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How does the brain work? Using real and fictional characters to setup a story framework, I write about the science of the human (and sometimes animal) mind. I am a journalist rather than a neuroscientist so my approach is exploratory.

Click here to take a 10-question quiz which covers some of the topics I have discussed in my articles. To explore the subjects further, use the site search form (on the right) to find the relevant articles by using keywords from the questions and answers (e.g. enter “turmeric in the search engine to learn more about question #4).



“Why a map, Mom?”

“Well, how do people normally use a map?”

“To get oriented to a place and to use that to find their way around.” Brian thinks for a minute. “So, it’s to understand where neurons are located inside the brain and how they are connected?” He pauses. “But don’t neuroscientists and neurosurgeons already know the locations and the connections?”

“They do but the brain has more than one billion neurons–” his mom says.

“–and several trillion neural connections or roads, you can say. Wait, are the neurotransmitters like roads or like cars? I guess they are like cars.”

His mom smiles. “That’s a close analogy. How do you think they will use the map?”

Brian scratches his chin.

“There are many diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons that we don’t fully understand,” his mom says. “ Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative will help them develop tools that can be used to not only map the brain but to understand how the neurons behave. So, it’s not just about creating a more detailed map but it’s also about getting a dynamic view of the stuff that happens in the brain.”

“But, how, how exactly? How will they capture the messages, the path traversed by the neurotransmitters, the messengers of the brain? I mean, that’s not a static thing…”

“Good point. The current studies use fMRI technologies to measure blood flow in specific parts of the brain. This helps them locate the place where neurotransmitters are active.”

“Yes, I know that!”

“Well, the idea of BRAIN is to provide funding to create more sophisticated tools than the fMRI, to see both high-level view of the neurons and their activities and to get a more close-up view—“

“—yeah, I get it.” He says impatiently. “But how is it different than the research already happening?”

“It’s not necessarily different. It’ll build on the existing work and provide additional resources.”

“Ah, so we can learn about the brain faster.”


“Mom, maybe I can get involved with the BRAIN initiative.”

“Yes, it’s a new thing. So, there will be all types of opportunities if the funding continues. But, first if you have to get qualified by studying neuroscience.”

“Maybe I can become a brain surgeon!”

“Sure, but that means you will learn and use what is already known about the brain. You won’t be making new discoveries. So you won’t be part of BRAIN.”

“So, a neuroscientist then?”

“Yes, or both,” his mom says.

“I can be like Oliver Sacks and be a brain-surgeon and a neuroscientist and a neuroscience writer.”

“Yes, you can be. But first, start exercising your brain on the math homework that’s due tomorrow.”

“Yes  Mom.”

Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.


  1. Flatow,  Ira, host of President Obama Calls for a BRAIN Initiative, NPR>Science>Research News, April 5, 2013,
  2. Neuroscientists Weigh In on Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, Scientific American, May 2, 2013,

Throw the monkey, I mean the ball…


topic aphasia
region Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area


“Give me that banana,” Adam says and a moment later he is shocked at his own words. “Plate,” I mean plate,” he says.

His wife smiles. “It is just a small mistake. Don’t look so panicked.”

Adam has not told his wife about his grandfather. Would she believe him? After all, his grandfather was a world renowned writer. Nobody outside the family knew that he had aphasia when he died.

“There is a reason that I panicked…” He tells her about his grandfather.

“Wasn’t your grandfather writing until pretty late into his life?”

“Well, yes. He wrote well into his 70s. But he had a stroke when he was 73 and had a lot of trouble with word comprehension afterwards. He stopped writing and died when he was 75.”

Adam opens up his laptop and looks up the official definition at the website of National Aphasia Association and shows it to her:

Aphasia is an acquired communication disorder that impairs a person’s ability to process language, but does not affect intelligence. Aphasia impairs the ability to speak and understand others, and most people with aphasia experience difficulty reading and writing.aphasia

They also learn from the website that aphasia onset often occurs after a stroke and that more than 100,000 Americans have this disease.

“Is it there a genetic disposition?”

“They don’t know if it’s genetic, for sure, but I have read that there are some genetic mutations found in aphasia patients so, yes, there could be a genetic predisposition.”

She starts to ask him about his parents and then remembers that they had died in a plane crash. Adam has no brothers and sisters.  Adam is doing more research on the web. “Hmmm… it looks like people with other learning disabilities, like dyslexia, are also likely to get it.”

“Well, I have dyslexia but you don’t… I wonder what that means for the genes we pass on to children that we might have…” His wife says.

