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The Way Forward: Mapping Brains and Finding Direction

According to a recent report in the New York Times, the United States government will soon announce plans to fund the Brain Activity Map. Modelled on the highly successful Human Genome Project, the Brain Activity Map is an effort to identify functional networks of neurons, possibly leading to a full understanding of how mental processes like perception and memory are physically distributed in the brain. The scientific and medical potentials, perhaps including new treatment of conditions like schizophrenia or autism, are fantastic. By developing monitoring techniques like calcium imaging, nanoparticle sensor detection, or synthetic-DNA chemical recording, neuroscientists hope to be able to trace the paths traveled by our thoughts and memories. Yet before setting off on this cartographic adventure, perhaps we ought first stop, and remind ourselves where we already are.

In a 2012 Neuron paper proposing the Brain Activity Map, a group of leading scientists briefly acknowledge some ethical worries, including “issues of mind-control, discrimination, health disparities, unintended short- and long-term toxicities…” This is a reasonable, if somewhat eclectic, list of concerns. But I would like to add one more. Brain-mapping, like gene-mapping, risks making us overconfident in our self-understanding. The better we come to understand our brains, the more tempting it will be to assume we understand our selves.

Think for a moment about the history of major advances in human-directed science: Darwinism, psychoanalytics, behaviourism, sociobiology, cybernetics, genomics. With each progression has come a deluge of sweeping assertions about the new completeness of our self-understanding, followed later by a far quieter admission that whatever else we may be, we are also mysteries. In the worst moments, our fleeting certitude fuelled attempts to reorganize societies along purportedly scientific lines, from racist eugenics to disastrous Marxist utopianism. Even when spared catastrophic miscalculation, we’ve still suffered coarsening reductions in public debate about human nature, where hopes and commitments were temporarily replaced by operant reinforcements or behavioural phenotypes.

The point here is not to deny the reality of scientific descriptions of humanity, nor to retreat into a neo-Romantic induced ignorance. The point is simply to sound a warning, to jot a note to ourselves in this relatively sober moment, before the allure of the scientifically novel begins to blindingly illuminate our horizons. Maps are awesomely seductive bearers of information, so simply compact and so seemingly complete. Mapped brains will be more potent still, enfolding the vanity of portraiture in the certainty of topography.

I’m aware that what I am articulating is not so much an argument as an anxiety. I have no simple take-home message to offer, no action plan or policy recommendation. Certainly we should not attempt to stop the sort of research offered by the Brain Activity Map. Rather, we should support it, fund it, train our children to carry it forward. The potential benefits, to theoretical knowledge and human well-being, are incredible. But there are costs, or at least risks. It would be best to reach first for a bit of preventive humility, a dash of recognition that there are limits on the self-understanding of even such an expert auto-empiricizer as homo sapiens. In Franz Joseph Gall’s original phrenological map, the brain area for Circumspection and Forethought was located right next to the brain area for Vanity.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. “there are limits on the self-understanding of even such an expert auto-empiricizer as homo sapiens”

    Can you offer any evidence to back up this sweeping assertion?

    1. Hello Nikolas,

      I doubt there is any way to conclusively demonstrate the claim, even if it is true. To draw a particular limit around human understanding would require some way of characterizing that which is outside understanding. There might be formal ways of doing that (I’m thinking of Godel here), but I wouldn’t want to put too much weight on that. This claim may be undemonstrable by its nature.

      However, I think we have very good inductive grounds for treating the claim as true, whether or not we can prove it to be. Every major advance in the human sciences brings out bold pronouncements that we have, or soon will have, reached complete self-understanding. Then a bit of time passes, and such pronouncements stop being made. Then there is a new scientific advance, and the pronouncements start all over again. Repeat. Given that this cycle has occurred so many times, and noting the wide gap between the pronouncements made on behalf of scientific advance and the actual increase in self-understanding provided, we have strong reason to treat any new major scientific advance as likely to reveal far less than its proponents suggest. Practically speaking, this is only to recognize a limit on the self-understanding provided by each major scientific advance.

      This inductive argument does not demonstrate an absolute limit on human self-understanding. But it does give us reason to think that our self-understanding is always less extensive than we suppose it to be.

