Understanding all of the functions of the human brain, even consciousness, may one day be within our grasp — but that won’t diminish our humanity.
By Wilson da Silva
MOST OF US THINK we know who we are, and a lot of people we deal with in our lives also feel as if they know us, to some degree: friends, colleagues, lovers, spouses, children and siblings.
But when science tries to define what ‘I’ am, what ‘you’ are, or what any individual is, it gets bogged down in a lot of grey areas (if you’ll excuse the pun). As the noted Canadian-born experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has said, one wonders if we can ever hope to find “the seat of awareness in the cacophony of a hundred billion jabbering neurons”. If we cannot even agree on what consciousness is, will we ever understand it?
“The brain remains almost as puzzling, mysterious and unfathomable as it was a century ago, despite astounding advances in our technological research tools and our understanding of everything from genetics to biophysics.”
Space has been called ‘the final frontier’. But the brain remains almost as puzzling, mysterious and unfathomable as it was a century ago, despite astounding advances in our technological research tools and our understanding of everything from genetics to biophysics. It may remain so long after we have explored our Solar System.
Quite apart from consciousness, an essential but seemingly straightforward function like memory — what it is, how it works — remains poorly understood. As former biochemist and Cosmos contributing editor Elizabeth Finkel points out, “While brain imaging and computer simulations are helping to create a fuzzy outline of the maze, it seems that this phase of exploration is once again the preserve of philosophers as much as scientists.”
Nevertheless, the search is fascinating, and the many insights that the study of the brain has already provided are profound. The bulk of research is focussed on, appropriately enough, understanding (and one day treating) a range of disorders that disrupt the ‘normal’ functioning of the mind. Obviously, things we
take for granted like talking, remembering, reading and recognising are functions that are more deeply complex than we could ever have imagined.
The brilliant American physicist Richard Feynman once likened physics to watching a game of chess through a window, with the players unseen and unheard. We may not know how to play, but if we watch long enough, he said, we might learn some of the rules of the game.
Understanding the brain may be even more challenging, for we seek to comprehend not only the rules of the game, but also the motivations driving the players and how they make their decisions.
We will learn much in the decades ahead, but truly understanding the human brain — and the human mind — may well be a project that will keep researchers perplexed for another frustrating century. In the meantime, we will probably be able to treat many ailments that are beyond help today, even curing some, as well as learning a little more about ourselves.
Some are troubled by the scientific quest to unravel the mechanisms of the human mind, to find physiological explanations for all our faculties because they feel that this somehow makes us ‘less human’.
But being able to describe precisely how our brains work and how the ‘mind’ arises no more lessens us than reducing a Bach symphony to a series of musical notes and an orchestra of instruments. The vaulting emotion that a symphony evokes is greater than the sum of the parts that go into creating it. So it is with being human.