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?
Winter 2015 Dædalus
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 Academy Fellow Fred H. Gage, the 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: https://www.amacad.org/publications/daedalus.