It’s less than a kilo of gelatinous matter that has created everything about mankind that is most awesome, like Bach’s fugues and the works of Shakespeare and everything that is most loathsome, like war and extermination factories. This matter is called the brain and we still know precious little about it.
Prof Ratto’s both learned and highly amusing exposition of the current state of research on the brain was delivered yesterday as the final part of three evenings of ‘A Pint of Science’ at Lucca’s Caffé letterario. This is a venture to make recent scientific developments more accessible to the public and especially to younger people. I’d missed the first two events, one of which was a talk about the gravitational wave interferometer at Cascina which I’d visited earlier this month (see https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/my-date-with-virgo/ ) so was particularly keen to get to this one.
The caffé letterario has now been going for over two years and is a valuable asset to the city. Situated near Lucca railway station the caffé boasts an excellent bar (beer and a decent spread for just five euros) and a very extensive bookshop. Its programme of events is truly inspiring.
Pisa research scientist Professor Ratto made us fully aware of the unbelievable complexity of the brain and started by looking at the brain of mice. Even here the amazing miniaturisation of components makes today’s computers look like clumsy attempts. The concentration of the brain’s communication channels within a tiny space is truly miraculous. Ratto made some startling analogies. For example, if a neuron was at the centre of Lucca’s Piazza Anfiteatro then the ganglions from this neuron would stretch all the way to New York! The message transmission method in the brain is very much like that used in transatlantic telegraphic cables: electric impulses guide the messages along and for this reason each channel has to be isolated and kept in a sheath of salty liquid rather as earlier cables were insulated by being wrapped in rubber. (Here Ratto entered into an amusing digression on the British empire’s enthusiasm for botanical gardens and the establishment of Kew seed depositories largely to discover plant derivatives which could solve certain scientific establishment problems – the start of bio-technology, in fact).
A sobering thought is that neurons are non-reproductive cells and that they gradually die off the older we get. When Einstein expired, for example, a less than usual number of neurons were discovered in his brain – surprising in view of his genius! However, it’s the connections between the neurons that make all the difference. Certain Italian politicians may have more neurons that Einstein but the connections between them are clearly somewhat lacking…
Ratto’s talk gave rise to many inquisitive queries among the audience. There were questions about the brain and mental diseases. Here Ratto showed an ECG of a normal mouse’s brain and that of an autistic mouse to point out the frequency differences. (Yes Ratto in Italian means rat – although no-one present was discourteous enough to make a joke about this!) My question was the chestnut about the relationship between the brain and the concept of mind. Ratto said that there was no real dichotomy and that as a reductionist there would come a time when the mind would be entirely explained in terms of the physiological processes in the brain.
The relationship between artificial intelligence and the brain was also brought up. Ratto explained that the study of one would be of little benefit to the other since each works on very different principles. A. I. has a clear distinction between software and hardware, as in any computer, and operates rapidly without any significant parallel operations. The brain, on the other hand, works at a much slower speed but has a complex number of parallel operations. Furthermore, the software is the hardware – it’s a unified field.
Do most of us use just a small part of our brain? An unanswerable question. Certainly, if the brain was used at maximum capacity all the time early death through burn-out might ensue!
Memory was also discussed and here Ratto brought up another interesting analogy. Memory is not localised in any particular part of the brain. As a hologram when cut into half still displays the same image, only fainter, so the brain if damaged or trepanned will still hold a memory although in increasingly fainter form.
Now what was I going to state next? Can’t remember. So I’ll just say that it was a truly fascinating evening with a knowledgeable prof. with a wry sense of humour and that I was glad to be dragged out to Lucca and its magnificent Caffé letterario.
For further events at the caffè see https://www.facebook.com/libreria.luccalibri
PS If you are in Florence there’s another great literary caffè at the main station there. (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/the-bar-bookshop-at-florence-station/)
PPS The ‘Pint of Science’ website is at https://pintofscience.it/