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Return with me to the thrilling days of 1962, when Francis Crick and James Watson won the Nobel Prize for Physiology for mapping the DNA molecule. The whole world buzzed with their discovery that the “blueprint for life” contained in each cell carried all the information needed for an entire organism, whether maggot or man, to multiply and divide and carry on every function of personality. Science had found the key to organic life. For Crick, the conclusion was obvious: “You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”
In other words, because we’ve discovered the mechanism behind human functioning, we’ve revealed human functioning as nothing but a mechanism. This is like saying a Lamborghini, with its sleek lines and cushiony leather seats and whispers of wealth untold, is no more than its engine.
The Human Brain Project (HBP) in Europe and the Brain/MINDS initiative in Japan intend to stretch our knowledge of the mechanism even farther. The latter is limited to the connection of neurons to disease, but the HBP aims to map the activity of every neuron in the brain, moving from small mammals to humans, and eventually build a computer model of the entire structure. It’s a grand, even grandiose goal, and already suspect: Over 130 scientists have complained that the project is overly broad and poorly run.
Today’s enthusiasm for brain mapping has some of the old snake-oil smell about it.
The HBP may wrap up successfully, like the Human Genome Project (HGP), which was launched in 1990 and completed (mostly) by 2004. But that depends on how one defines success. The stated goal of the HGP was similar to the current Brain/MINDS project: to identify the source of diseases and undesirable traits in order to treat or even eradicate them. But the main benefits received from gathering many reams of data are—data. How pieces of the puzzle combine and relate is still largely a mystery. That’s the likely result of the Brain Project, too.
Over a hundred years ago a technique called phrenology claimed to map the human skull relating to areas of the brain that controlled personality. By feeling for bumps, a phrenologist could determine a subject’s strong and weak qualities. (We do this today with Facebook quizzes that determine what time period we belong in and which bar drink we most resemble.)
Genuine science always knew phrenology was bunk, but today’s enthusiasm for brain mapping has some of the old snake-oil smell about it.
For one thing, entrepreneurs always run out ahead of any hypothesis, which is why every supposed breakthrough inspires eyebrow-raising headlines and best-selling books. Today’s phrenologists offer brain training and neuro-sculpting for maximum performance. Functional imaging that makes areas of the brain “light up” like a pinball machine when stimulated leads excitable theorists to claim they’ve found a “moral molecule” or “monogamy gene.” The trendy “chemical imbalance” theory restricts mental illness to the brain, not the person. Take the idea far enough and there is no “person,” just a “pack of neurons” that can be tamed with pharmaceuticals when it gets unruly.
The documentary Alive Inside follows Dan Cohen as he visits nursing homes, bearing iPods preloaded with the music each individual patient loves. Nearly comatose nonagenarians “come alive” when they hear the gospel songs or big bands of their youth—music touches them when nothing else will. Cohen has founded Music and Memory to get personal listening devices into as many nursing homes as possible, but it’s an uphill slog. “The healthcare system imagines the human body to be a very complicated machine and we’ve figured out how to turn the dials,” says Dr. Bill Thomas, a geriatric specialist, in the film. “[But] we haven’t done anything, medically speaking, to touch the heart and soul of a patient.” The system doesn’t recognize a “soul,” because piles of data can’t fathom it. Science may have the key, but will never find the lock.