Monday, November 16, 2015

Trying To Understand People Through Their Brains

            Is it possible that we are going to be able to create a complete wiring diagram of the brain?  There are scientists who are trying to do this.  The network of neuronal connections that these scientists are trying to map is called the “connectome”.  The mapping is being done both on the cellular level as well as on the macro level (which refers to higher-level structures and functioning).

            So far a correlation has been established between brains with strong internal connections on the one hand and positive traits such as better education, good memory, and good physical condition on the other.  People with negative traits such as aggressive behavior, smoking and drugs seem to have less strong internal connections.  This does seem to demonstrate some association between human behavior and the physical condition of the brain.

            But Jeff Lichtman, a leading investigator in neurobiology from Harvard University has noticed that there are no physical indications in the brain of disorders like autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.  This is distinct from other parts of the body where tissue examination yields signs of pathological conditions.  Lichtman believes that exploring the brain on the nanoscale level using electron microscopes will elicit more concrete signs of these behavioral disorders as well as answers for many other questions relating to the brain.  In his article for Gizmag magazine, “Can we build a complete wiring diagram of the human brain?” (9/30/15), Richard Moss, a freelance writer who lives in Melbourne, Australia, goes into an extensive discussion of Lichtman’s ideas on what he, Lichtman, might achieve by brain diagramming.

            Lichtman does believe there are probably physical differences in the brain for the behavioral disorders he has investigated.  It’s just that we haven’t had the tools to determine these differences, because they occur on such a small scale.  Nevertheless, science will find measurable defined discrete signs which will help us then, one would suppose, to manipulate these disorders and help the people suffering from them to deal with them more effectively.

            However, what if Lichtman is wrong?  What happens if, after developing the appropriate investigating tools using nanotechnology, significant differences between the brains of people with these disorders and the brains of so-called normal people are not discerned?  Will people find a way to explore the brain on an even smaller scale than nanoscale?

            Perhaps the answer is that these disorders are more disorders of the mind than of the brain.  That focusing on the defined discrete data emanating from the physical brain is leading researchers in the wrong direction.  Scientists today are obsessed with reducing all mind functions to brain functions that eventually could be physically manipulated.  But perhaps the mind is not reducible.  Philosophers have dealt with the difficulties of trying to overcome the mind/ body dichotomy for ages.

            In our daily lives, our field of experience is filled with measurable defined discrete phenomena: figures such as objects, buildings, plants, animals and people.  All of these have definable boundaries that separate them from that which surrounds them.  But the spaces within these boundaries within the figures are not filled with perceptible defined discrete points as if they were pixilated.  The spaces within these boundaries have blendable continual grounding and flow from border to border of the defined discrete phenomena in a coherent way.  Yes, there may be some internal boundaries – the features on a face – but these internal boundaries blend in with the grounding that surrounds them.  Around the defined discrete phenomena, there are different kinds of flowing blendable continual spaces.  At a minimum, even in a crowded urban area, there are the spaces of the sky and the ground.  In nature, many defined discrete objects like trees, bushes and grass blades blend together when seem from a distance. Rivers and large lakes and oceans tend to extend out as far as the eye can see.  So along with the defined discrete phenomena, there are the flowing blendable continual phenomena in nature like forests and bodies of water and deserts and jungles that bond the defined discrete phenomena into the coherent sensory configuration that is our field of experience.  And when we experience total darkness, we experience a sensory configuration that flows to infinity without any sharply definable or even blurry phenomena.  Darkness is totally undefinable.

            The important thing to note is that many visible sensory phenomena are not sharply definable.  Cognitively, while using words, we can attempt to translate many blurrily definable and undefinable phenomena into words and/or numbers, but that translation leads to distortion of what a phenomenon is in terms of the way that we actually directly experience it.

