How I started to learn the neighborhood of the brain

24 Oct

One of the ways I try to understand science is by using a technique I learned in high school, from my high school chemistry teacher. “If you don’t understand it, read it again.” So, in my senior year, when I was just about to fail chemistry, I would read that damned Chemistry book over and over. And slowly, my eyes would conquer one strange word (electrons? Molecules? Osmosis?) and then another. As it did, a kind of excitement began to grow. When the concepts began to come together, I started not just to know the words, but have the ideas start to sing their magic in my head. In the darkness of the universe, I began to see the ways molecules  were shaped, the attraction and repulsion of various tiny particles, and to feel a sense of intense wonder that a chair is not just a chair, but a collection of tiny moving parts in tension with each other.

There is a kind of singing in my head I can only get with that same kind of stubbornness when I read history or philosophy or other science as well. I was editing a book on the brain a few years ago and it made me crazy that all the different parts were described in words that I found highly inscrutable and hard to remember—rostral, ventral, contralateral, ipselateral, parietal, axial, caudal, . It made me crazy that “rostral” meant “toward the nose” What has THAT got to do with a brain, and especially a spinal column? But then, I slowly recalled that scientists don’t just study human brains, they study brains of all different creatures. If, for existence, you are describing a feature in a dog’s brain, thinking about a part toward the nose—which is so far in front of the brain, as opposed to something that is caudal—or toward the tail—makes perfect sense. (The word cauda means tail in Latin, and rostra is beak). Something that is caudal is closer to the end of the spine or the bottom of the feet.  But I still feel confused by “rostral” in terms of humans. Does it mean more toward the front of the brain or more toward the top of the brain? Is it the opposite of caudal or more descriptively close to the actual nasal cavity of our relatively flat faces? In some kinds of fish, the part of the brain that would be at the top in humans is at the side in their heads. Another pair it took me a long time to learn was Dorsal/Ventral.  Ventral means (more or less), toward the belly, or front, while dorsal means from the back, or spinal cord. But since, for example, in a dog, the spinal cord is at the top and the belly is at the bottom, ventral and dorsal are in a different place than they are in a walking human being.  (by the way, Real Scientists, feel free to correct me if I am wrong!)

When I was editing this book on brains, I left in these terms, but defined them as well as I could. I was swearing plenty as I did it. But again, at some point, I started again to hear the beginnings of that magical song of learning, of beginning on a journey to start to understand the neighborhood of the brain—a journey that I continue to find magical today.

Writing Spark: What do you know about your brain? 

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