The speed of thought: what the revolution in neuroscience will mean for humanism.

Author:Reimers, Mark
 
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WE FIND OURSELVES amidst a revolution in neuroscience--the new neuroscience, if you will. In the United States the most visible face of this new science is the BRAIN initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) overseen by the National Institutes of Health. Started by the Obama administration in 2013, the goals of the BRAIN initiative, as stated by its advisory committee, are: "to accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought."

Other countries are also sponsoring new initiatives in basic neuroscience. For example, the European Union is pursuing the Human Brain Project, which is largely about simulation and informatics. China has a set of initiatives integrated with artificial intelligence, and Japan has a project focused on primate brain studies.

What will these enterprises mean for humanism? Already the brain has become a topic of everyday conversation. Every glossy image of brain activity in the popular press reinforces, subtly but insistently, that our minds are grounded in solid flesh. Every explanation of how a grandparents memory is failing because of tiny clumps of protein in his or her brain makes a similar point. The notion that thoughts and feelings occur in physical places, and through chemical processes, is becoming mainstream as the idea of an ethereal "soul" in a parallel reality loses ground. So, what will replace the longstanding Western metaphysics of mind? We need some well-grounded notions of human nature to address the social and political issues facing humanity.

Many people have strong opinions about human nature, but usually can't provide much evidence for these strong opinions. Humanists look to science to illuminate other challenging issues, such as climate change, so it seems natural to look to science for evidence bearing on human nature. Soon there will be much more solid information about brain processes available to everyone who cares to look; we will be able to refer to verifiable science when talking of human minds in contexts of religion, ideology, and social policy.

Until then, let's consider why understanding the brain is so hard. After all, scientists have made great progress understanding other organs like the heart and the liver. However, most cells in a heart are contracting at almost the same time. Soon after you drink your morning coffee, most liver cells are gearing up in similar ways to break the caffeine down into theophylline and other chemicals. In the brain no two neurons are acting the same way; in most brain regions, even a cell's nearest neighbors act almost independently as excitatory or inhibitory forces (see sidebar on page 28). So the dynamics of the brain are perpetually unstable, with each cell competing to influence the others, and inhibitory cells acting to shut them down, rather like a dysfunctional committee. Current measurements like EEG and functional MRI can help identify which regions are working hard. Furthering the analogy, they identify which committees are arguing intensely, but what we really want to record are their discussions. This has been difficult because signals are small and brain tissue is delicate.

Neuroscientists have long been frustrated in their attempts to monitor brain activity. The BRAIN...

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