One of man's longest running and least fruitful endeavors has been to understand the human mind. From Plato to Kant to Stephen Hawking, many brilliant thinkers have tempted us with theories, yet clarity escapes us. But now an ambitious new proposal aspires beyond prior boundaries.
You may have read of President Obama's BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), a $100 million proposal to map the neural circuitry of the brain. This concept has a lot of people excited, scientists, disease advocates, and politicians alike. Yes, this is an idea that Republicans and Democrats agree is important.
Dr. William Newsome, a neurobiologist at Stanford, is quoted by Reuters as postulating that “brain science will be to the 21st century what quantum physics and DNA molecular biology were to the 20th century.” Others speculate that this mapping exercise could help prevent Alzheimer's, cure Parkinson's, and perhaps even attain the holy grail of neuroscience — give an understanding of how the human mind functions. But before you join that chorus of optimism, take a moment to consider what Dr. Robert A. Burton thinks.
Dr. Burton is a neurologist and the author of the recently released book, A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves. (St. Martin's Press, 2013.) The central thesis to Dr. Burton's book is that we should be careful in equating technology with an ability to understand our own minds, despite all of the amazing technological advances at our disposal. A Skeptics Guide to the Mind sharply guides us through a litany of initially promising but eventually debunked research and illuminating examples countering the conventional wisdom that humans occupy a special place in the animal world because of the uniqueness of their minds. It is a book that should give philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists pause. A couple of examples:
We assume that the human mind is an individual entity, one shaped by others around us but at its core an independent actor. But consider examples from the natural world, such as slime mold, where complex decisions arise solely from group behavior. No idea what slime mold is all about? Simply put, it is a single-celled organism without any nervous system that nevertheless gains intelligence in times of need (like when food is scarce) and when acting in concert with others of its species. It can form a megamold in these conditions that moves smartly and efficiently toward food sources. Who's to say that a similar, more global view of human intelligence is not possible or likely?
Much of what we know about human psychology may be culturally influenced. Dr. Burton cites a study by Heinrich and colleagues of cultural differences in interpreting the Müller-Lyer optical illusion in which the apparent length of two straight lines is distorted by placing mirror image arrows on each end. (See drawing.) It turns out that Westerners generally see one line as being longer than the other while technologically less advanced cultures see the lines as the same length. Such studies raise the question of the universal applicability of Western psychology for Dr. Heinrich (and Dr. Burton) based primarily on study of Western subjects, when our environment can influence a basic aspect of perception such as determining the length of a line.
Given this provocatively skeptical background, I was curious what Dr. Burton thought about the BRAIN initiative and whether he agreed with Dr. Newsome that brain science would take a quantum leap in the 21st century. He concurred, with a caveat.
“Even with the advances in basic science — from genetics to quantum physics — we are still left with a huge gap between basic scientific knowledge and any coherent understanding of the big conceptual problems of neuroscience, such as what is consciousness or even what is a mind. No one has a clue how the most complete understanding of brain function creates the feelings of love, joy, and disappointment.”
Similarly, Dr. Burton noted, an exquisitely detailed map of the neural circuitry of the brain might give us a beautiful picture of electrical impulses associated with the paranoid imagery seen by a schizophrenic, but it likely will not tell us what is causing those impulses to occur in the first place. Others are in agreement, including a team from Stanford (led by Dr. Kwanghun Chung), which recently published a study describing a technique called CLARITY allowing for three-dimensional images of neural activity. Despite the breathtaking nature of the technique (check out the video at http://bit.ly/17b17lP), the authors still admit, “Turning immense data sets into useful insights remains a key challenge.”
Dr. Burton expands on this concept: “By describing the wiring, you will have a good idea of the anatomy of a brain, but will still be in the dark as to what perceptions that brain is generating. If you see someone whose stove is on, you may deduce that they are cooking dinner, but you will not have any idea how dinner will taste.”
What then can help us attain not just data about but an understanding of the mind? For Dr. Burton, there's only one choice: a visionary who can develop a theory, a conceptual bulwark, on which the rich volume of data can be supported. “It needs to be someone conversant with, but not burdened or constrained by conventional neuroscientific “wisdom,” … an Einstein of the mind. Are there alternatives to an Einstein of the mind? No, not really.”
I am a fan of theory, data, and Einstein, and can offer just one other alternative: what about a Newton of the mind? Anyone care to volunteer? There are about to be $100 million and a quadrillion or so neurons at your disposal.