How does the brain think?

I was on Minnesota Public Radio's morning show The Daily Circuit today—along with Ivan Semeniuk, chief of correspondents for the journal Nature—talking about the Curiosity rover, human evolution, and dealing with the big unknowns in science. You can listen to that segment online.

But right at the end of my bit, as I was packing up my stuff to leave the studio, I heard the next segment on the show, and it was AWESOME. Ask a Neuroscientist is, precisely, reader questions answered by a neuroscientist. But you have to read the transcript for today's first question, where a 5-year-old exchanged ideas with Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist David Eagleman.

Madeline, 5 years old: How does a brain think?

David Eagleman: We don't know. Part of modern neuroscience's quest is to answer that. One theory goes that, in the same way brains control muscle movement, your brain controls your arms and legs and mouth and so on. Thought might be, essentially, covert muscle movement. In other words, it's going through the same routine that says 'bend this, flex that, extend that' - except that it's not controling a muscle. Instead, it's controling something conceptual.

Holy, awesomesauce.

Read the rest at The Daily Circuit website


  1. This would be totally awesomesauce, if David Eagleman wasn’t a total hack.  He’s a celebrescientist, and not the good kind like Sagan or Bill Nyu.  He tries to fill the lack of productive research in his publication record (which mostly consists of sparse data and wild claims) by making him self a pop science celebrity.  Please don’t give him another platform on which to spew his ego.

    1. Meh. I’ve never heard of him, and anyone who can give an answer like that to a a question like that from a 5 year old shows obvious merits. Science is an eco-system and popularises are an important niche. We could do with more science celebrities and less of the pointless celebrity celebrities.

  2. Well, the brain is basically a wrinkled bag of skin filled with warm water, veins, and thought muscles. Think of it as a kind of modified heart, only with a mind or brain.

  3. Can anyone point me to specific articles/books/researchers examining this idea of the mind as a theater for “virtual motor movement”?  I’ve entertained a notion like this for some time — informally, as a layperson — and would enjoy learning about formal research in this area.

    1.  A couple of places to start would be the work of Vittorio Gallese & George Lakoff (“The Brain’s Concepts”) and Thelen. Or read the papers by Eagleman – I haven’t read them, but presumably he’s written something on the theme…

  4. This is certainly an interesting way of putting it. There is some evidence that this is at least part of how we think – compare “mirror neurons” and “canonical neurons”. And the whole “embodied cognition” idea makes it seem that how we think, and how we use metaphors, is very much influenced by how we physically interact with the world. 

    Given that the questioner is 5 years old he did well to give her something to ponder that was most likely within her grasp and not too simplistic or obviously wrong.

    I’d also like to point out that this scientists prefaces his question with an admission of ignorance, and makes a suggestion as to one possible answer without claiming any absolute knowledge and without any hint of superiority. I still regularly interact with people who’s picture of scientists is that they are authoritarian know it alls; dictators of what we should think and believe with no tolerance for uncertainty and no sense of mystery.  Whereas I think Eagleman seems like a good representative of the profession.

  5. There used to be a feature called “Junior Editors’ Quiz” in our paper (and others). It was drawn by Coulton Waugh for years, and had interesting questions and good answers. I considered asking “How do we think?” but never sent it in.

    Then Waugh was gone, and his replacement looked like an assistant from a Dennis the Menace comic backup feature, and all the questions began to be in the form “What is [a/an] ______?” Where the blank was filled in with some boring everyday noun that could be identified with thirty seconds at a dictionary. I was glad when the feature went away for good, so I wouldn’t keep being reminded of its better days.

  6. My brain thinks it was sick of the word “awesomesauce” the very first time it heard it. 

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