We’ll get through three big things in this post: 1) We’ll touch on how comprehensively important and amazing the human brain is. 2) We’ll traverse from “whoa!” into “huh?” and consider some reasons any field with the prefix “neuro-“ is crazy-difficult. 3) We’ll consider a few of the neurological reasons you, and everyone you know, should be ecstatic to be alive right now.
Take a moment to consider the intangibles which make you, you –memories, tendencies, skills, preferences, dreams. Among its other functions, your brain somehow makes your intangibles, tangible. That data and software all gets stored, synthesized, and retrieved periodically from your noggin. It ultimately amounts to the physical distillation of everything that it is to be you. “You” are not your heart. You’re not your lungs or your skeleton or your skin. If you replaced any of those but kept the 3-pound squishy blob in your head you’d still be “you,” wouldn’t you? So if you love yourself, you should love your brain. Maybe all brains, and maybe all people. But that’s another post entirely. For now, let’s internalize that everything that intrinsically is you is a function of your brain.
Next let’s take a crack at the confounding difficulty of measuring and modeling the brain. I’m not a numbers guy, so that part kicked my mental butt at first. The fundamental brain-building unit is the neuron. An adult human brain contains roughly 100 billion neurons. That’s a one with 11 zeroes. If each neuron was a sheep (just go with it), and they all stood together in a field in some kind of shoulder-to- shoulder uncomfortable sheep formation, that field would be a square that’s 60 miles on each side. The extent of my numbers struggle is dire indeed, so to comprehend this I had to picture driving in a zero-traffic condition for an hour and seeing nothing but sheep, then turning 90° and driving another hour with nothing but sheep, and that’s the square. If that’s still weird, it’s OK. It’s weird for me too.
So, we have a sheep-load of neurons. Consider that the connectivity of this 100 billion-deep squad of neurons, not just the structure and health of each individual neuron, influences the output of the system. In fact, if each neuron is capable of connecting to any other neuron, you could have 100,000,000,000^100,000,000,000 (10^11^11, or 1 followed by 285,311,670,611 zeroes) different connectivity combinations between brains which have exactly the same arrangement, quantity and quality of neurons. Accordingly, if a friend describes you as “one in a million,” you can assume that’s a conservative estimate (and that this friend isn’t a neurologist).
I’m not a words guy, either, so I need a convenient analog to express the absurd complexity of the brain. This one works for me. You might like it.
By comparison, scope out the human heart. Cardiologists are geniuses, and Valentine’s Day rocks my world. But the heart, ultimately, can be represented by a simple concept we’re all familiar with. The heart is a pump. It’s a sweet pump– it operates continuously for your whole life, it responds in real time to changing pumping needs, and it rarely needs maintenance. But it’s a pump. The lungs are a bellows and the kidneys are a fish tank filter. But what in sam-hill is a brain? How do you describe a thing that abstracts meanings from details, creates cartoons and Constitutions, wins on Jeopardy and falls in love? Well, you don’t. The human race doesn’t have an analog for all the stuff the brain can do. The brain is so complex, and we’re so new to the game of thinking about it, that we can’t even reduce it to a single thing. Consider trying to describe what the heart does in an era before mankind could comprehend pumps. That’s where we are with the brain. We as a species, literally cannot even.
And that brings us to the third promised discussion topic: improving a given product is a great victory. The Renaissance brought mankind into the game of making better things – boats, art, spectacles, mirrors, clothing. A greater victory, as recently pointed out by Elon Musk in his Master Plan Part Deux, is to “improve the machines that make the machines.” But let’s take that further, Mr. Musk. What’s this era all about? What machine makes the machines that make the machines? And what machine makes the machines that …that make the machines? I believe that ultimately, no matter the context, the human brain is the highest-ranking machine. We make the thing that makes the thing that _______. No matter what the final product or process is, and no matter what the intermediate things are, a human brain or a great number of human brains are responsible for it. So if you improve the thing that makes the thing that makes the… whatever… even by a tiny margin, then the upgrade will cascade through the whole system.
Then consider that you might improve your brain and then use it to improve two engineers’ brains. Each of those engineers designs five factories in his lifetime. Your improved brain improves their brains, which improve their factories, which improve their products. Consider I’m a teacher. Advancements in neuro-everything allow me to remain at the top of my game for a decade longer than previously possible. My improved brain improves the brains of hundreds of young people. They make hundreds of factories, which make thousands of products and make the world a cleaner, easier, safer, better place for mankind. They might even go into teaching too! Exponential growth is rarely so accurately illustrated. My calculator just broke.
We’re learning how to upgrade right now! The recent wave of brain imaging improvement has caused the Center for Brain Health’s Dr. Sandra Chapman to claim “we’ve learned more about the brain in the last five years than in all cumulative history prior.” All cumulative history, no matter how you slice it, is a very long time. Five years is not. This era of neuroscience parallels astronomy in the month after Galileo built his first telescope. Or youth hockey development in America after Mighty Ducks came out.
Let’s recap: The brain is YOU! Everything you are, have been, and want to be is encapsulated into the physical container between your ears. Every product, process, song and dance you’ve ever known and ever will know comes from your brain or someone else’s. When you get right down to it, the brain is the unquestionable physical center of everything that is human. And for most of recorded history we’ve been poking it with a stick and pondering, “wonder what happens if I poke like this?” But the last decade’s brain imaging advancements equipped us with the tools to finally start figuring it out! Exponential growth in the “what we know” department could hit an inflection point in our lifetimes. We’re finally in the game!
If we join.
If brain health within a population improves, there is not a single metric within that population which cannot also improve due to the cascading and exponential effects described above. And we’re right there. Our descendants could discuss this era in the same way we discuss the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. The neurological revolution is upon us, and that is a very, very good thing.
RUSTY HAAKE, BvB DALLAS AMBASSADOR