Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Can We Chill Out About How Complex the Brain Is?

Time for busting another lazy hook:

"We won't be able to understand the brain. It is the most complex thing in the universe," says Professor Sir Robin Murray, one of the UK's leading psychiatrists. (BBC)


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Your brain has nearly 100 billion neurons, and one of my next guests compares that complexity to the Amazon rainforest. In fact, he says there about as many trees in the Amazon as there are neurons in your brain. Think about what the Amazon looks like for a second.

And the roots and the branches and the leaves and the vines, all of that can be compared to the tangled network formed between your brain cells because many of your neurons are in fact wired to tens of thousands of other neurons. That incredible complex network is packed into a soft, three pound organ inside your head, making it, as my next guest [Christof Koch] says, the most complicated object in the known universe.


The center's goal is to understand the biological parts and processes behind such phenomena as consciousness, moral behavior and logical thought. "There are more synapses in the brain than stars in the galaxy," Cohen notes. "We are studying the most complex device in the known universe." (Princeton)

1.  The brain is not the most complex thing/device/object in the un/known universe.

If the brain is so complex, then isn't the human head more complex?  It has more stuff in it than just the brain, therefore it must be more complex.  Hey, why not the human body?  Wait a minute, why not everything on planet Earth?

If you really care, the most complex thing in the universe is, in fact, the entire universe.

2.  There's a lot of stuff in the brain and we don't know how it all works yet.

This is what people mean when they talk about how complex the brain is.  More trees than the Amazon!  More stars than the Milky Way!  Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!  Numerically unfathomable = complicated.

3.  The cool part about brains isn't how much stuff is in them - it's what they do with that stuff.

I know people like big numbers (for some reason), but I think us scientists and science communicators can more effectively hook our audiences' attention by talking about what the brain does instead of how many synapses it has.

So can we let go of the needless hyperbole? 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Criticizing a New Criticism of the BRAIN Initiative

At The Stone, the NYTimes web blog for philosophy, Benjamin Fong has written a rather curious critique of the BRAIN Initiative.  His arguments are so ridiculous, they're actually interesting.  Let's have a look:

Corporations are evil:

"On one level, its proponents are simply na├»ve about the corporate wolves with whom they run. George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard and one of the faces of the initiative, describes his sponsors, including Chevron, Procter & Gamble and Merck, as institutions that are “very pragmatic and practical about helping our world get better.” This willful ignorance regarding corporate influence is even more disturbing in the case of the Brain Initiative, which promises a very fine control over the seat of consciousness. With the help of this research, today’s neuro-marketing – marketing researched not with focus groups but M.R.I.s – may soon look quite primitive."

1.  George Church is not the entire BRAIN Initiative, and those sponsors have nothing to do with the BRAIN Initiative as far as I know.  Church was one of the guys who helped get the ball rolling on the project but he isn't in charge of it.  So the Chevron-P&G-Merck thing is all strawman.

2.  Yeah okay I guess corporations are probably going to corporation-y things with any new research.  But doesn't this argument just go into the tired "science isn't inherently evil, its what people do with it" stuff?  I dunno.  It feels like this Fong guy thinks that a bunch of corporations invented and are supporting the BRAIN Initiative and whatnot.  That just isn't the case - the project came from scientists and was pushed by scientists from the beginning.

Biological solutions to disease are given too much precedence over psychosocial solutions:

"The real trouble with the Brain Initiative is not philosophical but practical. In short, the instrumental approach to the treatment of physiological and psychological diseases tends to be at odds with the traditional ways in which human beings have addressed their problems: that is, by talking and working with one another to the end of greater personal self-realization and social harmony." 
"We know, for instance, that low socioeconomic status at birth is associated with a greater risk of developing schizophrenia, but the lion’s share of research into schizophrenia today is carried out by neurobiologists and geneticists, who are intent on uncovering the organic “cause” of the disease rather than looking into psychosocial factors. Though this research may very well bear fruit, its dominance over other forms of research, in the face of the known connection between poverty and schizophrenia, attests to a curious assumption that has settled into a comfortable obviousness: that socioeconomic status, unlike human biology, is something we cannot change “scientifically.” That it is somehow more realistic, “scientifically,” to find a way to change the human being itself than it is to work together to change the kind of environment that lends itself to the emergence of a disorder like schizophrenia." 


1.  Alright, there's no argument from me that we should reduce low socioeconomic status in our society, or develop strategies to provide effective mental health care for those populations.  But schizophrenias are still biological disorders.  Why not study both angles?  Is his argument that the money is being spent disproportionately?  Okay, fine.  But that's not the biologists' fault.

2.  "[T]alking and working with one another to the end of greater personal self-realization and social harmony" does not cure Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or Huntington's.

Neuroscience detracts from other approaches:

My point is simply that the attempt to gain control over life itself has severely detracted from the work of figuring out how we talk to and work with one another in order to better ourselves and our world. To be clear, I do not believe that this communicative project is easier or more efficient than the instrumental approach – how we go about changing socioeconomic conditions is a problem we have not even begun to solve – but only that it is an important part of what it means to be a human being. And no matter how precisely we can manipulate the brain with drugs, electrodes, and other such contrivances, the emerging insights of neuroscience will never provide sufficient help with this work. 

1.  How does neuroscience "severely detract" from social work?  Maybe he means that the government is spending too much on science and not on social programs/research?  Doesn't it feel like he's just saying "Spend more on humanities and not on sciences"?

2.  Neuroscience will also not cure malaria, generate a unified theory of quantum physics and general relativity, or bring world peace.  And changing socioeconomic conditions will not end Alzheimer's disease.


In closing, it's worth reflecting that none of his argument really needs the BRAIN Initiative.  Really, he just doesn't like neuroscience because... I don't know.  Some people are just reflexively anti-reductionist I guess.