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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Will we ever understand the brain?

At The California Academy of Sciences, surrounded by natural African scenes and live penguins, I (with my lovely friend Amanda) watched neuroscientists David Eagleman and Henry Markram discuss whether we'll ever understand the brain, and how consciousness emerges from it.

The short answer: For the engineering of the brain (working out the billions of molecules, circuits, and so on that make up the brain), very probably so. But maybe not for how consciousness emerges from the brain.




Here's my surprise: I've been paying attention to the field of neuroscience for awhile, and I suppose I expected to hear a bit more about the frontiers of the field, but instead the impression was that the level to which we understand how the brain gives rise to the mind has flat-lined. BUT, I'm very happy to see what has changed is the dialogue, and the amazing amount of information that has amassed about the engineering of the brain itself.

Neuroscientists are admitting that even if  they are able to re-create all the engineering of the brain, and work out how complex circuits interact, that may end up telling us nothing about consciousness. I find this admission incredibly refreshing. Chest-puffing over having all the answers and curing brain diseases can get tiresome when there's not even a unifying theory of the brain, but maybe I'm slightly cynical.

So what's the big question now in neuroscience?  According to both Eagleman and Markram, the big question is: WHAT ARE THE MISSING PIECES OF THE PUZZLE?!

In other words, we still know so little about the brain, we don't even know what we're looking for exactly. We do not even know what we know or don't know.

IT'S TIME TO TAKE STOCK!

Markram wants to know: What's the least number of experiments we need to do in order to put the pieces of the puzzle together?

Wow, that sounds beautifully sensible. He's talking about integrating the vast amounts of information out there in the literature (5 million neuroscience-related papers and counting). It's about time! And he's already making remarkable progress with the Blue Brain Project. He showed us phenomenal 3-D art of brain circuits, starting from the molecules to super complex interconnections comprising millions of neurons, all simulated from real brain data. (By the way, is it just me, or does anyone else feel like Markram's eyes are a portal into infinity? I'm not crushing, I'm just saying.)

BUT IS IT A LEVELS PROBLEM?

Eagleman asks if working out all the bits and pieces of the brain will tell us anything about human consciousness. The levels are just too different in order to make a meaningful connection. His analogy is that if you want to understand the financial meltdown in Greece, you wouldn't necessarily want to start by studying the properties of Greek soil. Markram didn't buy it, and they bantered for a while about the possible emergent properties of a neural network which fully simulated a biological brain based on real information about proteins, molecules and neuronal connections. If consciousness did emerge, would it be simply by chance?

WHAT NEXT?

"Half of us is other people", says Eagleman. His lab is going social. He's becoming increasingly interested in working out social influences on perception. My thinking ... that's so hot and understudied. I wonder too about collective consciousness, and if that's a good way of studying individual consciousness. Actually, a girl much younger than I asked David this question, and of course there is no answer. Mind you, David is a firecracker speaker and a gracious question answerer. He has a way of connecting to each person who came up to ask him questions afterwards, as if he hadn't already heard the same questions many times before.

There's also no answer to whether our understanding of consciousness must extend beyond the brain. As my lovely friend Amanda pointed out, the enteric system and gut flora can have real effects on our conscious experience. We also don't know what we don't know (in response to the question, tell us something you don't know).

I ended up picking a question to which I was hoping to get an answer.  After all this talk about how little we actually know, I started to feel like the field of neuroscience was getting thrown under the bus. I mean, millions of dollars spent during the "Decade of the Brain" in the 90's  and into the "Decade of the Mind", SURELY we know SOMETHING that's worth relaying to a lay audience as a CLEAR STORY. Flashy pictures of simulated neurons are great, but I wanted a more satisfying story of a specific frontier they were particularly excited about. So I asked Markram to give us a taste of his favorite what-we-know. His answer? Well, he's a soft-spoken man, and honestly I didn't get much from what he said. I guess I'll have to read his latest publications.

What Markram did make clear, however, is that in order for the field of neuroscience to advance, we need to revolutionize super computing. The only way we're going to get close to understanding the brain is by simulating and analyzing EVERYTHING at the same time. In short, this is a massive computer science challenge, and one he says the field of computing won't be able to handle until the year 2023.

My favorite quote comes from Eagleman:

"Dreams are like sticking your head in a blender." He hates them and doesn't think they mean anything.

Alright, I want to hear what you have to say about the brain, Eagleman, Markram, consciousness, etc.!

Stay Calm,

Jami

1 comment:

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