Looking at Stress—and God—in the Human Brain

Using fMRI technology to track our thoughts on some big questions.

  1. James Brewer takes a seat beside me in a café at the San Diego Convention Center, where we are both attending the largest neuroscience meeting in the world: thirty thousand brains researching brains. With his balding head, bright eyes, and baby cheeks, Brewer, a neurologist at the University of California at San Diego, looks like a large and curious toddler. An unlikely messenger, perhaps, in what for me is now a moment of truth. I had undergone a series of diagnostic procedures in his laboratory, and now, inside the laptop he has placed on the table, are the results of my brain tests.

    “Your brain is shrinking,” he says.

    This is the last thing I expected to hear. Not me, a man who considers himself healthy and ageless, at least in his own, er, mind.

    “People’s brains begin to shrink when they are in their thirties,” Brewer explains with a smile, to suggest this isn’t really a big deal. “Yours is about average.”

    I’m somewhat reassured but still concerned about what else I will soon learn. Brewer’s tests are just the first stage of a thorough investigation to see what state-of-the-art medical technology can tell me about the health of my noggin, part of a project I’m calling Experimental Man. I am exploring what diseases might be lurking in my head; what my memory is like at the age of 51; and how my brain responds to matters as diverse as fear, greed, the movies I like, and even the idea of God. It is a magical mystery tour of a single person’s brain. Mine.

    Within the hund...

Originally published in Discover, May 2009