Arjuna Nagendran

Doctor,

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Is it feasible or desirable to ever completely understand the human brain?

We are gradually increasing our minute knowledge of the human brain, how it works, how it responds and changes. However, we still know very little of how it truly works and the depth of functions it enacts.

Will we ever get there? And is it really something that is going to benefit us or are we likely to do more harm than good?

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    Sep 20 2012: I'm reminded of the old question, "Can our brains, as an insrument of comprehension, ever truly comprehend itself?"

    If we had no brains to comprehend, we would have no questions that needed answering. But we do, and one of our questions is, "How do our brains work?"

    I think we have made great strides in discovering many of the mysteries of how our brains work. But we are also using those same brains to comprehend it. Which is like a Catch-22 situation to me. What we believe to be the "answers" are what we comprehend them to be, based on the limitations of our own brains.

    My hypothesis is that whatever we ultimately decide to believe about how our brains actually work will be determined (and limited to?) our ability to comprehend it using the same "brain tool" we are asking and answering the questions with in the first place.

    That doesn't mean it can't be "educational" and "fun" to persue those answers. Just that it may mean we need to understand that we are using the same "brain tool" to try and understand the "tool" itself. We will end up "believing" whatever it is we want to believe about "how it works".
  • Sep 24 2012: I agree with Barry Palmer on this: "We do not need to map the workings of every brain cell, we only need to learn the principles." No two brains are exactly alike. In fact, your brain is not the same it was a few years prior. So understanding can only relate to the general principles of how information is stored, recalled and processed in the brain. I believe the more we understand about the human brain the more we will be able to create systems which can process information in similar ways.

    The notion that our brains are too complex to understand themselves is not supported by evidence. Humans can understand and create very complex systems; no single person does (or needs to) understand everything about how an iPhone works right down to every transistor on its chip. But a group of engineers can collectively understand it and reliably produce (and over time optimize) such a device.

    Whether it will do more harm than good? This is an age-old question about technology. Suppose we got self-driving cars which are so good that they reduce the traffic fatalities by a factor of 100x. Of course it is a good thing to make traffic safer; however it may also eliminate professions like taxi drivers, take away the joys and freedoms of driving. There is no either-or answer.

    Lastly, a good book on this is Jeff Hawkins' "On Intelligence". (He also gave a TED talk on intelligence.) He closes in a chapter "The Future of Intelligence" with thoughts on areas where machines will become far superior than humans (speed, capacity, replicability, sensory systems). I think it is most fascinating to ponder what kind of intelligences can be built based upon the principles observed in the human brain.
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      Sep 24 2012: I cannot really tell if these conflict:

      So understanding can only relate to the general principles of how information is stored, recalled and processed in the brain.

      and

      The notion that our brains are too complex to understand themselves is not supported by evidence.


      Technology in itself cannot be "good" or "bad" it is the application of such technology that needs a label.
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    Sep 24 2012: A deeper understanding of the brain may bring us better strategies to combat depression and other psychological issues.

    However, I think much can be learned through an understanding of human behavior. I don't believe we need to dissect a brain to gain a good understanding of its functions.

    Human behaviors say a lot about brain function. The ability to store memories, analyze information, and instantly understand sensory data are all understood to be natural abilities.

    The magnitude of available memory is what perplexes me. I would assume a capacity limit would exist in any biological system as a "scale" exists in all matter. However, it seems that our ability to learn is only scaled by the available information.

    Will we reach a capacity? Can we only learn so much information?

    As society progresses the amount of "base" information increases. New information about science, math, or history must be added to the "base". New technology and social norms are all piled on for us to absorb.

    Consciousness is much like electricity. Constant in some ways and varying in others. Electricity is an energy that flows like water.

    Consciousness has this "flow" like feel. Reality seems to be a movie we are forced to watch.

    It seems as if we do have a base, or separation from emotion.

    I do not feel that we are defined by emotion. I do believe emotion plays a role in "guiding" our choices.

    It almost seems as if you exist within your emotions and can never escape them.
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      Sep 24 2012: Hi Henry,could i just ask a Q?

