Cognitive Daily

Discover’s got a very nice article about 10 unsolved mysteries of the brain. They’re actually careful not to call these the “top 10” — after all, who’s to say that these are the 10 most important? Nonetheless, it’s an impressive list:

1. How is information coded in neural activity?
2. How are memories stored and retrieved?
3. What does the baseline activity in the brain represent?
4. How do brains simulate the future?
5. What are emotions?
6. What is intelligence?
7. How is time represented in the brain?
8. Why do brains sleep and dream?
9. How do the specialized systems of the brain integrate with one another?
10. What is consciousness?

It’s hard to argue that these are important questions, but are they the most important questions?

Mind Hacks discusses the article too, and Vaughan is impressed:

It’s an interesting list, not least because you’ll notice that several of the problems are conceptual rather than empirical.

For example, the list includes ‘What are emotions?’, ‘What is intelligence?’ and ‘What is consciousness?’ that depend on a good philosophical analysis rather than just more data gathering.

In contrast, some of the other mysteries include things such as ‘How is information coded in neural activity?’ which is a problem of dealing with the complexity of the signals and their effect, rather than us having problems with defining any of the problem.

It is a nice variety of problems, but why is “what is intelligence?” a mystery of the brain? Doesn’t that imply that the question of intelligence is only for neuroscientists? Vaughan likes the idea that these questions involve philosophical problems, but what about psychology? Don’t psychologists have a role in all this? Do intelligence, time, emotion, and consciousness really all come down to neuronal activity?

Furthermore, while these certainly are sexy problems, what makes them so special? We could also ask “what is seeing?” or “how do we learn language?” or “what are the components of personality?” Are there any other obvious questions the Discover article missed? Is there any point to top-ten lists such as this? Let us know in the comments.


  1. #1 coturnix
    August 16, 2007

    While Nos.7 and 8 are dear to me, where is the “why people believe weird things?” question?

  2. #2 The Science Pundit
    August 16, 2007

    What is the most complex thought or behavior that can be performed subconsciously?

  3. #3 Alvaro
    August 16, 2007

    Bora: maybe that question is part of #6 and #10…

    Science Pundit: I guess it depends how you define “complex”. By definition, anything subconscious can be thought as cognitively simple, yet “complex” in the sense of involving multiple components in real-time.

  4. #4 gary coulter
    August 16, 2007

    What makes human brains different from the brains in all other animals?

  5. #5 Vaughan
    August 16, 2007

    Don’t psychologists have a role in all this?

    I would argue against an artificial distinction between psychology and neuroscience. They are different levels of description rather than boundaries of professional enquiry.

    Neuroscience tells us as much about the mind as psychology about the brain. So psychologists might have plenty to say about neuronal activity (which they do), but hopefully not forgetting that the phenomena could be describable using mental concepts, and that theoretical links need to be made where appropriate. Vice versa for neuroscientists.

  6. #6 Dave Munger
    August 16, 2007

    I agree with you, Vaughan, but I still think the implication of the article, especially the headline, is that the “brain” is what’s really important. Behavior and cognition matter too!

  7. #7 Mitch Harden
    August 16, 2007

    Just a nitpick but, I would argue that question #8 should read, “What function do dreams and sleep have in the brain?” as science is really bad at answering “Why?” questions.

    Science Pundit: You’ll have to answer question #10 before we tackle that one.

    Q: “Do intelligence, time, emotion, and consciousness really all come down to neuronal activity?”

    Monist Answer: Yes.

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    August 16, 2007


    I guess you could argue that in some sense neuronal activity is ultimately responsible for those things. But you could also go further and say that atoms and molecules are the real motivators, and that we should all be physicists.

    The point is that neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and even poets have something to say about these things, and implying that the “brain” is responsible for it all is an unfortunate overgeneralization.

  9. #9 The Science Pundit
    August 16, 2007

    Okay, I guess I’ll define complexity in this case to have to do with how much information is being processed in real time. I believe that can be measured.

    I did see that so I should have been more specific from the start. What I was trying to ask was if there is some limit on what the human brain can achieve without the individual being aware of it? For example, could someone solve a mate in two chess puzzle while being unaware that their brain is churning away at the solution? Is there anything that the human brain does that actually requires awareness per se?

    I don’t know if that’s any more clear, but that’s what I was wondering.


  10. #10 Harlan
    August 16, 2007

    Javier, there are some theories related to Global Workspace Theory that attempt to answer that question. See, for example:

    M.P.Shanahan & B.Baars, Applying Global Workspace Theory to the Frame Problem, Cognition, vol. 98, no. 2 (2005), pages 157-176. (Available from Shanahan’s publications list)

    The basic idea is that specialized modules can do complicated, but typically targeted, cognition on their own. If a module needs resources from the rest of the brain, though, it competes to get access to a central “workspace” that allows other parts of the brain to collaborate. Driving is in a motor module that doesn’t generally require much access to the workspace. Solving an analogy puzzle, for example, however, requires mapping one domain of knowledge (in one module) to another domain of knowledge (in another module), and thus has to be performed in the workspace. Assuming that whatever happens in the workspace is conscious, then you pretty much require consciousness to do analogies.

    At least, that’s the theory. I’m not enough of an expert in the area to evaluate it much, but it’s intuitively appealing.

    As for chess problems, a beginner couldn’t possibly solve them unconsciously, but it’s fairly well understood that part of the development expertise is the extraction of skills into specialized modules. It’s possible that an expert chess player could solve chess puzzles unconsciously, I suppose. Certainly the experience of having a solution to a problem you’ve been working on pop into your head at a random point in time would be consistent with that…

  11. #11 The Science Pundit
    August 16, 2007


    Thank you!


