What is science?
The question likely sparks images of textbooks, white lab coats, microscopes, beakers, astronomers looking through a telescope, Einstein scribbling equations erratically on a chalkboard, and more. Science is many things — so many in fact, that it can hurt the brain just to try to simplify it!
And what about trying to explain a scientific concept? How does one make it simple enough for a young child to grasp, yet complex enough for a scientist to indulge in? No matter the age or audience, the explanation must be clear and understandable — the varying degrees just unravel from there.
WIRED challenged neuroscientist Bobby Kasthurifrom the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to do just this, asking him to explain the connectome, which is a map of neural connections in the brain, to give different people with varying levels of scientific knowledge.
Kasthuri first explained the concept to five-year-old Daniel Dodson, saying, “There’s way more cells in your brain than all the stars we can see. We’d like to know where every cell in your brain is.”
He then explained the concept to 13-year-old Jabez Griggs, discussing the neuron wiring inside the brain and the fundamentals behind cells using electricity to communicate with each other.
Next, he explained it to college student Elena Dowling, touching on telectron microscopes and the scanning techniques being created as a means for mapping the brain at such a small scale.
Because neuroscience grad student Mala Ananth already knows what a connectome is, Kasthuri discussed the possibility of such a map being able to reproduce the consciousness of the human brain inside a computer program.
With Brain Backups founder Russell Hanson, who has a bit more knowledge of connectomics, he discussed neural substrates, which are layers of human memory, rather than using stars and cells as analogies.
After watching the video, you may be left wondering why it’s so intriguing that Kasthuri’s rhetoric becomes more developed as the people he talks to get older and more familiar with the subject.
Yes, there’s the opportunity for your knowledge on the matter to expand as well, but what’s really inspiring is Kasthuri’s ability to tailor his explanation in such a way that makes sense to his ever-changing audience.
“Every person can leave with understanding it at some level,” Kasthuri explains in the beginning of the video. In five different ways, he discusses the connectome as a very detailed map of the cells inside the brain. Kasthuri discusses where these cells are and how they’re connected.
With so many cells involved, creating the map is no easy feat, but scientists hope it will help them to better understand more about how the brain functions, and improve what we know about brain diseases so we can treat and prevent them accordingly.
Though many more years of research and investment are required to figure out how to map the human brain, at least this video will give you a better understanding of what it’s all about.
“I’m impressed that when you talk to people about something that seems kind of crazy and outlandish, and perhaps [something] they hadn’t been talking about before, it doesn’t take them long to come a kind of considered opinion,” Kasthuri says.
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