“People live without knowing”, a famous quote mentioned by an ancient philosopher, may seem to be a little absurd. However, through the years of development of psychology, researchers realized that this quote is far from false, but is correct. People exclaim that the study of psychology started ever since ancient Greek’s philosophers thought about humans. Chronologically speaking, psychology was studied by scholars for over thousands of years. However, ironically, people understood less than 17% of themselves: the brain.
Yes, we know what it’s made of (77% water, for a start) and how much it weighs (about 3 pounds). We also know that it has somewhere in excess of 80 billion neurons, each one connected chemically and electrically with 10,000 others, creating the world’s most complex network, with more interconnections than there are stars and planets in the Milky Way. But we don’t know how the brain works. Astoundingly, what we don’t understand the most is actually what we are always doing; we just don’t know.
- What is consciousness?
Without question, conscious awareness is the most astounding — and most perplexing — aspect of the human brain. Consciousness allows us to experience and reacts to our environment in an apparently self-directed way.
We have our own private thoughts, feelings, opinions, and preferences, and these traits allow us to figure out the world and operate within it.
But we are still quite a ways off from understanding how the brain produces phenomenal experience. Neuroscientists cannot explain how incoming sensations get routed around such that they can be translated into subjective impressions like taste, color, or pain. Or how we can form a mental image in our minds on demand. Scientists think it has something to do with the way the sensory parts of the brain are linked to midbrain structures. Consciousness may also arise from, in the words of Marvin Minsky calls the “Society of Mind.” As Minsky notes, “Consciousness is a word that you use to not discuss the 40 or 50 different processes that are going on at various times…” In extent, there are lots of theories that attempt to understand humans’ consciousness. Some scientists have even proposed quantum effects. But ultimately, people haven’t really got a clue.
- How do we store and access memories?
Like a computer’s hard drive, memories are physically recorded in our brains. But we have no idea how our brains do this, nor do we know how this information gets oriented in the brain.
Also, there isn’t just one kind of memory. We have both short-term and long-term memory. There’s also declarative memories (names and facts), and nondeclarative (muscle memory). And within our long-term memories, we have”flashbulb memories” memories where we’re able to remember the precise details of what we were doing during momentary events. To perplex things further, different parts of our brain perform different memory tasks.
Neuroscientists think that memory storage depends on the connection between synapses and the strength of associations; memories aren’t so much encoded as discrete bits of information, but rather as relations between two or more things. In other terms, memories of an event may be stored in a matrix of interconnected neurons in our brains. However, these are also just theories, so theories.
- How much of our personality is determined by our brain?
An old “nature versus nurture” debate, this topic is a conundrum that’s difficult to quantify. Some scientists, like Steven Pinker, argue that we’re all born with genetic predispositions that influence our psychologies. A mind has no innate traits, and that most of our individual preferences, if not all, are socially constructed. It’s difficult to tell where the effects of genes start and where they end, particularly as they’re either reinforced or suppressed by social experiences. Epigenetics, in which gene expression is either paused or activated according to environmental circumstances, complicate the issue even further. But in a way, the nature versus nurture debate is moot; the brain is a constant work in progress, a sponge that’s perpetually feeding off the environment.