Wiring for Dummies: What Neuroscience Can and Can’t Tell Us about Ourselves.

connectome cover

A Review of Sebastian Seung’s The Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are. Mariner Books, 2013.

There is no scientific field more exciting than contemporary neuroscience, poised as it is to develop concepts and technologies that will finally penetrate and manipulate fundamental mechanisms of the human mind. There is also no scientific field more arrogantly simplistic, bedazzled as it is by reductionist theory and fantasies of human power and control over complex biological processes. MIT neuoroscientist Sebastian Seung’s brilliant book manages to be both.

Seung is a rising rockstar scientist with drop-dead good looks, bold fashion sense (he typically sports jeans and t-shirt and showed up to a recent high profile debate wearing shiny gold sneakers), and a knack for making complicated ideas and profound problems in neuroscience not only understandable but cool. He gave a popular TED talk laying out the central thesis of his work that “I am my connectome,” that the sum total of synaptic connections within the brain constitute human selfhood in all its rich uniqueness. This book is a fuller elaboration of that idea and its intellectual history, and a fascinating account of the development of the theories and technologies that Sueng believes will make possible what he views as the ultimate goal of neuroscience – a complete map of the human connectome.

Pursuing this goal, according to Seung, will have both philosophical benefits in terms of understanding human nature and practical benefits in terms of getting at the true causes of mental disorders like autism and schizophrenia which he argues may usefully be thought of as “connectopathies”—abnormal patterns of neural connection.  Beyond this, Seung argues that it is theoretically possible (or at least not yet a proven impossibility) that in the future connectomics will advance to the point of being able to fully read off and duplicate the contents of individual human consciousness thus essentially achieving the dream of immortality. Though Seung hedges on whether he really believes projects like cryonics and the uploading of consciousness are plausible or even desirable, he clearly embraces the broader transhumanist dream of developing technological means of human improvement. He concludes the book with grand vision that evokes the technological singularity, when humans will finally transcend the limits of their biology:

Connectomics marks a turning point in human history. As we evolved from apelike ancestors on the African savannah, what distinguished us was our larger brains. We have used our brains to fashion technologies that have given us ever more amazing capabilities. Eventually these technologies will become so powerful that we will use them to know ourselves—and to change ourselves for the better.”

Seung acknowledges that neuroscience is very far from achieving the extraordinarily difficult goal of mapping the connectome. It took scientists more than a decade to map the connectome of the nematode C. elegans, whose simple brain consists of only 300 neurons and 7000 synaptic connections. The human connectome is 100 billion times larger, with a million times more connections than the human genome has letters. But as Seung explains, the development of technologies that automate much of the work are beginning to make this enormous project feasible.

However the real problem is not just size, but complexity. While the nematode connectome is relatively fixed and stable from one individual organism to the next, the connectome of every human being is unique, reflecting the ongoing re-wiring of synaptic connections within the brain as each individual interacts with the environment. Yes, there is an underlying brain structure common to all human brains, but the wiring of the connectome evolves in a way that reflects the unique experience of the world each individual gains through their senses, their thoughts and feelings, and even the ideas they have encountered through participation in human culture. Connectionism itself suggests that human consciousness can never be reducible to a universal brain structure or state; it seems quite plausible that ostensibly identical synaptic connections could be encoded with different mental content.

In recognizing the dialectical relationship between brain and environment, connectionism would seem to avoid the crude reductionism of discredited intellectual ancestors like phrenology that sought to identify specific regions of the brain with complex personality traits and mental functions. Indeed, one of Seung’s clearest messages is that “the connectome is where nature meets nurture.” If that is true, then traditional understandings of the role of culture and society should be seen as equally important in the formation of self, and psycho-social approaches equally important as biotechnology in dealing with mental disorders. But Seung and other neuroscientist are not much interested in the dense matrix of “nurture” constituted by human culture and society. They are really interested only in the wiring.

For example, Sueng makes much of the infamous discovery of the Jennifer Aniston neuron – a specific neuron in themedial temporal lobe (MTL) that fires only when research subjects look at a photograph of her, along with neurons that fire exclusively on perception of other celebrities. He extrapolates from this to theorize about how perception works in general by comparing the brain to an army of paparazzi employed by a magazine that seeks to publish titillating photos of movie stars:

One hounds Jennifer Aniston with his camera, another devotes himself to Halle Berry, and so on. Every week, their activities determine which celebrities appear in the magazine, just as the spiking of MTL neurons determines which celebrities are perceived by the person.”

paparazzi

While this is a fascinating speculative theory about the mechanism of perception in the brain, it actually tells us very little about the mind. Following the actions of this “army of papparazi” might tell us how certain things end up in “the magazine” of the mind, but it really does not tell us why that magazine devotes attention to celebrities at all, who “buys” it, etc. Seung tries to meet this kind of objection by suggesting that the “Jen neuron” is activated by a population of neurons triggered by neurons devoted to components of the perception – neurons that fire for blonde hair, dazzling smiles, blue eyes, and other attributes. But this comes to seem very much like a return to phrenology. It’s as though Seung seeks to explain why you assembled songs into a playlist by examining the circuitry of your iPod. To explain your playlist, we are going to need to know some things about the society and culture you live in.

