What we still don’t know

The February edition of Wired magazine has a special feature on 42 of the biggest unanswered questions in science. Several of them concern the mind, brain and behaviour.

How the brain creates consciousness is, perhaps, one of the most obvious ones.

If you’re not familiar with sleep research, you might find the question about why we sleep a surprising inclusion. However, the difficulty with conducting neuropsychology experiments on sleeping people makes this a very difficult question to answer, despite some fascinating ongoing research.

The evolution of language is, perhaps, an example of the problem in reverse. Doing experiments on language is much easier, because we understand the system so we can manipulate meaning and syntax independently. However, the sheer complexity of language makes it a mammoth task.

Placebos are also a curious and mysterious phenomenon, and inspire wider questions about how expectation and suggestion affects the function of the body.

The final question concerns how the brain calculates movement. There are an infinite number of possible muscle movements that allow you to perform the same action – for example, picking up a cup.

Think about it for a second. You could just grab the cup, or walk to India first. Even if you chose the near option, each tiny adjustment to the muscles can be modified ad infinitum.

To pick up the cup, the brain has to choose the most efficient action out of an infinite number of possibilities. Working through an infinite number of possibilities should take infinite time, yet we move fluidly and often without conscious thought.

Interestingly, you can help clarify the issues and answer the question to the best of current knowledge, as each entry has a link to a wiki where you can make your suggestions for each mini-article.

Link to Wired on “What We Don’t Know”.

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