He shows her some images on his laptop and explains that the two primary regions in the brain that are affected by aphasia are Broca’s area, in the temporal lobe, and Wernicke’s area in the frontal lobe. Damages to either one or both of these regions can result in aphasia. There are many different types of aphasia depending on the location and degree of damage. According to the American Speech Language Hearing Association:

Some people with aphasia have trouble using words and sentences (expressive aphasia). Some have problems understanding others (receptive aphasia). Others with aphasia struggle with both using words and understanding (global aphasia).

Aphasia can cause problems with spoken language (talking and understanding) and written language (reading and writing). Typically, reading and writing are more impaired than talking or understanding.

Aphasia may be mild or severe. The severity of communication difficulties depends on the amount and location of the damage to the brain.

“Honey, I am sorry, maybe I should not have told you,” Adam says, when he sees the look of concern on her face.

“Adam, don’t worry so much. We’ll deal with whatever happens.” A few days later, however, she starts to worry. As a television anchorman, words are Adam’s passion and his livelihood. How would he react if he developed aphasia? What about it they decide to have children? Will they be predisposed to this disease? Maybe he should not have told her, she thinks. No, it’s much better to know. At least she would not be shocked and would have some inkling as to what’s going on if it ever happened to him.

This monthly column is published in magazine. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at


  1. Mayo Clinic, Primary Progressive Aphasia, January 16, 2013,
  2. American Speech Language Hearing Association, What are some signs or symptoms of aphasia?
  3. National Aphasia Association, What Is Aphasia,

World of Words


topic words
regions Broca’s area, Wernicke’s Area, motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, and other regions


Wendy has to stay at home with her mother while her siblings go to Universal Studios with their father. She is recovering from flu and her parents want her to take it easy. She is unhappy about the situation and sulks as her siblings go off to have a day of fun.

But when her siblings return from their adventure, Wendy is flush with excitement and does not even notice them. Her mother has given her a story book set in India. Wendy lives in a small town in the US, near Los Angeles. She is 15-yrs-old and has just started to discover the cultures of other countries. A particular scene in one of the stories fires up her imagination “a rainbow of colors swirled in the air and she closed her eyes just before the red-yellow-blue-green-purple powders landed on her white shirt.”

Wendy is engrossed in the exotic scenes in the book and her brain is having an adventure that’s comparable to that of her siblings’. The meaning of the sentences, paragraphs, and the entire narrative, is parsed by language processing centers in the brain called Broca’s area in the frontal lobe and Wernicke’s area in the temporal lobe.  For a long time, neuroscientist understood that Broca’s area is used for reading aloud and for producing language and that Wernicke’s is used for comprehension. But, according to studies cited in the New York Times and study results published in an article in the Harvard Crimson, Broca’s area is used for comprehension also.

The processing does not end once the meaning of the words is parsed. Some of the other regions that are involved in further analysis are motor and somatosensory cortexes. These areas catapult the experience from beyond the wordsunderstanding of the story and characters into simulating the experience for the reader. It’s not exactly like the 4D simulation of Universal Studios, but it is much more individualized than the rides at the amusement park and can entertain longer depending on the length of the story being read.

Per neuroscience studies cited in the book Words to Brain and in a New York Times article, the actions of characters in Wendy’s book activate the motor cortex and the somatosensory cortex in the frontal lobe.  The motor cortex, as the name implies, sends signals to other parts of the body for the coordination of movements, like walking, dancing, eating, etc. The somatosensory cortex manages the sensations of touching. Other parts of the brain are also engaged in the process of simulating the reading experience and more research is being done to comprehend the details.

When Wendy’s imagination recreates the scenes and the experiences of the characters, her brain experiences the event as if the scene had occurred in front of her or perhaps even to her. As she reads about the Indian festival of holi, her mind’s eye sees the colorful powders falling, the smile people dresses in white, the colors landing on their clothes…The words on the page activate her brain in a similar manner that it would be activated had she been part of the story.

Neuroscientists are only beginning to study the biological basis of the power of reading but good storytellers have known how to exploit it for centuries. Most avid fiction readers are familiar with the experience of getting lost in a story filled with compelling emotions, evocative scenes, and hypnotic storyline. Of course, the success of a story in achieving movement and sensory activation of the brain is dependent on the skill of the writer in communicating the narrative to the reader. As the characters move around slyly and playfully, filling up water guns with colored water or their hands with colored powder, Wendy experiences the scene only as vibrantly as the author is able to recreate it.


This monthly column is published in magazine. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at  this site.

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.


  1. The New York Times. Your Brain On Fiction, March 17, 2012.
  2. Blackburne, Livia. From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?).
  3. The Harvard Crimson. Broca’s Area May Have New Function, October 19, 2009.
  4. Pub Med. Broca’s area plays a role in syntactic processing during Chinese reading comprehension, April 2008.