Issue 4 | September 2006

Close-up look at a large boulder of symmetrical brain coral (Diplora strigosa)

Thinking

***Articles reviewed and updated in August 2014***

The human brain may be the most complex structure in the universe. It is so powerful that it is attempting to understand itself, through research. New techniques have opened up ways of exploring the brain. These techniques are shedding light on the very essence of human life – how we feel, think and act. Join us as we investigate the world of thought.

Browse through the individual articles, check out our image gallery and consider our lesson ideas. This issue was first published in 2006; in 2014, all of the individual resources were reviewed and updated for accuracy and currency. Please do note, however, that the PDF of the original 2006 issue has not been updated from its original form.

Looking and learning

The brain at work

Our brains are staggeringly clever things, performing several different processes simultaneously. How?

The brain at work – lateral view: annotated image

The brain operates by division of labour: different areas are specialised for different functions. Explore a lateral view in this illustration

The brain at work – sagittal view: annotated image

The brain operates by division of labour: different areas are specialised for different functions. Explore a sagittal view in this illustration

Learning and memory

The brain structures, neurons and even molecules and genes associated with memory are beginning to be identified

Types of memory

What are the different types of memory, and where in the brain are they stored?

The mind’s eye

Vision is our most crucial sense. We rely on it for survival, but just how reliable is it?

Memory tricks

Some things we wish we could remember better and others we would prefer to forget. But once a memory is lodged in our heads, how reliable is it?

Amnesia and deliberate forgetting

Amnesia – loss of memory – takes many forms and can be hugely distressing

Strange times

Some people with brain damage, or by a quirk of fate, lack a very specific mental function. Studies of these people can tell us much about how the brain works

Optical illusions images

Do you see what I see? Explore these nine images to see if your mind is playing tricks on you

Why do I think and feel?

Emotions

We are emotional creatures. The brain is not just a logic machine, but also handles emotions – some of the most powerful drivers of human behaviour

Happiness

Research has tended to look at the darker side of life, with the flipside being neglected – though it is now receiving more attention

Trust me, I’m a scientist

Although we do fall out occasionally, human society is notable for its degree of cooperation between individuals

Animal personalities

There is some evidence that an animal like the dog does have individual personality traits

Moody blues

Does our state of mind affect our response to illness?

Who am I?

Seven ways of seeing how the brain works

Approaches can be psychological or neuroscientific, animal or human – or a mix

Times past

Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived around 400 BCE, was first to emphasise the importance of the body in generating functions like memory, thought and reason

The science of consciousness

Consciousness is one of the last great mysteries of modern science

Unconscious vision

How do you have an unconscious visual experience?

Sleep and consciousness

During sleep, our brain slips into autopilot. The key change, it seems, is the loss of communication between different areas of the brain

Sleep work

Want to improve your dance skills? Take to your bed

Reading the mind

Scientists can now predict what a person is seeing just by looking at their brain, even in the absence of conscious awareness

Animal consciousness and thinking

Can animals be said to be conscious? Or to have a mind? The answers are not obvious

Language

Language may have been one of the decisive factors in the success of early humans. Language skills seem to be ‘built in’ to the human brain

Who are you?

Face the facts

Are facial expressions universal?

Mirror, mirror

The discovery of mirror systems has helped us understand the planning and imagining of actions

You or me?

If our grasp of ‘us and them’ goes wrong, we can have considerable problems in life

Mind the gap

Humans have an uncanny ability to put themselves in the position of others

Body talk

When people scratch their nose, does it mean they are lying?

Probing personality

Can personality be studied in a reliable way?

Why do I do what I do?

Cycle of addiction

The concept of reward is critical to understanding addiction

Wired

How much of our behaviour is fixed in the neural networks of our brain? Is it ‘hard-wired’ – set for life – or more flexibly arranged?

A brief history of mental illness

Pre-history to the modern day: the progression of understanding mental illness

Morality tales

Neuroscience is helping us to understand the biological basis of human morality

Behaviour and brain function

There are a wide range of disorders that cause distinctive alterations in behaviour. Studies of people with these disorders can shed light on brain function

Animal models

Is it really possible to use experimental animals to study human behaviour and decision making?

Lobotomy

Lobotomy has a bad name, but it won its inventor a Nobel Prize. But does surgical intervention in the brain have a place in the medical armoury?

Mental health conditions

Understanding anxiety disorders

Anxiety is a normal, biological response to stress. When does it become a problem?

Understanding bipolar disorder

This complex condition is characterised by its extreme highs and lows, but how much else do you know about it?

Understanding dementia

Chances are you know someone with this condition, which most commonly affects elderly people – but how much do you actually know about dementia?

Understanding depression

Depression is a common mental health condition affecting more than 1 in 10 people in the UK

Understanding schizophrenia

Read our Q&A and get up to speed on this commonly misunderstood condition often characterised by its symptoms of auditory or visual hallucinations

Historical aspects

Descartes revisited

The rich and fascinating internal life we experience is being reduced to the product of electrical activity. Does this diminish our view of humanity?

Times past

Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived around 400 BCE, was first to emphasise the importance of the body in generating functions like memory, thought and reason

A brief history of mental illness

Pre-history to the modern day: the progression of understanding mental illness

Ethical questions

Responsible adults?

If a lot of our behaviour is outside our conscious control (or feels as if it is), can we always be held responsible for our actions?

Hands off my brain

Should the contents of the brain be private property?

Better brains?

How should we react to the potential to enhance our brain’s abilities?

Real Voices interviews

Real Voices interview: Edward Jones

Meet Edward, a volunteer with the mental health charity Rethink. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 21

Real Voices interview: Julie Roxburgh

Meet Julie, a retired music teacher. When she hears sounds she sees them as colours: a condition known as sound-to-colour synaesthesia

Activities and lesson ideas

Lesson idea: Are you responsible?

This idea and the accompanying resources are designed to engage young people in discussion about the brain, using podcasts as a stimulus

How to make a podcast

Here’s our handy how-to guide on podcasting, for use in our ‘Are you responsible?’ lesson idea or for an independent research project

Lesson idea: What does it all mean?

The ethical questions posed in this issue have been put into a PowerPoint presentation for use in the classroom

Optical illusions images

Do you see what I see? Explore these nine images to see if your mind is playing tricks on you

Further resources and activities on thinking

The Wellcome Trust has funded many other organisations to produce the following activities and resources that will engage young people on the topic of the mind

Fast Facts

Each issue of 'Big Picture' comes with a sprinkling of Fast Facts, fascinating snippets of information on the topic covered.

Browse through all of our Fast Facts indexed by topic