There is an exciting revolution taking place. Two traditionally separate
branches of biomedicine are rapidly closing in on each other.
Neuroscience (or Brain Science) and Psychology (or Cognitive Science) are converging to answer the age-old question:
"Is the physical brain the same as the metaphysical mind?"
These two fields of science have long been tied together only in the weakest
of ways, but the bonds have grown much stronger in recent years.
Now major aspects of the two fields actually overlap, so much
so that they may soon become almost indistinguishable one from
the other. This convergence is like a comet on a collision course
with Earth, but with portents of grand rather than cataclysmic
What has precipitated all this excitement? Neuroimaging--the
non-invasive, computer-assisted technology used to explore the
spatial and temporal organization of the brain's neural systems.
PET, fMRI, ERP,
EEG, MEG and
other imaging techniques are leading the charge. In the past,
neuroimaging was almost exclusively the domain of clinical neurology.
These techniques were and still are used to diagnose the "abnormal"
brain for cerebral stroke, anatomical anomalies, and tumors.
Imaging technology is advancing at a dizzying pace. Newer "real time"
imaging allows researchers to move beyond the more "static" imaging used
in diagnosis. Today, neuroimaging is also being used to define the
"normal" brain. The concept is simple. A subject performs an action and that action is mapped through neuroimaging to one or several specific sites
in the brain. These actions can be physical in nature such as the movement of a finger.
Or these actions can be mental. Enter all the excitement! Concepts relating
to mind and consciousness can now be mapped to precise areas of
the brain. These include such varied activities as pondering a
next chess move, performing arithmetic "in your head," reading
a book, listening to music, and imagining a face.1
Several research groups have elucidated brain mechanisms underlying
consciousness in vision, working memory, and mental imagery.2,3 Cohen et al.4 reported in a recent issue of Nature on the use of fMRI to examine brain activation in human subjects who were performing a working memory task.
Also reported in Nature, Engel et al.5 used fMRI to investigate responses of the human visual cortex to a variety of colors. It is hoped that recent and projected advancements in imaging technology will provide an even clearer view of the living, functioning human brain.6
As long-suspected, the brain is proving to be the physical housing and
neuronal architecture underlying and propelling what we call the mind. The
traditional duality principle--mind and brain are two separate entities and
never the twain shall meet--is fast disappearing. The notions of brain and
mind are approaching unity. It just depends from what vantage point one is
exploring the mind-brain complex.
This "it looks like two but is really one" scenario is not unique in
the realm of science. There is an analogous counterpart in modern physics.
Depending on how it is viewed, electromagnetic radiation has two seemingly incompatible aspects--wave and particle forms--but is, in fact, a single entity.
What lies just around the corner for Neuroscience and Psychology? Will
we soon be able to image imagination, genius, creativity? Can you imagine monitoring the mind-brain of a 21st Century Einstein contemplating the universe, a Caruso performing an aria, a Shelley creating a poem, a Dante writing a book, a Horowitz playing the piano, or a Renoir painting a portrait? The possibilities are mind-boggling!
- Solso, R.L. "Mind and Brain Sciences in the 21st Century" (MIT, 1997).
- Baars, B.J. "In the Theater of Consciousness" (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1997).
- Cabeza, R. et al. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 9, 254-265 (1997).
- Cohen, J.D. et al. Nature 386, 604-608 (1997).
- Engel, S. et al. Nature 388, 68-71 (1997).
- Barinaga, M. Science 276, 1974 (1997).
- brain activation: Fast, short-term biophysical and biochemical changes in neurons and, to some extent, in glial cells. These rapid changes make possible such activities as thought, perception, speech, and voluntary movements.
- EEG: Electroencephalography, the recording of brain waves by means of electrodes attached to the skull.
- ERP: Event-Related Potentials, EEG representations of electrical brain activity evoked by outside stimuli.
- fMRI: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a new method of scanning the brain's activity that needs no radioactive materials and produces images at a higher resolution than PET. It is based on differences in the magnetic resonance of certain atomic nuclei in areas of neuronal activity.
- MEG: Magnetoencephalography, a technique for recording electrical signals from the brain based on changes in magnetic fields.
- mental imagery: Commonly referred to as "forming a picture in your mind" but more specifically defined as "nonverbal thought processes in which spatial representations are actively recalled or manipulated."
- PET: Positron Emission Tomography, a type of scan that measures changes in blood flow associated with brain function by detecting positrons, positively charged particles emitted by radioactively labeled substances that have been injected into the body.
- visual cortex: The primary sensory area for vision.
- working memory: Primary or 'short term' memory; its contents are in conscious awareness. A limited capacity system that holds up to seven chunks of information over periods of 30 seconds to several minutes, depending upon the person's attention to the task.
Frederic A. Spangler, Ph.D.
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- CSA Senior Science and Internet Editor
and Web Resources Manager
- B.S. (Biology; minor concentrations in Mathematics, Biophysics, and Earth Sciences), Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania
- Ph.D. (Physiology and Biophysics; thesis research area: Biochemical Endocrinology; minor fields of study: Neurobiology, Pharmacology), The Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC