Many would cite Einstein’s relativity theories and Shakespeare’s plays as the types of achievements that ably showcase the human brain’s powers.
But how about picking up a cup of coffee?
In fact, the latter’s no mean feat either. Think about what’s involved: you’re deploying a highly complex grasping implement (your hand) that’s at the end of an extending system with three jointed connections (shoulder, elbow, wrist).
MIT’s Steven Pinker, author of the best-selling “How the Mind Works,” says such an act requires the brain to call on sophisticated built-in rules and computational abilities. “The trigonometry is frightfully complicated,” he says, yet “your brain effortlessly solves these equations every time.”
Creating machine systems that can do the same thing has so far eluded robot designers, says Tomaso Poggio, a faculty colleague of Pinker’s. “It’s very difficult to get a robot to grasp an object under its own visual control unless the conditions are highly restricted,” he notes.
At the root of the brain’s abilities, from orchestrating the retrieval of a coffee cup to composing a symphony, is the neuron. Though tiny — hundreds of millions can fit into a space the size of a sugar cube — these cells are true marvels of nature.
They can “fire” — send a minuscule electrical impulse along one of their connecting elements — or, with other inputs, stop firing. And a single neuron can have 1,000 or more separate links, mostly with other neurons.
Overall, it’s estimated there are at least one trillion connections in the brain, and maybe a lot more. This connectedness helps make us master associators: “That hat reminds me of Aunt Edna, who won the Pulitzer Prize the year the septic system failed, and used to try to sing like Ethel Merman.”
Neurons also seem surprisingly flexible. Mriganka Sur, chairman of brain and cognitive sciences, has found that when brain regions usually dedicated to hearing are called on to handle visual signals instead, the regions’ structures start to look like those in visual regions. The lab animals involved “can even interpret visual signals,” he says, “although they don’t do it very well.”
Babies’ brains are more dynamic and flexible than those of adults. But new links commonly form in stroke victims’ brains. There’s also evidence from new work at MIT that some growth is occurring in adult brains almost all the time.
The recently announced McGovern Institute for Brain Research, sponsored by alumnus Patrick McGovern and his wife, Lore Harp McGovern, means MIT is poised to make major new contributions to neuroscience.
Phillip Sharp, professor of biology and a Nobel laureate, heads the McGovern center. “The way the human mind works is the most fascinating problem in science,” he says. “Our challenge now is to hire very bright and engaged people who really know how to do science. They can then work with others on this campus to move our understanding of the brain forward.”
But MIT has an impressive record in brain studies already. And in a range of areas — from memory formation, to face and place recognition, to learning — today’s faculty and students are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge further yet.