What we talk about when we talk about brain regions

Since I have finally completed my PhD, I thought it was high time I actually wrote a blog post about cognitive neuroscience, my field of study. So here goes. Neuroscience is currently as sexy as a science is ever likely to get. When we see a study about some psychological constructs and it includes some mention of a specific brain region responsible for the behaviour, or even better a picture of a brain, it makes the whole study more believable. Legitimate. Seductive. Although cognitive neuroscience has only been my field of study for about 4.5 years or so, I’ve seen enough to know that all that glitters isn’t gold. And that seductive science isn’t always the best science. So for today’s blog post, I will follow in the footsteps of the Neuroskeptic and similar bloggers, and try to explain why I get so frustrated reading news articles that casually mention which brain region is responsible for a certain behaviour.

Example of an fMRI brain activation picture. Such pretty blobs!

Example of an actual brain activation picture. Such pretty blobs!

Human brains consist of many billions of neurons. And despite what the film Lucy purports, we use pretty much all of them. Like with any other part of the body, you use it or lose it. These neurons are all highly interconnected, ‘talking’ to each other constantly. The only thing more complex than the neurons themselves (not including astrophysics or calculating a tip) is the human behaviour that they enable. There are certain areas, such as the visual cortex or auditory processing areas, which as their names give away have well-defined features. That’s because they handle basic, vital processes. Any higher order processes though, require activation of a lot of different brain areas working in sync. Even when we are resting there is a default network at work that encompasses a lot of the brain. In short, there can never be such a thing as the ‘making up new words’ or the ‘childhood memories’  or even the ‘depression’ area, because these things are not easy things to compute, relying on lots of underlying processes like a big jigsaw puzzle. Hence why things like depression or autism are not easy to treat either.

Even when one is trying to determine what networks are responsible for certain cognitions, technology is not advanced enough yet to give us exact answers. Electroencephalography (EEG), energy signals recorded through the skull, provides an affordable means of looking into the living human brain, but researchers still can’t deduce exactly where in the brain a signal is coming from, and aren’t even altogether sure how EEG works yet. The other most commonly used technique, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), uses the magnetic properties of oxygen in blood and the fact that active neurons use up oxygen, to see where in the brain activation is occurring (as in the picture above), but while we know what fMRI measures, the resolution isn’t good enough yet to look at anything more detailed than clusters of neurons. This means that we can’t tell what individual neurons are doing unless we stick electrodes directly into them.

These technologies, while fallible, have given us a lot of data, and will continue to help us enlighten how the brain and our cognition work for many years to come. This post is not meant to nullify the amazing progress that science has already made, but just meant to provide a note of caution, that neither the brain nor current technology work as smoothly and easily as popular science stories sometimes lead us to believe. If only they did, then I’d just be able to hook my brain up to a computer instead of trying (and most of the time failing) to find the words to write down stories as I imagine them in my head.

Of course others have stated what I am trying to express much more eloquently, such as @PsychWriter in his last post for the Wired Brain Watch Blog, which is definitely worth reading.

The flipside of the immortal writer (RIP Terry Pratchett)

Today, Sir Terry Pratchett is no longer alive. I am very sad about this, not just because he was such an amazing writer and great man, not just because he reminded me so much of my father (who passed away a few years ago, also having been betrayed by his own brain), but I am also mourning the death of an entire universe.

The Discworld, a bizarre place full of wonderful, unique characters that I visited often as I was growing up, will always partly live on through the books, making Terry Pratchett immortal in a way most authors seek to be. But that entire wacky, colourful world as it really existed was contained only within a single head, which has now become forever inaccessible. Sure, his daughter may continue writing books set in Discworld, and I’m sure she’s a talented writer. But it won’t be the same world, not really. There is only one true story universe, and it dies with its creator. The rest is mere speculation.

So I am sad.

Outlining: a necessary evil?

As my previous posts will attest, I am a pantser. I may not sit around in my pants all day (unless you use the American English definition), but I have always written by the seat of my pants. And for the most part, this is my preferred method of writing. But now that I’ve committed myself to rewriting and rewriting again this novel of mine, I’ve finally succumbed to the outline.

There are a lot of positives to pantsing, to participating in NaNoWriMo and writing with abandon. Such careless writing allows one to get some semblance of a story on paper, something that can then be expanded upon, changed, even used as an outline, but most importantly, improved. One can’t improve a blank page.

After drafting/pantsing, the next question becomes how to make the story the best it can be. I’ve finally realised that I can’t just keep it all in my head, because my head is a big muddle of things and I am very easily distracted. Enter the outline. It has taken me a long time to realise its usefulness, but here I am, admitting defeat. No more muddling, no more dreading to write what’s next because I don’t know. Finally, I feel like I am able to make progress again.

There are many different ways of outlining. Some people make an outline that is a short novella in itself, very detailed, going through the story beat by beat before fleshing it out. Others use post-it notes to create the novel structure, and stick to just the bare bones. Like all writing advice, you have to find out what works best for you by trial and error. Outlines, in whatever form, help to make sense of things. They are only evil if you let them dictate you. Whatever your preferred method of outlining is, be prepared to abandon the outline if a more interesting direction presents itself. Then rewrite the outline as you move along to fit the better story you’ve discovered.

So here I am, with various iterations of my novel, and now this brief ‘big story’ outline that doesn’t really fit any of my previous efforts. So once more, I will reshape, rewrite and rethink my story. But this time, I know where I’m going. And that may be more important than anything else. I have no doubt now that with my freshly sketched outline, all of my previous words, and a new sense of direction I can make this novel great. Not only that, but now I know for my next novel that I should outline before rewriting, and will be able to finish my work a lot faster. Hopefully this post will help you too.

My next challenge: how to make my main character, who is supposed to be annoying because she’s a new adult with no idea of what she wants or who she is, still engaging to readers.