Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Can we describe the brain?

Grigori Guitchounts writes:

A complete human connectome [charting the entirety of the connections among neurons in the brain] will be a monumental technical achievement. A complete wiring diagram for a mouse brain alone would take up two exabytes. That’s 2 billion gigabytes; by comparison, estimates of the data footprint of all books ever written come out to less than 100 terabytes, or 0.005 percent of a mouse brain. But [Jeff] Lichtman is not daunted. He is determined to map whole brains, exorbitant exabyte-scale storage be damned.

Lichtman’s office is a spacious place with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a tree-lined walkway and an old circular building that, in the days before neuroscience even existed as a field, used to house a cyclotron. He was wearing a deeply black sweater, which contrasted with his silver hair and olive skin. When I asked if a completed connectome would give us a full understanding of the brain, he didn’t pause in his answer. I got the feeling he had thought a great deal about this question on his own.

“I think the word ‘understanding’ has to undergo an evolution,” Lichtman said, as we sat around his desk. “Most of us know what we mean when we say ‘I understand something.’ It makes sense to us. We can hold the idea in our heads. We can explain it with language. But if I asked, ‘Do you understand New York City?’ you would probably respond, ‘What do you mean?’ There’s all this complexity. If you can’t understand New York City, it’s not because you can’t get access to the data. It’s just there’s so much going on at the same time. That’s what a human brain is. It’s millions of things happening simultaneously among different types of cells, neuromodulators, genetic components, things from the outside. There’s no point when you can suddenly say, ‘I now understand the brain,’ just as you wouldn’t say, ‘I now get New York City.’ ”

“But we understand specific aspects of the brain,” I said. “Couldn’t we put those aspects together and get a more holistic understanding?”

“I guess I would retreat to another beachhead, which is, ‘Can we describe the brain?’ ” Lichtman said. “There are all sorts of fundamental questions about the physical nature of the brain we don’t know. But we can learn to describe them. A lot of people think ‘description’ is a pejorative in science. But that’s what the Hubble telescope does. That’s what genomics does. They describe what’s actually there. Then from that you can generate your hypotheses.”

“Why is description an unsexy concept for neuroscientists?”

“Biologists are often seduced by ideas that resonate with them,” Lichtman said. That is, they try to bend the world to their idea rather than the other way around. “It’s much better—easier, actually—to start with what the world is, and then make your idea conform to it,” he said. Instead of a hypothesis-testing approach, we might be better served by following a descriptive, or hypothesis-generating methodology. Otherwise we end up chasing our own tails. “In this age, the wealth of information is an enemy to the simple idea of understanding,” Lichtman said. [Continue reading…]

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