Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Uniqueness Problem; Why Neuroscience Chokes on Comprehending the Mind

Another reason why the analogy of the brain as a computer fails:
The empty brain
Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer

"Think how difficult this problem is. To understand even the basics of how the brain maintains the human intellect, we might need to know not just the current state of all 86 billion neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections, not just the varying strengths with which they are connected, and not just the states of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each connection point, but how the moment-to-moment activity of the brain contributes to the integrity of the system. Add to this the uniqueness of each brain, brought about in part because of the uniqueness of each person’s life history, and Kandel’s prediction starts to sound overly optimistic. (In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, the neuroscientist Kenneth Miller suggested it will take ‘centuries’ just to figure out basic neuronal connectivity.)

Meanwhile, vast sums of money are being raised for brain research, based in some cases on faulty ideas and promises that cannot be kept. The most blatant instance of neuroscience gone awry, documented recently in a report in Scientific American, concerns the $1.3 billion Human Brain Project launched by the European Union in 2013. Convinced by the charismatic Henry Markram that he could create a simulation of the entire human brain on a supercomputer by the year 2023, and that such a model would revolutionise the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders, EU officials funded his project with virtually no restrictions. Less than two years into it, the project turned into a ‘brain wreck’, and Markram was asked to step down.

We are organisms, not computers. Get over it. Let’s get on with the business of trying to understand ourselves, but without being encumbered by unnecessary intellectual baggage. The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way. The time has come to hit the DELETE key."
While I agree with most of this, it is hard to reconcile the idea that I have no visual memories with what seem to be actual visual memories to me. For instance, last week we had to euthanize our beloved 16 year old dog, who had suffered paralysis after his second severe seizure. I have a very vivid narrow beam visual memory of that event - not the surrounding environment, not the veterinarian and assistant who are blurs, but of my canine friend. There have been cases of people with total recall, down to the ability to count the number of pickets in a fence seen once, years ago. Which merely shows that much about the mind is inexplicable, and no map of the neuronal connections will tell us anything, especially if the map changes with each new experience.

Forty years ago it was commonly held that both the liver and the brain did not regenerate after damage (anti-liquor propaganda, I guess). It is now known that both do regenerate. Much more will be known in another 40 years. But I doubt that the mind will have been found as a physical lump anywhere in the cranium.

1 comment:

Steven Satak said...

‘Mind is like no other property of physical systems. It is not just that we don’t know the mechanisms that give rise to it. We have difficulty in seeing how *any* mechanism can give rise to it.’ - Physicist Erich Harth