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Is this how your brain works?

Of all the subjects I’ve been learning about lately, one stands out for its mind-boggling complexity: understanding how the cells and connections in our brains give rise to consciousness and our ability to learn.

Thanks to better instruments for observing brain activity, faster genetic sequencing, and other technological improvements, we’ve learned a lot in recent years. For example, we now understand more about the different types of neurons that make up the brain, how neurons communicate with one another, and which neurons are active when we’re performing all kinds of tasks. As a result, many people call this the golden era of neuroscience.

But let’s put this progress in context. We’re only beginning to understand how a worm’s brain works—and it has only 300 neurons, compared with our 86 billion. So you can imagine how far we are from getting answers to the really big, important questions about brain function, including what causes neurodegeneration and how we can block it. Watching helplessly as my dad declined from Alzheimer’s made me feel as if this era is not yet a golden era. I think it’s more like an early dawn.

Over the years, I’ve read quite a few books about the brain, most of them written by academic neuroscientists who view it through the lens of sophisticated lab experiments. Recently, I picked up a brain book that’s much more theoretical. It’s called A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence, by a tech entrepreneur named Jeff Hawkins.

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