Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Layman's Guide to Your Inner Galaxies - Introduction

I find it very difficult, if not impossible, to explain how it came to be that I am here writing these words, and the words that will follow in ensuing posts, about the science of the brain and why you are reading them (or in other words, how I came to present them to you). So I won't explain why, at least not at this point (at any rate, the story is too long for our time today). It is, however, a fascinating and interesting story in itself about the human brain so we will get to it eventually and my greatest hope is that it will serve as an inspiration to you or someone you care about.

It is astonishing how little we – the general public, John and Jane Q – know about the biological computer that is responsible for everything about who “we” are and every single solitary thing we will think, imagine and do in our brief appearances on planet Earth. This was one of the first things that struck me when I dove – head first into the deep end – into the world of neuroscience; how little of it was known outside of very small circles. There are reasons for why this is (and no, it's nothing conspiratorial) and these reasons are fascinating aspects in themselves about how our brains operate. These reasons are important, as we'll see, but I believe we need to do a better job of overriding these reasons and more deeply understand what truly makes us – the homo sapien species - tick.

The history of trying to understand what makes us tick is a long one, about as long as the history of human language I'd wager. About ninety-nine point nine percent of these attempts involved the only thing we could do at the time – create theories and ideas based on the behaviour we observed in each other and ourselves. This is the foundation of all religions, astrology of all forms, all previous attempts at psychology and psychiatry, and many, many a myth, fairy tale and novel. All in attempt to understand, explain, guide and control “human nature” and our behaviour. And all of these attempts failed. We will see why all these previous attempts – these previous belief systems - are failures, or at least are grossly inadequate, as we go along. I know you're probably already upset with me because I may have listed a pet belief system of yours but please try to set that aside for now and unleash your inner child's mind of curiosity. Curiosity may have killed the cat but I promise I'll do you no harm so do read on.

I am an innately curious person in that I've always wanted to know why things were the way they were. I early on found that myths were unsatisfactory (albeit entertaining) so, though I didn't do well in science in high school, I felt myself attracted to the scientific explanation of things and the underlying logic of scientific method. While I didn't practice science myself, I was attracted to and then greatly influenced by science writers such as Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould and many others or documentary presenters such as Sir David Attenborough.

My greatest curiosity, however, has always been people. I am a people person. I love people and believe in the good in people. So I've always been curious about what makes a person do this or that. I'm therefore an incurable people watcher. I became more deeply interested in people when I got involved in teaching “little people” - childhood education. I understood very quickly that I had very young and undeveloped brains in my hands. I took this very seriously so I wanted to make sure I did the best job possible and so, with much help from more experienced colleagues and the research I did then, I came to know as much as I could about human behaviour in young children (and older children as well – I taught everyone from fresh out of diapers kindergarteners to grade twelves). Like most people, I just did what I could with what was generally known and widely accepted. I dabbled in reading psychology magazines. I took pleasure in trying to figure out what made people tick. But something had always nagged at me. Psychology (and psychiatry, I'd later discover) didn't strike me as particularly scientific. People could make claims on pretty sandy foundations of science. In fact, a lot of claims seemed to have no scientific basis at all – IE: no way to prove anything with scientific instruments. It was all seemingly based on “observations” and interpretations of those observations. As these were people doing these observations and interpreting and people - as we'll see - have a lot of built in operating flaws, it all seemed very suspect. Very interesting and plausible, but suspect nonetheless.

Then one day – and what brought me to that one day is the story I'll eventually get to about myself – I came across a description of a tiny microscopic part of the brain called a “synapse” along with something called “neurochemicals” and how these related to a certain human behaviour. Later I attended a talk by the author of this description in which he further described it, along with some hand gestures to illustrate what he was describing. I listened in rapt on the edge of my seat attention as it dawned on me that this infinitesimally small chemical transaction was in part responsible for many of our behaviours. I was hooked. I needed to know more about these synapses and neurochemicals. So I began to read and read and read some more. Through the wonders of online communities I met neuroscientists who with great kindness took me and my curiosity under their wing. They exposed me to the great world of neuroscientific research methods and data bases which I devoured as if I'd been starving. I started collecting books about the latest research in neuroscience. The more I read, the more I was hooked and the more I read, the more it all tumbled magically into place in my mind (though not magical in the magician's sense). It felt like I'd discovered something I'd been looking for my whole life. What makes humans tick? What makes us do all the dizzying amounts of behaviour that humans are capable of, so much of it seemingly incomprehensible? Our brains. No mysterious and mythical forces are at work (plenty of wondrous scientific mysteries though, the explorations of which will be the whole point of this blog), but the three pound incredibly complex mass of tissue between our ears. And what makes the brain tick? What makes your brain tick? Neuroscience is where these answers are being discovered every day.

I am a teacher at heart. I've always enjoyed teaching people how to do things, teaching how things work or how to be better at something. For many years, in several different countries to several different peoples, I was an educator to non-English speaking people in learning the (to them) incomprehensible gibberish that is the English language and making it comprehensible and become a valuable tool in their lives. It was deeply, deeply gratifying to me and I was very good at it. I was good at it because I love two things (among others of course) – people and teaching (well, three actually. I also happen to love the English language). So when I became so turned on by and immersed in neuroscience, I quickly concluded two things – that more people needed to better understand how brains work (and we'll be looking at animal brains as well) and that I was the person to accumulate, digest and teach that knowledge in a way similar to how I made a difficult foreign language accessible to various peoples. So why read me and this blog? Because I'm good at taking the complex and hard to understand and presenting it in such ways as to make it accessible, fun and easier to understand. Another reason is that I just tend to see things differently. So while you will come across many other blogs about neuroscience, mine will be different and thought provoking in ways that perhaps others are not. Maybe that's because I'm more like you; curious and full of questions. 

