On show: how scientists mapped the human mind

Uncharted waters: a scientific model of the human brain © Science Museum

A new exhibition at London’s Science Museum reveals bold research into the uncharted territories of the human mind. After centuries of progress, are there still new secrets to discover?

The human mind is simultaneously one of the most mysterious and one of the most familiar things in the world. It is familiar because we all have one. Many people would say we all are one.

But it is also mysterious. We experience emotions, sensations, desires and so on – but we are only slowly beginning to understand the biological and psychological mechanisms that really make us tick. A new exhibition at the Science Museum in London, opening next week, will tell the story of humanity’s journey of discovery into the science of the mind.

We know that the mind – the part of us that thinks and feels – is connected to the pink bundle of nerves we call the brain. This connection has been known about since the Stone Age, when healers would try to cure mental disorders by drilling holes in the afflicted person’s skull.

In the 18th century, scientists started to make the connection between nerves, electricity and the brain. The brain works through billions of special nerve cells called neurons, sending tiny electrical impulses to each other. In the 1930s, doctors learned that some mental illnesses could be relieved by administering a controlled electric shock to the brain.

Researchers in the 19th century caught on to the idea that different parts of the brain were responsible for different sorts of mental activity. An entire pseudoscience called phrenology developed, based on the false idea that you could analyse a person’s character by studying the shape of their brain and skull.

It was only after World War Two that technology allowed scientists to see what was really going on in the brain of a living person. New brain scanners allowed researchers to watch different areas of the brain ‘light up’ with electrical pulses depending on what the test subject was doing or thinking about.

Today, advanced brain scanning techniques can give us a detailed picture of neurons firing; of the intricate machinery of the brain buzzing away to produce the thoughts and feelings of the human mind. Gradually, a map of the mind is beginning to emerge, showing which neurons let us see, smell, feel, believe and even love.

Uncharted waters

The mind is being mapped onto the brain in ever greater detail. Some scientists are beginning to wonder: will we one day understand minds in the same way that we understand car engines or pocket calculators? Will we be able to fix faulty minds like technicians fixing a faulty computer? Will we be able to reprogramme ourselves, like robots?

‘Certainly not!’ many people will reply. The mind will always remain a mystery, and that mystery is what makes us not machines but human beings.

You Decide

  1. Is a human just like a very sophisticated computer?
  2. Do the words ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ describe the same thing?

Activities

  1. If future psychologists made a map of your mind, what do you think it would look like? Sketch out an artist’s impression. It can be as serious (or not) as you like.
  2. Write a script for a science fiction dialogue. A scientist is talking to the first ever self-aware robot. The robot is asking: ‘Do I have a soul?’

Some People Say...

“There is no mystery in the universe that science cannot solve.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t need to know how my mind works – just that I have one!
Actually, knowing how the mind works can help you do some pretty amazing things. Take the recent World Memory Championships for example.
The what?
The World Memory Championships, held in London this week, bring contenders together from all over the world to perform incredible feats of memory. Competitors have used a growing understanding of how the mind works to train their memories beyond what anyone ever thought possible.
What can they do?
One event involves trying to remember a string of numbers read out from a card. Most people can remember six or seven numbers in a row. Memory champions can remember more than 350.

Word Watch

Science Museum
The Science Museum was founded in 1857 to celebrate the technological innovation of the Victorian era. It holds treasures including the first steam locomotive, a genuine spacecraft from the Apollo missions and one of the first working computers along with half of its inventor’s pickled brain. The museum attracts nearly three million visitors a year.
Drilling holes
This Stone Age practice, called ‘trepanning’, is sadly not the only example of ill-advised brain surgery being used as a cure for mental illness. From the 1930s to the 1950s, patients with mental illnesses were frequently subjected to a procedure called ‘lobotomy’, which meant cutting off the prefrontal cortex region of the patient’s brain. Lobotomies did sometimes cure the original mental condition, but came with very severe side-effects.
Electric shock
Electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, looks disturbing. Patients are given shocks that make them convulse wildly. The effect can be traumatic, and the treatment was widely misused during the 20th century. However, in a small number of mental illness cases, ECT can have real beneficial effects.

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