Make your mind up

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How do you get your head round the human brain?A new BBC2 series seeks to analyse what Dr Mark Porter calls the planet's most amazing piece of engineering.

Ian Robertson [The Metro]
  • Professor Ian Robertson is dean of research at the Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Dublin. He also pops up on the odd TV show.Prof Robertson is promoting National Brain Training Awareness Month, which is currently running.It campaigns to get us to use our brains more as studies show the nation is becoming more stupid by the day.
  • Are our brains going to pot? A survey has shown that people in their fifties actually remember more personal information than people in their thirties, who can't remember their own landline number or their relatives' birthdays. That might show they're relying more on technology than their memory - the risk is that they won't develop their memories and mental functions. We know the brain is like a muscle, you need to keep training it to keep it up to scratch.
  • Does it matter it people have poor memories, though? It's a symptom that younger people aren't using their mental capacities as much as they could. Teenagers today read much less than they did ten years ago. Reading is good for stimulating your brain and building your vocabulary, which builds intelligence. Studies show the population's average IQ rose all the way through the 20th century but has started to decline over the past ten years. It shows younger people aren't developing their brains as much as they could.
  • As long as people remember where they live and to go to work, what's the problem? You need a good memory for a variety of tasks. Take work it's important to remember people's names and information in business meetings. You're reducing your capacity socially, too. People like to feel they've made an impression and if you can't remember their names it's a social handicap.
  • How can you improve your memor'y? There are lots of techniques. The ancient Greeks used the method of creating a mental image of a familiar route and then placing things you need to remember on that route. For example, rather than write a shopping list, mentally ascribe a different item to things you walk past, like bread on the postbox, milk at the corner of the road and so on. To remember Pin numbers you could use a rhyming technique. One being a bun, two a shoe etc and use them to create absurd mental images.
  • How much do booze and drugs damage our brains? Drugs and alcohol have a significant effect on brain function. Frequent cocaine use affects the ability to detect errors, it affects inhibitions and damages the frontal lobe of the brain. Cannabis can affect memory and motivation and heavy drinking affects our memory and ability to organise and make decisions. Ecstasy can affect - depression and your mood system, some people are very sensitive to the long-term changes it has on serotonin levels. We don't know if it has any effect on memory but there hasn't been enough long-term research yet.
  • If you do a boring, repetitive job every day will your brain pack up? People in mentally stimulating jobs keep their brain function going better for longer, which is why it's important for those in boring jobs to exercise their brains. You can attempt challenging games or puzzles, read a book or do an evening course.
  • You made sexist comments about women's brains on Irish TV~ What are the differences between men's and women's brains? The differences are tiny. The old stereotype about men being better at visual spatial skills is true, as is the one about women being slightly better at verbal skills, but these are tiny statistical differences that shouldn't influence policy.
  • Women's brains are smaller than men's brains - does that mean there's less in them? No, because the size of a brain doesn't affect the complexity of the brain, small brains have more folds than bigger brains so the area is the same and it works in the same way. There's no practical difference when it comes to the size of brains.


Mark Porter It's said that picture is worth a thousand words and after watching Brain Story, Professor Susan Greenfield's six-part exploration of what goes on inside our heads, I see no reason to disagree. One scene shows a woman undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumour. She is lying on an operating table separated from the surgeon by a vertical screen attached around her hairline. She is conscious and talking. On the other side of the screen you can see that the top of her skull has been removed and her exposed brain is being prodded with electrodes to enable the surgical team to ascertain which parts are responsible for speech, and avoid them during the ensuing surgery.

