This year’s most thought-provoking brain discoveries
Can the human brain ever really understand itself? The problem of gaining deep knowledge of the subjective depths of consciousness is such a difficult problem that it has actually been called the difficult problem.
The human brain is impressively powerful. Its 100 billion neurons are connected by 100 trillion wire-like fibers, all pressed into three pounds of mushy flesh tucked under a skull helmet. However, we still don’t know if this organ will ever be able to muster the skills needed to hack the physical processes associated with the indescribable “deep blue quality” or “middle C sensation,” as the philosopher calls it As David Chalmers once put it, a 1995 paper provides examples of the “difficult problem” of consciousness, a term he invented.
No solution to the difficult problem was found in the past year, and one may not be in sight for decades, if ever. But in 2022 there have been many surprises and solutions to understanding the brain that don’t require a full explanation of consciousness. Such incrementalism was evident in mid-November when more than 24,000 participants gathered at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in San Diego, California. The event was a kind of homage to reductionism – breaking down difficult problems into simpler recognizable entities. The event reported an animal study of a brain circuit that encodes social trauma and a brain-computer interface that allows a severely paralyzed person to mentally spell letters to form words.
Brain discoveries abounded in 2022—and are sure to continue into 2023. Here’s a look at some of the best results from what we’ve published at Scientific American this year.
Your brain has a thumbs-up, thumbs-down switch
When neuroscientist Kay Tye was pursuing her PhD, she was told that a chapter on emotions was inappropriate for her PhD. Emotions simply have not been accepted as an integral, intrinsic part of behavioral neuroscience, its field of study. That made no sense to Tye. She decided to forge her own path to become a leading emotional researcher. Earlier this year, Tye co-authored a Nature article that reported on a type of molecular switch in rodents that marks an experience as either good or bad. If human brains work the same way as the mice brains in their lab, a faulty thumbs-up-thumbs-down switch could explain some cases of depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Facial expressions don’t convey what you’ve learned about a person’s emotional behavior
Charles Darwin suggested that facial expressions are universal: a smile conveys happiness; a frown indicates sadness. He was wrong, suggests a study published in recent years. The researchers found that innate expressions based on biology don’t exist – and instead are highly variable. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett warned in a paper that acknowledging Darwin’s fallacy has implications for AI facial recognition systems designed to recognize emotions.
Your child can be a dandelion and an orchid – and even a tulip
Labeling a child as either sensitive or resilient is probably a mistake. This child is not necessarily just an “orchid”—overly sensitive to negative experiences—or a “dandelion”—relatively immune to such events. New additions are “Tulips”, children who experience modest effects from what is happening around them. But even this floral triad may not be enough. Many children are psychological mixtures, mosaics, as studies over the past year have shown. Depending on a particular situation, they show sensitivity to some, but not all, of the influences around them.
If you see something, it can help you say something
Combining neuroscience and pedagogy, the researchers sought to assess what a curriculum that emphasized spatial skills learning would do for children. For example, an assignment to create a map to track bears in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Children at five Virginia high schools took classes and their performance was compared to another group receiving classes without the spatial learning component. The research, published in August, showed that the students in the spatial study group not only improved their spatial skills, but also their verbal skills – solving a problem using words.