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Problems associated with studying the brain

Paul Broca announced in 1861 that the region of the brain now named after him was the “seat of speech”. Through a seminal study, researchers Nancy Kanwisher and Evelina Fedorenko from MIT announced on October 11, 2012, that Broca’s area actually consists of two sub-units, and one of them specifically handles cognition when the body performed demanding tasks.

As researchers explore more on the subject, two things become clear.

The first: The more we think we know about the brain and go on to try and study it, the more we discover things we never knew existed. This is significant because, apart from giving researchers more avenues through which to explore the brain, it also details their, rather our, limits in terms of being able to predict how things really might work.

The biology is, after all, intact. Cells are cells, muscles are muscles, but through their complex interactions are born entirely new functionalities.

The second: how the cognitive-processing and the language-processing networks might communicate internally is unknown to us. This means we’ll have to devise new ways of studying the brain, forcing it to flex some muscles over others by subjecting it to performing carefully crafted tasks.

Placing a person’s brain under an fMRI scanner reveals a lot about which parts of the brain are being used at each moment, but now we realize we have no clue about how many parts are actually there! This places an onus on the researcher to devise tests that

  1. Affect only specific areas of the brain;
  2. If they have ended up affecting some other areas as well, allow the researcher to distinguish between the areas in terms of how they handle the test

Once this is done, we will finally understand both the functions and the limits of Broca’s area, and also acquire pointers as to how it communicates with the rest of the brain.

A lot of predictability and antecedent research is held back because of humankind’s inchoate visualization of the brain.