Touring 10 Unsolved Questions of the Brain with Dr. David Eagleman

5 02 2010

Yesterday, I had the chance to hear Dr. David Eagleman speak at the ISAS Teacher’s Conference. This was a real treat. Below is a short synopsis of some of what he shared as he took us on a tour of unsolved questions regarding the brain…

What are memories and where are they stored? How are they retrieved? How does the brain work? What are emotions? These and many other questions were briefly explored as Dr. David Eagleman spoke to packed house at the ISAS Teacher’s conference in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Eagleman took the room on an amazing and engaging journey of the brain as he introduced 10 unresolved questions of the brain. With humor, wit and an amazing ability to make complex material accessible to the layperson, Dr. Eagleman increased our wonder about the 3 pound organ that allows us to think, feel, cry, laugh, and learn. So what were some of the big ideas from this tour? Here are a few that caught my attention.

While we often compare the brain and human memory with computer functions, this far from the truth. Memories are reconstructed rather than retrieved. The brain actually retains very little of what is experienced throughout the day. It turns out that sleep is not only comforting, but necessary. It is through sleep that we cement together experiences and ideas. At the same time, sleep allows our brain to remove the “neural trash”. Dr. Eagleman talked briefly about elements of facial recognition and linked it to how we store memories. Rather than storing a complete image of a face, we store facial elements and the relationships between these parts. Our brains then fill in the informational gaps as we reconstruct the image.

Have you ever wondered if and how dolphins sleep? Dr. Eagleman shed light on that imponderable as well. It turns out that only half of their brain “sleeps” at a time. Now that is one way of increasing the effective hours in the day. However, in the end he made it clear that our students need their sleep and that last minute cramming is highly ineffective.

So, is it nature or nurture? It turns out that nurture has new support with the new studies of epigenetics. Experience has a way of altering the surface of DNA causing genes to turn on and off related to environmental exposures and experiences. Now what about time? It turns out that we are all living in the past- literally. When we compare the moment of perception through our senses, the processing and assembling of information creates a delay that would always have us living in the past. However, our brains are able to assemble components of memory and perception, often perceived at different times, so that they all seem to have occurred at the same time. So while we live in the past, we perceive it as the present.

Back to memories, what can’t you forget? It turns out that you can’t forget fearful memories. This is in part because of the affective nature of emotions. Emotions usually thought of as the domain of psychology, are fundamental to neuroscience.  While emotions have commonality to many different animal species, it turns out that emotions are also what make us uniquely human.

As the tour neared the end, we briefly looked at the question of consciousness as we were asked to recall our first kiss. Where was that memory before we were asked to bring it back to our consciousness? Yes, the brain is simply amazing and we as educators are charged with helping others develop meaningful relationships between experiences and knowledge. I can’t speak for others but I just can’t get enough of this stuff.

Below are a few things that might be of interest for those who want to experience more about the amazing world of the brain.

Oliver Sacks books are amazing reads and will extend your mind. Here are several of his titles that are quite interesting: An Anthropologist on Mars, Awakenings, Phantoms in the Brain, and The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Dr. Eagleman also made mention of a scientist who looks at emotion as part of what makes us uniquely human. Here is a  video of a talk by Robert Sapolsky about the “uniqueness” of humans.




3 responses

5 02 2010
Eagleman on 10 problems in Nueroscience: Guest Blogger Chris Bigenho #isastc « 21k12

[…] unable to attend the Eagleman presentation: the following is a post by Chris Bigenho; you can see his blog here.  My thanks to […]

5 02 2010

Too bad these presentations are not recorded and made available online. I call and request such, but so far to no avail.

Please note that “Phantoms In the Brain” is the work of V.S. Ramachandran and science writer Sandran Blakeslee with only the Forward being written by Oliver Sacks.

If neuroscience of the human brain truly intrigues you, I recommend the following, which are only modestly technical, but very informative and often quite entertaining:

“Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” and other titles by Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph.D.
“Phantoms in the Brain” by V.S. Ramachandran, Ph.D.
“Spark” by John Ratey” M.D.
“Brain Rules” by Dr. John Medina Book includes DVD
“Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” by Sharon Begley
“The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, M.D.
“BrainFit For Life” by Simon J. Evans, et al.
“Think Smart” by Richard Restak, Ph.D.
“Neuroscience: Exploring The Brain” (Book & CD-ROM) by Mark F. Bear
This book is the most technical book on this list. It has excellent graphics and pictures! The Second Edition is almost identical to the Third and much less expensive!

For Lecture/Video I highly recommend “Biology and Human Behavior” presented by Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph.D. and published by The Teaching Company

5 02 2010

Thanks for the additional book list. I forgot that Phantoms was by Ramachandran…yes, forward by sacks. Great book though. I have read most of these but I see a couple that I will want to explore. I did not find Brain Rules to be particularly insightful but then, this is a large part of what I study as PhD student in educational computing and cognitive systems. I have read Restak but not Think Smart- That looks very interesting. I agree that this would have been a great session to have recorded. He has a way of making this very accessible.

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