President Obama wants a decade-long program to deepen our understanding of the human brain. It would build a map of brain activity and, quoting the NYT “do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.” There are three goals–fight diseases, especially Alzheimer’s, increase artificial intelligence, and since DARPA is involved, bolster cyber-security.
I have one suggestion–to the array of neuroscientists, nano scientists and representatives from Google, Microsoft, Qualcomm running the brain project, he add cultural anthropologists, sociologists and designers. Combining the social with the scientific will accomplish two things:
1) Make the science relevant. One of the biggest economic and social failures of recent years has, in fact, been the Human Genome Project. There were big promises of huge economic benefits and, despite a federal study showing a “return” of $800 billion over a decade, we can see little of it. There is one project turning algae into energy producing organisms that I can think of. In addition, the Genome Project has not led to big breakthroughs in medicine either, despite promises that it would. It has, in fact, been disappointing.
Adding social scientists early to the program increases the chances that the direction of the research from the start might be more meaningful, both socially and economically. Had social scientists been attached to Monsanto’s genetic modification work, the company might not have had the enormous opposition to its GM seeds in Europe. It might have focussed on health and taste rather than efficiency and yield.
2) Americans fetishize the brain. The brain has become a secular divinity, in which we see everything coming out of it. The result is that the locus of control is seen to be outside ourselves. Just as religious people believe in fate or God’s will, so too the brain. As we focus on the brain “causing” creativity or thinking. we tend to think that exceptional brains will give us more exceptional behavior. And we hope that in the end we’ll be able to stimulate a portion of the brain and that will make us smarter, or better in some way.
I’m all for understanding more about the brain but I’m wary about how we, as a culture, use the brain to “explain” our lives. Learning and doing and understanding what is meaningful in context are the keys to making society and our lives better. Brain scans reflect our behaviors as much as the brain “causes” them. In Java, the shadow play shows the shadows of puppets acting out great political and social dramas. The Javanese understand the meaning of the shadows. They don’t confuse reality with reflection.