The Science

Our brains are immensely complex places, and trying to keep track of every little thing happening there is on the scale of trying to track everything happening across an entire city at the same time.

Telling stories is one way of pulling important details out of a complex world and showing their connections, and telling stories about superheroes is a great way of exploring parts of the world we can't fully explain.

For all the advances of science, how consciousness arises from the physical brain remains a great mystery. What has become clear is that the brain doesn't have a central authority, organizing things from the top down. Rather, the perception of order that emerges on a larger scale does so from the combined chaos of many, many smaller forces. In my research, I found a great source of information about the structures in the brain, from the smallest to the most sweeping, each explained at three different reading levels.

I also found that after I knew more, I could recognize some of these things happening in my own brain in real time. Now, I think that a brain becoming aware of itself is one of the most incredible outcomes in a vast and random universe, but there's so, so much out there to learn. I hope that this page can be a bridge from reading about the world of this story into starting to understand the underlying science.

For most of the activities I learned to recognize, the best way to imagine them was by knowing which chemicals were causing what effects by interacting across the different regions of the brain -- or in simpler terms: who's doing what and where.


I made separate pages for each of the story's main heroes -- Ace, Dopa, Nora and Sera. Each one represents a different signaling chemical and acts out the important jobs they do in the brain.

In addition, there are a whole bunch more characters that populate the city, representing other chemicals, which would have been fleshed out more if the series had continued:

...Doing What...

A signaling chemical's main job in the brain is to help decide whether traffic can cross the local "intersection."

See, each block of Brain city is meant to represent a single brain cell. At the end each cell's axon (roads, in the story) there's an intersection where signals pass from one cell to the next by causing or preventing a kind of green light called an action potential.

In the stories, the heroes fly around in the helicopter they share, called the Modulator, which lets them skip the traffic lights completely. That's because the four "hero" chemicals are special. Each of them can spread from small areas in the brain between the cells, instead of along the "roads," to affect huge regions of the brain in a single burst. This is called neuromodulation.

The heroes do take the "surface roads" too sometimes. That's how they affect the other traffic, but they can also do both at the same time. Really, none of these chemicals are in just one place at a time. There are billions of these molecules, constantly performing different functions in different parts of the brain.

...And Where

Like real city blocks, every cell is a bit different, but different neighborhoods are known for different kinds of cells. Each brain region has special arrangements of cells and connections to other regions that create a hardwired function.

All that is just the tip of the iceberg. The more science comes to understand about the brain, the more complexity it seems to discover. I hope all this helps with your own research.

As humans, we may never fully understand our own brains, but that's no reason not to try.

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