  2. Nikolas: Rini is making an inductive argument based on the history of previous research programmes that have claimed completeness. I’m assuming you’re familiar with induction? And it’s worth noting that we cannot chalk this up to some kind of blindness on the part of our more distant ancestors: it was not uncommon in the 90s to hear that the Human Geonome Project was going to deliver the essence of human nature to us. Those voices have now quieted down, but as Rini notes, there are always new voices waiting in the wings.

    I would also add that this “self-understanding” is, by its very nature, limited to a very tiny (and very privileged) portion of the human race, and that most people will go on understanding themselves as they always have, no matter what putative advances are made. There are very serious questions about who the relevant “we” is, here.

    1. “Nikolas: Rini is making an inductive argument based on the history of previous research programmes that have claimed completeness”

      Yes, but how do we know that they in fact hadn’t achieved this? Because our self-understanding continued to expand, beyond the conceptual “limits” imposed by earlier models. What Rini is painting as a history of overconfidence and “coarsening of debate” can more sensibly be portrayed as a process of continual progress in our understanding of human nature. Of course there will be people who make unsupportably overarching or dogmatic claims in support of this or that new perspective, but such claims are soon disputed as further progress is made.

      To imply, as Rini does, that there is some kind of absolute or eternal limit on our self-understanding would itself appear to require a greater self-understanding than anyone can currently claim. This is why I asked for evidence.

      “There are very serious questions about who the relevant “we” is, here.”

      Those who are sufficiently interested to follow the science.

      1. Those who are sufficiently interested to follow the science.

        Gosh. What an insular and uneducated thing to say. As though a populace’s ability to “follow the science” doesn’t require a huge amount of political, ethical, economic and social infrastructure. Infrastructure which many (probably most) people in the world currently do not have.

    2. Hello Nick,

      Regarding the relevant “we”: this is an important point. But I think it might be worth distinguishing two ways in which the community of scientific self-understanders is restricted. The first, as you say, is by privilege: only some people have the economic and educational resources necessary to be aware of or understand new scientific advances. The second, I’d suggest, is inclination: of those who have access to scientific advances, only some are disposed to allow it to affect the way they conceive of themselves. But with that distinction in hand, I want to suggest that the relative size of both excluded groups has been shrinking. The relevant “we” is an increasing share of humanity.

      First, take privilege. General increases in economic well-being, public education, and communications technology mean that the share of the global population with access to scientific advances has grown massively. When the results of Galvani’s bioelectric experiments arrived in Britain, they were really only available to members of the Royal Society and their epistolary correspondents. By contrast, today almost anyone in the developed world can have near-instantaneous access to new scientific discoveries. (Or at least to media descriptions of the discoveries. Access to scientific papers themselves may be too expensive…) And more and more of the world population has reached these levels of development. I have to imagine that early word of Darwin’s theory did not extend far beyond the upper strata of Chinese or Indian society, but both of these countries and many more now have robust middle classes, with nearly as great access to scientific news as ordinary people in the rich world.

      So, increasingly, the more dominant restriction on the spread of scientific self-understanding may be inclination, rather than privilege. But even here I think this restriction has faded over time, and in instructive ways. Think about the sort of scientific advances that were controversial a century or more ago, and note how many of their core concepts have permeated common culture, even among people who might otherwise be disinclined to accept scientific self-conceptualization. Freud’s ego/id contrast, and even more so his notion of repressed desire, have become stock notions of popular psychology. “Survival of the fittest” is a widely recognized idiom – even in the United States, where a not insubstantial fraction of the population explicitly doubts Darwinian theory. These concepts have made their way out from science, along the way being softened and perhaps corrupted, and now help to structure discussion of human relations among a very wide segment of the population. Probably they function in folk discourse more as metaphors than causal theories, but metaphors are quite often the glue holding together attempts at self-understanding. So, even if new scientific claims meet initial resistance from many, given time they come to make a difference to a great number of people.

      The relevant “we”, then, is growing and almost certainly will continue to do so. I think that only makes it more important to handle claims for the self-understanding power of science with care and humility.

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