      Memory recall,would you have any knowledge of this? without me rolling through a ton of useless infomation,When you recall a memory visually,how clear is that image for you? vivid? 1080p? or is it hazy,not defined but rather like snapshots?

      I'm just curious and i thought you might have some great insight but if not it's great to meet you.
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        Sep 24 2012: Hey Ken,

        Great question. I don't think it's the same for everyone. Memory is just stored sensory data. Therefore, if you bring up an "image" in your mind...it is merely stored impulses from the body.

        You also cannot role through a ton of useless information. You have no choice of what impulses the brain retrieves on it's own...and it does this at random.

        You can also retrieve memories yourself.

        How do we call them?

        As with computer code we must call a memory before it is retrieved...or all stored memory would be randomly surfaced...causing major problems with perception.

        Let's think of a moment where we remember something.

        "My pin-code...what is it again...I cannot remember it?"

        I have never read about any of this...and I probably need to.

        From what I have gathered...this is our memory.

        Branch Subject
        variable
        variable

        Each variable, or memory, varies depending on importance, or focus by the human on storing said attribute "I need to remember (x) about the sun" as it then is placed at higher levels on the chain.

        However, each attribute is stored under a "branch name" and can be called separately or as a part of the main branch (Sun) depending on it's "nested level" or "importance to the human".

        If we call "Sun" a ton of information becomes available to us.

        However, we cannot switch any train of thought without calling a branch.

        Car
        Sun
        You
        Me

        You must call a branch and cannot just randomly remember specific ideas about anything.

        Generate a random idea...go.

        Bird
        Car
        Cat

        Easy?

        Now try that with a complex thought...but follow the rules!

        Read them..then do them...you cannot do them while reading...just saying.

        1) Sit down
        2) Close your eyes
        3) Picture yourself in nothingness release all emotion...sit with nothing in your head. Think of nothing just sit and idle...its hard but you can do it.
        4) Think of a ball...a red ball...get as close as you can in your mind...to seeing that red ball.
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        Sep 24 2012: continued....

        5) Instantly make a complex statement about a random subject.

        As you will notice...you either cant...or begin speaking but are formulating the sentence as you speak.

        You cannot remember anything without calling the "branch" title first. Even if this title is vague...your brain must have a chain or "branch" to retrieve memory from.

        What do you think?
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          Sep 24 2012: Excellent,thanks,though it was'nt what i was thinking of you pin pointed something i never saw or failed to see yet it was always there.

          Thankyou

          Now i'm going to spend my working day mulling over it.

          Cheers
  • Sep 23 2012: Whenever we get smart enough to understand our brain, our brain becomes a little more complex so that we cannot understand it.

    in other words..

    If the brain was simple enough to be understood, it would be too simple to understand itself.
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    Sep 23 2012: With all new knowledge comes the possibility for good and bad things. A deeper understanding of the brain is definitively desirable, as is all deeper understanding.

    Deeper understanding of the brain might/will allow us to cure brain diseases, make people happier and allow for better education among many things.
    However it may also be used to control people better, allowing new ways of brainwashing and so on.

    I believe that it is possible for us to fully understand the brain but it will surely take some time before we do so, however the benefits will outweigh the possible threats.

    Here are three exiting TED Talks about the human brain:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/allan_jones_a_map_of_the_brain.html
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jeff_hawkins_on_how_brain_science_will_change_computing.html
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/vilayanur_ramachandran_on_your_mind.html
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    Sep 25 2012: There's a difference between understanding the world objectively and experiencing it through an exclusively objective framework.

    Everything we know, everything we touch, see, and smell, has been filtered through any number of physiological and cognitive processes. Subsequently, mine and your subjective experiences of the world are unique.

    My subjective appreciation of the color blue for instance, may vary from your subjective appreciation of the same colour - I don't think there is any way anybody could possibly know how a person's consciousness observes the universe, no matter how detailed their knowledge.

    It is unlikely we are going to be able to accomplish that kind of understanding at any stage of our scientific or technological development. Another way of saying this is that the universe can only be observed through a brain and that it is largely interpreted subjectively. But given that the universe appears to be coherent and knowable, should we then continue to assume that consciousness is down to digits, logic, minutiae, quantity and objectivity?

    Will we just end up being physics and matter in motion?

