Understanding the Human Brain

Understanding the human brain is no easy task. Human intelligence seems to have developed from small refinements in brain architecture. Other animals, such as the parrot cannot solve mathematical equations and dolphins cannot write poetry.

Researchers have looked at the unique features of the brain to try to account for our superior intellectual abilities. Anatomically, the human brain is very similar to other primates. The human brain is densely packed with over 11 billion cortical neurons(brain cells), far out numbering out closest relatives, the primates. Humans have half a billion more cortical neurons than whales and elephants. The brain is made up of nerve cells(neurons) and glia. The more neurons, the more extensive and productive neuronal networks are. These very networks determine various brain functions such as perception, memory, planning and thinking.

Interestingly, a brain’s information-processing capacity really depends on how fast its nerves conduct electrical impulses. Myelinated nerves covered in a thick sheath transmit information at a much faster rate than other mammals that have thinner myelinated sheaths, such as the elephant.

Among humans’ we have cerebral advantages, such as language. Grammar and vocabulary develop exponentially by the age of three. This is when the Broca’s area(speech) develops in the left frontal lobe. This area is unique to humans. Language is a recent human evolutionary development (80000 to 100000) years ago. It was an enhancement to human intellect.

Another unique feature of the human brain is the ability to detect errors. People make mistakes, hence we have car accidents every day. There is a region of the brain called the medial frontal cortex and it plays a key role in detecting mistakes that people have made. The neurons become active when humans make mistakes and then behaviours are changed.

Much of our ability to learn comes from mistakes. When we make a mistake, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is deeply involved in preventing human error. The brain recognizes errors and slip ups and it also responds to them. After an error is made, people carefully analyze the problem and switch to a different strategy for tackling the task. When the brain receives negative feedback, it acts accordingly and looks for reward and the reward is completing the task at hand using a different strategy. If you have ever observed a child trying to place shapes into a block with the shapes cut out(triangle or square) , the child will sit there and try to figure out the task until he or she is successful. His/her reward is solving the puzzle. Some children will take more time to solve this problem and others are able to do it quickly.

So what accounts for differences in intelligence? What makes some people more gifted than others? When I think of intelligence, the first person that comes to mind is Albert Einstein. There are many different theories, such as smarter brains tend to be bigger. The brains of brighter people use less energy. Practice and perseverance contribute more to accomplishment than intelligence. Think about this. Some scientists say that we only use 10% of our brains. My question to those scientists is: How can we possibly measure 10% of our brains and what parameters would you use? Seems kind of nonsensical to make such sensationalistic statements that cannot be backed up scientifically.

When Albert Einstein died in1955, his brain was sliced into 240 pieces for safekeeping. Scientists hoped to explore and uncover the reasons why some people are more gifted than others. When Einstein’s brain was examined, scientists found that in certain locations, his parietal lobe was 15% wider than the same region of 35 other men with average intelligence. The parietal lobe is believed to play an important role for visual and mathematical thinking. Is this the true reason for Einstein’s genius? It is a theory. Perhaps objective intelligence tests are the best way to identify high intelligence. Test scores can reveal how bright one is and identifies strengths and weaknesses. A test can generate an aptitude profile. Does it really measure intelligence though and can we ever truly measure intelligence?

Next, let’s take a look at the functioning of the brain at work at night. When we sleep our brain completes incredible things such as data analysis, memory strengthening and problem solving.. Whilst we are asleep, the brain reviews recently formed memories, copies and files them away. Sleep not only strengthens memories but allows us to use them in a more effective manner. When a memory is not relevant, it is disposed of and placed at the back of the filing cabinet in your brain.

We do know that memories are formed by reverberating circuits(the strength of connections between neurons) which can be used later to recall information. This is known as long-term potentiation, a molecular process that adds strength to the connection between pairs of neurons that happen to fire at the same time. Because these neurons fire at the same time, that memory that has been formed is stored for future recall.

While you sleep, the brain reactivates these neurons and strengthen the memories.

The brain is such a complex organ that reacts accordingly based on all sensory input, memory, experience, motivation, environment and genetic factors. It is truly a wonder that we are only beginning to understand. As our sensory input changes and the environment around us, so does the neuronal plasticity of the brain. This is an evolutionary process that has allowed humans to adapt and continue to change. Our true intelligence is only beginning to evolve.