Susan Greenfield

Is it true that genius is all in the mind? Susan Greenfield tries to find out by investigating the Brain Story

So, while the person chats about her favourite recipes, we see the part of her body responsible for the conversation, which - although it looks like little more than a huge pickled walnut - contains her mind, her memories and her personality. It's a surreal scene that reinforces just how little we know about the human brain, the most amazing piece of engineering on the planet.
It is all too easy to slip into hyperbole when describing the complexity and capability of the human brain, but the facts speak for themselves. It weighs just over a kilogram (around 2 1/2 lb), contains more than 100 billion individual cells (neurones), has no moving parts and is built from information contained in a single sperm and ovum. Our greatest technological feats - Cray supercomputers, the cruise-missile navigation system and Pentium chips, for example - pale into insignificance when compared with the human brain, which takes multitasking to a new height and, most importantly of all, is sentient.

Neuroscientists have made progress in recent years and now have a good basic understanding of many of the brain's functions. We know each brain cell can be connected to as many as several hundred others and they communicate via dozens of different chemical messengers called neurotransmitters (the best - known being dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline). We know there are specialised areas responsible for certain functions - the frontal lobe is involved in determining temperament and personality and the basal ganglia co-ordinate movement - but we don't know how the areas link up or what gives the brain sentience.
Recent advances in scanning techniques have allowed researchers to watch the brain in action and follow a single thought. what they have shown is that the brain works as a collection of specialised modules that come together in fractions of a second to perform even the simplest of tasks. What they haven't revealed is how such seamless integration occurs or what higher brain function controls it.

Brain Parts

PARTS THAT MAKE THE WHOLE Different areas of the brain control different aspects of our lives: the cerebrum (the top pink, orange, dark green and blue areas) is responsible for, among its multiple functions, thought; language is controlled in the white area; the cerebellum (pale green) coordinates movement; and the brain stem (bottom pink) controls breathing.

Much of our current understanding comes from observing people who have lost functions as a result of brain damage. Brain Story features a number of such cases, including a man whose frontal lobe is slowly degenerating as a result of a rare form of dementia. The frontal lobe has an inhibitory role on the rest of the brain; people with frontal lobe damage often behave antisocially (a similar, temporary effect is seen with alcohol). But there is an upside in the case followed by Brain Story - the man in question suddenly discovers a talent for painting. It will probably only be temporary and will disappear as his disease progresses, but it provides a clue to his previously hidden capabilities - could we all carry similar skills locked away in our brains?
Differing perceptions of our environment may also account for our individual characters and skills. Artist Vincent van Gogh's unique style, for instance, may well have been down to epilepsy. Van Gogh could have had temporal lobe epilepsy and the resulting dysfunction in that part of his brain may have meant that he saw the world differently from the rest of us - the temporal lobe being responsible, among other things, for perception of colours. Maybe he was just painting what he saw.

Controversially, the programme even suggests that it is possible to explain religious belief neurophysiologically. The feeling that we are somehow separate from our bodies - the mind, soul or spirit, call it what you will - is a natural repercussion of the brain's sentience, but is it any more than that? Researchers have even managed to create religious-type experiences using external temporal lobe stimulation - subjects typically describe feeling as though they are travelling down a tunnel towards a bright light and that they are not alone (the feeling of a presence in the room is particularly well described).
The programme asks many questions, and doesn't answer many of them, but should stimulate many a dinner-table debate. Now that the human genome has been cracked, a proper understanding of the workings of the brain remains the next great quest. Part of me hopes we never achieve it.
Dr Mark Porter co-presents Watchdog Healthcheck Mondays BBC1 and is on Jimmy Young, alternate Mondays Radio 2.

Further Reading

RT SHOP The BBC book Brain Story: Unlocking Our Inner World of Emotions, Memories, Ideas and Desires by Professor Susan Greenfield, published on 27 July, is available in hardback for £15 plus 99p P&P (normally £17.99). To order, telephone the credit card hotline on 020 8324 5665,or send a cheque/postal order, payable to RT Shop, to: RT Brain Story Offer, 250 Western Avenue, London, W3 6EE. Please quote ref 102227.

Brainpower by Susan Greenfield (Editor) Element Books Ltd

The Human Brain by Susan Greenfield Published 1998 Phoenix Press Paperback

The Human Mind Explained by Susan Greenfield Published 1998 Ward Lock Paperback





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