10 Unsolved Mysteries Of The Brain

The Mind & Brain section of Discover magazine had a fantastic article on the mysteries of brain by David Eagleman.

"What we know—and don’t know—about how we think."

1. How is information coded in neural activity?
Neurons, the specialized cells of the brain, can produce brief spikes of voltage in their outer membranes. These electrical pulses travel along specialized extensions called axons to cause the release of chemical signals elsewhere in the brain.

2. How are memories stored and retrieved?
When you learn a new fact, like someone’s name, there are physical changes in the structure of your brain. But we don’t yet comprehend exactly what those changes are, how they are orchestrated across vast seas of synapses and neurons, how they embody knowledge, or how they are read out decades later for retrieval.

3. What does the baseline activity in the brain represent?
Neuroscientists have mostly studied changes in brain activity that correlate with stimuli we can present in the laboratory, such as a picture, a touch, or a sound. But the activity of the brain at rest—its “baseline” activity—may prove to be the most important aspect of our mental lives. The awake, resting brain uses 20 percent of the body’s total oxygen, even though it makes up only 2 percent of the body’s mass.

4. How do brains simulate the future?
The awake state may be essentially the same as the dreaming state. In this view, your conscious life is an awake dream.

5. What are emotions?
We often talk about brains as information-processing systems, but any account of the brain that lacks an account of emotions, motivations, fears, and hopes is incomplete.

6. What is intelligence?
Intelligence comes in many forms, but it is not known what intelligence—in any of its guises—means biologically. How do billions of neurons work together to manipulate knowledge, simulate novel situations, and erase inconsequential information? What happens when two concepts “fit” together and you suddenly see a solution to a problem? What happens in your brain when it suddenly dawns on you that the killer in the movie is actually the unsuspected wife? Do intelligent people store knowledge in a way that is more distilled, more varied, or more easily retrievable?

7. How is time represented in the brain?
When it comes to awareness, the brain goes through a good deal of trouble to synchronize incoming signals that are processed at very different speeds.

8. Why do brains sleep and dream?
One of the most astonishing aspects of our lives is that we spend a third of our time in the strange world of sleep. Newborn babies spend about twice that. It is inordinately difficult to remain awake for more than a full day-night cycle. In humans, continuous wakefulness of the nervous system results in mental derangement; rats deprived of sleep for 10 days die. All mammals sleep, reptiles and birds sleep, and voluntary breathers like dolphins sleep with one brain hemisphere dormant at a time. The evolutionary trend is clear, but the function of sleep is not.

9. How do the specialized systems of the brain integrate with one another?
To the naked eye, no part of the brain’s surface looks terribly different from any other part. But when we measure activity, we find that different types of information lurk in each region of the neural territory. There is no special anatomical location in the brain where information from all the different systems converges; rather, the specialized areas all interconnect with one another, forming a network of parallel and recurring links.

10. What is consciousness?
Think back to your first kiss. The experience of it may pop into your head instantly. Where was that memory before you became conscious of it? How was it stored in your brain before and after it came into consciousness? What is the difference between those states. The mechanisms underlying consciousness could reside at any of a variety of physical levels: molecular, cellular, circuit, pathway, or some organizational level not yet described.

Click here to read the entire story.

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