President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) seeks to decipher how the brain’s circuitry produces thought and behavior. Recent Science News’ reports looked into this initiative. This excerpt is from Brain Shot.
Ambitious goals: While the BRAIN Initiative’s objectives are hard to express in concrete terms, the project is full of visionary promise. “The ultimate goal is to understand who we are,” says Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. “How is it that our brain is able to look out into the world and see things? How is it that we are able to make decisions? How is it that we’re able to coordinate enormous amounts of knowledge?”
I suspect such questions are only fully answerable in the subjective experience of noticing how one thinks and feels. Indeed, isn’t this how humanity has always sensed the subtler side of the human experience? Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are a pithy and down to earth way to understand ourselves. Others have concurred with Buddha’s viewpoint in various ways, before and after, e.g., Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Christ, even Genesis. The problem we face in understanding ourselves is often an innate unwillingness to hear what really stands in our way. We seek ‘understandings’ that don’t threaten the preconceptions we hold dear, so we often beat around the bush in our search for answers — and naturally so, I might add.
Chapter 65’s candid observations ‘not to enlighten, but to fool’ challenged me for a long time. It seems at odds with humanity’s spiritual aspirations. It is easy to interpret this as a deliberate attempt by the ‘ancients’ to avoid enlightening the people. The common belief that we humans possess free will would suggest this to be a deliberate act on their part, i.e., these ancients chose to fool us, we assume. Why would they ever want to do that?
My breakthrough on this came when I finally realized, or better, really faced up to the fact that we only understand what we know. This is really a hard pill to swallow — at least as hard as the fact that our mistaken sense of free will is an inevitable consequence of the illusion of self. Seen in this light, the ancients didn’t fool anyone deliberately. People fool themselves by misunderstanding the message. That would be the natural outcome of only being able to understand truly what we already know intuitively. In other words, we interpret what we hear in accord with our own deeply held needs and fears. The ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder. If the eye is fearful, the ‘truth’ it sees counterbalances that fear in some way.
Therefore, I’d imagine that we can only understand “how our brain is able to look out into the world and see things and make decisions” to the extent that we are comfortable with the facts we find. As usual, our needs and fears will invariably color our interpretation of the facts and any conclusions we make. Understanding begins within…
This next excerpt is from Cataloging the connections.
Eventually, scientists want to map everything. Their ultimate goal is a catalog of all the connections between all the brain’s cells and regions, a master map known as the connectome. It’s a formidable task, comparable to identifying every building in the country and then tracing the routes of all the people and cars that travel among them.
That “scientists want to map everything” is akin to knowing the layout of every leaf on a tree, the biology of every cell of every leaf, and so on. But will you know the tree? One must ‘become’ a tree to understand a tree, which no doubt sounds impossible. It all depends on what we mean by ‘become’. Setting that aside, knowing all the facts and figures certainly doesn’t hurt, and can truly enhance the experience, especially if the ‘becoming’ condition is met. However, without some ‘becoming’, knowledge is relatively blind. Chapter 15 and 49 speak to this somewhat:
How does the wise person exist, all under heaven, breathing in?
Becoming all under heaven, simple and natural his intention.
All the multitude explain with their knowledge;
The wise person, each and every child.… Chapter 49
This last excerpt is from How pieces of live human brain are helping scientists map nerve cells
A blow to the ego: Research may disappoint people who think that our brains have specialized neurons that let us talk and think in ways other animals can’t. “The overall number of cell types in the human cortex and in the mouse cortex is roughly the same”, says Christof Koch, chief scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. (Google: Live human brain helps scientists map nerve cells)
“People, including scientists, have this strong need [for] human exceptionalism,” Koch says. But the fact that the overall resident population of the human brain and mouse brain is remarkably similar adds to the list of blows to the human ego. First, Darwin downgraded humans to just another animal on the tree of life. Then, the Human Genome Project shocked us with the news that we have a similar number of genes as mice (and fewer than water fleas). Now, add brain cell types to the list of things that make people more like other mammals.