Our brains probably haven’t changed much for at least 30,000 years, as evidenced by some really artistic cave paintings from that era which bear a striking resemblance to some very modern works of art. The way we live has changed dramatically over that period of time, of course, but we ourselves have changed very little. Evolution creeps on incredibly slowly, as a general rule, and noticeable changes can take thousands, even millions, of years. So the brain in your head, and the one in mine, are both much the same as the one in the head of that cave artist of so long ago. But even though humans had much the same intellect many thousands of years ago as we do now, we were still no nearer to understanding how our brains operated till very recently.
Our understanding of the brain is changing all the time. What seemed like the definitive answers fifty years ago now seem sadly inadequate. Gradually we’re learning more and more. And the more we learn about the brain and how it operates, the better the chance we have of using it more effectively.
And that’s what really matters, of course. You don’t have to be a genius, you just have to do what you can to use your brain more capably. It’s only natural to want to know more about how it operates, but the real trick is to find ways to use more of it, and more effectively.
Just a ventilation system?
Aristotle’s thoughts about the brain were that it was no more than a cooling mechanism, and secondary to the heart. I suppose that was as good a guess as anyone might make, since there was nothing to indicate any working parts, and if anyone was equipped to come up with an explanation, Aristotlewas the man. At least the heart, once dissected, could be seen to be some sort of a pump, and the workings of the joints could easily enough be understood.
But the brain is shy to reveal anything of its amazing properties. It appears to be no more than a bland, squidgy, convoluted mass of tissue, weighing just a few pounds. The one hundred billion brain cells are hidden away in plain sight, amongst all that ‘mush’, a closely guarded secret even from ourselves.
A century later, Galen, basing his ideas on observations of the effects of head injuries, surmised that the brain was the seat of mental activity, so at last we were finally on the right track. For centuries any idea of the real nature of the brain were confused, to say the least, with contradictory ideas as to the anatomy and physiology of the brain, let alone its properties.
Leonardo da Vinci, a great anatomist as well as his many other skills and talents, drew sketches of the brains of dissected individuals, and tried to work out just what each part actually did. Although he experimented extensively, his conclusions revealed little, apart from some previously unknown anatomical details. Leonardo da Vinci, like so many others of the time, was searching for the seat of the soul, but it was proving elusive.
Finally, some headway
In the mid-17th century two physicians, an Englishman and a Dutchman, made some real headway in our quest to learn more about the brain. Thomas Willis published his Anatomy of the Brain in 1664, and Nicolaus Steno published his Lecture on the Anatomy of the Brain in 1669. Both men repudiated Galen’s ideas and urged the need for greater exploration of the anatomy of the brain to find out its true nature. Willis’s main contribution was his discovery of how blood circulated through the brain and, presumably, fed it some form of life force.
What wasn’t realised about the brain until recently was that brain matter consists very largely of nerve cells (neurons), which interact with each other and create a vast network of infinite possiblilities. We have the technology now to do more than just wonder philosophically about the brain – with MRI scanning technology we can actually see it, close up!
What is an MRI scan, apart from an actual image of a living brain, in three dimensions, and in great detail. Only very recently, with the advent of functional scanning machines, was it possible to take a close look at a working brain. It’s actually possible now to see which parts are working when a person is thinking of something, trying to work something out, seeing something, recalling information, listening to music, or engaged in some other mental activity.
News and Research articles about the brain
To look into some news and research into memory, and the brain in general, click on any of the links in the sidebar to the right.
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