All of that said, Seung’s book is well worth reading for its clear discussion of what neuroscience is uncovering about the workings of the brain. Neuroscience is indeed opening an exciting frontier, and work toward mapping the brain may tell us some valuable things about human nature and mental illness. But as we think about these possibilities, and how to prioritize our investments in science, we should also acknowledge that there are things it will never be able to tell us.

Book Review: Mind Wars by Jonathan Moreno

For LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Jonathan Moreno, Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century. Bellevue Literary Press, 2012. 

In this book, the influential bioethicist Jonathan Moreno sets out to make the case for what he calls an “ethics of neuroscecurity.” By neurosecurity he means 1) the ways that science and technology targeted at the brain and nervous system should be managed for the public good, and 2) a strategy by which democratic states must use advances in neuroscience to protect themselves from their adversaries. Neurosecurity is complicated by the principle of “dual use,” which U.S. security agencies officially adopted in the early 21st century of giving funding priority to projects that promise both a military and civilian payoff, particularly in economic growth. Dual use, Moreno argues, has encouraged neuroscientists to focus on the potential of their work to advance medicine and science while ignoring the potential military applications. Moreno argues that we need university scientists to become more engaged with difficult ethical questions regarding military interest in and potential application of advances in neuroscience.

Most of the book is devoted to a description of the wide variety of actual and potential applications of neuroscience to the military context – ranging from futuristic cyborg super-soldiers and chimeras, through pharmacologically enhancements to make soldiers more alert, less subject to psychic trauma, and more masterful in challenging combat situations, non-lethal weapons that operate on the nervous system to disable hostile forces (or quell popular protests), to low-tech applications of psychology in the interrogation of prisoners or influence of populations. At times, Moreno seems near to a kind of “gee whiz!” enthusiasm for the possibilities, but he is careful to note at several points that researchers are often inclined to hype. And he is always attentive to the often frightening ethical dilemmas that are raised by the militarization of neuroscience.

Given the dangers and dilemmas of what he has described, Moreno acknowledges that some will be understandably inclined to completely separate academic neuroscience from the military. But he argues that this would be a great mistake for two reasons. First, he does think that America does face dangers that make the cautious development of military applications of brain science a necessity. Second, and for him more importantly, if civilian academic scientists withdraw from involvement with the military, the military will pursue the development of these technologies within its own agencies, shielded from any public awareness and oversight. Moreno argues that the best way to avoid the sorts of ethical nightmares he spends much of the book exploring is for neuroscientists in academia to be fully engaged with the U.S. security apparatus, insisting on tht the transparency and openness that are core values of civilian science continue to operate as military applications of neuroscience are explored.

Moreno may be right that the active involvement of civilian scientists in the development of military applications of neuroscience is far less dangerous than allowing these applications to developed completely within the military, but I am far less sanguine than he is that the best norms and practices of science will withstand the pressures of involvement with the military. If the history of ethical catastrophes in science proves anything, it is that the ethical norms of science are fragile and vulnerable, and that under pressure from entanglement with government and corporate interests make academic scientists all too likely to abandon their commitment to transparency, the ethical treatment of research subjects, and other norms and values of the humane practice of science.

Whether you ultimately agree with Moreno’s conclusions, he is surely right about the dangers and dilemmas ahead, and the need for scientists and the public to remain awake and ethically engaged with neurosecurity.

Book Review – Richard Noll, American Madness: The Rise and Fall of Dementia Praecox (Harvard 2011)

Reviewed for the h-madness blog. 

As indicated by the controversies swirling around the proposed revisions of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders due to be published next year, psychiatry is probably more concerned with the categorization of diseases under its purview than any other medical specialty. Yet solid knowledge of the causes and precise pathological mechanisms that might define mental illness remains more elusive than with any other sort of human affliction. In this richly detailed book, Richard Noll explores the historical predicament of psychiatry through the efforts of America’s early twentieth century psychiatric elite to integrate their field with the main currents of an emergent scientific medicine by creating a scientific classification of mental illness.

Read full review on h-madness. 

The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain

Book Announcement

Cover Image for The Neuroscientific Turn

Neuroethics, neuroeconomics, neurohistory, neuroliterature, neuromarketing, neurophilosophy, neuropolitics. We are well beyond the decade of the brain, and deep into the era of the neurologism. Is there any field of human knowledge  or endeavor which has not sought enhancement by adding the prefix neuro?

Melissa Littlefield and Jenell Johnson  have put together what looks like an intriguing and important tour of  the  emerging cultural neuroterrain: fourteen essays by a diverse array of scholar from the humanities, social and the neurosciences.

Full description and table of contents from the University of Michigan Press.

Pe-order from Amazon.com