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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, July 19, 2018

The BRAIN Initiative's Floundering Quest for a Mechanistic Account of Mind

The BRAIN Initiative is a multi-year big-science project launched during the Obama administration in 2013. It started off in 2014 with a budget of about $110 million, and its funding has increased in subsequent years, with some estimating that it may use up billions in funding before it is finished. One of its documents claims on page 121 that the BRAIN Initiative ”will require new and distinct funding of between 300-500 million per year." Too bad the program consists largely of not-terribly-useful research designed to try to prove an extremely dubious mechanistic ideology about the mind.

The assumptions behind the project are made clear in a document called Brain 2025: A Scientific Vision, which is offered at one of the project's two main web sites. The “scientific vision” laid out in the document is largely an ideological vision, based on the far-fetched idea that the human mind is merely the product of the brain. The dubious ideology of the authors is made clear in the very first sentence of the document, in which the authors state, “The human brain is the source of our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, actions, and memories; it confers on us the abilities that make us human, while simultaneously making each of us unique.” It has certainly not been proven that any brain has ever generated a thought or stored a memory.

In fact, later in the document the authors confess, “We do not yet have a systematic theory of how information is encoded in the chemical and electrical activity of neurons, how it is fused to determine behavior on short time scales, and how it is used to adapt, refine, and learn behaviors on longer time scales.” This is certainly true. No one has anything like a systematic theory of how a brain could store memories as neural states, nor has anyone come up with anything like a systematic theory of how a brain could generate a thought. So why, then, does the document start out by stating that “the human brain is the source of our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, actions, and memories”? No one has any business making such a claim unless he first has “ a systematic theory of how information is encoded in the chemical and electrical activity of neurons,” but the document admits that no such theory exists.

The document makes clear that the main purpose of the BRAIN Initiative will be to shore up mechanistic ideas about the human mind. The document states, “The most important outcome of the BRAIN Initiative will be a comprehensive, mechanistic understanding of mental function that emerges from synergistic application of the new technologies and conceptual structures developed under the BRAIN Initiative.” That makes it pretty clear that the project is ideology-driven. The idea that mental function can be explained mechanistically is a very doubtful piece of ideology inconsistent with many forms of evidence. One of these forms of evidence involves the many cases of minds that worked well after half or more of the brain was lost to injury, disease or surgery. Another such form of evidence is that scientists cannot find any plausible storage place in the brain where memories could be stored for 50 years, synapses (subject to very rapid molecular turnover) being no such thing.

What are some of the things that this BRAIN Initiative will be spending money on? Most of the project's money will apparently be spent as follows:

  1. Trying to develop new tools to study the brain.
  2. Creating circuit maps of the brain.
  3. Identifying various types of brain cells.
  4. Playing around with zapping people's brains in various different ways.

There is no reason to believe that any of this activity will actually result in the project's goal of a “comprehensive, mechanistic understanding of mental function” or even something much smaller, a fragmentary mechanistic understanding of mental function. There is no “circuit map” that we can possibly imagine that would allow us to understand how neurons might produce thoughts, how neural activity could result in such a thing as selfhood, or how human episodic memories could ever be stored as neural states. No real insight into such things has been produced by previous efforts to identify different types of brain cells or map out the connections of the brain. So why should we believe that any further insight on these matters will come from further activity along these lines?

In a section entitled “Manipulating circuit activity,” the Brain 2025 document tries to suggest that electrically zapping people's brains might tell us something about memory. It says, “In the 1950s, Penfield’s electrical stimulation experiments suggested that a memory or thought could be elicited by activating neurons in the underlying network.” But the document fails to tell us that a review of 80 years of electrical stimulation of the brain found that it was very rare for people to recall anything during electrical stimulation of the brain and that Overall, only one patient reported what appeared to be a clearly detailed episodic memory for which he spontaneously specified that he had never thought about it.” But nonetheless the BRAIN Initiative fellows expressed great enthusiasm for monkeying with people's brains. After noting approvingly that “stimulating electrodes are being placed in human patients,” the BRAIN 2025 document says, “Entirely new tools could be developed based on magnetic stimulation, gases, infrared excitation, ultrasound, or organic or physical chemistry to allow access to neurons deep within the brain.” It sounds like their plan is kind of like this:

master plan

So far the BRAIN Initiative has been running for four or five years, and has accomplished nothing extremely noteworthy. Our understanding of the brain has not dramatically advanced during those four or five years, and all the old mysteries of mind and memory seem as mysterious as ever. At this “Achievements” link there is a discussion of what the BRAIN Initiative has accomplished so far. At the top of the text is a big bold headline saying “Transformative Advances,” but the BRAIN Initiative has produced no such transformative advances. Go beyond the flashy spin on the web site, the high-tech glitter, and the discussion of things in progress that haven't yet yielded much, and you have not a single major accomplishment relating to our understanding of the mind or memory. You see in this section a video entitled “The BRAIN Initiative – the First Five Years.” The video fails to list a single accomplishment of the BRAIN Initiative. Apparently all this work to mechanistically explain the mind is pretty much a flop and a failure so far.

About the only memorable thing mentioned in the BRAIN Initiative's list of accomplishments is a description of some “brain interface” by which a paralyzed person was able to use to raise a robot arm to bring a cup to his mouth. Such an interface doesn't seem very impressive when you consider that the same effect could have been achieved much less expensively and more simply by using a 1990's-style voice-based interface that would respond to a command such as “raise arm.”

I predict that even after spending billions, the BRAIN Initiative will by 2025 produce no big breakthrough in our understanding of mind, memory or consciousness. All attempts to understand such things through mechanistic methods (such as creating circuit diagrams or zapping brains) are doomed to failure. The reason is that mind, memory and consciousness are not mechanistic products of the brain, but are aspects of a human soul or spirit that cannot be understood by analyzing electricity, neurons and chemistry. If our minds were produced by brains and our memories were stored in brains, we would have already discovered by now “smoking guns” of such mechanistic effects; but no such things have been found.

We found in the 1950's that all cells have encoded information in the form of the genetic information in DNA. If our brain cells contained encoded memory information, we would have discovered abundant fingerprints of such a thing during the twentieth century. But even though it is 65 years after DNA was discovered, and even though our electron microscopes can see things 1000 times smaller than synapses, no one has discovered any proof of memories encoded in neurons. Such a mechanistic encoding would require thousands of dedicated genes, to accomplish the gigantic task of translating our experience and ideas into neuron states; but not one such gene has been found, even though the human genome has been thoroughly studied. There is one scientific study claiming to have found correlation evidence for such memory-encoding genes, but the study's methodology is quite goofy, for the reasons discussed at the end of this post. 

A better approach for gaining insight about the mind would be one that focused on extraordinary human experiences, and people having ordinary mind and memory function despite extraordinary brain states. This would involve studying all the people whose minds functioned well even after they lost vast parts of their brains due to surgery or disease, all the people with phenomenal memories despite having ordinary brains, and all the people having extraordinary experiences such as near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences, often while their brains were shut down. Such a study approach would tend to shed light on how mechanistic neuroscientists are making the wrong assumptions about the brain.