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New Scientist The Collection The Human Brain

New Scientist covers discoveries and ideas in science and technology that will change your life and the way you understand the world. New Scientist employs and commissions the best writers in their fields to provide in-depth but accessible coverage of the developments that matter. New Scientist: The Collection is a themed compilation of recent articles and special reports from our back catalogue, providing a book-length examination of some of the deepest questions known to humanity.

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New Scientist Ltd
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access_time3 min.
get inside your own head

The answers to the biggest questions of our existence – what is consciousness, what makes people behave the way they do, what is intelligence, and why do you sleep and dream – are all rooted in the 1.4 kilograms of soft stuff between your ears. These are questions about what it means to be human, about what makes you “you”. For millennia, questions like these have driven the pursuit to understand the human brain. It has been 2500 years since Hippocrates suggested that the mind resides not in the heart, but in our heads. And yet until relatively recently, the brain remained a black box, inaccessible without cracking open the skull or studying people with brain damage. Modern technology is changing that. If the 19th century was dominated by chemistry and the…

access_time5 min.
milestones of neuroscience

About 250,000 years ago, something quite extraordinary happened. Animals with an unprecedented capacity for thought appeared on the savannahs of Africa. Eventually, they were smart enough to start questioning the origins of their own intelligence. We are finally close to getting some answers, but it has not been a smooth journey. THE BEGINNINGS The birth of neuroscience began with Hippocrates some 2500 years ago. While his contemporaries, including Aristotle, believed that the mind resided in the heart, Hippocrates argued that the brain is the seat of thought, sensation, emotion and cognition. It was a monumental step, but a deeper understanding of the brain took a long time to follow, with many early theories ignoring the solid brain tissue in favour of fluid filled cavities, or ventricles. The 2nd-century physician Galen – perhaps the…

access_time5 min.
mapping the mind

Our billions of neurons, joined by trillions of neural connections, build the most intricate organ of the human body. Attempts to understand its architecture began with reports of people with brain damage. Localised damage results in highly specific impairments of particular skills – such as language or numeracy – suggesting that our brain is modular, with different locations responsible for different mental functions. Advanced imaging techniques developed in the late 20th century gave a more nuanced approach by allowing researchers to peer into healthy brains as volunteers carried out different cognitive tasks. The result is a detailed map of where different skills arise in the brain – an important step on the road to understanding our complex mental lives. FOREBRAIN Many of our uniquely human capabilities arise in the forebrain, which expanded rapidly…

access_time11 min.
the greatest map of all

A STRANGE contraption, a cross between a deli meat slicer and a reel-to-reel film projector, sits in a windowless room in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It whirs along unsupervised for days at a time, only visited occasionally by Narayanan Kasthuri, a mop-haired postdoc at Harvard University, who examines the strip of film spewing out. It may seem unlikely, but what’s going on here signifies a revolution in neuroscience. Spaced every centimetre along the film are tiny dots, each of which is a slice of mouse brain, one-thousandth the thickness of a sheet of aluminium foil. This particular roll of film contains 6000 slices, representing a speck of brain the size of a grain of salt. The slices of brain will be turned into digital images by an automated electron microscope. A computer will read…

access_time1 min.
mind readers

MAGNETIC RESONANCE IMAGING (MRI) Showing detailed anatomical images, it is like an X-ray for soft tissues FUNCTIONAL MRI (fMRI) Displays changes in blood supply – assumed to correlate with local nerve activity – to different brain areas during mental tasks such as arithmetic or reading DIFFUSION MRI (also called diffusion imaging, tractography) Reveals the brain’s long-distance connections; works by tracking water molecules, which can diffuse along the length of axons more freely than escaping out through their fatty coating FUNCTIONAL CONNECTIVITY MRI (resting-state MRI) Also shedding light on long-distance connections, it measures spontaneous fluctuations in activity in different brain areas, which reveals the degree to which they communicate…

access_time10 min.
like clockwork

ONE of the first things William “Jamie” Tyler does when I meet him is show me a video of “one of the most devastating knockouts ever in boxing”. In a 1990 clash, American pugilist Julian Jackson knocked his English counterpart Herol Graham unconscious with a right hook. Graham’s lights went out before he hit the floor. Tyler is a boxing fan who once worked out at the Harvard Boxing Club. But that’s not why he’s showing me the video. Instead, as a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, Tyler uses it to highlight a problem: such knockouts are a bit of a mystery in our accepted understanding of the brain. We think of the brain as a biochemical and electrical organ, so how can a mechanical event, such as a punch to the…