Terrains of human experience

January 14, 2019 0 By S Harachand

“Our human brains were not designed all at once, by a genius inventor on a blank sheet of paper. It is a cobbled-together mess that nonetheless can perform some very impressive feats,” observes Dr David J Linden, introducing the book Think Tank: Forty Neuroscientists Explore the Biological Roots of Human Experience, a collection of essays.

The intriguing ways of the human brain have always been a mystery. This amazing organ continues to perplex researchers by simply refusing to unravel. But in the age of the brain, the world is hungry to know more about the quirky organ and the biological basis of human experience. Most of what is available on the brain is uninformed or even fraudulent. It’s nothing but “neurobulshit”, in the words of Dr Linden, a neuroscientist.

Clearly, that is the reason why Dr Linden approached the world’s top neuroscientists with the question: “What idea about brain function would you most like to explain to the world?” The result is a collection of essays that explore various aspects of brain function.

Contributors with varied expertise survey the underlying biology of the eternally fascinating topics of personality, substrates of aesthetic responses, subconscious drives for love, sex and food, and psychoactive drugs. Alongside, they examine the origins of human individuality, empathy and memory from different perspectives, such as that of human behaviour, molecular genetics, evolutionary biology and comparative anatomy.

Authors discuss how present concepts about the working of the brain are getting refined with progress in neuroscience, even though we are still quite some distance from a satisfactory understanding of many of the processes. Slowly, we come to a new realisation that several regions of the brain may be critically involved in mechanisms not attributed to them hitherto.

The hypothesis of developmental diaschisis, for instance, now opens the possibility that the treatment of autism could end up in areas of the brain such as the cerebellum — a part of the brain previously unconnected to cognitive or social functions. The cerebellum is thought to predict near future, and in this way, adjust and guide both movement and thought. A failure of the cerebellum to predict the near future could make it hard for babies at risk for autism to learn properly from the world. This understanding could change the way we treat autism. Currently, the most effective treatment for autism is applied behaviour analysis. But it works on only half the kids with autism. Manipulation of brain activity in the cerebellum may help applied behaviour analysis work better and help more kids. The essays are also notable for their brevity and variety.