How Little Relatively We Know About The Brain

I seem to have had a week of listening to, watching or reading pretty highbrow stuff. 

Not deliberately – just seemed to have happened that way.  Probably chaos theory at work.

A friend lent me “A Brief History Of Time” just after Christmas so I decided it was about time (no pun intended) I read it.  My strongest subject at school was maths and so I had wanted for some time to check out this big time seller by Stephen Hawking.  The Easter weekend was therefore a mixture of Big Bangs, Black Holes and The Passion.

Then quite by chance lolling in the bath I caught a radio discussion on the M and String Theory.  Now – that is all about trying to get a ‘Theory of Everything’.  The 20th Century was dominated by Quantum Mechanics (the functioning of things that are very very small) and Einsteins Relativity (everything massively big – space, the bending of time  and all that)  

BUT ….

and here is the rub those two areas of science don’t fit together.  So we have new studies on ‘M’ and ‘Strings’ and I have to point out 11 dimensions to see if there is an overall theory of everything big and small.  There you have it in a couple of paragraphs.

OK those Professor guys can spin it out a bit and I am of course being glib – but it is in fact quite fascinating.  We are going to find out a lot more about all this soon when a giant circular accelerator the size of the Circle Line on the London Tube is put to work.  It sounds a pretty powerful beast so I trust they know what power they are unleashing.

Then on Monday evening I saw the second of the Alternative Therapies series.  This week looking at Reflexology, massage and touch and the effects that these gentle actions have on the brain.  It was amazing to see the activity of the brain diminish with subsequent pain relief from such a simple thing as touch.  What was evident watching the programme was how little is known about the brain.  

And so onto this weeks Horizon (here in the UK) which always asks those tantalising questions.  This week “What is Memory?”  There was much to contemplate but one of the most interesting stories was of a young man born with a condition where part of his brain is undeveloped.  The result is that he can’t really remember anything and has to have written instructions for such a simple task as getting to work – a route he has taken hundreds of times.  If that isn’t bad enough because he can’t recall anything this impedes his ability to imagine and plan anything for the future.  In our minds when we plan anything we use learned experience to formulate images of what we would like to do.  This poor guy is totally trapped in the present.  Ironic as we often say – live for the moment.

This thinking thing is so natural that we don’t really have to think how we are doing it.  We just use images in our head naturally when we remember the past or when we daydream or thing of future events.


Where is all this information held?  It is not like our PCs which have a hard drive to store date.  What is extraordinary about our brain is that there is no such storage point and even more intriguing is the manipulation of the memory that now seems possible.  One of the studies on the programme was of a girl who had a terrible rape experience many years ago which has been destroying her life because she can’t get of it from her mind.  However scientist have been experimenting with bringing the memory deliberately back when medication of propranalol (a beta blocker) has been administered.  The effect being that the hard edges of the memory are being removed and when they get re-stored the alteration appears to have been retained.  It is now thought that in time we will have the ability to remove bad memories all together.


Well off to read some more of Stephen Hawking and Relativity – I’ll worry about 11 dimensions later on.






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