The Amazing Human Stories That Made Modern Neuroscience Possible

Aug 1, 2014

Credit Flickr Photo/Giulia Forsythe

Human beings have wondered how our brains work for millennia. And we haven’t been afraid to knock about in there to find out. There is evidence that trepanation, the surgical practice of drilling a hole into the skull in order to cure headaches or mental disorders, was performed in Neolithic times, just at the tail end of the Stone Age. Ouch!

According to author Sam Kean, the stories of people who survived terrible brain disease and injury are at the heart of how modern neuroscience advanced. Kean spoke at Town Hall Seattle on May 20.

Despite all that Stone Age head-tapping, the brain continued to be misunderstood for centuries. Aristotle, and many other early scientists, believed the heart was the center of human intelligence. This view was generally accepted until the Greek physician Galen, a pupil of Hippocrates and doctor to Roman gladiators circa the 2nd century, observed that his patients lost their mental faculties when they had sustained damage to their brains.

The fact is, it’s taken us a long time to start understanding what our brain does and how. Perhaps that’s because it’s such a complex organism. One human brain contains a hundred billion neurons and a hundred trillion synapses. Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson summed up that complexity well when he wrote:

“Everything we do, every thought we've ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find.”

Sam Kean is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, and New Scientist.

His latest book is "The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery." In it he presents many forgotten tales of the people who helped us understand how the brain works.

His previous books include "The Disappearing Spoon" and "The Violinist’s Thumb."

Thanks to Ayan Sheikh for this recording.