The 21st Century Brain: A New Series at Big Think
We now have the power to map the brain, peering into the human mind to decode words from silent thoughts. But what will human consciousness look like, if we ever finally catch a glimpse of it? Neuroscientist Joy Hirsch kicks off the debate.
Megan Erickson is an Associate Editor at Big Think. Prior to Big Think, she taught reading and writing to ninth and tenth graders in NYC public schools and tutored students of all ages at the Stuyvesant Writing Center, which she helped launch. In her spare time, she worked in the communications department at the Center for Constitutional Rights and served as a mentor at the Urban Assembly, where she designed and led an extracurricular civics course on grassroots community action. She’s written on education, small business, and the arts for CNNMoney, Fortune Small Business, and The Huffington Post. Megan received her master’s degree in Education from Teachers College. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What's the Big Idea?
"My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery - always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What's this passion for?" asked Virginia Woolf. The revolution in functional imaging has brought us closer than ever to answering this question. We now have the power to map the brain, peering into the human mind to decode words from silent thoughts.
But what will human consciousness look like, if we ever finally catch a glimpse of it? What new powers and possibilities might we unlock? In this interdisciplinary series, we'll explore the grand challenge of reverse engineering the brain - and its implications on every field, from neuroscience to engineering, economics, ethics, and the arts.
Pioneering neuroscientist Joy Hirsch kicks off the discussion with an answer to the question, "What new developments are on the horizon in brain research?"
If the past thirty years are any indication, the future will inevitably involve rapid and sophisticated advancements, which Hirsch says will be more about "integration of known technologies more than new technologies. The integration of structural imaging, higher and higher resolution, of course, is extremely valuable. So as our scanners become higher field strengths, we can resolve higher granularity of the anatomical details, almost down to the cellular levels."
What's the Significance?
Better pictures of the brain mean better medical care - Hirsch's work as director of the Program for Imaging & Cognitive Sciences at Columbia University has already been used by surgeons to help navigate and understand the consequences of operating on various regions. Now that researchers have built exceptional cognitive maps, the next step is to figure out how the regions interact. The more we learn about the brain, the more we can change it, says Hirsch.
Applications abound for both therapy and improvements in functioning. According to an exhibit that Hirsch helped curate at the American Museum of Natural History, "New drugs are being developed that could someday eliminate pain, reduce the need for sleep, control appetite and obesity, improve memory, increase creativity, and prevent aging.”
How to Make It to Top of Your Field (Even If You're a Woman in Science)
Here, Hirsch gives her advice for climbing the ranks and becoming an expert in your domain. Watch:
These five main food groups are important for your brain's health and likely to boost the production of feel-good chemicals.
We all know eating “healthy” food is good for our physical health and can decrease our risk of developing diabetes, cancer, obesity and heart disease. What is not as well known is that eating healthy food is also good for our mental health and can decrease our risk of depression and anxiety.
Infographics show the classes and anxieties in the supposedly classless U.S. economy.
For those of us who follow politics, we’re used to commentators referring to the President’s low approval rating as a surprise given the U.S.'s “booming” economy. This seeming disconnect, however, should really prompt us to reconsider the measurements by which we assess the health of an economy. With a robust U.S. stock market and GDP and low unemployment figures, it’s easy to see why some think all is well. But looking at real U.S. wages, which have remained stagnant—and have, thus, in effect gone down given rising costs from inflation—a very different picture emerges. For the 1%, the economy is booming. For the rest of us, it’s hard to even know where we stand. A recent study by Porch (a home-improvement company) of blue-collar vs. white-collar workers shows how traditional categories are becoming less distinct—the study references "new-collar" workers, who require technical certifications but not college degrees. And a set of recent infographics from CreditLoan capturing the thoughts of America’s middle class as defined by the Pew Research Center shows how confused we are.
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