The New Brain: Neuroscience Aims to Discover How and Why Our Brains Function as They Do and What New Treatments Could Come to the Aid of Malfunctioning Minds

Article excerpt

We have learned so much about the human brain during the past two decades that it's fair to speak of a revolutionary change in our understanding. The era of the Old Brain is giving way to that of the New Brain.

The Old Brain was remote and mysterious, deeply hidden within the skull and inaccessible except to specialists daring enough to pierce its three protective layers. Thanks to that inaccessibility and the risks involved in plumbing its depths, brain experts knew little about the functioning of the normal brain; they certainly searched in vain for answers to such fascinating questions as, "How is the brain related to our everyday thoughts, emotions, and behavior?"

The New Brain, in contrast, does not require dangerous intrusions but can now be depicted using sophisticated computer-driven imaging techniques such as CAT and PET scans and MRIs. These techniques reveal exquisitely subtle operational details and provide windows through which neuroscientists can view different aspects of brain functioning without opening the skull or performing other risky procedures.

Thanks to the development of new imaging technologies, brain science is capable of providing us with insights into the human mind that only a few decades ago would have been considered the stuff of science fiction. We can now study the brain in "real time" when we're thinking, taking an intelligence test, practicing a craft, experiencing an emotion, or making a decision. Brain tests can even indicate when we're telling the truth, as well as provide a quick estimate of our intelligence and specific abilities.

Neuroscientists refer to this new field as cognitive science: the study of the brain mechanisms responsible for our thoughts, moods, decisions, and actions. Cognition has been defined as "the ability of the brain and nervous system to attend, identify, and act on complex stimuli." More informally, cognition refers to everything taking place in our brains that helps us to know the world. Included here are such mental activities as alertness, concentration, memory, reasoning, creativity, and emotional experience.

From Abnormal to Normal to Enhanced

In the era of the New Brain, the emphasis is shifting from diseases and dysfunctions to an understanding of the brains of the average man and woman. An exciting consequence follows from this new emphasis on the normal brain: Research can provide us with useful guidelines about our everyday lives. For instance, recent findings indicate that by following certain brain-based guidelines anyone can achieve expert performance in sports, athletics, or academic pursuits. Such findings, of course, run counter to the traditional theory that sports achievers and geniuses are born, not made, and that our genes and other factors outside of our control impose limits on our individual capabilities. …