There’s an initiative backed by the U.S. government to “map” the human brain. Various attempts have been made over the years…some successful, others not…to try to identify which portions of the brain control specific functions, emotions, and possibly even thoughts. Success along these lines could be handy in numerous ways, although when dealing with humans and our alleged higher functions, it’s best to be careful what you ask for and to keep your expectations low.
Leaving out the more obvious big ones, such as our endless quest to kill one another for pointless reasons, here are some areas worth looking for in the hope of gaining some control over them:
Where in the brain is that collection of cells which causes us to spend large amounts of our finite incomes on clothing and other merchandise bearing the logo of a business whose employees are athletes often making more money than most of us will see in two lifetimes? The owners of said businesses, while frequently moaning about the dollars they’re somehow forced to pay those athletes, generally are doing the backstroke in Scrooge McDuck-like piles of money both from those of us who buy tickets to the arenas where the athletes perform, and from television networks who deliver the money in large trucks. The broadcasters in turn recoup that money from advertisers, who pummel those of us watching on television with commercials extolling the virtues of their beers or vehicles. We drive one of those vehicles to the liquor store to buy the beer that we then consume while cheering for the athletes/employees who we inexplicably include ourselves with, as in “WE won!!” There must be a sweet spot in the gray matter where that is allowed to happen. Go Broncos, by the way. We can do it!
There are studies of the actions of that elusive section of the brain, including one from Islamic Azad University in Iran: “Relationship between Elite Sport Teams and the Fans, Team Identity; A Case Study in Iranian Premier Soccer League,” lead author Vahid Shojaei. The article itself, in the International Research Journal of Applied and Basic Sciences in 2013, is intriguing mainly because it may offer the worst translation into English offered so far this decade. Their conclusion: “Unlike the past, today the sport is not only influenced by the players and fans of all sports to affect custodians. Moreover, not a single player challenge the legitimacy of the vote, but it has its share of fans.” Map that to coherence if you will.
It would be good to find the cluster of cells causing the sort of intriguing activity which leads other humans to remark “what the hell made them think of that?” An example would be someone thinking “Hey, there’s a lot of organic material in spit. Why not use it to power a generator?” This was roughly the thought that somehow occurred to Justine E. Mink of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. She mentioned it to fellow researcher Bruce E. Logan of Penn State, whose spit-focused brain area apparently lit up in response, and off they went. While this is unlikely to solve energy shortages in large urban areas…although one should never say never…for now the fuel cells that resulted produce power in the one microwatt range. Logan should be especially pleased and relieved at the saliva breakthrough, since in his prior work with microbial fuel cells he has looked to wastewater as a source for the bacteria-laden fuel.
A truly annoying area of the brain gradually reveals itself as part of the normal aging process, leading many humans to sleep less, waking up more frequently during the night. Would it be comforting to learn that you (not youthful you, of course) are not alone? In fact some of the research in this area is done on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, which lives an average of 8 weeks, thus achieving elderly status depressingly quickly. The flies, like many of us, wake frequently at night and “wander restlessly.” No books, no TV, no Ambien. They even end up taking naps during the day. While locating the dastardly brain spot causing this would be ideal, researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Cologne have decided to treat the symptoms rather than try to explore a brain smaller than the period you see here. By giving doses of rapamycin to the flies, researcher Luke S. Tain reports in a PLoS Biology article, his group was able to reverse the aging sleep problems. They hope to ramp up the therapy to others with similar difficulties, such as roundworms and us, with equal success. Doses may have to be increased.
A little probing, metaphorically speaking, of the cognitive study of fruit flies reveals pre-mapping work from 2004 in Trends in Neurosciences which would suggest that the work needs to continue if not accelerate. Due to the less stringent rules for abstract writers in those bygone days, the authors of “Cognitive consonance: complex brain functions in the fruit fly and its relatives,” R.J Greenspan and B. Van Swinderen, titillate us but leave us longing for more: “What are the degrees of sophistication in cognitive behavior displayed by these organisms, how have they been demonstrated, and what is their potential for understanding how our own brains work?” While the answers to those questions might have been amazing and invaluable, as a result of the currently unmapped but clearly large thrift-conscious quadrant of my own gray cell collection, curiosity in this case stops at the point where the publisher asks for $35.95.