How Little We Know About What We Know

It's incredible how little we know about the human brain. It's the most fundamental organ to our existence, but we're centuries away from truly understanding how it works.

The Brain Is A Black Hole  

Is there anything more fundamental to our lives than the human brain? Anything that plays a more pivotal role in everything we do?

We wouldn’t have thoughts, emotions, or behaviors without our brain and yet, it’s amazing how little we know about it. We’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding how it works.

As Matthew Cobb, a professor of zoology at the University of Manchester and author of the Idea Of The Brain, explains: “unravelling the genetic architecture of the human brain and how it interacts with the environment will be the work of centuries.”

The prospect of humanity uncovering how the brain works is so far into the future that it makes you wonder whether we’re still living in the Dark Ages and just don’t know it yet.


Our Evolving Understanding Of The Brain

At one time, Aristotle theorized that consciousness resided in the heart. As late as 1662, philosopher Henry More claimed that the brain showed “no more capacity for thought than a cake of suet, or a bowl of curds.”

It took almost two more centuries for us to finally establish that the brain plays a central role in our nervous system. And it wasn’t until the 20th century that we began to understand how neurons send signals to one another. 

At first, we tried to compare the way that the brain operates to a telephone network, with switches that send signals. Then we discovered that it is far more advanced than that.

With the advent of the computer, the analogies evolved and in the middle of the 20th century, two scientists developed a theory of the mind that blended computer science, logic, and biology. Their model quickly became obsolete when it became clear that brain function isn’t binary.

We’re now into the 21st century and we still don’t understand the brain’s connections, or how its cells work together to produce perceptions, thoughts, or voluntary movements. We still don’t understand why we sleep or dream, how memories work, or where our personalities come from.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about consciousness.

Steve Ramirez, a professor of neuroscience at Boston University, put it best when he discussed a textbook called Principles of Neural Science. “It should be blank pages. Perhaps the only principle we know of is that the brain consists of brain cells.”

A discovery we made almost two hundred years ago.


The Brain Continues To Confound Us

The human brain has exposed the limits of our knowledge. Our understanding of the way it works mimics the way a baby learns about the world for the first time. Growth is built on speculation, guesses that most often end up with us back to where we started.

Every so often, we think we’ve made a breakthrough, like determining that the light on the ceiling is the sun. But then, with experience, we realize that it’s operated by a switch on the wall. As we accumulate more knowledge, we learn about electricity, which opens up a whole new world of study for us.

This is the trajectory we’ve been following to develop our understanding of how the human brain works.

When it comes to decoding the brain, we’re at the same stage our ancestors were centuries ago when they thought the Earth was flat.

However, one thing we do know is that it is a miraculous organ. One that consists of almost one hundred billion cells, each connected to ten thousand others, yielding some ten trillion nerve connections.

We continue to stumble upon mysteries about the brain that are quite literally mind blowing.

Here are just a few examples:

People that had half of their brain removed continued to function normally and communication between their brain cells was actually stronger than in people who had their whole brain intact.

A young boy who had the part of his brain removed that was responsible for eyesight could still see just fine.

Older brains have as many new brain cells as younger brains.  

Scientists aren’t clear why antidepressants work or why they often don’t.  

The brain waves of two musicians can synchronize when performing together.

A man lived a normal life using only ten percent of his brain. The remaining ninety percent was filled with water. He had a slightly-below-average IQ, a wife, and two children.

As Doctor Max Muenke, from the National Human Genome Research Institute, described it: “What I find amazing to this day is how the brain can deal with something which you think should not be compatible with life.”


Consciousness Is Even More Enigmatic

And then there is consciousness, which is to scientists what quantum physics is to a newborn baby. There are so many things that we are so far away from explaining. So many unknowns that will render much of what we know today obsolete the moment they are fully understood.

This puts us in a unique situation, where we think we know things about the brain, but could just as easily discover that we know nothing overnight. A weird state of flux in which knowledge and ignorance temporarily coexist. 

Scientists describe this as a quantum superposition, where multiple realities can exist in parallel. A principle that was illustrated in a thought experiment devised by an Austrian physicist named Erwin Schrodinger in 1935. 

Inspired by his conversations with Albert Einstein, Schrodinger presented a scenario in which a hypothetical cat was locked in a box with a flask of poison and a radioactive substance. The poison would be released if any radioactivity was detected inside the box and kill the cat. 

At a certain point, Schrodinger’s cat is both dead and alive at the same time, until we look inside the box and determine its actual condition. 

And so it is with matters related to the brain, where we are simultaneously ignorant and enlightened, until we prove we are one or the other. 

In other words, we don’t know what we know or don’t know until we do.


You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

The ultimate lesson here is a humbling one. As a species, what we know about our brain is a droplet in an ocean of things we don’t. It’s a much-needed reminder of the wisdom of being uncertain, of admitting we don’t know what we don’t know.

So next time someone speaks to you in absolutes, opines about what is possible or impossible, or delivers confident explanations for why things are the way they are, remember that, as a species, we still don’t understand the basics about the most fundamental organ in our body.

Just picture the same person standing on a patch of grass trying to convince you that the Earth is flat, because that is what they might as well be doing.

The wisest thing any of us can say about most things is that we don’t know, because when you dig into it, we really don’t and it will be an eternity before we do.

The best we can do is live our lives with an open mind. Approach every question with the curiosity of a child. Wide-eyed and hopeful. Don’t let anyone convince you of anything. Use your own experiences as your guide.

Because, as with Schrodinger’s cat, we don’t know the truth. We don’t know what we don’t know. And until we do, anything is possible.