Between our ears.

Most of the time, we don’t give much thought to the apparatus we carry between our ears. Perhaps it is too hard to get our heads around our human brain; to comprehend how immensely complex it is, despite the extraordinarily detailed maps and images of it that are available online. Another reason that we don’t often consider our brain may be that it goes about much of its business below our usual level of awareness. Second by second, it receives information from our senses and sends instructions back, leaving us free to focus our attention elsewhere. It is worthwhile, though, to occasionally consider what the brain does, to help us appreciate it more, and look after it better.

A great deal is now known about brain structure and function, but there is still so much that is not fully understood, including how mental activities such as thoughts and emotions are related to the physical brain. Every so often, we add another piece of information to the puzzle posed by our brain, although this often ends up generating more questions. One example of this is the discovery of mirror neurons, first observed in the brains of monkeys.

A mirror neuron is a brain cell that fires both when an animal acts, and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. In effect, the cell is firing to ‘mirror’ the firing of cells in the other’s brain. Mirror neurons were discovered when the same neurons of a laboratory monkey were observed to fire when the monkey saw a person pick up food, and when it picked up food itself. They have since been found in humans, leading to theories about how they might be important for vital human capacities such as language and empathy. It has been suggested, for example, that people have a whole mirror system, that allows them to feel the same emotion that they perceive in another person.

Some scientists think that these theories about mirror neurons are too speculative, especially as no-one has yet come up with an explanation as to how their activity relates to mind activities like thoughts and feelings. Whatever mirror neurons are doing in the human brain, it is clear that a lot more research is needed to understand just this one aspect of brain functioning. And there are so many more functions that our brains perform for us that we are yet to explore.

As we learn more about what the brain does, perhaps we will come to appreciate it more, and make its health a priority. The longer that people live, the more important this becomes. Much of what the brain needs is the same as what the body needs: sleep, good nutrition, water, exercise and protection from injury. To work well, the brain also needs stimulation, such as formal education and socialising. In taking thought for our brain, we have a better chance of making the most of the phenomenal asset we each carry in our skull.