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Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Asks, “What is the Brain Good For?”

Winter 2015 issue of Dædalus available January 21, 2015


Press Release

NOTE: Please credit Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, when citing this editorial material.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. | January 21, 2015 – What is consciousness? How do we store memories, process thoughts, and command our bodies? Why do we require sleep to live? And can we trust our perception of the world around us?

The Winter 2015 issue of Dædalus responds to these fundamental questions of human experience, exploring “What is the Brain Good For?” through recent developments and new theories in the field of neuroscience. Guest edited by American Academy Fellow Fred H. Gage, Vi and John Adler Professor in the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the collection of essays investigates the neural networks and processes that support a variety of brain activity, spanning unconscious sensory experience to higher cognition.

The ten essays in this volume each explore a different region within the field of neuroscience, but they also share a focus on neurons, the fundamental unit of the nervous system. How neurons form circuits, networks, and anatomical structures define our experiences, from our senses (hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling) to our emotions and complex decisions. As Gage explains in his introduction, “We now know that the human brain contains approximately one hundred billion neurons and that these neurons have some one hundred trillion connections, forming functional and definable circuits.” Fortunately, Gage continues, to guide us through this dense wilderness are authors who not only have made significant contributions to their field, but who are also “experienced communicators with track records of explaining and translating complex concepts to intelligent readers and listeners outside of their discipline.” “What is the Brain Good For?” presents the opportunity for the lay reader to engage with the profound and rapidly shifting questions of neuroscience.

Among the essays in the volume, Thomas D. Albright’s (Salk Institute for Biological Studies) essay, “Perceiving,” explores the critical process of perception, “by which evanescent sensations are linked to environmental cause and made enduring and coherent through the assignment of meaning, utility, and value.” A.J Hudspeth (Rockefeller University) examines one of the key inputs of perception in “The Energetic Ear.” Here Hudspeth explains that the ear is not simply a passive receiver of sound, but an amplifier that “augments, filters, and compresses its inputs” before they are interpreted in the brain. Amazingly, the ear’s two motile processes are so active that our ears can actually emit sound.

Earl K. Miller (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Timothy J. Buschman (Princeton University) focus on the mechanisms behind cognitive capacity: the explanation for why “we can store (seemingly) a lifetime of experiences as memory, but can only consciously express these thoughts a few at a time.” And finally, Terrence J. Sejnowski (Salk Institute for Biological Studies) takes on the thorny topic of consciousness. What brain mechanisms underlie consciousness? And what is consciousness to begin with?

Print and Kindle copies of the new issue can be ordered at:

Essays in the Winter 2015 issue of Dædalus include:
  • Neuroscience: The Study of the Nervous System & Its Functions by Fred H. Gage (The Salk Institute for Biological Studies)
  • Brain Mechanisms for Active Vision by Robert H. Wurtz (The National Eye Institute)
  • Perceiving by Thomas D. Albright (The Salk Institute for Biological Studies)
  • The Energetic Ear by A. J. Hudspeth (Rockefeller University)
  • Remembering by Larry R. Squire (Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System; University of California, San Diego) and John T. Wixted (University of California, San Diego)
  • Sleep, Memory & Brain Rhythms by Brendon O. Watson (Cornell University; New York University School of Medicine) and György Buzsáki (New York University School of Medicine)
  • A Hard Scientific Quest: Understanding Voluntary Movements by Emilio Bizzi (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Robert Ajemian (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
  • Feelings: What Are They & How Does the Brain Make Them? by Joseph E. Ledoux (New York University)
  • Working Memory Capacity: Limits on the Bandwidth of Cognition by Earl K. Miller (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Timothy J. Buschman (Princeton University)
  • Consciousness by Terrence J. Sejnowski (The Salk Institute for Biological Studies; University of California, San Diego)

Since its founding in 1780, the American Academy has served the nation as a champion of scholarship, civil dialogue, and useful knowledge. As one of the nation’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers, the Academy convenes leaders from the academic, business, and government sectors to address critical challenges facing our global society.

Through studies, publications, and programs on the Humanities, Arts, and Education; Science, Engineering, and Technology; Global Security and International Affairs; and American Institutions and the Public Good, the Academy provides authoritative and nonpartisan policy advice to decision-makers in government, academia, and the private sector.


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