Seeing is revealing: new insights into brains and black holes

12 September 2019
A look at how we push the limits of our thinking and imagination
We brought together an engineer, neurologist, astrophysicist and philosopher to answer the big questions about life and the universe.

Scientists have been studying black holes for for a long time but it was only in April this year that we saw what one looked like – when it was captured in an image.

Similarly, our brains hold plenty of mystery and we can get a better picture of how it works through advances in brain imaging; a key area of research at the Brain and Mind Centre and Sydney Imaging.

"So much of cutting-edge science and deep research involves imagining that which we cannot quite see, whether it is understanding the past, seeing into the brain, peering into the depth of the universe or the depth of the human body," said Professor Duncan Ivison, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), in his introduction at a Sydney Ideas event held as part of Innovation Week.

That’s how Professors Fernando Calamante, Michael Barnett, Céline Boehm and David Braddon-Mitchell came together for a conversation. By bringing together unlikely perspectives – from the respective fields of mechanical engineering, neurology, astrophysics and philosophy – it naturally broadens our thinking and reveals unexpected insights.

What do black holes tell us about brain imaging?

As Ivison pointed out, the assumption of science is that the more we see, the more we know. While philosophical thought is to challenge this idea and is skeptical of the senses. So, what does this all mean, to see images of brains, black holes and the ‘unseen’?

In his talk, Professor Calamante explained techniques used in MRI – specifically, diffusion MRI – to map brain networks and emphasised the important role it plays.

"No individual cell works by itself. No area of the brain is working by itself. We have different areas talking and working to each other," said Professor Calamante.

"We can take those pictures and we are able to reconstruct a representation of the cables, the wiring in the brain. We are able to generate now in a non-invasive way; see what is happening inside the brain and how these areas are connected to each other."

Michael Barnett presenting talk on stage

Professor Barnett talking about how disease affects brain networks.

Did you know there are black holes in the brain?

Following on, Professor Barnett showed how disease affects these networks in different ways. That actually, the brain has black holes, too.

"They are areas of complete nerve fibre destruction," explained Professor Barnett.

Through MRI we not only see where defects lie in the brain but we can track its pathways, leading to more effective ways for disease treatment.

"We're feeding on our research, thousands of these images that are well beyond the comprehension of the human eye, to capture small changes that we wouldn't otherwise even consider," he said.

"We're trying to find biomarkers of change and disease so we can monitor response to novel therapies."

Why a new mathematical framework could help us understand the brain

For Céline Boehm, one of the biggest challenges now in physics is that, "We know we can describe and use mathematics to describe all particles we have detected so far but when we use this mathematical framework, which is actually provided by antimatter, we make predictions which are always wrong, essentially.

"And we do not know what is dark matter, why this mathematical framework doesn't predict the right thing."

She suggested that we can turn this around by looking at what scientists are doing when they look at the brain. "Maybe we can have a new mathematical framework which can help us."

Why testing and experimentation are key

David Braddon-Mitchell had the job of tying in all these themes together, and he presented a radical and absurd conclusion: "Each of you should think that nobody else in this room exists. In fact, your bodies don't exist, only your brain exists and it is about to be frozen.

"What you are is an instantaneous burst of consciousness arising out of pure chance which is about to freeze and no longer have any consciousness or existence."

Stay with this argument, because Braddon-Mitchell has a strong reason for it. "If someone has an argument that has a preposterous conclusion, try and find out what their argument for that preposterous conclusion is. Don't just ignore it because that conclusion is preposterous.

"It may turn out that even though they reject the conclusion, just like I am inviting you to reject the idea that all you are is about to be frozen brain in gas, you may learn a great deal by finding out what is wrong with that argument."

Céline Boehm talking about the image of a black hole.

Boehm echoes this idea of questioning and experimentation. "If you see the image of a black hole, like the one from April, the question is what does dark matter inside a galaxy do to a black hole? Does it change the event horizon, for example. Now we're testing things we never thought we could test.

"I think it is a major development. It doesn't necessarily change our conception but it comes up with more concrete value."

It's also in this spirit of experimentation, that Dr Benjamin Carey performed a new audio-visual performance for modular synthesiser and live visuals. His performance interactively explored some of the event’s themes through sound and visuals drawing from brain imaging scans provided by Fernando Calamante. 

Keen to know more?

  • Catch up on the full conversation through the Sydney Ideas podcast on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or your favourite platform.
  • Support research in Alzheimer’s disease, Motor-neurone disease, and more, by making a donation today.
  • Study the Master of Brain and Mind Science degree. Applications close on 30 November.

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