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Speaker spotlight - Ginny Smith

Naked Scientist, Ginny Smith, explores some of the latest ‘brain’ research and provides a snapshot of her two shows at this year’s Festival.

CSF: There are many preconceptions about the brain. Which is the most common and wrong?  

GS: One of the most common misconceptions about the human brain is the idea that we only use 10% of it. No one is quite sure where this myth originated, but for some reason it has permeated into popular culture- as shown by the recent film ‘Lucy’ in which the main character gained access to the remaining 90% of her brain through a drug, giving her superpowers.  Unfortunately, while attractive, this idea is completely false.  Brain scanning studies have shown that while certain areas are more or less active during certain tasks, almost every area is active to some level the majority of the time. Even when we are asleep, our brains continue carrying out complex processes, many of which we don’t yet fully understand.

If you think about it in more detail, it is clear that it wouldn’t make sense for us to use only a small part of our brain. Brains are costly – they use up to 20% of our daily energy, despite only being around 2% of our body weight.  If we didn’t use them, why would we have evolved such large and power-hungry brains? In fact, our brains have evolved to be very efficient; if there are connections that aren’t used they are quickly pruned away, or taken over by areas responsible for other things. Except in cases of brain damage, there isn’t a single area of your brain you don’t use but this doesn’t mean you can’t get better at things. Through practice, pathways in the brain can be strengthened and more neurons can even grow in certain areas, so the potential to ‘unlock’ new abilities is still possible – though it may take more work than movies like Lucy suggest.

CSF: How do we make decisions? And how can we really improve that process? 

GS: Every day, each of us has to make hundreds of decisions. These range from simple ones like what to eat or wear, to complicated and important ones like which car to buy or whether to take a new job. We like to think that we make these decisions rationally, by weighing up the good and bad points of each option and coming to a decision. But that isn’t the case- we can be influenced without even knowing it, and a lot of the time we base our decisions on emotion or assumptions, rather than cold hard evidence.

This may sound like a bad thing but actually, most of the time, it is good news. If we deliberated on every possible outcome for each of the decisions we make, it would take so much time we wouldn’t get anything else done! So we have evolved shortcuts that help us make decisions quickly and easily, and most of the time, these are good enough. However, sometimes, with some decisions, these shortcuts can catch us out. By understanding more about how the brain makes decisions, we can learn to identify cases where it might lead us astray. This allows us to take a step back when it comes to the really important choices in life, and to look at them in a different light, hopefully helping us to make better decisions.

CSF: What is the latest research about the brain uncovering? 

GS: Neuroscience is one of the most rapidly progressing fields of science, with fascinating new insights being discovered on a weekly basis. Some of the most interesting research that has come out recently relates to the microbiome and in particular the community of microbes living in our guts. We are only just starting to realise the impact these microbial cohabitants have on us- not just affecting gut health, but also impacting on mood, and possibly playing a role in many different mental health problems. The ‘gut-brain axis’, as it is called, is thought to explain the links between diet and illnesses like depression; different diets promote the growth of different types of microorganism, which can affect the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, and so our mood. There is plenty still to be discovered in this area, but what is clear is that the brain does not exist isolated from the rest of the body and can be influenced in ways that until recently were never considered. 

CSF: Advances in neuroscience are moving at a rapid pace. What can we expect to see in the next 50 years? 

GS: Advances in neuroscience over the last 50 years have been closely linked to the progression of technologies that let us probe the brain in more detail, so the biggest developments in the next 50 are likely to rely on similar technological advances, making them hard to predict.  However, one area I hope to see develop is the mapping of the human connectome – the millions of connections inside our brain, which is one of the goals of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative.

Current projects looking at large-scale, long-range connections in the human brain are revealing that rather than single regions being responsible for certain abilities, it is the networks of regions that are active together that are most important. In the next 50 years, I hope we will be able to map the human brain in much more detail, down to the neural level, to really understand how it works. However, this is a mammoth task. Currently, the only brain that has been mapped like this belongs to the nematode worm C. elegans – but their brains contain only 300 neurons, compared to our 86 billion! Scientists are now trying to produce similar maps for the estimated 100,000 neurons in a fly brain, and the mouse brain’s 75 million neurons, but these are still a way off. 

One of the biggest problems is the amount of data produced; it is estimated that a map of the human brain would need around two million terabytes of storage. However, as technology improves and we become better at handling the big data that is becoming more and more important in all aspects of science, I’m optimistic that it will be possible. The field of neuroscience has developed in ways that would have been impossible to comprehend 50 years ago – suggesting there may well be bigger advances to come that we can’t even hope to predict now.  I’m certainly excited to find out what they will be.

CSF: What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

GS: I love my job as a Science Communicator because it means I am always learning something new. As part of my radio and TV work, I spend a lot of time talking to scientists and it’s fantastic to see how passionate they are about their research. I also enjoy dabbling in all areas of science; while brain-based topics are my favourite, I am fascinated by a huge variety of disciplines, and love that my job allows me to talk about everything from graphene to disgust and space travel to parasites.

Another great thing is that every day really is different.  I might spend one day recording and editing audio for a radio piece, the next day researching and writing an article or book page, and the day after doing shows about the brain at a school or festival, or filming interviews for a TV show… it is certainly never boring! I have a real passion for science, and relish turning difficult concepts into something easy to understand. I’m so lucky that I have a job that allows me to share my passion with people in so many different ways.

CSF: Tell us more about both your shows at the Science Festival. What can audiences expect? 

GS: We like to think we can trust what we see, feel and hear, but our senses are only part of how we explore the world around us. Our brains are constantly making assumptions about the things we perceive, in order to help us navigate the world. But sometimes, this can lead to our brains playing tricks on us. Meet your brain is a family show that exposes some of these, using illusions and experiments that the whole audience can get involved in. The audience can expect to leave with a better understanding of the tricks our brains can fall for, and what this can teach us about how they work.

My second show, Your irrational brain is aimed at adults, and looks at how we make decisions. While we like to think we are rational beings who weigh the pros and cons of each option before choosing the best one, this is far from the case. In this show, the audience will have their ideas about how they make decisions turned upside down- and may even become better decision-makers because of it! This show is highly interactive- each audience member will be able to play along, answering questions anonymously on an internet enabled device, which will provide a real insight into the shortcuts our brains use when making decisions.

CSF: What is the weirdest brain demonstration you’ve ever seen / given? 

GS: One of my favourite demos is the rotating mask illusion. If someone slowly rotates a hollow mask in front of you, so that you can see first the front (convex side) of the mask and then the back (concave side) something very strange appears to happen. As the back of the mask comes into view, you will find it seems to suddenly flip from concave to convex, and begin rotating in the opposite direction! It also works if you walk past the back of a mask- its eyes will seem to follow you across the room. What I find particularly amazing about this demo is how difficult it is to ‘see’ what is actually there- the convex side of the mask. No matter how many times you see it rotate and how hard you will it to remain looking convex, most people can’t help but see it pop out!

This demo tells us something really interesting about our brains; we don’t always see what is actually there. Instead, what we experience is our brain’s interpretation of the information it is receiving. When the back of the mask is facing you, the information coming into your eyes is ambiguous. It is obviously a face, but the pattern of light and shadow could signal the hollow back of a mask rotating in one direction, or the convex front rotating in the other. Because the majority of the faces you have seen in your life have been convex, your brain assumes that this one also sticks out, and that is what you see. This shows exactly how important our expectations and past experiences are when it comes to what we perceive.