The Amazing Brain

WARNING: I am writing far beyond my depth here, but the information and implications are too tempting to resist.

Our grandson Brigham McKay started his talk in church a while back with this story. A scientist said to God, “You are not the only one who can create life. I have found out how to do it. I take this bucket of dirt and…”

God said, “No way. Get your own dirt.”

God might have added, “Get your own brain.”

The human brain may be the most stunning creation in the universe. There are, of course much larger objects, more powerful forces, and mysterious matter, but for compact capacity, nothing holds a candle to the three and a half to five pounds of grey Jell-O we carry around inside our skull.

Ashlee Vance writing for the New York Times News service describes how scientists are presently trying to dissect mouse brains in a quest to understand the human mind. Using powerful electron microscopes they take slices much thinner than a hair, photograph them, and then electronically stitch the pictures together so they can trace the intertwining paths of individual nerve fibers.

Previously they worked on the brain of a worm which contains 300 neurons. (Worms don’t do much poetry or astrophysics.) Next the scientists quantum leapt to a mouse brain containing some 100 million neurons. Somewhere down the road, the geniuses behind the microscopes hope to tackle a human brain which is a thousand times more complicated than the mouse. We have packed into our heads about 100 billion neurons. These are interconnected by millions of miles of electrical and chemical carrying “wires” or “tubes” depending on which function they are performing. These connections and configurations help to create each person’s unique skills, personality and perspectives.

Mapping this maze is sort of like slicing up a yarn ball made from a hundred billion strings and threads, then tracing the path of each one, and identifying where they connect to each other. The total of pictures alone is brain boggling. Face book uses a petabyte (1,000 gigabytes,) to store 40 billion photos. That would equate to six nice portraits of each person on earth. The brain of a single person sliced this thinly will require a million petabytes. . My brain is capable of assembling a jigsaw puzzle with as many pieces as a worm has neurons. It slips into a coma at the thought of connecting the dots between a million petabyte photo album.

It may be true as one wry observer said, “If the human brain were simple enough to understand, we would be too simple to understand it. Credit the scientists for trying. Whether or not they succeed we know this already. The human brain even of those of us with modest mental abilities is awesome to the billion petabyte power. Since a neuron can connect with others in innumerable and perhaps adjustable combinations, it is safe to assume that each of us is a custom made product, unique, and irreplaceable.

As mind stretching as these analogies appear, I’m guessing that as we continue to study the brain we will be like a mountain climber. The more he ascends, the broader is the horizon for exploring in every direction.

The brain’s capacity to store and manipulate data is, as yet unfathomed. But that may be the tip of the mental/emotional/social/spiritual iceberg. How about what David Brooks writing in the New York Times calls the “humanistic capacities.” These include: the ability to enter other minds and learn from them, to monitor ones own mind and make changes, to see patterns and analyze complex situations, absorb and enhance the spirit of a group, transcend the self and bask in love for another or others, and God. These and other powers are beyond the analysis of the sharpest electronic meat cleaver, but they are among the most powerful abilities of the brain and whatever other intelligence mechanism it triggers or is triggered by.

Some philosophers of a few centuries ago described the brain as “a magical weaving machine” since this was the most complex apparatus they could conceive of. We chuckle at their simplistic metaphor today. I suspect future generations will smile at us for comparing the brain in computer terms of petabytes and Facebook.

But one conclusion will continue to be true. Each of us possesses a free gift of inestimable worth. To me that speaks of an all knowing and loving Creator. We would do well to stand in humble awe at our own and others’ potential, and work to fulfill it.

I would like to hear from you, click the ‘view comments’ link below and let me know what you think.