The Thinking Man – “Brain Talk”


BOMS is pleased to welcome an old friend and current expat to the mix.  He has been passionate about music, travel, sport and life’s ever changing discoveries ever since I met him in High School 20+ years ago.  Since then he has lived a variety of lives in from our nation’s capital to southern California and currently resides with his wife and son in Zurich, Switzerland.  From Politics to Portishead, there’s not much he can’t discuss.  BOMS will tap into his keen sense of the world and his ability to address a topic in unique and creative ways.    We’ve giving him carte blanche to explore the world around him and report back to us monthly in a column called “The Thinking Man.” 

Neuroscientists and brain researchers seem to be learning about how our brains work at an exponential rate and you can easily find books and blogs about this research everywhere.  We know how our heart works.  We know how our muscles and joints and bones work.  We’ve decoded the human genome and are unlocking its secrets as we speak.  However, we understand comparatively little about the brain, which holds the key to how we engage with the world around us. 

In the past few weeks I’ve read several articles about how we use all of our appendages in the act of communication, not just our brains.  University of Chicago researchers are able to quantify cognitive improvement when using appendages versus without.  In other words, they can measure how much smarter we are when we use our hands….even if they are robotic hands.  Have you ever had a conversation with an Italian?  Of course hands, gestures and faces are part of the “language” they use.  

What about baby talk?  I currently have an infant who is desperately trying to tell me something.  He is using all methods available to communicate with me, including smiling, babbling, crying…often all within 30 seconds of each other. Some parents teach infants sign language because gestures are easier than creating actual sounds.  Watching an infant progress through this stage of development forces you to ask a lot of questions about how the brain works.  What is going on in there?

Our son will learn several languages (his mother speaks to him in Russian, his father in English).  He lives in Switzerland, a country that has four official languages, not including Russian or English, so if he lives here long enough, he will need to learn another.   How will his brain differ from that of his monolingual, American father’s?  According to some studies, he’ll be smarter than me on some levels.

Some neuroscientists, philosophers and people more qualified than I believe that there is such a thing as a “natural language” that exists and has existed forever.  This “natural language” includes facial expressions, gestures and sounds that can cut across all cultures and languages.  Seems like a reasonable suggestion.  You only need to watch the Quest for Fire (with Ron Perlman in the role he was born to play) to see what I’m talking about.

A scream of terror probably sounds pretty similar regardless of your mother tongue.  And a smile works in any country.  Just don’t show your teeth to another primate, since showing teeth is a sign of aggression. 

How about music?  It would seem that music is the great equalizer among all humans.  It allows us to connect through rhythm, beat, tone, and scale. Take Bobby McFerrin’s demonstration of the Pentatonic Scale at the 2009 World Science Festival.

What’s the point of all this “brain talk?”  I reckon that humanity has some pretty interesting ethical and philosophical conversations on the horizon.  Everything from fool-proof lie detectors to “god helmets” to an explanation as to why people like Lady Gaga…it’s all in play.  Thank your local neuroscientist.

The author works in the Pharmaceutical industry and lives with his wife and son in Zurich, Switzerland 


Posted on by jake Posted in The Beat

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