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Building Our Brain Trust

4 minute read
Richard Stengel

One of the greatest frontiers of the 21st century does not lie far beyond us but deep within us. If you think the secrets of the universe are dazzling, just wait until you explore the ones hidden inside your own head. In the 1960s, when human beings were first venturing into outer space, TIME explored those efforts and traveled with astronauts, through launches from Sputnik to Apollo and far beyond. Humanity is on a similar quest now, inward rather than outward, and just as readers decades ago came to count on us for news from the cosmos, so can today’s readers look to us for dispatches from the brain. We will be putting together a team of reporters, writers, and scientists–our own brain trust–to regularly explore this great inner horizon.

History has not been kind to brain science. From the bogus discipline of phrenology–which claimed that the quality of the mind was reflected in the bumps on the skull–to the ultimately racist field of craniometry, which asserted that intellect could be determined merely by measuring the head, much early work on the brain was nonsense or worse. But today’s powerful scanners now allow us to see inside the head as never before. Detailed maps of thousands of genes reveal the DNA blueprint that allows the brain to exist at all. More powerful psychoactive drugs let us understand the chemistry of the brain and fix it when it goes awry. In this issue, we catch up on the latest breakthroughs in this fast-moving field.

Harvard’s Steven Pinker looks into the mystery of consciousness and, along with a panel of philosophers and neuroscientists, explores how the jabbering of 100 billion neurons creates our sense that we exist at all. Sharon Begley, who writes the science column for the Wall Street Journal, offers an excerpt from her new book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, about how the brain rewires itself, sometimes just by thinking. Daniel Gilbert and Randy Buckner answer the intriguing question: What does the mind do when it’s doing nothing at all? (Hint: think H.G. Wells.) Robert Wright, author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal, offers a Darwinian take on how we make life-and-death decisions–and suggests that what passes for morality is often something else entirely.

Our own science staff set out to explore equally intriguing questions: Michael Lemonick discusses why memories can remain so vivid and visceral; Christine Gorman investigates how we can avoid burnout; J. Madeleine Nash exposes the wondrous world of mirror neurons, which play a key role in the development of language, empathy and human society; while Alice Park learns how brain science is contributing to marketing and advertising campaigns. In Manchester, Michael Brunton visits the Babylab, a research facility in England whose sole mission is to understand how babies’ brains develop. TIME’s talented graphics director, Jackson Dykman, managed to squeeze more than 7,000 years of fascination with the brain into a lively history lesson. Still haven’t had enough? Jeremy Caplan invites you to play a few mind games to figure out why your brain can sometimes play tricks on you. All of this was pulled together under the capable direction of Philip Elmer-DeWitt, TIME’s science editor.

In the weeks and months to come, we’ll continue to follow the field of neuroscience, with the help of writers like Pinker and Gilbert and Wright. There’s plenty of ground to cover: from Alzheimer’s, addiction and autism to streamlined talk therapies and better medicines. We hope you’ll travel with us for the ride.

Richard Stengel, Managing Editor

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