Two Neuroscientists & A Question: Will We Ever Understand The Brain?

Rhonda Shrader, published originally on Essinova Blog, December 6th, 2011

With more than ten billion neurons, each connected thousands of times, the brain has been described as the ultimate social networking tool.

Two of the world’s top neuroscientists took center stage at the Bay Area Science Festival to discuss this complex topic, co-sponsored by Swissnex SF.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine. He’s also a popular author whose most recent book is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

Henry Markram is director of the Blue Brain Project at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) as well as a coordinator of the Human Brain Project.

Eagleman kicked off the discussion by explaining that most of cognition happens under the hood and away from our general awareness. Like worker bees in the background, he explained, there is a big gap between what our brains have access to and our experience of consciousness.

He also talked about how competing networks of neurons battle to drive behavior. Heads nodded all around the room when he offered the example of a self-argument over whether or not to have that piece of chocolate cake!

Eagleman added that understanding the connections and relationships between these “warring parties” is critical to answering the evening’s central question. He also said that while he believes that we’ll understand pieces and parts of the brain, what’s lacking is a theory about consciousness. He stressed that even if we understand the brain’s components and connections, we can’t turn it into an algorithm that replicates the experience of consciousness across different people.

Markram agreed with Eagleman that there is a more important question than simply understanding the brain. His Human Brain project is currently integrating everything known about the brain into computer models and using these models to simulate the actual working of the brain. His work has expounded on the basic connection rules for neurons.

Markram says that the major unsolved challenge of understanding the brain is to understand the eye, since the eye is only a “little filter that sends in some clues…the brain creates the representation”.

During the Q&A, the two discussed consciousness as well as simulations.

Eagleman posed several questions about the possibility of consciousness arising as a meta phenomenon and byproduct of a well-designed simulation. Markram said that this was a possibility, but there’s no way to know until it’s actually tried. He added that we are still a long way from understanding the physics of consciousness, but that simulations are a great tool to explore this uncharted territory. Both agreed that there is a raging debate in neuroscience communities about the utility and validity of simulations.

While there was no resolution to the evening’s central question, many new questions were raised. We are sure to hear more in the near future–stay tuned.

photo: (l to r) Christian Simm, Executive Director, Swissnex SF; David Eagleman, Henry Markram

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