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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Are we living in the age of the brain?

Understanding the brain won’t be done simply by mapping it down to the last synapse

By Philip Ball
Prospect Magazine
Originally published December 22 2014

Here is an excerpt:

Resolution of conflicting mental signals is certainly not ignored by cognitive scientists or psychologists, but there seems often to be a disjuncture between the neuroscientific model of the brain as a problem-solving network and the actual experience of the brain as a medley, even a bedlam, of imperatives and impulses. Sigmund Freud may have been wrong in seeking to present his psychoanalytic theory as a kind of science, but he was surely right to present the mind in terms of conflict rather than unity. One thing we do know about the brain is that it is not just a very large network of neurons, but is both very diverse (there are many different types of neuron, as well as non-neuronal cells called glia) and highly modular (different parts perform different, specialized roles). Mapping this architecture is an important goal, and there are some deeply impressive techniques for doing that. But the risk is that this is like trying to understand human culture using Google Earth—or rather, cultures, for there is just a single geography but plenty of conflicts, compromises and confusion going on within it.

None of this would be disputed by neuroscientists. But it perhaps highlights the distinctions between an understanding of the brain and an understanding of the mind. The implication seems to be that it is hard to develop one while you’re working on the other.

The entire article is here.