February 2, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Brain Thoughts

Here are recent findings about brains that are big and small, squishy and tough, but all amazing.


For once, The Conversation includes some pure and applied science without praising Charlie. Read a fascinating Darwin-free account of woodpecker brains by expert Joanna McKittrick of UC San Diego.

Slamming a beak against the trunk of a tree would seem like an activity that would cause headaches, jaw aches and serious neck and brain injuries. Yet woodpeckers can do this 20 times per second and suffer no ill effects.

An aerospace engineer, Dr McKittrick wants to understand how the bird’s skull is able to protect the brain. With orthopedic surgeon Jae Young-Jung of UC San Francisco, she gives these fast facts about woodpecker superpowers:

  • Woodpeckers are found in forests worldwide.
  • Their heads travel 23 feet (7 meters) per second toward the tree, then decelerate with a force of 1200 g’s. A football player suffers a concussion severe injury at 80 g’s. “All of this occurs without the woodpecker sustaining concussions or brain damage.”
  • Woodpecker’s skulls have more minerals than those of other birds. Surprisingly, the skull is thinner, but apparently harder.
  • The brain has less fluid surrounding it. McKittrick compares this to how the yolk of a boiled egg is more stable than the yolk of a raw egg.
  • Woodpeckers have a bone in their tongue that absorbs energy, because it is built with an “inside out” configuration opposite most bones: the outside is softer than the inside.

Pileated woodpecker by Lorax (Wikimedia Commons)

Watch the embedded video of a woodpecker in slow motion. The skin and feathers shake violently on impact, but the bird is not harmed. Studies of the remarkable bone material surrounding a woodpecker’s brain should help scientists design better football helmets. On Superbowl Sunday, watch for impacts that players take on their helmets, and consider that these amazing birds can take 15 times the impact without damage.

Fruit Flies

Consider the tiny brains inside these tiny insects that allow them to fly, dart around, feed, land and do many other things. Look at the biggest and most detailed map of a fly brain made by Howard Hughes Medical Institute, posted by Phys.org. That’s just one fourth of the 100,000 neurons packed inside a fly’s brain that is the size of a poppy seed.

Most of the Darwin-free article describes the monumental effort researchers at HHMI went through to image the neurons and count the cells before they could even approach how the neurons connect to one another. An embedded video lets you fly into the fly’s brain. The complexity you see is mind-boggling.

Imaging techniques have improved dramatically over the past few years to make this effort possible. Even so, the scientists relied on a trait of human brain power to get it done:

When it comes to tracing neurons, humans are still better than algorithms in many ways, says Plaza. Humans have the general knowledge and awareness that lets them spot oddities in the data, he explains. “Basically, humans have common sense.

Human brains

Humans can imagine things that aren’t so. That can be good and bad; it can lead to creative flashes of insight, but it can also lead to Darwinian storytelling, imagining “scenarios” about how blind forces conjured up eyes and wings without a Designer. Still, imagination is a useful capability when used for good purposes.

Animals have imagination, too. It enables a mouse to dart this way and that to escape a predator by instantaneously considering possible outcomes of its movements. How does it work? An article on Medical Xpress says that the brain has a ‘GPS System’ that “toggles between present and possible future paths in real time.”

One of the brain’s most amazing abilities is to imagine things that aren’t right in front of it,” said Loren Frank, Ph.D., a professor of physiology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator in the UCSF Center for Integrative Neuroscience, co-director of the UCSF Kavli Institute for Fundamental Neuroscience, and member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “Imagination is fundamental to decision-making, but so far neuroscience hasn’t given a good explanation of how the brain generates imagined futures in real time to inform various kinds of everyday decisions—while keeping track of reality at the same time.

This ability requires fast switching between cells in the hippocampus, say neuroscientists at UC San Francisco. They observed “place cells” of rats in mazes making switching decisions eight times per second between two possible future paths vs its current position:

The team also extended this finding to another type of imagined scenario. Apart from location, place cells have also been known to keep track of an animal’s travel direction. The team found that place cells representing opposite travel directions could also switch back and forth extremely rapidly, as if to say, “I’m going this way, but I could also turn around and go the other way.”

The hippocampus could be the root of our capacity to imagine, the researchers conclude. It appears to contain a “robust system for generating lots of ideas, not just for mechanically remembering or predicting.”

Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems have learned to master games like “Go” and “Starcraft II” using an algorithm called “distributional reinforcement.” Now, scientists at the tech firm Deep Mind have found that same algorithm working in the human brain, reports New Scientist. Once again, nature had it first.

Neurons respond to hormones like dopamine at different levels, instead of responding alike. “They all end up signalling at different levels of surprise,” says Dabney. “More like a choir all singing different notes, harmonising together.” This gives the neurons a probability distribution that can allow the mind to evaluate nuanced data about possible rewards of this or that decision.

Considering the powers of the brain, seeing a dead one is disturbing. Phys.org shows a picture of a shriveled brain that was found in a mud pit. An international team of researchers believes its owner perished 2,600 years ago, and was a male. He may have been decapitated since no other remains were found. Now, they want to know how it was preserved so long. Its preservation was truly remarkable:

The researchers report that they found evidence of over 800 proteins in the brain sample, some of which were in such good condition they were still able to work up an immune response. They also found that the proteins had folded themselves into what the researchers described as tightly packed stable aggregates, which, they noted, were more stable than those found in the typical living brain today. They suggest such aggregate formation may at least partly explain how the bran matter was able to stave off decomposition. The researchers noted that the environment in which the skull was found might have helped, too—the cold, wet, fine-grain sediment may have locked out oxygen that flesh-eating microorganisms would have needed to survive.

However it avoided decomposition, this brain once provided the man with built-in GPS, imagination, problem-solving algorithms and all the other capabilities described above. What kind of life he lived, and how he met a tragic end, we can only imagine.

Where will you be when your brain is a decaying mass of tissue? The wonders of the brain do not spring out of the ground for no reason. Are we to believe that algorithms superior to AI sprung up by chance in brains we did not design ourselves? No; our “common sense” tells us that our minds are purposeful designs from a far, far greater mind. But that shriveled brain from a mud pit reminds us that something is terribly wrong in the world. Someone murdered this man, cut off his head, and tossed it into a pit 2,600 years ago.

Jesus repeatedly spoke of being “sent from God” on a rescue mission. He said He came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). Look at the incredible details in the organs of the body He gave us for physical life! Imagine how much better life could be without sin. Those who come to Him must first acknowledge their sin and turn away from it. We have all sinned. We need forgiveness.

Jesus also said that whoever believes in Him would never die – that our life does not have to end with physical death. He demonstrated that by rising again from the dead, promising a similar bodily resurrection to all who repent and believe the good news. No scientist, religious teacher or philosopher ever did that. Follow this link to see how to get right with your Maker and begin a path of love, joy and peace.


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