Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Brain: Things We Know That Just Aren't So

"Top 10 Myths about the Brain"

"The brain is one of the most amazing organs in the human body. It controls our central nervous system, keeping us walking, talking, breathing and thinking. The brain is also incredibly complex, comprising around 100 billion neurons. There's so much going on with the brain that there are several different fields of medicine and science devoted to treating and studying it, including neurology, which treats physical disorders of the brain; psychology, which includes the study of behavior and mental processes; and psychiatry, which treats mental illnesses and disorders. Some aspects of each tend to overlap, and other fields cross into study of the brain as well.

"These disciplines have been around in some form since ancient times, so you'd think that by now we'd know all there is to know about the brain. Nothing could be further from the truth...."

That last sentence is a refreshing change from the triumphantly certain tone I remember from articles written fifty years ago about matters scientific. Knowing that one does not know is a step toward wisdom.

The article takes the familiar 'countdown' approach, from "10: Your Brain Is Gray" (parts of it are) to "1: You Only Use 10 Percent of Your Brain".

On the way, "2: Alcohol Kills Brain Cells" is a sort of good news/bad news situation. The good news is that, in the concentrations you get from drinking alcohol, brain cells won't die. The bad news is that the dendrites, structures on the neurons that connect them to other neurons, do get damaged.

They'll grow back, but until they do those living brain cells aren't connected the way they should be. Which means that the brain isn't going to be working very well.

I'm not sure how much of the extremely cautious tone of "3: You Can Get Holes in Your Brain Through Drug Use" is sensible prudence in reporting on a comparatively new field's conclusions - or a result of not wanting to appear ungroovy, or defy the wisdom of Timothy "Turn on, Tune in, Drop out" Leary. (January 30, 2008, August 8, 2007)

And, yes: I know about "Reefer Madness."

"5: Your Brain Stays Active After You Get Decapitated" gives a pretty good example of how what's 'known' can change over the centuries. Interestingly, though, although "your brain stays active after you get decapitated" is supposed to be a "myth" - something not true, for the purposes of this article1 - "According to Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is "probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood" [source: New Scientist]."

Two or three seconds isn't all that long - or can be a very, very long time: depending on the circumstances. But it is a perceptible slice of time.

Still - this is a pretty good article, and seems well-informed.
1 "Myth" doesn't mean "not so" - a reasonable definition is "a traditional story accepted as history; serves to explain the world view of a people". (Princeton's WordNet)

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