Untangling the Brain

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Knotted rope
By Aubrey Henretty

Sometimes solving a problem is like slogging uphill in a pair of wet shoes — eventually, you get to the top of the hill, but only by putting one foot carefully in front of the other until you arrive. Other times, the hilltop seems to come to you. The answer is obvious all of a sudden, and you’re not certain how you got there.

If Mark Beeman, a professor of psychology in Weinberg’s Cognitive Neuroscience Program, could see inside your brain while you were thinking about the problem, he would know which route you took to the solution. It turns out that slow, deliberate thinking and moments of insight don’t just feel different — they look different.

Over the past decade, major advances in imaging ­technology have given scientists the clearest pictures of the brain anyone has ever seen. Every day, they’re making new connections between the tangled network of neurons and the things we think and do.

Assistant professor David McLean can tell whether a fish is taking a leisurely swim around the aquarium or fleeing swiftly from a predator by observing the active circuits of its brain. Yi Zuo (PhD ’02), now an assistant professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, watches connections sprout between neurons in the brains of animals as they learn and explore — connections that don’t grow in animals in less ­stimulating environments.

Modern neuroscience explores how the brain makes us who we are. Researchers have long known that certain areas of the brain are tied to important functions like vision and speech, but until the turn of the 21st century, many resisted the idea that looking at the brain could reveal much else about the human experience.

Today, most neuroscientists take for granted that it can. As researchers study ever more detailed models of how the brain works in living, thinking, feeling people, they are starting to explore topics that were once considered philosophical: how consciousness works, where empathy and morality come from, the physical mechanisms that produce complex emotions.

In Northwestern’s Mood Disorders Laboratory, assistant professor of clinical psychology Robin Nusslock leads a team of researchers who are teasing apart the neurobiological differences between depression and bipolar disorder — and studying the roots of both conditions in the brain. Research like his could have serious implications not only for how mood disorders are treated, but for how we think about the human mind.