But that’s where the similarity ends. Ordinary brains differ from the brains of people who have autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and a crush on Justin Bieber. The actual structure of the brain was unveiled in 2012, a network of billions of grid like structures, not unlike the streets of Washington, DC, when LBL is driving.

So far, scientists, in studying the brains of mice, have been able to understand only a very tiny percentage of their vast grid like structure. And what they have studied is complex beyond all reason. If you are an older boomer, you may remember that, before the advent of the Mickey Mouse Club, most of us watched cartoons that consisted of billions of mice being chased by a cat, in an endless loop. Same mice, same hills, same cat. Over and over. We didn’t care. We stared at the TV screen in rapt attention, worrying that the cat might actually catch up to the mice. It never occurred to us that those mice had extremely complex abilities, emotions, and thought processes, while our own brains consisted of only one strand, which directed us to sit staring at the same clip being played over and over.

If you, like LBL, have an extremely limited attention span for talking about mice, we will now switch to Jennifer Aniston.  Anniston, you may be surprised to know, has been intimately involved with the scientific research being conducted on the brain. Caltech and UCLA scientists use pictures of her and other celebs to study how the brain processes how the eye sees. In 2005 they discovered an individual nerve cell that fired only when subjects were shown photos of Ms Aniston. Another nerve cell responded only to Halle Berry. LBL is not making this up. She is left to ponder whether our brains contain an endless supply of nerve cells, set aside solely for the purpose of identifying each Kardashian. It’s an extremely efficient and terrifying thought. (Note to those of you who take pride in ignoring the endless tsunami of information being spewed daily about celebs: You are seriously underutilizing most of your brain matter.)

Time to get back to more boring details. Scientists have now mapped the brains of six deceased people. They (the scientists, not the research objects) have determined that 84 percent of all the genes in our DNA become active somewhere in the adult brain. This is a staggering concept and totally explains the actions of the typical adolescent male, something long suspected by the parents of such humans: Their brain DNA has not yet been activated.

Here’s something really exciting (Note to readers: If you have already moved on to another blog, you will have missed this): Working with people who are paralyzed and hooked up to computers, scientists are now able to “move” parts of the body on the paralyzed person, just by the person thinking about moving the body part. This is accomplished because when certain people become paralyzed, the motor cortex remains intact, but it can’t communicate with the rest of the body, because its connections have been destroyed. The computer recreates the connection. And, in exactly this way, computer chips are now being inserted into people’s skulls to allow them to walk again.

So, what does all this mean for the boomer brain? Probably nothing. But, as LBL writes posts primarily for boomers, she will attempt to simply make things up, based on what the article actually says. The next time you lose your car keys or forget your spouse’s name or walk into the kitchen for a snack and end up reorganizing the pantry, think of all the strides that have been made with mice and then applied to people. There may soon be a computer chip available that will allow our brains to function as smoothly as they did decades ago. Or, if the chip goes bad, we will spend the rest of our lives being chased by an imaginary cat over an endless series of hills.