There are many big moments in scientific discovery. Humans have explored our world and learned incredible things. We’ve discovered a giant asteroid belt circling a star 25 light-years from earth. We determined that disease comes from microorganisms.
We’ve explored the structure of an atom. And we can see bones inside our bodies as well as bombs inside suitcases.
Yet the human brain still remains very much a mystery. Recent advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have led to great gains in our understanding of the brain and how it functions.
But even so, scientists have not yet discovered all the types of cells that make up the brain and don’t yet know how they all function together.
Why do we think and feel as we do? How do our brains record information? How does the brain process and store that information? Why do we have different learning styles? Are certain cultural mores built right into our brains?
Scientists still do not entirely understand these and many other questions. The human brain, made up of 100 billion neurons, each of which connects to thousands of other neurons, is the most complex biological structure on Earth.
Even less complex brains are difficult to understand. Our brain is dynamic and continually changing. But even understanding the much less complex nervous system of a worm is elusive.
According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), scientists currently lack a theory to explain healthy brain functioning, such as how an organism thinks, moves through the world and makes sense of sensory information. And how do memories and past learning, for example, affect behavior in any organism?
With technological advances, scientists have made great advances in understanding the molecular, cellular and neuronal activity in the brain. But the relationship between these activities and our behavior is still a mystery.
And if we don’t understand healthy brain functioning, we can’t fully understand when there are problems, such as a traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, or schizophrenia.
The brain has gotten more attention, lately, in part because of President Obama’s Brain Initiative, launched in early April 2013. According to the White House, the hope is to fund scientific research aimed at discoveries such as understanding how brain activity leads to perception, decision-making and action and knowledge of debilitating diseases and conditions.
It is exciting to imagine that we may be at the beginning of some big moments in understanding how our brains function and in gaining a greater understanding of just what makes us tick.
How does functioning in emotion-related parts of the brain affect problems such as addiction or high-risk behaviors? And can we use this knowledge to better treat destructive problems in our lives?
Of course, with all new knowledge there is risk. Scientific research can change human life and our social relationships.
But there are many potential benefits to uncovering some of the mysteries of our complex brain. We can hope that these discoveries are akin to learning about geomagnetic storms, penicillin or atmospheric conditions that allow us to predict and plan for severe weather conditions. And we can hope that new discoveries might improve our lives, as have other scientific discoveries, such as innovations in engineering that allow us to hear better, improve our driving or grow cardiac cells to repair infant heart defects.