Studying the human brain has been much in the news lately due to Barack Obama's mentioning it in his 2nd state of the union address. John Markoff of the New York Times gives us the details in Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain.
The Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.
The project, which the administration has been looking to unveil as early as March, will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness...
Moreover, the project holds the potential of paving the way for advances in artificial intelligence.
The project, which could ultimately cost billions of dollars, is expected to be part of the president’s budget proposal next month. And, four scientists and representatives of research institutions said they had participated in planning for what is being called the Brain Activity Map project.
The details are not final, and it is not clear how much federal money would be proposed or approved for the project in a time of fiscal constraint or how far the research would be able to get without significant federal financing.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama cited brain research as an example of how the government should “invest in the best ideas.”
“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” he said. “Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.”
Well, this project is long overdue! The Brain Activity Map is yet another government-funded Big Science project, and thus it is yet another form of stimulus designed to lift our depressed economy out of the doldrums. But that quibble aside, there are many brain mysteries to be explored, including, for example, this one—
Indeed, after the speech, Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, may have inadvertently confirmed the plan when he wrote in a Twitter message: “Obama mentions the #NIH Brain Activity Map in #SOTU.”
The mystery here is why humans continue to believe they can communicate something of importance in 140 characters or less, including spaces (" ").
But that is a trivial example. Far deeper mysteries remain to be explored. Let's look at some of them, shall we?
In this typical example, and in millions of other "zombie" cases just like it, the same neural networks—the "economic growth" circuits, the "blame the Republicans" circuits—keep firing over and over again. It's as if all the other brain circuits are dead or never used. To paraphrase Einstein, insanity is saying or doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It's as though this poor man (and many others like him) are in the grip of an overwhelming, uncontrollable obsessive-compulsive disorder. Colloquially speaking, such people are said to be "stuck in a rut".
The blind optimist presents a genuine conundrum for brain science. Although humans are generally optimistic, even in the face of overwhelming evidence confirming that Obligatory Hope is a form of self-deluson, some humans, like Matt Ridley pictured above, are so optimistic that no bad news of any kind can be countenanced. Let me put it this way—if Ridley were aboard the Titanic shortly after it collided with that iceberg, and the ship was already listing at an alarming 45° angle on its way to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, Matt would be singing the praises of Human Ingenuity, confident that the screaming people sliding off the boat might still find a way to get it upright again.
In this disturbing, profoundly mysterious example, the "higher" brain functions embodied in the cerebral cortex are entirely subservient to the reptilian/early mammalian "lower" parts of the brain, which results in an endless, insatiable, rapacious desire to fuck over other humans for personal gain. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, pictured here, is archetypal in this respect, but unfortunately, this creepy (and very dangerous) brain malfunction is more common than generally supposed. Why such people are not quickly diagnosed and subsequently locked up is another profound mystery yet to be plumbed. On the contrary, they are accorded great respect!
Here we have the most profound brain mystery of all. In this extraordinary specimen, we observe all sorts of physical activity—writing, reading, traveling, eating, drinking, you name it—but there is no discernable brain activity of any kind, as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG) or using any other method. We can only hope that the Brain Activity Map project will eventually explain how this is possible.
These are only a few of the many examples where there is clearly a deep brain mystery to be unraveled. Perhaps we can look forward to the day—perhaps it will be their last day on Earth—when some wise members of Homo sapiens can assert with great certainty exactly why it is that humans are such astonishing fuck-ups.