Nobody Knows Where Brainwaves Come From

Wub-wub-wub-wub. Brainwaves are electromagnetic proof that we are alive. Decades of research have shown that these pulses of electrical potential reflect events at the root of our impulses and thoughts. As such, they underlie one of humanity’s weightiest moral decisions: Deciding whether or not a person is officially dead. If a person goes 30 minutes without producing brainwaves, even a functioning heartbeat can’t convince doctors they’re alive.

But as large as brainwaves loom in our understanding of the brain, not a single scientist has any idea where they come from.

At least one researcher, Michael X. Cohen, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior in the Netherlands, thinks it’s time to fix that. In an April op-ed in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, Cohen argued that the time has come for researchers to figure out what those brainwaves they’ve been recording for decades are really all about.

“This is maybe the most important question for neuroscience right now,” he said to Inverse, but he added that it will be a challenge to convince his colleagues that it matters at all.

Today, as Facebook races to read your brainwaves, roboticists use them to develop mind control systems, and cybersecurity experts race to protect yours from hackers, it’s clear that Cohen’s sense of urgency is justified.

Connecting brainwaves to neuron behavior is the next great challenge in neuroscience.

What we do know about brainwaves is that when doctors stick silver chloride dots to a person’s scalp and hook the connected electrodes up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, the curves that appear on its screen represent the electrical activity inside our skulls. The German neuroscientist Hans Berger spotted the first type of brainwave — alpha waves — back in 1924.

Researchers soon discovered more of these strange oscillations. There’s the slow, powerful delta wave, which shows up when we’re in deep sleep. There’s the low spikes of the theta wave, whose functions remain largely mysterious. Faster and even stranger is the gamma wave, which some researchers suspect plays a role in consciousness.

These waves are at the root of our understanding of the shape and structure of human thought as well as the methods doctors use to figure out how brains break down. It’s thought that alpha waves, for example, are a sign the brain is inhibiting certain mental systems to free up bandwidth for other tasks, like…

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