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When asked to explain in five words how the brain works, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker didn’t hesitate. «Brain cells follow patterns,» he replied. It’s a good effort, but it replaces one riddle with another mystery.

It has long been known that brain cells communicate by sending electrical signals to one another, and there are now many technologies to record their activity patterns: from electrodes to fMRI scanners that can detect changes in blood oxygenation .

But while this information can be collected, the meaning of these patterns remains a mystery. They seem to dance to music we can’t hear, directed by rules we don’t know.

Neurologists talk about the neural code and have made some progress in cracking it. They begin to understand some basic rules, such as when cells in specific parts of the brain are activated based on the task at hand.