Interview with Professor Dr Lutz Jäncke, Chair of Neuropsychology at the University of Zurich.
Mr Jäncke, how much do we know about the human brain?
That’s difficult to quantify. We know a great deal more than we did 30 or 40 years ago. We have made great progress and many discoveries, particularly in the past 20 years. But I suspect that we will never know everything there is to know about it.
The transmission grid is very inflexible where short-term changes are concerned. What about the brain?
The human brain is an extremely flexible organ. It is constantly changing based on experiences, the specific environment and its maturation. This flexibility gives us our extraordinary capacity for learning. We are equipped with a brain that effectively compels us to learn and develop. Instincts like those that exist in the animal world play a secondary role for humans.
Does the brain have a control centre similar to the Swissgrid Control in Aarau?
No, that doesn’t exist. The brain is an inherently functioning system without a boss or a control centre. We can’t compare the brain with the traditional control systems we know from technology. It is more of a system that organises itself.
Can areas of the brain compensate for others in the event of failures?
Yes, this occurs in various ways. For example, if you become blind, the areas of the brain that previously specialised in supplying visual information are taken over by other functional areas. If you monitor the brain waves of blind people reading braille after a few years, you can clearly see how the areas that were previously no longer used have been taken over by the tactile areas in the brain. Our brain is therefore a self-reorganising system that is also able to reintegrate networks that are no longer required, up to a certain extent.
Our brain is a complex network. What logic does it follow?
The brain has rules, but we do not fully understand them. The language of the brain has not yet been deciphered. We know that certain areas of the brain influence others and that electrical oscillations are an important communication signal within the brain.
Electrical energy takes the path of least resistance. What about the flows of electricity in the brain?
There are different types of electricity flows in the brain. On the one hand, there are distribution processes via the cable systems in the brain, the axons, which distribute the electricity using these cables. And then there are also rapid mechanisms. In this case, the impulses jump from certain areas to others, which increases the speed of the flows. These days, in some cases we can even use the amount of electricity in the brain to determine the activity that a person is currently performing.
The energy supply is a symbiosis between energy and data flows. How is information transmitted in the brain?
Information is always transmitted the same way in the brain. Only the distribution changes. The network in the brain always takes up around one fifth of the body’s energy. Fluctuations occur in the low single-digit percentage range.
The capacities of the lines in the transmission grid are limited. Is this also the case for the brain?
Humans have a limited neurophysiological resource that cannot be exceeded. But we can optimise our resources. For example, we can train ourselves to automate certain skills so that we require less and less of our available resources for these skills. This automation has a number of benefits. One of them is that we can execute several of these automated skills at the same time or in quick succession, which leads to multitasking.
What happens in the event of an «overload»?
There are various levels of brain overloads. In the event of severe trauma, the brain may switch to other modes of operation. This results in brain disorders. For example, dissociation disorders, where an individual can become a completely different person. Or, in the case of fatigue syndrome, the brain switches to another mode, which causes states of exhaustion. However, the point at which a brain is overloaded depends heavily on the specific individual. The same amount of stimuli does not lead to the same level of stress for every person. Ultimately, the subjective interpretation of a situation triggers an overload.
In the electricity grid, protective measures prevent the entire system from shutting down. How does the brain avoid total breakdowns?
Compensation mechanisms guarantee this. However, this requires a great amount of effort on the part of the individual concerned. Surrounding areas of the brain must be extremely stimulated so that a dead area of the brain can be isolated as quickly as possible in order to prevent necrotisation from spreading. But if the brain stem shuts down, nothing works anymore.
Humans are highly irrational and incredibly prone to manipulation.Professor Lutz Jäncke
Does the brain always retain full control of the body?
The brain does not monitor every little activity at the periphery. Much occurs automatically and is controlled directly by the organs or the spinal cord. But it always retains control. Everything that is felt is generated based on information that arises in the periphery and is sent up to the cortex.
How much takes place automatically?
We can do 90 percent and we know 10 percent. The majority therefore takes place completely automatically. This amount may be even higher. We consciously control a great deal less than we would have thought. This is the same for all humans.
What can the transmission grid learn from the operating principles of the brain?
At the moment, brain research tends to learn more from technology than the other way around. For example, we use mathematical algorithms to understand the brain functions. An interesting future topic is the self-organisation of the brain. Transferring this to technical systems could become an exciting challenge.
How controllable are humans and their brains?
Humans are highly irrational and incredibly prone to manipulation. We are inundated with masses of information and manipulated from all sides, even subconsciously. Our brain is, by nature, not designed for this flood of information. This is beyond the capacities for which our brain is made. Our brain is thus constantly under extreme pressure to process all this information. I am not sure whether this is good for us and our brain.
What fascinates you personally about the brain?
How can an organ weighing 1.2 to 1.4 kilograms have such an unfathomable influence on humans and the fate of humanity? That’s the reason why I went into brain research.
And what continues to surprise you?
I am increasingly surprised by the irrationality of humans. In our everyday behaviour, we are incomprehensible beings. And what is more, humans are not improving. Humans have not become more intelligent over the course of evolution. And that in itself is actually quite remarkable, isn’t it?
Facts on the brain
- Nerve impulses from and to the brain can travel at a speed of up to 432 km/h.
- When we are awake, our brain generates between 10 and 23 watts – enough to illuminate a light bulb.
- Although the brain accounts for only 2 percent of our body weight, it consumes 20 percent of our total energy.
- In total, the blood vessels in the brain are approximately 600 km long.
- Each time a memory is created, new links are formed in the brain.
- The brain waves triggered by the scent of chocolate have a relaxing and rewarding effect.