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January 19th, 2010
Program Three: Brain Matters
Video: Full Episode

Peer into Alan Alda’s head to find out which parts of our brain are responsible for our most human characteristics. Where do tool use and language reside? And how do our brains allow us to understand symbolism, figure out what others are thinking, and even travel in time? Are insight and imagination what really make humans unique?

  • Jean SmilingCoyote

    In addition to being a fascinating & educational show, this gave me a surprise in the conversation with Robin Dunbar. In 2005, after reading about his findings on the “social brain hypothesis,” I had some e-mail communication with him about an application I’ve made of it. It was “way cool” to see this conversation.

  • Carol Romano

    Do the same areas of the brain that recognize grammatical errors light up when a secondary (learned as an adult)language grammatical error is presented? And, do these same areas treat grammatical errors rhat are the subjects “norm” any differently?
    Just wondering and thanks for reading this!

  • Michelle Armbruster

    I found this utterly fascinating. My mind in a whirl or thought. I have always found the human brain to be interesting; however now I realize that it is the Science of being Human that I am most interested in. I was thoroughly impressed by the questions that were asked and the brilliant answers that were injected.

  • Jim Mauch

    That someone could take an interesting idea as the human spark and create a program like this. Imagine that! What you did here is quite impressive. Keep up the great work.

  • Bobby Shafto

    It seems to me that tulip (especially in the US) consists of the two phonemes tu and lip, and ticket consists of the phonemes ti and ket – so i think the planning between t and u is not required. (In British English, it may be.) This research is very soft, and not at all like, say QED, which is not easy to observe, but has very high precision. Some say that the Neanderthals used sea shells as beads, but not on this program, because that might make them too sparky.

  • claudia warszawski

    I am bilingual. Does this means that I have two language centers in my brain? Does any other animal have the capacity to learn another language?

  • Francis Elster

    Your work here is fascinating and very insightful. But why do you spend so much time trying to prove there is no God, or that our brains invented God. From your study, you must realize that our brains are designed. Who designed it? Nature/Evolution? Hmmmm…It’s obvious, God designed our brains… which is where the “Human Spark” comes from.

  • Dana Manda

    I found it fascinating that the brain uses “idle time” to think big, dream, jump from thought to thought. As a student of yoga, I have learned that this facet of the mind’s activity is called “the monkey brain” – but we find that it is an inherently human ability! I’m curious if there has been any research into mapping the brains of yogis while meditating – as they quiet the “monkey brain”.

  • Parapraxis

    @ claudia warszawski
    The brain contains only one language centre, a person can know 1 or 10 languages and that will not change, what may change however is the efficiency and capacity of your language centre depending on how much you use language and how well you learn it.

  • Parapraxis

    *Note for above, for clarity* When I used the term “capacity”, I did not mean physical size, rather the depth of knowledge in regards to language that any given brain might acquire.

  • Parapraxis

    @ Francis Elster,
    I’m sorry but if you do indeed find it mandatory for everything in the world to have been “created” by something or as you suggest someone, please consider the infinite regress that you are imposing on your own notions.
    If everything must be created then in order to follow that rule properly, you must ask the question “who created god?”, and thus forth, “who created the god who created god?”
    Etc, Etc.
    Also I’d like to point out that what this program and almost every other proper science program does is simply put forth information in an intelligent and creative and sometimes challenging way. There is no anterior motive here, and nobody is saying “abandon your god’ as you seem to believe.
    What is presented, in particular with this show is opinions of how it may be that human cultures all over the world came to believe in the supernatural.
    If you want to retain any given belief you have the utmost right to do so, and that in the end would be your opinions/belief system. You have every bit as much right to those opinions as the people in this program who have done years of research/studying have a right to theirs.

  • Marcie Taylor

    I was blown away by the Theory of Mind research being done by Rebecca Saxe at MIT. I have a four year old son with Autism, and people with Autism lack Theory of Mind, creating significant social challenges. Her identification of this area of the brain facinates me. I look forward to learning more about the research being done in this area.

    Well done.

  • Cameron Lapworth

    Thank you all involved. I’m from Australia and had no idea until I heard from a podcast that this would be on that Alan Alda was doing science documentaries I have simply known him from MASH and other movie appearances. It’s wonderful that he has done such an excellent job here and not just been a paid mouth. Wonderful series you should all be proud of your work.

  • Travis


    He also hosts the excellent program Scientific American Frontiers. See Many of the episodes are available in the PBS video archive at

  • Elizabeth Stowe

    What were the 2 characteristics that Alan Alda closed the final episode with, that he concluded sum up the “human spark”? I think one was “imagination”? and the other was something like, empathy? but I’d like what he concluded.Thanks.

  • Robert Huang

    Buyers beware! It is an interesting program. however if one does not questioning the information put forward and not to do further readings but accepting as facts. The program fails as a spark for further learning. Instead, it will become a cult just as all religions are.

  • Victor


    He concluded that the human spark is characterized by imagination and insight, both of which we use to empathize with others, plan ahead, learn without actually experiencing, and invent new tools.

    From the program, I’m not sure if the areas that were active from the MRI are coming from the cortices or the inside of the brain, or both? If both, does that corroborate the fact that damage around the temporal lobe causing auditory hallucinations may be due to turning imagination into reality?

  • Alex S.

    As this segment points out, our ability to live -vicariously- is what truly sets us apart from any other species. In conjunction with our linguistic abilities and cooperative nature, it’s no wonder that humans are the first species on Earth to have made it into space.

    Our abilities have set into motion a new type of evolution, that of culture and idea’s.

  • Dawk

    @Francis Elster

    Yes, it’s true, Zeus created our brains and Thor put the spark in there.

  • Lise

    This was used in my neuroscience class in university as a learning tool……………very interesting.
    Now sending the link to friends and family to enjoy!

  • edwardharwell

    i think that the stroy of brain was pretty asome i never really thought that the brain can do many things with the part of the body. i never new that a mouse brain was so little compared to the rest of the aminal i really really like this story about the brain matbe some day i could be one off the students our scientists that no a whole bunch about the brain. so i would like to say is that i like the book.

  • Carlos C.

    Fantastic program! Anyway I think we have to very careful once analyzing the human spark; some dolphins have shown capacity of complex sentences; some birds and squirrel are able to make maps where they hide food and come back month later for it; some birds can not only repeat words but use its meaning consistently. Dogs from other side are very capable to be train and act smart on emergencies but not create too much; felines are much more creative. Where is really the difference?

    There is one important difference between humans and most mammals, including all apes: we lost most of our body hair. There is one task we succeed all terrestrial animals: Marathon; we can be running and walking for hours in order to achieve a goal; other animals can’t and is not because they don’t have the strength it’s because are too hairy and then it’s bodies heats up in a long run or walk. The conclusion I arrive is that we develop imagination before we lost our body hair.

  • sss

    This is so interesting to me also! Especially when I started considering it in social, relationship and male/female situations. I am also wondering about situations in peoples brains who were either born with or have later acquired certain mental or health disabilities? Such as, MS or after awaking and coming out of a coma following a severe accident? Would, can or could their brains be able to function in these same ways and be able to use these same specific areas of their brain that they had been able to use previously before the disability even though they became not able to use their physical communication skills and/or were physically paralized??

Inside This Episode

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