Wednesday, September 26, 2012

TED Talks - 12 Talks on Understanding the Brain

TED has featured a LOT of really cool talks on the brain over the years - and these are 12 of their top picks, although not necessarily mine. Still, there are some excellent talks here, including VS Ramachandran, Michael Merzenich, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, and Oliver Sacks.

12 talks on understanding the brain

Read Montague is interested in the human dopamine system — or, as he puts it in this illuminating talk from TEDGlobal 2012, that which makes us “chase sex, food and salt” and therefore survive. 

Specifically, Montague and his team at the Roanoke Brain Study are interested in how dopamine and valuation systems work when two human beings interact with each other. Twenty years ago, studying a topic like this was all but impossible because scientists relied on worms and rodents for insight into the brain. But today, in addition to animal research, neurobiologists have at their disposal functional MRI (fMRI), which allows them to make “microscopic blood flow movies” and map the activity of human brains in action. 

“We have a behavioral superpower in our brain and it at least in part involves dopamine,” says Montague in this talk. “We can deny any instinct we have for survival for an idea. No other species can do that.” 

So how do we assign value to ideas, process the gestures of those around us, make complicated decisions, and create informed judgments about each other? Montague’s lab hopes to discover much more about how these processes work by “eavesdropping” on the brains of 5,000 to 6,000 participants all over the world as they play negotiation games. It’s fascinating research that could tell us more about our social nature. Because as Montague says, “You often don’t know who you are until you see yourself in interaction with people who are close to you, people who are enemies to you, and people who are agnostic to you.” 

To hear much more about Montague’s work, watch this talk. And after the jump, hear insights from 11 others who are working hard to give a clearer picture of how our brains work. 

Allan Jones: A map of the brain Curious to see what a real human brain looks like? Watch this talk from Allan Jones, the CEO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, given at TEDGlobal 2011. In it, he describes the Institute’s work to map brain function in the same detailed way that we map cities, investigating how the 86 billion neurons in the brain work together. (Read this great article in Forbes magazine about Paul Allen, the Microsoft cofounder who spent more than $500 million creating the Allen Institute.) 

Gero Miesenboeck reengineers a brain Optogeneticist Gero Miesenboeck has a different approach for understanding the brain — rather than recording the activity of neurons, he works backwards, seeking to control them. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2010, Miesenboeck explains his work manipulating neurons in fruit flies to see what happens when the brain’s code is broken. 

Daniel Wolpert: The real reason for brains Why do we have brains in the first place? Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert hypothesizes that the human brain didn’t evolve to think or to feel, but to control movement. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2011, Wolpert shows how perception creates graceful, agile human movement. 

Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor got a new view of the miraculous functioning of the brain when she had a massive stroke. In this powerful talk from TED2008, she describes feeling powerless as her brain functions shut down, and talks about her recovery. 

VS Ramachandran: 3 clues to understanding your brain The human brain may be a “three pound mass of jelly,” but it can “contemplate the meaning of infinity.” In this talk given at TED2007, neurologist VS Ramachandran explains his work to understand basic brain function, delving into three delusions that happen when brain activity goes awry. 

Michael Merzenich: Growing evidence of brain plasticity The brain is constantly able to change and adapt. In this talk from TED2004, neuroscientist Michael Merzenich describes the brain’s ability to re-wire itself, and shows why this elasticity is so meaningful. 

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore studies the brains of teenagers because, rather than being fully developed, the organ continues to build through a person’s 20s and 30s. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, Blakemore shows why teenagers are more impulsive and more prone to feeling embarrassed than their adult counterparts. 

Henry Markram: A brain in a supercomputer There may be 100,000,000,000,000 synapses in the human brain, but their functioning can be understood. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2009, neuroscientist Henry Markam explains how a supercomputer can help model the brain. 

Christopher deCharms: A look inside the brain in real time Can you see how you feel? Yes, using fMRI. In this fast-paced talk from TED2008, neuroscientist and inventor Christopher deCharms shows how the brain can be viewed in real time using this amazing technology. 

Charles Limb: Your brain on improv Charles Limb is a surgeon who studies creativity, and is fascinated by how people create music. In this fun talk from TEDxMidAtlantic, Limb shows his work putting jazz musicians and rappers in fMRIs to see what happens when they improvise. (Read the TED Blog’s Q&A with Limb here.) 

Oliver Sacks: What hallucination reveals about our minds When we see with our eyes, we also see with our brains. But sometimes, the two do not match up. In this talk from TED2009, neurologist Oliver Sacks describes Charles Bonnet syndrome, which leads visually impaired people to experience lucid visual hallucinations. From there, he shows what this teaches us about normal brain function.

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