Some disclaimers. One, is that of course I don't know everything about neuroscience. I read what I can (which is quite a bit) and I know and understand a fair amount (which I think I'll prove as we go along) but I don't know everything (obviously). Then again, no one knows everything about the brain (which we'll see). But this will be part of the fun. As I satisfy my curiosity and learn ever more deeply, I'll satisfy your curiosity and you'll understand ever more deeply. So we're sort of strapped into this exploration together. Two, is that neuroscience is making new discoveries all the time. When a new discovery is made that means a new “truth” is known (we'll examine the meaning of “truth” as we go along) and that an old “truth” is no longer true or at least not as true as it used to be. But that's science. Science is all about discoveries and that's why we understand more about physics, chemistry, evolution, geology, astronomy and so on more than we ever did before – new discoveries are made every day, further and further increasing our knowledge and understanding and nowhere is this more true than in neuroscience. So what we need to understand here up front is that there is still a lot that is not one hundred percent known about the brain so you're not going to find all the answers here (or anywhere else for that matter) and the answers you do find are … well, subject to change (though not by much, just the super fine details or perhaps the broader understandings of previous ideas of brain functions). There's a lot that is known – an astonishing amount as you'll see – but there are a lot of details that are not yet known, a lot of questions not yet answered (which is part of the fun of neuroscience - there's so much yet to discover!). I promise you this, however – that I will make every effort to give you the very best of what is currently known and understood. I am fanatical and assiduous – almost compulsive - about finding the absolute best scientific and factual truth currently available from the best possible sources and I am ruthless about rooting out pseudo-science or BS claims or just plain old human-nature-jumping-the-gun claims. If there is doubt about something, I'll pass that along. If something is speculation or theory only, I'll make that clear. If I turn out to have been wrong about something or posted erroneous information, I'll acknowledge that and make a correction.

Neuroscience is, I believe and will passionately argue, the most important field of study we currently have. If humans are to continue to populate this earth we will need more and more to cooperate with and understand each other and to better understand each other that means better understanding the human brain. If we are going to better educate our future generations and better prepare them for the massive challenges we face, we need to better understand brains. Current popular models of understanding are not only inadequate but dangerously outdated. To understand each other better, we need to better understand what makes “us” run – our brains. And to understand those adequately, we need the best possible methods available to us. And that's what neuroscience is. For the first time in our long history and in ways never before imagined as possible, we are poking into the actual structures and workings of the human brain and learning how it truly works, not how we imagine it works (as we have done for thousands of years). To me this is the most exciting, and important, field of study or human undertaking currently going on in the world today. I am, therefore, greatly driven and motivated to do my part in making the study of neuroscience more accessible to us, the common man and woman (and children I hope). Hence, the “layman” part of the title.

A word about sources. What I present in this blog will be based on well established current research and agreed upon (generally) understanding of how animal and human brains are constructed (one of your surprises is going to be how closely they are related) and perform the various tasks they need to survive and propagate themselves. I'll get to why (it's connected to why I got into neuroscience in the first place) but I am fanatical about rock solid sources and reporting that as accurately as I can. One of the great things about online reading is embedded links. I will link to most of my sources as often as reasonable (I find that too many embedded links gets annoying and distracting). I will also list sources for further reading. One of my hopes is to inspire further reading and that's partly what the links are there for (other than to establish and verify the credibility of my writing and the knowledge I'm presenting with it). If you are a parent reading along, I encourage you to get your child to read as well. Who knows, between us we might inspire a future neuroscientist who'll discover an answer to some of the currently unanswered questions or better connect some of the countless dots of neuroscientific research data.

I also hope to inspire you. Within you – and I don't care who “you” are or what you “believe” you are (AKA your limiting beliefs) - you have vast amounts of likely completely untapped potential in your brain. You may also have questions about your own behaviour or that of your family. That potential and the answers to those questions are contained in the “inner galaxies” we're going to explore together. And they are, as we'll see, inner galaxies – vast, vast galaxies of neurons and connections (and hence the “inner galaxies” part of the title). But there's scary stuff we're going to come across in our explorations – exploration and discovery can be scary by its very nature of being unknown, after all – so be prepared for that.

Finally, I hope to inspire more compassion and understanding of our fellow human beings. I know that when I finally began to understand how brains work, I began to see human behaviour in an entirely different light and my compassion levels for people of every kind rose immensely. I believe yours will too.

So that's a bit of the background to what brings me and you together. If human nature is of interest to you – and my extensive experience in life tells me that that's just about everyone – then you'll enjoy reading along and you'll learn more about the brain – and yourself - than you thought possible. I promise.

So strap on your seat belt. We are about to take a fun, scary, wondrous and maybe sometimes wild ride through your incredible inner galaxies, which literally, I'll add, are the most complex and amazing galaxies in the known universe.


Bradley Esau