  12. #12 Tony Jeremiah
    August 16, 2007

    Science also came up with a list of 125 question believed to be important that are not solely about understanding the brain:

  13. #13 Alvaro
    August 16, 2007

    Javier and Harlan,

    Another way to put the chess situation:
    – is the chess master involved in a “complex” activity when he beats me in 5 moves? Probably not. Probably what we call “intuition” or “pattern recognition”, which are mostly “unconscious”, kick in
    – is the chess master involved in “complex” activity when he has to fight for his life with another chess master? Definitively so, since he is encountering novel challenges that require “conscious” thought and active working memory.

    So, the questions are: when and how do activities move from conscious to unconscious, and, how do we define complex (even the information processing metaphor may not be that useful…”processed” by what system?). Would you say that walking straight is more or less complex than tying one’s shoes?

  14. #14 Eugene R
    August 17, 2007

    Yes they did, to name just a few:
    11. How sensations, emotions and feelings differ in the brain?
    12. What is a hallucination?
    13. How synchronicity happens?
    14. When is brain truly dead? (3 is not the same)
    15. How is space represented in brain?
    16. How is infinity represented in brain?
    17. How is emptiness represented in brain?
    18. How is paradox represented in brain?

  15. #15 kuresel isinmaya hayir
    August 17, 2007


    Thank you!


  16. #16 David Group
    August 19, 2007

    19. Why does religion and/or belief in a god or ultimate being exist?

  17. #17 Archana Raghuram
    August 21, 2007

    Interesting questions and even more interesting discussion. Have you read VS Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the brain.
    He talks about a lady who suffered brain damage and became blind. While examining her, the doctor held a pencil in front of her and asked her if she could see it. She said no but could reach for the pencil and take it. They made her post letters in a post box, she could do it accurately even though she had no awareness of vision. He gives examples of few other patients.
    So it is quite apparent that many so called “conscious” activities of the brain do not require awareness.

  18. #18 Wafa
    August 21, 2007

    “Neuroscience tells us as much about the mind as psychology about the brain”
    by Vaughan; Comment #5

    I liked this one, How didn’t I thought about this before..

    Thanks Vaughan


  19. #19 Wafa
    August 21, 2007

    All the questions needs some philosophical implications actually, but I think that All could be philosophically answered by answering the question about the neural codes.

    Interesting topic and discussion as what Archana said.


  20. #20 Wafa
    August 21, 2007

    Question # 0 : Is time&space concept a truth or another level of perception?

    I knew that red color has no existence outside my mind because I analyzed it by a higher concept(time&space) and so I knew about wave patterns etc., I do not have a higher level than time&space to analyze them with it..and I can not prove space & time by space & time this is a logical mistake.

    *sorry for going offtopic but that was just for explaining why I wanted to ask such question.


  21. #21 mt
    August 23, 2007

    You can credit Discover but those aren’t the choices of a a journalist or a magazine editor except in a rubber stamp sense, I’m all but certain. David Eagleman, the list author, is a bona fide neuroscientist. I think the list has to do a book he has coming out.

  22. #22 Rudra
    August 23, 2007

    Do you think there are answers to the following question?

    Who’s asking these questions? and to whom are these questions directed at?
    ie., is it the sensing organs or the interpreting mind or the inferring intellect…

    Is that ‘YOU’ and ‘I’ the body-brain complex? or an observer-participant system?

  23. #23 thomas harrison
    August 25, 2007

    my question is simple, not complicated- we only use less than one-tenth of our brain right? what if we found one person in the world who use 100% of their brain, would we be any closer to understanding all the questions everyone has ever asked about the brain? answer-probably not.

  24. #24 Dave Munger
    August 25, 2007


    Actually, your premise is wrong. We use the entire brain. The brain is expensive for the body to maintain; if parts of it were unused they would have evolved away long ago.

  25. #25 Wafa
    August 25, 2007

    “Do you think there are answers to the following question?

    Who’s asking these questions? and to whom are these questions directed at?
    ie., is it the sensing organs or the interpreting mind or the inferring intellect…

    Is that ‘YOU’ and ‘I’ the body-brain complex? or an observer-participant system?” Said Rudra, Comment #22

    Would you illustrate more, and what is the difference that you see between the items mentioned?

    Thanks in advance


  26. #26 rudra
    August 27, 2007


    I’ll attempt it in a paradox…

    Assume person-1 decides to show/prove sun to person-2 using a torch-light..

    => The moment person-1 attempts that mission proves that person-1 is ignorant.
    => The moment person-2 acknowledges seeing the sun with a torch-light prooves person-2 is ignorant.

    The point is Sun is self evident and obvious… If a cat cannot understand it but it sees it or uses it…

    Like wise the torch is like intelligence… Sun is the self evident seer (in person 1 & 2 and all)… Any idea or explanation or analogy (intelligent machinery – torchlight) cannot is like trying to proove the Sun…

    Forgive my naive approach…

  27. #27 Wafa
    August 30, 2007

    Thanks for responding Rudra,

    I liked a perspective states that “mind can not prove itself, because you can not prove something by using a property based upon it”

    I have a view point related to yours, but in time/space perception.

  28. #28 rudra
    September 2, 2007


    Do you mean to say we are stuck with limited capabilities to probe? if not, then, how else can we approach the mystry at hand?

    I see it just as an approach problem.

    The answers are there before us.. within us.. we dont want to give new perspectives a shot.. Can we dig deeper?


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