The beauty of brain science

hippocampus

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.
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Why would robots have heads?

Or conversely, why is your head near your brain? Sensory organs came before or after cephalization? In other words, do we have a head because it is advantageous to be able to respond quickly to quickly changing incoming sensations (vision, audition)?

This is interesting:

However, flatworms differ from more advanced animals in that their mouths are in the center of their bodies, not at the anterior end.

 

No, Einstein was not smart because his brain was ‘well-connected’

 People will never tire of hearing how smart that Einstein fellow was. And following logically from that, apparently, is the truism that people will never tire of hearing about Einstein’s brain. This organ is so fascinating that it has it’s own wikipedia page full of information gleaned by its examination after it was stolen from the dear genius’ head (before being lost and then found again). And every so often a new study will exclaim about the extravagant protrusion arising from one portion of it or another leading to a series of silly articles in the popular press claiming the secret to Einstein’s smarts.

The latest explanations come from – I shit you not – a series of fourteen recently discovered photographs taken when Einstein’s brain was being sectioned. No, they did not actually examine his brain, they just looked at some photos and called it a day. Now, they’re examining these pictures and looking for things that are different about his brain from other brains, things that are known to change with recent experience and age, and they find certain areas that are larger than average or strange or so on and so forth. And they find certain things look different: “Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein’s brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary.”

We are now forced to wonder not just how a 76-year old Einstein’s brain was different from his youthful 20-year old self but also why we should be giving these differences credit for his intelligence rather than for his, say, keen ability at sailing. Did his engorged motor cortex really make him so smart?

The big problem here is the signal-to-noise. The thing about every person having a different brain is that every person will have something unique about their brain. Ascribing a single salient characteristic about a person, especially as an audience to a historical figure, to what is non-average about their brain is absurd. Einstein was more than just a physics-solving machine and the size of any part of his brain may have played very little role in his intelligence (or it may have: who knows).

And all this is neglecting the fact that what made him so special may be nothing at all about the hardware of his brain instead of the software of his mind (so to speak).

The truth is, we will never know what was special about Einstein by studying pictures of his brain and I can think of little that it will tell us beyond how easy it is to get a popular press article written about anything to do with Einstein. Instead, read about what psychology tells us about learning and motivation. Read what neuroscience tells us about the same. They have lots to say; the brain of Einstein does not, and never will.

Update – As pointed out to me by Alice Proverbio, Einstein was also a violinist and musicians are known to have a thicker corpus callosum, something never mentioned in the paper… Just highlighting how silly it is to pluck one aspect of a person (intelligence) and project onto it whatever oddities you find!

References

Men W, Falk D, Sun T, Chen W, Li J, Yin D, Zang L, & Fan M (2013). The corpus callosum of Albert Einstein’s brain: another clue to his high intelligence? Brain : a journal of neurology PMID: 24065724

Falk, D, Lepore, FE, & Noe, A (2013). The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs Brain : a journal of neurology DOI: 10.1093/brain/aws295