The human brain

Bastian the Brain Brain of Gauss, the mathematician and astronomer, by H. Charlton Bastian FRS, 1880. © Royal Society.

By Royal Society Fellows Uta Frith and Chris Frith

University College London

What is the brain?

The human brain is a giant supercomputer that contains 100 billion nerves cells (1011). This is roughly the same as the number of stars in our galaxy. But each nerve cell is a computer in itself and is connected with thousands of other cells. Humans share the basic building blocks of the brain with other animals.

How is the mind connected to the brain?

The mind is created by the brain. The human mind is special because it enables us to be aware of ourselves. Still we do most things without awareness. As a result we can respond very quickly to danger. Things that affect the brain, such as drugs, also affect the mind. Things that affect the mind, such as vividly imagining a face, also affect the brain.

How useful is knowledge about our brains?

It is hugely beneficial. It means that we know something about the origin of neurological diseases and possible treatments. Brain implants are already used to restore hearing and vision. Brain stimulation helps Parkinson’s patients. We know why pain feels less severe when we believe we are getting a potent drug and should eventually know how to reduce pain without side effects.  But is the human brain clever enough to understand itself?

Will we be able to make artificial brains?

When we understand how the brain works, it should be possible to make machines that are conscious. This may be simpler than solving some basic problems that evolution has solved long ago. Robots are already able to play chess very well, but they are very poor at picking up a chesspiece.

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Uta Frith FRS will give this year’s Henry Cole lecture The Curious Brain in the Museum, at V&A Museum, 18 November 2010.