A couple of extreme instances show that civilization can it is in missing large chunks of their brains v no significant ill-effect – why? Tom Stafford describes what it speak us about the true nature of ours grey matter.

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How much of our brain do we in reality need? A variety of stories have showed up in the news in recent months around people with chunks of their brains lacking or damaged. These situations tell a story about the mind that goes deeper than their early shock factor. The isn"t simply that we don"t understand exactly how the brain works, but that we may be thinking about it in the completely wrong way.

Earlier this year, a case was reported of a woman that is absent her cerebellum, a distinct structure found at the ago of the brain. By some estimates the human cerebellum contains fifty percent the mind cells friend have. This isn"t just brain damage – the whole structure is absent. Yet this woman stays a common life; she i graduated from school, acquired married and had a kid following an uneventful pregnancy and birth. A pretty typical biography because that a 24-year-old.

The mrs wasn"t totally unaffected – she had suffered from uncertain, clumsy, movements her entirety life. But the surprised is just how she move at all, absent a part of the mind that is so basic it evolved with the an initial vertebrates. The sharks the swam as soon as dinosaurs walked the planet had cerebellums.


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This case points to a sad reality about brain science. Us don"t often shout around it, however there are big gaps in even our basic understanding that the brain. Us can"t agree ~ above the role of even some the the most important mind regions, such as the cerebellum. Rare instances such together this present up the ignorance. Every so frequently someone walks right into a hospital and also their brain scan reveals the startling differences we have the right to have within our heads. Startling differences which may have only tiny observable effects on our behaviour.

Part of the difficulty may be our method of thinking. The is organic to check out the mind as a piece of naturally selected technology, and also in human an innovation there is often a one-to-one mapping between structure and function. If I have a toaster, the warm is detailed by the heater element, the time is regulated by the timer and also the popping increase is thrust by a spring. The situation of the absent cerebellum reveals there is no such basic scheme because that the brain. Although we love come talk about the brain region because that vision, for hunger or because that love, there space no such mind regions, since the mind isn"t technology where any duty is governed by just one part.


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Take one more recent case, that of a male who was discovered to have a tapeworm in his brain. Over four years that burrowed "from one next to the other", resulting in a selection of troubles such as seizures, memory problems and weird smell sensations. Sound to me favor he got off lightly for having a life thing relocate through his brain. If the brain worked like most designed an innovation this wouldn"t be possible. If a worm burrowed indigenous one next of your phone to the other, the device would die. Indeed, when an early electromechanical computer malfunctioned in the 1940s, an investigation revealed the problem: a moth trapped in a relay – the very first actual instance of a computer bug being found.

Part that the explanation because that the brain"s apparent resilience is that is "plasticity" – an capacity to adapt its structure based upon experience. But an additional clue originates from a concept advocated by Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. He i found it that biological functions are often supported by multiple structures – solitary physical features are coded because that by multiple genes, because that example, so that knocking the end any single gene can"t stop that function from arising apparently normally. He called the capability of multiple different structures to assistance a single duty "degeneracy".

And so it is with the brain. The vital functions our brain carries out room not farmed out to single distinct mind regions, yet instead sustained by many regions, regularly in similar but slightly different ways. If one structure breaks down, the others have the right to pick increase the slack.


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This helps explain why cognitive neuroscientists have actually such problems working the end what different mind regions do. If you try and understand brain areas using a basic one-function-per-region and also one-region-per-function rule you"ll never be may be to design the experiments essential to unpick the degenerate tangle of structure and also function.

The cerebellum is most famed for controlling an exact movements, but other areas of the mind such together the basal ganglia and also the engine cortex are also intimately involved in moving our bodies. Questioning what distinct thing every area does might be the wrong question, as soon as they are all contributing come the same thing. Memory is one more example of an important biological duty which appears to be sustained by multiple brain systems. If you bump right into someone you"ve met once before, you could remember the they have actually a reputation for being nice, remember a certain incident the them being nice, or simply retrieve a vague hopeful feeling about them – all develops of storage which tell girlfriend to to trust this person, and all supported by different mind areas law the same job in a slightly different way.

Edelman and also his colleague, Joseph Gally, called degeneracy a "ubiquitous biological property ... A attribute of complexity", declare it to be an unpreventable outcome of organic selection. It explains both why unusual brain conditions space not as catastrophic together they can be, and additionally why scientists find the mind so confounding to shot and understand.

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