Opinion: Human brain is new research frontier

August 25, 2013


— Fifty years from now, when Malia and Sasha are grandmothers, their father’s presidency might seem most consequential because of a small sum — $100 million — for studying something small. “As humans,” Barack Obama said when announcing the initiative to study the brain, “we can identify galaxies light-years away ... but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”

Actually, understanding the brain will be a resounding success without unlocking the essential mystery, which is: How does matter become conscious of itself? Or should we say, how does it become — or acquire — consciousness? Just trying to describe this subject takes scientists onto intellectual terrain long occupied by philosophers. Those whose field is the philosophy of mind will learn from scientists such as Princeton’s David Tank, a leader of the BRAIN Initiative, which aims at understanding how brain regions and cells work together, moment to moment, throughout our lives.

If, as is said, a physicist is an atom’s way of knowing about atoms, then a neuroscientist like Tank is a brain cell’s way of knowing about brain cells. Each of us has about 100 billion of those, each of which communicates with an average of 10,000 other nerve cells. The goal of neuroscientists is to discover how these neural conversations give rise to a thought, a memory or a decision. And to understand how the brain functions, from which we may understand disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy.

Biological causes have been determined for only about 3 percent of the disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. With “mapping,” scientists may at last establish connections between neurotransmitters and particular mental disorders. This might influence how pharmaceutical companies direct their research. And treatments of post-traumatic stress disorders might benefit from learning how the mind erases disturbing memories.

Understanding the brain is, Tank says, different from the Human Genome Project. The latter simply sequenced, and made straightforward extrapolations, concerning a well-defined group of 3.1 billion “letters” that comprise the “alphabet” that determines the growth of a human being from a single cell to a complex human being. We are learning what each letter does, if not yet how. In the case of the brain, “mapping” is not just trying to ascertain what particular parts of the brain do in response to external events, but how the brain parts engage in “conversation” with each other, and how they can change over time.

Much brain activity — much thinking — is not, Tank notes, the result of external stimuli. So, is the brain conversing with — acting upon — itself? This internal conversation is at the core of who — and what — we are.

New technologies enable scientists to watch the brain in action, monitoring neural activity as it thinks. Even a decades-old technology, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveals, Tank says, “what parts of the brain are active in particular computations and behaviors.”

In 50 years, fMRI images will seem as crude as Magellan’s maps. We will understand thought processes with instantaneous cellular resolution, and hence the essence of what brains do, and what derails them.

Development of the transistor, progenitor of the Digital Age, required only advances in materials science. There is, Tank says, “no comparable base of knowledge for the brain” because there is no mechanistic understanding of how the brain works. Pharmacology is groping for therapeutic effects because drugs target particular receptors the workings of which are not understood. To the brain, small pills can be sledgehammers. Understanding brain dynamics will enable ever more precise chemical and other interventions.

If we had to think about combing our hair or making toast, we would never get out of the house in the morning. Habits enable us to function because neurons are “conversing” with networks involving thousands of other cells. But ethicists — and courts, and poets — will be warily watching what is learned about the neural basis of choices, habits, love and other important things.

Do we have bodies or are we bodies? What will become of the field of psychology as explorations of brain anatomy advances our understanding of how brain architecture influences, or even determines, behavior? “The devil made me do it” is no longer an exculpation. But what about “My brain circuitry made me do it”? Someday debates about free will may be resolved by understanding that we are responsible for our actions because we have “ownership” of three especially intricate pounds of matter.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


jafs 1 year, 3 months ago

Interesting stuff. I do worry a little bit about how this knowledge might be abused by advertising, and those who want to indoctrinate people without their consent.

jafs 1 year, 3 months ago

Yes, and as they get even more information about how our brains and psyches work, they'll be able to do it even better - isn't that a concern?

weeslicket 1 year, 3 months ago

and yet this is exactly the kind of funding that is at risk from the radical right. corporations will not make these kinds of investments in R and D because of their quarterly worldviews.

pti3 1 year, 3 months ago

Some important parts of the story aren't mentioned in this article. The following articles touch on important parts of this issue this op ed overlooks:

Why You Should Care about Pentagon Funding of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative By John Horgan | ⁠ May 22, 2013⁠ |

Eisenhower’s Ghost and Obama’s Brain April 3, 2013

Outlaw nonconsensual human experiments now

Human Experiments: A Chronology of Human Research

All the President's Neuroscientists

bearded_gnome 1 year, 3 months ago

Jafs, all technologies have the potential to be abused. soon after the telegraph was invented, some folks sed it to gain quicker insider info in order to make money improperly on stock exchanges and other trading venues.

jafs 1 year, 3 months ago

Yes, and some more than others, and in different sorts of ways.

This sort of thing has the potential to be abused in ways that concern me a lot.

bearded_gnome 1 year, 3 months ago

I agree, I don't like pentagon funding this.

$100-million though is chump change given the equipment, necessary research, and the fact that truly indeed we don't have a mechanistic understanding of the brain, nor do we have a really good philosophy of overall ain/mind functining.

the brain is self-aware and self-modifying. pretty cool.

Ken Lassman 1 year, 3 months ago

Do you think that George Will is getting a bit worried about the anti-science label that the GOP has given itself, with stances against evolution being taught in the schools, denying the reality of climate change, politicizing realms of government funded research like ways to reduce gun violence, using stem cells, etc. adding crazy riders that interferes with doing good research on a wide number of issues important to society?

Of course he has contributed many columns obfuscating the reality of climate change and humanity's role in it, but I must say it is refreshing to see him even for a single column to talk about the value of science in understanding the workings of the brain. He obviously has a long way to go to convince people that good science has a comfortable place in the neocon world, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step and perhaps this is at least lifting his foot and moving it in the right direction.

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