22-25 July 2021 Jodrell Bank Observatory

The Idea of the Brain

Matthew Cobb is Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, where he studies the sense of smell, insect behaviour and the history of science. His most recent books are The Idea of the Brain: A History and Smell: A Very Short Introduction.

Talk: The Idea of the Brain

This is the story of our quest to understand the most mysterious and complex object in the Universe. From Descartes’s idea that the brain is a hydraulic system, through nineteenth-century comparisons of the brain to a telegraph, to current conceptions of the brain as a supercomputer, we will see how technological changes have given scientists a range of ideas of what the brain is—only to see such ideas tossed away when a new technology comes along. Over the decades, scientists have repeatedly clashed over whether function is localised to particular parts of our brain, as in a machine, or if it is rather distributed across regions, represented by the incredibly complex networks of our tens of billions of neurons. Which is true? Informative, mind-boggling and amusing, this talk will take you to the frontier of knowledge, and show you what might be on the other side.