Neuroscientists believe that the center of our “self,” our consciousness, is in the brain. It’s where our memory lives, and it’s the part of us that makes sense of the raw information that we see, feel, hear, smell, and taste.
It’s no wonder we struggle to understand how it works. As the old saying quoted by the mathematician Ian Parker goes: “If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.”
But we try — and not just because we’re curious. As we understand more and more about the brain, scientists hope that we’ll be able to develop better tools to treat psychiatric illnesses as well as brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
We could also perhaps unlock strategies for boosting our intelligence, memory, and other mental skills. If we can model and understand it all — and see how it works in real-time — we might be able to replicate the brain, and therefore, ourselves, in a computer model.
And yet … the brain is so impossibly complex, that right now it’s hard to imagine how we could even see what’s happening in the brain as we process information.
As Emily Underwood of Science Magazine explains, “Scientists are running out of superlatives to describe the complexity of the brain’s billions of brain cells and estimated 100 trillion connections. And it gets more daunting every time their view of the brain gets more detailed.”
The video below, which relies on a technology called VAST that can show what’s happening in the brain on an incredibly small scale, should help illustrate a fraction of that complexity.
It shows a tiny segment of a part of a mouse brain, a segment smaller than a grain of salt. That piece is then sliced into even smaller components that are about 1/2,500 the width of a human hair. Inside those slices, VAST shows the neurons, glial cells, and connections that are all interacting on such a minuscule scale.
Being able to see and observe things on that scale is an essential step to figuring out how the brain works. But it also shows just how intimidating a task understanding the brain really is.
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