The Future of the Brain

By Myslinski, Norbert R. | The World and I, August 2000 | Go to article overview

The Future of the Brain


Myslinski, Norbert R., The World and I


The pairing of innovative technologies with scientific discoveries about the brain opens new ways of handling information, treating diseases, and possibly creating robots with human characteristics.

"For I dipp'd into the future,"

"far as human eye could see,"

"Saw the Vision of the world,"

"and all the wonder that would be."

----Alfred, Lord Tennyson

An understanding of the brain helps us understand our nature. Over the course of evolution, the brain has acquired greater functions and higher consciousness. The reptilian brain, for instance, exerts control over vegetative functions, such as eating, sleeping, and reproduction. Development of the mammalian brain added the ability to express emotions. The human brain has the additional powers of cognition--such as reasoning, judgment, problem solving, and creativity. The latter functions, which are controlled by an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (located behind the forehead), distinguish us from other forms of life and represent the flower of our humanity. They have allowed us to re-create ourselves and decide our destiny.

Besides these long-term changes, our brains undergo short-term modifications during our lifetime. Not only does the brain control behavior, but one's behavior leads to changes in the brain, in terms of both structure and function. Subjective experiences play a major role in brain functions and the manifestation of one's mind, consciousness, and personal values. Thus the brain adapts to each individual's changing world.

Modern society and technology have given us the time, protection, and freedom to focus on the higher powers of the brain. As individual freedoms and the free enterprise system are extended around the world, we will see a continuing rise of innovative ventures and scientific exploration. In addition, our success at eliminating brain diseases and expanding brain functions will depend on the uniquely human characteristics of the brain. Given the finances and technology, we will need vision and creativity.

But modern technology also raises a number of questions about our future. For instance, how will the continuing information explosion challenge the powers of our brains? What does the next century have in store for us regarding memory drugs, brain surgery, brain regeneration, and other treatments for brain disorders? How will the relationships between mind and body or brain and machine evolve? More important, are we prepared to handle such challenges, socially, psychologically, and ethically?

The information explosion

Information technologies have been increasingly successful in helping us acquire and communicate large new areas of knowledge. But the same success challenges the brain's capacity [see "Sherlock Holmes' Lesson," The World & I, June 2000, p. 317]. How will the brain continue to cope with this information explosion? It will probably employ the same techniques it always has: filtering, organizing, and selective forgetting.

Already, the brain filters out more than 99 percent of all sensory input before it reaches consciousness. In the future, it will be even more important to filter out the repetitive, boring, and unnecessary, and retain the novel, relevant, and necessary information. Actually, the brain is not good at remembering isolated facts but is great at organizing and associating thoughts and ideas. This ability will help it handle new information without suffering overload.

Just as important as the biology inside the brain is the technology outside. First with the introduction of books, and now computers, we have become increasingly reliant on artificial means of storing information. Thus the relative need for long-term (storage) memory in the brain and the time span for storage have decreased. As this trend continues, we will make greater use of our working memory and less use of our storage memory [see "Now Where Did I Put Those Keys? …

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