Saturday, August 2, 2014

The fourth brain myth

My NYT OpEd piece on brain myths originally included four: two old, one that has just recently taken hold (mirror neurons) and a fourth that is in the earliest stages of the neuromyth life cycle.  This fourth myth didn't make the editorial cut due to an 800 space limit.  But through the magic of blogging, here it is.

Another 21st century neuromyth is just now being born, the idea that if neuroscientists can map the structure of the brain, from micro to macro circuit, we will achieve a complete understanding of the mind.  The data around which this infant myth is coalescing is the flurry of technological achievements in brain mapping: functional MRI, diffusion-based connectivity, optogenetics, see-through “Clarity” brain technology, and so on.  For the first time in history the prospects of mapping the entire brain seems possible.  There is no question that this research effort will bear fruit, but a complete circuit diagram of the brain won’t explain how the mind works any more than a complete sequence of the human genome explains how the sequence builds a human.  There is simply more to the problem than a sequence or circuit diagram. What we need in addition is a map of the relation between the circuit diagrams, their dynamics, and equally detailed cognitive/computational “maps” of the mental abilities they create.  A number of us in the neuroscience community are making this point already (e.g., Gary Marcus’ recent NYT Op-Ed, “The Trouble with Brain Science” 11 July 2014) and I suspect that under direct questioning many brain mapping practitioners would agree that the maps aren’t the whole story. But given the floodlight of attention cast on the push to map the brain, together with the natural history of science myths, it’s not hard to predict the development of a colossal myth regarding what it will take to truly understand how the brain creates the mind. 


Adam Calhoun said...

Is there really a myth that knowing a connectome will allow us to understand...the whole mind? It sounds like the claim you're implicitly attacking is that understanding network connections won't explain 'the mind' which is, well, obviously true. But it also is pretty fundamental to understanding neural function, no?

Outside of maybe Sebastian Seung, sometimes, I don't know of any neuroscientist that would ever claim that a brain map tells us everything about an organism. I mean, c. elegans, right?

Greg Hickok said...

You are absolutely right. I don't think it has quite reached Myth status. But when the mappers (myself included) spend a good deal of time touting how foundational/game changing this work it (hey, we need funding right!) and when dynamic writers/speakers like Seung are claiming "Your are your connectome" that is the stock for a myth stew. Just trying to remind people what those of us in the trenches know: Your are not your connectome -- c. elegans, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point. I'm a trained Speech and Hearing Scientist and quite love technology in order to explore phenomena of the brain and mind.

On the other hand, I've been learning meditation with a Chinese grandmaster for a couple of years now, which seems to me quite the opposite approach to understand how the mind works, but equally valid, however difficult to examine and validate with respect to Western scientific standards.