An Entire Universe – Right inside our brains

The brain is an incredible device. Whoever planned it, created it, is indeed a master architect. Only a few of its functioning have yet been revealed to mankind. And so much of it, still remains a mystery. We still are studying the biological processes that goes into storing of a memory, neuro plasticity. The connection between the conscious, subconscious and unconscious memory. Déjà vu. Phantom pain. Curious cases of people suffering brain injury, and speaking in accents totally foreign to them after recovery. The change in neural dynamics when we try and learn a new language. Our very own thought process. And so much more.

My limited brush with this field of study in the last one year of my Masters has excited me a lot. This curiosity has been a driving force in me taking up projects solely for personal development and knowledge in this field of Computational Neuroscience since the final evaluation was wrapped up online last month.  It feels like solving a puzzle, and the journey is so interesting in every phase, give and take a few disappointments and failures in attempts to solve a problem in a certain way, but learnings nonetheless.
: An Electroencephalograph (brain wave)

The project I had taken up for my M.Tech thesis was Emotion Recognition from EEG brain waves through a set of signal processing and machine learning techniques. The motivation behind it was the several EEG capturing sessions we did in college, from volunteers while they listened to Indian tunes, for a project studying the effect of music on the human brain. We put on the scary looking electrodes in their respective positions determined by the 10/20 International Standard, on the scalp of every volunteer assuring them every time, that No, it didn’t give an electric shock. It was hilarious every time a subject dozed off during a tune perceived as boring- it showed sudden change in the waves on the monitor- and we had to wake him up and sometimes restart the session.

So, coming back to emotion recognition, I felt like reading minds. Hell, it was so powerful! I could now tell, of course after a lot of preprocessing of raw EEG data, whether a person was actually happy or sad, even though his face said otherwise. Though not fool-proof, how incredible was it, isn’t it? Brain waves cannot be disguised. You can disguise your reaction, facial expression, voice and text message, but these neural signals couldn’t be tampered with. This makes me remember a particular Korean series, ‘The Liar Game’ where the participants had to tell whether the opponent was telling the truth or not, and there was this genius who could control his micro expressions – the facial expressions that occur in a fraction of a second, involuntarily, that reveals a person’s real emotions or intentions. Had they used the neural activity; they would have completed the game with ease.

Experiment Performed in 1950's to study the response of cat's retina to an oriented bar of light
I started working on another project recently – studying the EEG brain waves of candidates, captured while performing mental arithmetic tasks, in the context of performance, gender, age, etc. A friend is currently working on neural spike sorting -it seems such fundamental yet intriguing aspect of neural data. All these months I had been working on brain waves, yet I had no idea what it looks like when a neuron fires, what microelectrodes are, action potential, spikes and sorting techniques. Learning a little more each and every day. Working together is a lot more fun.

Even the literature studies I did for the projects opened up so many research areas- upcoming seizure prediction for epilepsy patients, stress studies, understanding and dealing with several mental illnesses, and so much more. And I am doing this very interesting course on Coursera these days – Computational Neuroscience offered by The University of Washington. Firing of neurons, action potential, neuroplasticity, neural encoding and decoding- thank heavens I had taken up biology in my intermediate (PCMB). It’s a whole movie in there. I am just in Week 3 of the course yet, a long way to go, but it feels like unraveling yet another layer with every lecture video. The instructors are awesome. Explanations are simple, crisp, brief, just right length. It’s indeed a vast field. Every day I delve deeper, I feel it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much to learn, so much to explore.

The brain unraveled its secrets slowly through the decades, and the process continues. It’s as if a universe in itself- expanding and evolving in its characteristics as researchers around the world try and solve them one by one in their limited life spans. Hope I too can contribute something substantial and significant to this.


Queeristan by Parmesh Sahani

  Queeristan (Amazon Link) Thanks to Audible Free Trial I listened to this amazing non-fiction on LGBTQ inclusion in Indian workplaces. Author Parmesh Sahani identifies as gay Indian, working closely with Godrej higher management and employees for years to create an inclusive workplace, both legally and in spirit. This book is a result of those years of experience, research, collaboration with individuals from difference spectrum of the society and organizations who has successfully transitioned into a queer friendly one.   Indian history is inclusive. From the Khajuraho temple architectures, to Konark to the Rig Veda, there is existing proofs even 2000 years ago of Indian inclusiveness of queer. It’s the draconian British law that criminalised it, which was scraped in 2009, came into effect once again following a sad judgement in 2013 and eventually was scraped off for good in 2018. I am in awe of the lawyers who fought this legal battle- colleagues and partners – Arundhati Katju

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