"What makes us human?" "How does the cortex work?" "What is the thalamus interested in paying attention to?"
These were the answers I got when I asked three prominent neuroscientists what question they would like answered. These three are making an important contribution to the field of neuroscience, and yet they were willing to take time out to spend a day with people wanting to learn more about what they do and why.
I was lucky enough recently to be part of a small group invited to spend most of the day touring research labs at the University of Chicago. Under the direction of Murray Sherman, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology, important research is happening there. In addition, we had the opportunity to interact with his colleagues, David Freedman, Ph.D., and Jason MacLean, Ph.D.
It's reassuring to know there are smart guys like these three doing their part to advance what we know about the brain. For those of us not trained as scientists, this group was able to convert technical jargon into concepts we were able to understand. "Wow," "Amazing," and, "I didn't know it was possible" were common utterances overheard on the rotation of our lab tour. They are working to learn: how memories are formed, how memory can be improved, how memory erodes, how information is stored in the first place and how circuits function in the brain. The answers to these questions can obviously have a profound effect on how we live our lives and how well we are able to live our lives.
Scientists have long maintained that the brain is the most complicated and least-understood organ. We were able to witness cutting-edge technology being applied to better understand how the brain functions generally and what very specific parts of the brain do under very controlled conditions. Monkeys were taught and rewarded for recognizing visual patterns, brain tissue was kept alive for hours outside the body, allowing for specific examination, and lasers were used to perform experimentation.
Next, our group became the monkeys, or at least the scientists actually wanted to know what we thought about their research and if there were connections to our work and lives we could share with them. Several in the group were educators, and the scientists were particularly interested in ways to better connect classroom learning to laboratory research, thereby opening up a dialogue to enrich both disciplines.
Interestingly, Dr. Sherman worked with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Roger Sperry, who decades ago discovered the independence of consciousness between left and right brain function. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and Dr. Charles Limb have also built on this work with their fascinating research. TED has their talks archived on their website, and they are certainly worthy of 18 minutes each!
I've read about many breakthroughs in neuroscientific research over the past three years. This topic piqued my interest more than a decade ago, but I didn't have the time to indulge my interest until three years ago. I found the topic so interesting that I decided to summarize the results in a book I'm writing on brain function, specifically the role the right hemisphere plays in unlocking our creativity.
I spent 30 years in the corporate sector looking for ways to think more creatively and differently in order to gain an advantage in business. Techniques I learned about tapping into the right hemisphere helped me in my role as CEO in finding ways to provide better customer service, take better care of customers and reward shareholders. Trust me, your creativity is definitely needed to attempt to keep these three balls in the air simultaneously. It's been fun in retirement to learn the science behind how the brain works, test some of my own theories about creativity and chronicle the results.
It was an honor to interact with scientists who are going in directions where no one has gone before in neuroscientific research. It's good to know we have people on the planet excited about the questions no one has yet to answer.
Bill Donius is the author of "Thought Evolution: Unlocking Right Brain Creativity."