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. http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_sapolsky_the_uniqueness_of_humans.html