What the Brain Does With the Waves It Makes May Be the Most Important Discovery (So Far) in All of Brain Science. A New Book Explains Why

For the non-scientist reader (present company included), a really good science book is almost never about science as much as it is about the scientist. Science today—most any science—has become so complex, difficult and specialized (particularly in vocabulary) that even the most patient and intelligent of lay readers will usually scream “uncle” and flee after only a few paragraphs. (If you doubt this, pick up, say, a molecular biology textbook or an astrophysics journal at your next library book sale and begin reading.)

But then along comes a book by a literate, engaging scientist. This author, you quickly realize, is willing to take a complex topic and explain, with patience, humility and a modicum of humor as the effort progresses, (1) why he or she thinks one way and not another, (2) discuss with honesty and integrity what is known about the subject and what isn’t close to being confirmed and (3) detail candidly the dirty little secrets of the experimental laboratories and the secret little condescensions and the subtle omissions of the experimenters. In short order, you can easily conclude that you’ve got yourself a “read.” Along the way, you may even learn a little, or a bunch, about the science in which the writer specializes.

György Buzsáki’s new work, Rhythms of the Brain, is such a book. Dr. Buzsáki is a neuroscience professor at Rutgers. As the title of this work suggests, his specialty is brain oscillations. If the brain’s unmatched capacity for generating waves were all he talked about in Rhythms, he’d quickly put all but the most knowledgeable and dogged reader to sleep (as he often does his research subjects in the laboratory). But without any discernible conscious effort, Buzsáki repeatedly demonstrates what makes for a great 21st Century scientific personality (the book’s dust jacket says he is among the top 250 most cited neuroscientists): an oceanic interest in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, a multidisciplinary mastery of the scholar’s craft as well as his/her own specialty and an interest in being understood far beyond one’s own scientific kind.

With admirable and rapier swiftness, he explains the thrust of his book and the theme of his entire career in the first sentence: “The short punch line of this book is that brains are foretelling devices and their predictive powers emerge from the various rhythms they perpetually generate.”

Not long after, he explains the who, what, when and where of his first awakening to the importance of such a realization. It came, he said, “in April, 1970, during a physiology lecture given by Endre Grastyán in the beautiful town of Pécs, on the sunny slopes of the Mecsek mountains in Hungry.” Professor Grastyán argued that brain outputs, such as movement and cognition, control its inputs. Buzsáki says he rushed home to read more only to discover that his textbook for the course contained not a word about what he’d just heard. He was captivated. Forever in his career—or at least thus far—he’d be hooked on the brain’s outputs, and the feature that would rivet him most would be the brain’s rhythms. “Neuronal oscillators,” he calls them. Sure, as we’ve long known, they make it possible for us to do things like walk and breath. But only recently, says Buzsáki, has the suspicion grown that the brain’s perpetually active rhythms—including its cycles of electrical activity—are essential to its “deepest and most general functions” in the sense of French molecular biologist Francois Jacob’s words: “One of the deepest, one of the most general functions of living organisms is to look ahead, to produce future.”

Buzsáki is more than a little excited by insights he says are recent to neuroscience and have come to it from other disciplines, such as physics and general system theory. Ideas about open systems in perpetual change. Ideas about spontaneous activities that are self-organizing in far-from-equilibrium states. Ideas about the complex, nonlinear behavior in such dynamic systems that, when perturbated, causes them to become more than merely the sum of the parts. “The brain is such an adaptive complex system,” he concludes. And expressly because of its ceaseless internally generated, future-producing rhythms.

As is every successful scientist, Buzsáki is ambitious, particularly for his ideas and findings. For example, he admits that consciousness “is the crutch of cognitive neuroscience, perhaps the most widely used covert explanatory tool of the classification of mental phenomena. Yet, this frequently used hypernym does not even have a definition. Is it a product, a process, or a thing? There is not even good agreement what the theory of consciousness would be like?”

Buzsáki is eager to be part of the solution to the problem. And he suspects strongly that (to quote Sigmund Freud) “anatomy is destiny.” He notes that the brain-cell-rich cerebellum (which has roughly the same number of cells as the remainder of the brain) is forever constrained expressly because, as organized structures go, it is highly efficient and highly localized.

Buzsáki says, in the book’s closing words, “Cerebellum-type organization can never give rise to conscious experience, no matter the size. On the other hand, the cerebral cortex, with its self-organized, persistent oscillations and global computational principles, can create qualities fundamentally different from those provided by input-dependent local processing. It may turn out that the rhythms of the brain are also the rhythms of the mind.”

As it turns out, the rhythms of Dr. Buzsáki’s mind have produced a fascinating, though often demanding, read that a scientifically curious non-scientist can follow if they are willing to make the effort.

Order the book here: Rhythms of the Brain

Visit the author’s Web site at Rutgers: The Buzsáki Lab

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