But as far as possible, the Argentine neurologist Facundo Manes (Quilmes, 1969) knows him quite well.
Manes grew up in a town in the province of Buenos Aires with a dream: to follow in the footsteps of his father, a rural doctor. And he got it.
He graduated in Medicine from the University of Buenos Aires in 1992 and, while still a student, obtained a scholarship in Neuroscience from the Argentine Medical Association.
From there, the brain became its great object of study. At Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, university of Iowa, Cambridge… Today he is one of the most reputable neurologists in the world.
He has published numerous books and starred in several television shows, including «The Brain Enigmas» and «The Argentine Brain», produced together with Mateo Niro, graduated in Letters.
Together, at four hands, Manes and Niro have written what is their latest book: «The Brain of the Future: Will Modern Life Change Our Essence?», in which they address the impact of new technologies on the brain, neuroethics and role of science as a mediator of social problems, all under the optics of the latest advances in the field of neuroscience.
Facundo Manes spoke with BBC Mundo as part of the Hay Ar FestivalEquipa, which takes place virtually between October 28 and November 8.
What makes the brain such a fascinating organ?
The brain is fascinating, among other qualities, because it is the only organ that tries to explain itself. And so we realize that everything we do can be done thanks to him, from breathing to reading this interview or thinking about the deeper philosophical questions.
It is the most complex and enigmatic structure in the universe. It contains more neurons than existing stars in the galaxy.
«The brain contains more neurons than the existing stars in the galaxy.»
How much do we really know today about him?
In recent decades there have been many advances we have been able to make in the knowledge of the brain. We can say that in these years we have learned more about him than in the whole history of mankind.
To mention some advances, it has been shown that memory, contrary to what is commonly assumed, is not a box in which we keep our memories, but is our last memory.
It’s not about the fact that we live because every time we evoke something we change it.
We also know that neurons continue to regenerate throughout life, even in adult life.
In addition, neurosciences have made important contributions to understanding the different components of empathy, critical areas of language, the brain mechanisms of emotion, and the neural circuits involved in seeing and interpreting the world around us.
And significant advances have been made in the early detection of psychiatric and neurological diseases, allowing to design more efficient treatments and therapies.
In turn, we deepen our knowledge of the learning process and this results in better planning of strategies in the educational field, among many others.
All advances in brain knowledge contribute to a better quality of life for people and life in society.
And what do we need to know about the brain and when will we know?
While much progress has been made, it must also be acknowledged that we have much to know.
For example, we’ve learned about specific brain processes, but there’s still no brain theory explaining how it works overall.
In addition, new knowledge raises new questions. So we can wonder if we can ever figure out the brain’s riddles in its entirety.
I always remember the phrase of a renowned neuroscientist who said that addressing the question of how our brain works is like trying to jump off shoelaces.
Anyway, I think the future of science is very promising and our knowledge will continue to advance.
Throughout our lives, our brains are constantly transformed
Is the brain a perfect machine?
I wouldn’t talk about perfection, but I would talk about complexity and potentiality.
Throughout our lives, our brains are constantly transformed. It is a flexible and adaptive organ.
This neuroplasticity, that ability of the nervous system to modify or adapt to changes, allows neurons to reorganize by forming new connections and adjust their activities in response to transformations in the environment.
That is, our experience permanently changes our brains.
This is one of the main mechanisms through which the species has evolved and adapted over time, beyond what was genetically defaulted.
Your last book is titled «The Brain of the Future.» What exactly will it be like That brain of the Morning?
It’s not an easy answer question. In anatomical terms the brain will not change in centuries.
With all the technological advances being developed we may think that, perhaps, in the future our brains will be more linked to the influence of genetic engineering and biotechnology in expanding our capabilities.
There are authors who argue that evolution in terms of natural selection is no longer as relevant to modern humans in the cultural and technological world in which we develop.
What would be fundamental is cultural and technological adaptation. We are able to change the natural environment efficiently through the use of technology.
While generations change every 25-35 years, with available technology it is possible to achieve change much faster.
Currently, we are able to manipulate genes through artificial selection and modify biological traits.
Technology is enabling the development of artificial tissues, such as skin constructed from plastic, and devices such as artificial retinas or cochlear implants, for example.
It is likely that, over the next hundreds of years, it will be possible to create or regenerate the neural tissue that makes up the brain, which would have important implications in the treatment of diseases that today have no cure, such as dementia.
Some people think that with new technologies we won’t need to use the brain and we can keep it in a drawer. Is that so?
No, not at all, it won’t be like that. No machine can replace our brains.
Our mind is much more than an information processor. Let us think of all the skills of our social brain, such as understanding the mind of another human being, feeling his pain, responding to him.
So empathy, altruism, cooperation are capacities beyond any machine, and fundamental to our lives. Because we don’t have to forget that human beings are basically social beings.
Let us also think of our frontal lobe, the one that deals with executive functions, that is, the ability to set goals, plan and self-monitor one’s performance to achieve a goal.
Thanks to him we can develop a plan, execute it, make decisions, infer the thoughts of others and act accordingly, inhibit impulses, and at the same time control these processes.
Can this be done by a machine? No.
So the machines aren’t going to replace us. We will continue to need each brain to continue to work with the genius that characterizes it and leave the drawer to store clothes or other machines in disuse.
No machine can replace our brains
How are they transforming new technologies into our brains?
Technology has led to numerous advances.
For example, in the field of medicine, many tools have been designed to diagnose diseases more accurately and earlier.
New treatments and devices have also been created that significantly improve people’s lives.
To size all this, I can name a well-known case of a tetraplegic woman, with no mobility in her limbs who was able to move a robotic arm.