            By the same token, when we turn our examination inside of ourselves, we assume that all mental activity can be, in effect, pixilated, turned into defined discrete mental data that can in turn allow us to control and manipulate the activity.  We also assume we can locate all the data we get in precise areas of the brain.  We would like to assume that we could create precisely detailed packages of thought based on sensations, flows of thought, imaginative works – in short, everything that would allow us to have a thorough control and dominance over human mental activity.

            But what if there is a world of mental activity that does not lend itself to being categorized as defined discrete phenomena?  A world that would escape the control that should come from a complete wiring diagram of the brain?  It would mean that developing a complete wiring diagram of the brain would not lead to finding defined discrete physical indications of mental conditions like autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  And there would be no way to use physical evidence to be able to control and manipulate these problems.

            So defined discrete data from physical evidence may be of limited use for dealing with the rich flowing continual interior world of human experience.  Of course, Jeff Lichtman feels differently.  He feels that the main meaningful unit of knowledge is a defined discrete datum, and that there are so many data being churned out in so many fields of knowledge that human brains are simply overwhelmed by them.  There are simply too many data for human brains to grasp and compress into new big ideas.  The problem is not only the data as isolated units, but how they interact with each other.  Lichtman claims that we can analyze the data, but that we can no longer fully understand their significance.

            This all, of course, assumes that all of our perceptions and experiences of the world can be broken down into defined discrete data without significant distortion.  Using modern technology, we can appear to transform all the processes in laboratory studies and experiments into measurable defined discrete events.  But when I live my life in the external world, there are some measurable defined discrete events, but most of what I absorb are unmeasurable, flowing blendable continual experiences.  My inner life is not only filled with defined discrete cognitive thoughts, but also with flowing blendable continual streams of sensations, intuitions, dreams and imagination.  Lab experiments may be able to measure certain processes as discrete data, but my mind is filled with all kinds of unmeasurable flowing activity.  Is a diagram of the wiring of the brain going to be so helpful in grasping and later controlling and manipulating all my amorphous, nebulous mental activity.

            We are back again with a distinction I have discussed earlier in my article that draws an analogy from a particular area of study in mathematics.  Basically, it has been shown that there are different kinds of infinity based on different categories of numbers.  One big division among these kinds of infinity is that between delimited infinity and nondelimited infinity.  Delimited infinity deals with defined discrete numbers: 12,3,4,5, etc.  Nondelimited infinity deals with numbers that, as it were, seem to gradually flow into, blend into one another.  The numbers that represent all the points on a line.  It can be proved mathematically that the points on a line represents a larger infinity than the number of defined discrete numbers.  The analogy I want to draw is that there is a greater infinity of all the non-measurable, flowing blendable continual experiences that we absorb than the measurable defined discrete events.  There is a greater infinity of possible non-measurable ambiance activity in an experience than there is of possible focused activity of subjects in an event such as an experiment.

            Returning to Lichtman, focusing only on all the defined discrete events from a well mapped-out brain is going to lead humans to miss out on the greater infinity of all the life activity from flowing blendable continual life experience.  Focusing only on the defined discrete thought from a well mapped-out brain is going to lead humans to miss out on the greater infinity of the flowing blendable continual streams of sensations, intuitions, dreams and imagination.

            The paradox is that although there is a greater infinity of flowing blendable continual mental impressions in the world than there are defined discrete data, the mental impressions lend themselves more easily than the data to being combined into a few larger ideas.  Large ideas are much more likely to come from impressions than from scientifically-based data.  So there is no reason to believe that the ongoing flow of data is going to drown out big ideas.

            And there will be lots of areas of human experience that will be only tangentially touched by creating a complete diagram of the human brain.  Will we finally find out some physical indicators of mental disorders like autism, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder by using electron microscopes on a nanoscale?  Somehow I feel that no matter what we find, it will not be enough to fully explain these disorders, to lead to a full understanding that will lead to a full control.  And maybe it is just as well.  The ability to fully understand, explain, and control mental abnormalities would only be the flip side of being able to fully understand, explain and control mental normality.  And that would lead to the ability to take over people’s minds and turn them into robots.  Not an appealing idea.

(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow

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