    Is there not poetry in mystery?

    Can any entity ever fully understand itself?

    There are fundamental limitations of the purely objective in my opinion, and thus there are limitations as to what science can tell us about our own cognitive processes.
  • Sep 24 2012: Do we really understand what learning and creativity are about? For more than four decades I have been studying how we learn and make decisions. An infant is ingrained in the discovery process and learn a great deal about their world the first years of life. Observing my grandchildren as infants and toddlers I have found that each discovery has four stages: Attention – does this thing, animal, sound, taste or smell interest me? Identify – can I categorize this some way with what I already know? Impact – if I play with this what effect does this have – like or hate? Relationship – How do I feel about this thing, etc. in the long run? A baby will go back to a toy or animal frequently to see if it has the same impact the next time reinforces that category, impact and relationship. Doesn’t every decision we make comprise those same four stages from finding a mate to buying an automobile? Does this potential mate attractive to me? Does he/she come from a clan, parish, religion, school, etc. that I like or agree with? Does he/she make me feel good? What will life be life be like for the rest of our lives?
    Learning and creativity are bound as yin and yang. An infant is born with a scientific method of discovery. How does this thing that has my attention now taste, smell, sound when I hit it on the floor, or shake it? All the discovery steps help the infant in categorizing, impacting and establishing a relationship. Learning to walk, speak, and feed yourself are taught through a discovery process and reinforced from parents and family.
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      Sep 24 2012: Hi Mark, interesting viewpoint! Maybe learning is just making memories?

      Each of the stimuli that we get, be it touch, taste, sight, smell or sound, together with our emotional response to these, seem to be how we contextualise experiences and memories. I think that the reason the infant is born with a method for discovery is that they are just experiencing with all parts of their cortex, which then get's laid down as memories in our hippocampi.

      Maybe creativity is then our drive to decontextualise this framework that we've built to interpret our world (or the framework we've been taught/told)?
  • Sep 23 2012: Yes and sure.

    But the brain is a subject of immense complexity. Its full function may never enter the realm of common knowledge, but with the fullness of understanding, we may finally come to end debates* on the nature of consciousness, mind-body dualism, etc.

    *even though those things can already be readily inferred with a good deal of evidence and keen reasoning by those well studied in its function and composition.

    But I suspect it'll be a while before that knowledge is as readily accepted as the spherical nature of this planet, or its rotation around the sun... just like evolution, despite its age and considerably massive weight of evidence, is been rejected by many across the world not for its veracity but for its implications.
  • Sep 23 2012: @Arjuna Nagendran

    I don't think we'll ever be able to predict a person's response to stimuli completely, just as we cannot completely predict where a certain molecule of O2 will be half an hour from now. Too many variables that are too hard to measure accurately enough come into play. But we will one day understand exactly how the brain works and decipher the brain's programming language. Knowing the programming language will enable us to directly feed information to the brain.
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      Sep 23 2012: Yes, when it comes down to it, it's all about quantum mechanics (brains-cells-atoms-quarks) , and those can (so far) only be estimated, never fully predicted.
  • Sep 23 2012: Yes Mr.Arjuna,

    It is possible.
    Your question - "And is it really something that is going to benefit us or are we likely to do more harm than good?" is having answer.

    The only thing required is using them for positive actions which help our planet (means us).
    There are many Yogic Sciences by which you will know even a minute minute minutes of total body and use them for good purposes.

    Dhanyavaad!

    http://successinself.blogspot.in
  • Sep 21 2012: IMO, scientists will one day have a very good understanding of:

    - the chemical processes inside of brain cells
    - the way brain cells communicate with each other
    - the particular parts of the brain involved with particular functions, like movement, emotion and thought
    - how the brain stores and retrieves memories
    - the principles involved in how the brain predicts
    - the principles involved in how the brain thinks
    - the principles involved in consciousness and unconsciousness

    Will we ever "completely understand" the human brain? Probably not, in the sense that we could make specific predictions about specific human actions. Once we have a good understanding of the brain, we will always be finding exceptions to our knowledge, allowing us to learn more. But our understanding will one day be marvelous indeed. Then it will become accepted and mundane. Many of us marvel at the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, but very few actually learn the math and the details. Knowledge of the brain will be similar. A few specialists will know the details, and the rest of us will try to imagine the way the brain works as laymen.

