Can Big Science Figure Out Consciousness?
President Obama will soon declare a second ‘decade of the brain.’ The multibillion dollar project, to be run by the Office of Science and Technology, hopes to map the human brain as successfully as the Human Genome Project mapped our DNA code. The considerable resources of the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Department, and the National Science Foundation will be coordinated with universities and private foundations.
The idea is to join the techniques of neuroscience and nanoscience to figure out what causes illness and what creates human consciousness. The scientists involved in project planning are breathlessly excited that this might lead to a paradigm shift. Perhaps we will gain precious insights into alzheimer’s,autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. And perhaps we will even understand what makes us most human- how the brain makes mind.
The project is a good idea, but don’t hold your breath that it will lead to any quick clinical breakthroughs or deep insights into human consciousness. We have been down this path before and the clearest lesson is that the brain reveals its secrets reluctantly and in very small packets. The second clearest lesson is the great difficulty translating fantastic basic science into practical gains in clinical diagnosis and care.
The human brain is by far the most complicated thing in the known universe. Its 100 billion neurons each connect to 1000 other neurons and they signal each other constantly through the mediation of dozens of augmenting or inhibiting neurotransmitters. The miracle is not that things sometimes go wrong, but rather that they so often go right.
There won’t be one cause of what we now call schizophrenia or autism- more likely there will be hundreds of different pathways. In figuring all this out, there will be no walks and no home runs- just occasional singles and many strikeouts. This is not wholesale work that can be achieved in any one ‘decade of the brain’; it will be the slow, steady retail slog of many generations of scientists.
We have been this route many times before. The National Institute of Mental Health designated the 1990’s as the Decade of the Brain and much good neuroscience was done. But generally the brain was very selfish in revealing itself and the results failed to live up to expectations.
The neuroscience of the late nineteenth century was similarly brilliant and similarly oversold as being on the cusp of the kind of fundamentalunderstanding that still eludes us- and will for some time.
If you had to bet between the brain’s capacity to hold secrets and our capacity to discover them, the smart short term money should always go on the brain.
That doesn’t mean that President Obama’s project isn’t a great idea. Even if we don’t quickly unlock the mysteries of schizophrenia or consciousness, every little step forward helps. And likely there will be unanticipated gains, particularly in artificial intelligence and brain prosthetics.
Certainly spending money on brain research beats buying yet another aircraft carrier, or continuing tax breaks for oil companies, or perpetuating the monopoly pricing that allows drug companies to rip off billions every year from the government and consumers.
Just don’t expect more than our current tools can deliver. The Human Genome project is one of man’s grandest scientific achievements- but it has had a fairly minimal impact on our nation’s health- much less for instance than the reduction in smoking that has occurred simultaneously.