The beauty of brain science


Photo by Jason Snyder

There has recently been a few articles on a “theory of the brain”. Gary Marcus started us off with an editorial in the NYT concerning the Blue Brain Project:

Biologists — neuroscientists included — can’t hope for that kind of theory. Biology isn’t elegant the way physics appears to be. The living world is bursting with variety and unpredictable complexity, because biology is the product of historical accidents, with species solving problems based on happenstance that leads them down one evolutionary road rather than another.

Vaughan Bell had a good commentary:

This reflects a common belief in cognitive science that there is a ‘missing law’ to be discovered that will tell us how mind and brain are linked – but it is quite possible there just isn’t one to be discovered.

And around the same time Neuroskeptic reviewed a paper on a similar topic, asking how we reconcile single neuron views of information transfer with network (oscillatory) views).

I take issue with the idea that neuroscientists can’t hope for beautiful theories of the brain. Just look at that picture of the hippocampus above! Does this look like a disheveled, random assortment of neurons to you? The brain is just bursting with structure – but the tools and investigations into that structure are too young to know everything about it. So far.

I wrote a piece on Medium (because it formats purty pictures well) on the beauty of the brain, and what a ‘theory of the brain’ would mean:

At first glance, the brain is a mess. More like a tangled ball of yarn than a finely woven tapestry, every combination of neuron-to-neuron is in there, somewhere. Yet look a little closer and this complex structure devolves into very clear regularity. I could take you on a tour of the waves of Purkinje cells, straight-backed like military men, reaching their arms out to passing fibers shooting up from a distant province. I could show you the shapes of the hippocampus where memories are created, messages washing down step by step. I could show you the round columns of barrel cortex, clear to your eye, that precisely mirrors the pattern of whiskers that eventually stimulate them. There is so much visible structure in here that we’re still attempting to unlock.

The points I was trying to make are:

  1. Brain science is super young! There’s still tons to know
  2. We actually do have some pretty good candidates for theories of the brain, though the list is far from complete
  3. One key to creating any theory is to understand the boundary conditions, ie the physical constants and constraints on the system. This is as true in Physics as it is in Biology, and we’re very far from understanding them (note also: this is a big problem with Blue Brain – it’s just an epileptic cortical column with no inputs!)
  4. A ‘theory of the brain’ will ultimately be meaningless, or pointless. It won’t tell us what we want to know; rather, we will need multiple overlapping theories for them to have any use.

One thought on “The beauty of brain science

  1. I absolutely **loved** this post as well as the one at Medium. Well said! I am not to sure about the “pointlesness” of a theory of the brain but I agree with you 100% when you said ‘We need to find a set of loosely interconnected theories of the brain. In order to get at these will require a number of things. First and foremost, we cannot just study one species.’ Tnak you and great job!!!!!

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