Thursday, June 7, 2012

Our Amazing Brains

As I have shared previously, I enjoy watching several different sports (as well as playing some, despite my lack of athleticism). This week and last I have been watching the women competing in the French Open at Roland-Garros. As I watch the skill of these athletes I am again astounded not only by their talents, but by the amazing complexity of the human brain.

Watching a talented athlete perform, we may fail to appreciate all that their performance requires. Before going further let me acknowledge that this by no means applies only to athletes. Talent comes in many forms and I do not intend to exalt athletic talent over any other. I focus on it for the moment only because it provided the stimulus for today's reflection, as I flip between windows on my computer to keep an eye on the semi-final contest between Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova. They make tennis look so easy, but I am amazed when I stop to think about all that happens in their brain each time they hit the ball. Sharapova hits the ball across the court to Kvitova. In the few seconds from the time the ball leaves Sharapova's racquet, Kvitova's brain must analyze the trajectory and speed of the ball, determine where it is likely to be, direct her muscles to move her body to a point where she can intercept that ball, prepare her arms to swing the racquet, carry out that swing and, in a successful scenario, cause the racquet to make contact with that ball and direct it back across the court on a trajectory that will ideally cause Sharapova to miss it herself. All of this occurs in far less time than I took me to describe it in words. Her brain processes all of these variables and issues all of the signals required to complete the action. Computer scientists are making progress in imitating such activity in machines (robots), but it requires thousands of lines of computer code and still falls short of the elegance, beauty and ease with which the human mind and body can do it.

The brain fascinates me. A few years ago I read an amazing book by John Medina entitled Brain Rules. I would rate it as one of the most interesting books I have read. At the time I had made notes on it, but after a couple changes of computer since then I appear to have lost the file. Otherwise I would share them with you. Instead, we shall all have to obtain a copy of the book and read them for ourselves. 

Not only does Medina present twelve rules about how our brains work, written from his knowledge and experience as a developmental molecular biologist, but he does so in a way that is engaging and accessible to the non-specialist. Medina now writes a blog for the university where he works, which happens to also be my alma mater—Seattle Pacific University. I recently became aware of his blog and have added it to my list of regular reading. I highly recommend it to others. 

I could diverge here into a discussion of how our brains came to be what they are. I certainly have my beliefs about this, but today I don't want that to be the focus. I simply want to encourage us to stop and reflect on this amazing organ that sits on top of our necks. As you go through your day, stop at various times and realize how the brain enables you to do what you are doing, or simply on the fact that our brains allow us to think and reflect on any topic we want, include about ourselves and our brains. Consider how many routine activities you perform that require the activity of your brain, almost all of it subconsciously. Consider what your brain is particularly strong at. Mine enjoys learning and using different languages. Yours may well have other talents. Then stop and give thanks to our Creator God who—in whatever manner you understand it—formed this amazing organ and made it a foundational part of our bodies.

Just in case you are wondering, Sharapova won the match 6-3, 6-3 to advance to the finals, where she will face the Italian Sara Errani.

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