Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Decade Of The Mind & Your New Cyborg Brain 1a

Dr. Theodore Berger's recent experiments in extending the brain's memory through a microchip are just the beginning.  This development will change us and our society forever.

In order to enhance the brain, we must first have at least a rudimentary understanding of how the brain work.  In 1990, President George H. Bush made a presidential proclamation declaring 1990-1999 the Decade Of The Brain.  This manifesto called for expenditures of $4 billion in research investment from 2012-2022.  Since May 2007, there have been annual conferences where scholars present their latest research and ideas.
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The Building Of Our Brain
This research stressed the difference between the mind and the brain. The idea being that "mind" emerges as a result of the activities of the brain.  The complexity of the brain is staggering.  "A piece of the brain the size of a grain of rice contains about 10,000 nerve cells.  Within those 10,000 nerve cells, any nerve cell can make between 1-10,000 connections with other nerve cells.  So there's something like a 1,000,000,000,000 connections." [Carla J, Shatz, Harvard Medical School, PBS, The Secret Life Of The Brain]  The human brain takes about 18 years to full develop into an adult brain.  It develops in stages.  The adult brain contains about 10 billion never cells (neurons).  With each neuron forming about 10,000 synapses or connections, the total number of processing elements is about 10 to the 14th power or ten duodecillion connections (this number looks like this written in traditional notation 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000).
"The human brain, a 3-pound mass of interwoven nerve cells that controls our activity, is one of the most magnificent--and mysterious--wonders of creation. The seat of human intelligence, interpreter of senses, and controller of movement, this incredible organ continues to intrigue scientists and layman alike."
George H. Bush
Decade of the Brain
Presidential Proclamation

Scientists like Dr. Susan McConnell from Stanford University's department of Biology is studying how the neurons in the brain form during human development.  She states in the PBS series,
You can think about development like a play.  A play that follows a script, that is written down by the genetic code. But, it has no director; it has no producer and it has a bunch of actors that have never spoken their lines before.  Despite all of this, you pull the play off.  To me, it's a miracle.
Susan McConnell
In the fetus the neurons in its brain can build 2,000,000 new connections every second.  Eventually, it will form more connections than the number of known stars in the universe.  There seems to be a precisely planned genetic blueprint of massive proportions and complexity.  What is even more astounding than this is that this massive communications network can grow itself depending on what it is experiencing.  Unlike normal wired or silicon pathways in our computer circuitry, this circuitry is not static but dynamic in response to its environment.

Mriganka Sur
In a series of experiments, Dr. Mriganka Sur of MIT demonstrated that if the auditory and visual circuits were switched in young ferrets, the auditory parts of the brain would partially transform themselves to serve as the visual parts and vice versa.  Thus it seems that there is an interplay between the structure and the stimulation the brain, and, although the brain's structure cannot totally change to match the full demands of the stimulatory experience, it is has amazing plasticity.

A child's brain has many more connections than an adult brain.  Over time, many connections are lost, to reveal the personality traits of that individual.  Experience is the sculptor which forms this personality and which decides which connections stay and which go.

The Brain And Language
Although spoken language is picked up naturally by the brain, reading is a skill that has to be taught.  In the PBS special posted at the end of this article an interesting quote is made about reading by Maryanne Wolf from Tufts University,
Reading is an example of one of the most complex-everyday human cognitive performances we have.  If we are novices or young, it happens in a certain way in the brain.  If we're older, automatic processes are being used in other parts of the brain.  If we're reading Chinese characters, one part of our brain is being used.  If we're reading the alphabet, another part of the brain is being used...think syntax, think vocabulary, think words that you never ever hear in oral discourse around the table.  The child has to learn to put all these hundreds of concepts together to read.
The brain must cobble together vision, hearing, judgment, memory, that were never designed for reading.  They must all come into play in an overlapping process that we at this point, hardly understand.  With the slow abandonment of reading the typical pastime of many adults, this may have massive implications for how the brain will change in successive generations.  The ability to be able to read well, has no bearing on the intelligence of the individual.  In a society where people are educated and judged for their ability to read, who knows how many very bright people, have been prevented from countless contributions to society.  They are hampered in society simply because their brains have been differently "wired."

"Babies are all citizens of the world. They can discriminate the sounds of all languages no matter what country we're testing or what language we're using. We're...[adults] culture-bound listeners. We can discriminate the sounds of our own languages, but not those of foreign languages."
Patricia Kuhl
TED, 2010
Patricia Kuhl, professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences and co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington states that the young brain up to the age of seven has immense abilities at learning languages.  After puberty it drops off dramatically.  No one understands why this is.  The present theoretical model is that the babies are listening to the adult speakers and "taking statistics" on what sounds are being used in the spoken language.  The brain is "rewired" to specialize in the language that it is hearing and decreasing its sensitivity to other spoken sounds.  She is conducting brains scans on children to see how they learn languages in real time in the brain.

We include this video from a TED talk that Dr. Kuhl gave in 2010.  If you cannot see the embedded video here is the link:

For some background information on the brain, we present this PBS series titled, The Secret Life Of The Brain, produced in 2002. If you cannot see the embedded video here is the link:

In the next part of this series, we will speak about the essential role of emotions in the brain.

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