    I really do not understand why so many people question this. We do not need to map the workings of every brain cell, we only need to learn the principles. We make space ships fly to the outer planets because we understand the principles involved in gravity, momentum and rocket engines. This is what scientists do every day, and they will succeed with the brain too.
  • Sep 21 2012: I think it will always be an ongoing goal to completely understand the brain, yet this must happen piece by piece to then perhaps create an understanding of the whole. But there are certain elements that cannot be mapped. Where, for example, is the region of the brain that handles one's consciousness? And voluntary or involuntary movements in a state of non consciousness? There is no direct way to pinpoint something this abstract because it utilizes so many different regions of the brain, which will change depending on the given situation. Of course, however, one can conclude that, "Yes, the limbic system is involves with one's emotions." But which emotions and when? There is always more research to be done.

    In this sense, I'm not sure it will ever be completely feasible to understand the human brain, but it will always be the goal. It may be possible to make tentative conclusions with enough research, though answering questions regarding more abstract concepts may be difficult. Notice that there is no 'pain' center in the brain, but that many regions play a role and many types of neurotransmitters are involved. Research will continue to be a rich and ongoing field. It's exciting to wonder what may be discovered next.
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    Sep 20 2012: In my humble opinion, I look at it like this: Once we fully understand and unravel the mysteries of human consciousness, then the mysteries of our cognitive universe may unfold. Or is it the other way around?
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    Sep 20 2012: I think in the future there will always be lag between input and comprehension,memory storage maybe external but the knowledge will be discarded until the cells rearrange at their own speed,we will not see instantaneous accountants after one hour of direct input,also memory is multilayered with emotion and audio and sensory input regardless of whether you were reading just a book or listening to your lecturer and then proceed to recount what you have learned but will generally skip recalling how you felt at that time and the level of importance you have assigned to such data.

    It's speculation, as i've cherry-picked from half retained memories,bits and pieces.
  • Sep 19 2012: If we understand the brain completely, including it's programming language we can literally download information, that would be awesome. We would also be able to mimic the brain for artificial intelligence. I don't think knowing everything about the brain automatically means a machine will be able to read our thoughts but perhaps it would be possible to implant false memories, that would be very bad. Will we get there? Yes, eventually, but it will take a lot of time, not because not because of technological restraints but because it's just so much work to decode the brain.
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      Sep 20 2012: If we understand the brain I think we couldn't do all you propose because we would find that it's not what scientists thought it was. The brain is more a kind of computer and not the seat of the resident.
      • Sep 20 2012: And you know this because?
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          Sep 20 2012: Maybe this helps.

          http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/nl/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.html

          The brain developed to control movement and coordinate action and reaction.
          The brain has memory but only memory from action and emotion, not from mental processes.
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          Sep 20 2012: Interesting points. Daniel Wolpert only really focusses on the reason for why the brain evolved, what he is not saying is that motor activity is it's only function. We may have developed the ability to think about abstract concepts or feel compassion as a side effect or faculties we evolved for the purpose of motor function but we have been able to essentially "hot-wire" the apparatus and use it in our own ways.
          Reducing the brain to a kind of computer is, I think an oversimplification - I would also agree that there is significant weight to the argument that it is not merely the seat of the resident based on how we do know about circuitry of the brain and certain neuronal pathways that allow motor function like the corticospinal tract.

          But what about things like free will - if we understood the brain completely, if we ever are able to establish the precise neuronal correlates of thought itself based on individual's specific neurons (and this is so so far into the future if it ever does happen!) and in that way if we could reliably predict an individual's response to a given stimulus accurately, will that serve to benefit human kind? I wonder...
  • Sep 19 2012: hi Arjuna

    I am after it too, I filled my library with Sigmund Freud, Carl Jang, to Antonio Damasino and NLP, Behavioural and Influential Psychology, Verbal and Non Verbal communication literature .

    to answer your question is this: I don't know, maybe in the far future they may be something that can detect everything. Let's hope

    when you find how our brain TRULY works , let me know, please.

    Thanks