Here is an article telling us the state of the art of understanding the brain. Some people are waiting for the singularity which is the point at which the brain can be read out and stored in a digital form so that we can store and replicate individual human minds. From this paper it is clear we are far from that day.
The paper is trying to be optimistic but I think it is clear the big distinction that needs to be made is between the brain “contents and cognition” versus observation of the brain action on the external world and input signals. The former is completely obscure whereas we have an ability to observe the latter. We shouldn’t be so stupid as to think that the fact we can see a signal from the brain going down a nervous pathway doesn’t mean we understand any more about the how that signal was created, i.e the cognitive process inbetween. What we have today is observed using electrical methods indicators of what kind of information the brain is receiving from our senses and ideas about what the brain does electrically that seems to cause muscle firing and movement of the human body. We also seem to be able to recognize some other blunt possibly secondary effects in the brain that seemed to be an indicator of the end result of the brains activity. The basic point is that the actual operation of the brain to store, create higher level concepts, recall exactly, correlate information, how the brain has a consciousness, a seeming direction of thought and sense of identity, the ability to process information at unbelievable speeds in some cases (for instance an athlete performing very complex actions with the body and senses in tandem with incredible precision all of these things seem completely impenetrable.
In the article the author talks about how individual neurons seem to be responsible for recognizing whole people. Given the brains input is a series of spikes how is it possible a single neuron gets the information to encode something as specific and general as a particular hollywood star for instance? How would a single neuron have enough complexity to record or detect things like this?
The article mentions over 1000 neuron types and that for instance possibly some types of neurons are able to detect lines or movement of lines vertical or horizontal. This may be possible but the existence of a thousand or more neuron types and the existence of any preprogramming in the brain is a terribly complex matter. I have always been staggered by the low number of genes in the human genetic code. I now understand genes are simply blueprints for building nano-machines. Fragments of a gene code up components of these machines and so the machines are composed of common building blocks consisting of repeating patterns of DNA that construct levers and detection mechanisms. A gene is simply a factory for making a particular type of machine. There is separate coding in the billions of other DNA fragments that direct how many machines to make, when to make the machines etc. Therefore what was considered junk DNA before is now considered the most crucial DNA because it is where the actual instructions for operating the factories and the machines that operate the body.
There is an information problem I don’t think anyone has really thought through which is the sheer complexity of all the chemicals and the machines and the different cell types, the processes to operate cells, each organ or group of cells and the instructions to manage the interoperation of this giant machine must be extremely complex code. This code is not like a fixed computer program which is unchangeable and breaks with the slightest unconsidered input. This machine has adaptive capabilities which it can use to repair itself, to handle scenarios it has seen in the past ( possibly the far past from thousands millions of years ago that some previous DNA had to deal with) and bring together forces to combat detected attacks. It has the ability to constantly change and to have augmentations. We can think each cell operates autonomously but we know that in fact the system has more global capabilities and that far removed systems can be triggered and action taken, that even thoughts in the brain and mood can affect how the factories and the machines themselves work. There is an awful lot of complexity of any machine composed of so many components, so many different components. I can’t even imagine how many different situations the body deals with on a daily basis to maintain homeostasis to keep everything operating and repair, grow muscle, create copies of cells, copies of humans.
The point is this is incredibly complex program. As big as the DNA is there is a question in my mind if the coding could POSSIBLY be sufficient to represent the complexity of this machine let alone trying to understand what the coding mechanism is. Knowing how many lines of code is needed for the simplest program it is disturbing to think how much more complex a human body is consisting of so many different cell types, so many chemicals, so many parts of the puzzle and all the unbelievable complexity in writing a program to reliably manage it let alone the repair mechanisms, adaption mechanisms, retaining knowledge of past experiences and dealing with those situations when they arise again, i.e. learning. It is mind boggling and no computer program is imaginable that could do all this. We have never imagined let alone written anything remotely as complex.
Over and over we are faced with the problem that we don’t understand the basic language of the genetic code, the brains coding of information, concepts, the process by which instructions and action is taken, how decisions are made or processes work beyond the simplest observable action. It is hard to believe this is all done with chemical reactions because we know the operation of these chemical reactions is slow compared to the needed speed to operate the machine, to react. Electrical signals seem so far to be insufficient to explain the brains function. We have studied these electrical patterns and not discerned their meaning. Possibly there is no meaning and we are observing a secondary effect not the primary effect that is going on.
I have no answers. I am not calling for mystical answers, i.e. god, etc. I am simply pointing out the pathetic state of our understanding. We are like little worms crawling around this stuff with so little understanding but thinking we have a clue. I am reminded how it is clear to me that animals recognize and communicate somehow. Studies have shown they can tell each other things. They work together in some cases. We have never been able to understand the language of animals. If these animals are so dumb and we are so smart shoulnd’t we be able to figure out what a penguin is saying to another penguin or a dog to a dog. I mean there is clearly something more going on here than we grasp, some more detailed language at play that we don’t seem to have a clue and can’t see the regularity of it.
Maybe we are closer than I think and if we have one simple break in understanding one little thing about how the brain or the junk code in the DNA really works that we will suddenly have a path to complete understanding. Maybe we are close. It is just so bloody hard to see how this all works. If the brain was a completely organized thing of some small number of cells organized in a repeating pattern we could understand how a limited number of instructions could be used to construct a brain, how it could operate with a simple set of procedures. I remember a book I read which outlined the basic structure of the cortex. There is a regularity to the cortex. It is composed of 6 layers of cells that have some repeating structure. I could see how such a structure could become a general learning machine perhaps but the more we learn about things like the eye and all these different neurons it turns out to be a lot more complex. The cortex itself is more complex than that simple explanation. There is a lot of variation in regions of the cortex. How could the programming in the genetic structure be so detailed to lay out how to build a cortex and brain (forget the rest of the body). Shouldn’t we see massive amounts of DNA related to this? Yet 80% of the DNA of a fly is similar to a human. The brain is composed of regions, lots of regions more than simply the cortex and 1000 cell types and many processes going on at the same time electrical and chemical. We have discovered recently microtubules to increase the complexity of interaction between neurons.
Maybe instead of thinking of ourselves at the near ending point of learning about nature and how smart we are we should all take a humble pill and realize we really have no clue. I believe this has come upon me when realizing where we are with our physics knowledge.
We should think of ourselves really at a cro magnon state. We have this rudimentary ability to understand things based on our observation of macro phenomenon. We are like early observers of the human body who talked about humours and had no idea what the organs of the body did. We are blind to so much of what’s probably really going on which is why it seems so hard to understand how it could possibly operate. That is exciting to think there is so much to learn ahead of us and depressing to think I will probably not be around to see it unfold.