Monday, 21 October 2013

The more we probe the brain, the less we understand it

The New Scientist of 19th October has an article "Hidden depths - The vast majority of brain research is now drowning in uncertainty. It is time to build a more complete understanding of the mind" by Ingfei Chen. This queries the foundations of much of the research into scans which attempt to relate what we are thinking with neural activity. The approach seems to be the more and more detail we have the better we can understand - but that is true only if we are asking the right question. Readers of this blog will know I believe that we are already drowning in detail without understanding the neural code. If the neurons use the same code, whatever their detailed task,  you don't need to look at millions - you need to stand back and look for the common features. As a result I have submitted the following letter to the New Scientist, and also posted it as a comment to the article.
Brain research is drowning in uncertainty (Hidden Depths, New Scientist 19th October) because nearly everyone is looking for a non-existent Philosopher's Stone of Biological Human Intelligence. In reality we have the same unsophisticated neural code as animals but have replaced a degree of critical thinking with a sheep-like “follow my leader” approach to speed learning. Of course this is an advantage as culturally learnt intelligence skills, communicated by language, are very much more powerful than our genetically based animal intelligence. Unfortunately the inherent weaknesses of the comparatively crude biological foundations show through as confirmation bias and the way our memories of past events drift with time. In evolutionary terms our big brain is no more significant than a giraffe's long neck, and we might understand how the brain works better if we were not so “big-headed” as to think our brain is biologically anything special.