Two electrode grids were surgically implanted into the motor cortex, responsible for voluntary control of movements.
These electrodes sent brain signals to a computer and complex computer algorithms decoded and identified brain patterns associated with arm and hand movements.
Then, when this woman thought about moving her arm, the electrodes detected the brain oscillations and computational software translated them into motion commands that were executed by a robotic arm.
Without a doubt, this advancement is revolutionary because of the impact it has on quality of life.
For its part, while technology can cause us stress by getting keep an eye on emails, the latest message from ouror cellular, from the latest news and taking us to multitasking, at a time when we live through the covid 19 pandemic, technology, being able to be connected, has been a great ally of all.
It helps us to better carry these moments of physical estating.
The brain is an organ the result of millions of years of evolution. Can you invoke because of artificial intelligence, new technologies, or any other aspect?
Just as it is the product of the evolution of millions of years, it takes thousands of years to see changes at the brain level.
Having its evolutionary history, in which there has been no noticeable change in the physical appearance of humans for 200,000 years, it is difficult to think that the structure of the brain will change drastically in the coming centuries.
Nor invoke, because just as fewer functions are required for some practices – remembering data or doing certain mathematical operations – are required for others.
Yes, it is key to take care of the stress that excessive reliance on technology can lead to. Because we know that chronic stress negatively impacts our health and our brains.
Over the course of a day, we make a lot of decisions and do so in milliseconds
Are we our brains or our emotions?
That’s a very good question. We’re both, but because it’s not about different issues.
Emotions have a seat in the brain and are central to our lives. They impact our memory because we remember better what moves us.
For example, everyone remembers what they were doing on September 11, 2001 when the Twin Towers bombing happened, but no one remembers what he was doing the day before. In addition, emotions influence our decision-making.
In a simplified way, we can understand that we have two systems for decision-making: one automatic and fast, which is the product of evolutionary mechanisms and another, slow and rational.
Over the course of a day, we make a lot of decisions and do it in milliseconds. These decisions are based on this automatic mechanism that is determined by emotions.
In reality, very few decisions we make with the slow system, in which we weigh the pros and cons of a situation.
We are guided by emotions, the rational is usually the explanation we make of decisions after we have made them.
In your book «The Argentine Brain» you argue that although the brain of Argentines has no differential anatomical particularity with those of other nationalities since all brains are the same, each brain is shaped by interaction with the environment, social context, culture, tastes and experiences. What is the brains of Argentines like in that sense?
Indeed, in terms of anatomy, my «Argentine brain» is equal to the brain of a Russian, an Englishman, a Japanese or a Dane.
So, really, there’s no Argentine brain.
Now, we think, decided, felt, influenced by the people around us, our co-workers, ward, office, our partner, our friends. And also the societies in which we live and the stories of those societies.
We have to look for them in the societies in which we grew and lived, in the stories of these societies. So, we can think of biases that characterize us.
What are those biases? These are mental schemes depending on what we act on. They are the structures of thought that allow us to interpret the information coming from around us.
We can think of them as «molds» from which we form an interpretation of ourselves, others, and the world. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves what argentine biases are.
We Argentines are supportive and families, but we have to recognize that we can also highlight the so-called «Criolla nursery», «advantageism».
That is why we always say this and we must agree that as a society we have to put aside this behavior and think and plan which country we want in the future, consider the long term.
We need to understand that real vividness is in achieving an integrated community that acts with the intelligence of thinking of a country project based on knowledge, education and consequently growth and equality.
Our mind is much more than an information processor
What impact is the coronavirus pandemic having on our brains? How do fear, isolation, loneliness, telework, online classes and lack of contact with others affect our brains?
The pandemic has a negative impact on our mental health. We are exposed to high levels of stress.
Our routines were completely altered, we are afraid, we are est distanced from our loved ones.
Not doing the things we always do and doing those we don’t usually do takes a lot of effort.
In addition, the economic unrest resulting from this situation creates a serious social anguish that is considered another risk factor for psychological disorders.
If societies do not take collective action to protect our mental health, we will have a pandemic of mental illness.
Various research records that extensive quarantine durations are associated with post-traumatic stress, emotional exhaustion, depression, insomnia, anxiety, irritability and frustration.
In a study conducted in Argentina by Fundación INECO, at the average 72 days of the onset of quarantine, it was observed that mental fatigue was the most important factor in explaining feelings of anxiety and symptoms of depression of people.
It is important to prevent this from having long-term consequences and becoming chronic. It’s just that mental health can’t be separated from physical health. This is an integral whole.
If societies don’t take collective action to protect our mental health, we’re going to have a pandemic of mental illness
That’s why it’s as important to maintain healthy habits as to get a good night’s sleep, have a healthy diet, as well as avoid tobacco, alcohol and drugs.
As soon as possible we must maintain routines, have constant schedules for lying down and getting up, work, study and/or exercise, and strengthen our social ties, because these links help us foster a sense of normalcy, give us contention and allow us to share what we feel.
On many sides, it is not possible to meet physically, but we can stay connected thanks to technology.
We also have to be sympathetic to ourselves, we can’t expect to have the usual level of performance or the usual concentration and energy after so many months of facing the pandemic.
In this sense, it may be beneficial to perform relaxation and meditation practices such as mindfulness.
Some studies recognize that areas of the prefrontal cortex, associated with emotions and social functions, are intensely stimulated with meditation, while areas of the brain typically associated with the processing of negative emotions, such as the amygdala, decrease their activity.
It’s about developing the ability to be fully attentive to all the moments in your life, reducing the amount of time you spend worrying about the future or the past.
We have to take care of our health in an integral way and know that among all of us we will overcome this situation.