When tackling the brain, don’t forget the mind

The human brain is an incredibly complex object. With billions of cells each with thousands of connections, it is difficult to know where to begin. Neuroscientists can probe the brain with electrodes, see inside it with scanners, and observe what happens to people when bits of it are damaged in accidents and disease. But putting all this information together is rather like reconstructing a puzzle without the picture on the box for guidance.


We could take inspiration from the Human Genome Project. The genome is also extremely complex, with billions of building blocks. Despite these challenges, the genome was successfully unraveled at a cost of around $3.8 billion in 2003. The knowledge generated by the Human Genome Project is estimated to have produced $141 in the economy for every $1 spent on research.

Now the Obama administration plans to do the same for the human brain, on a similarly ambitious scale ($3 billion over ten years). The goal of the “Brain Activity Map” (BAM) is to map the activity every neuron and connection in the living brain. Because activity of the brain determines our mental lives, the hope is that a comprehensive roadmap will help us understand how memories are formed, how particular drugs might alleviate psychiatric disorders, and even how the brain generates consciousness. The relevant technologies (multi-electrode recording, optogenetics) are advancing rapidly, and large-scale studies are already providing new insights into how networks of cells interact with each other. A successful Brain Activity Map is well within our grasp.

But what will success look like? Will a map of the human brain be useful in the same way that a map of the human genome is useful? In genetics, success allows us to understand and control physical characteristics. In neuroscience, success should lead to an equivalent understanding of the mind. We would be able to use the map to help reduce aberrant emotions in post-traumatic stress disorder, to lift mood in depression, and to reverse the decline of Alzheimers. Yet all these applications rely on a thorough understanding of the mind as well as the brain.

The computer scientist David Marr noted that the mind can only be fully understood by linking three levels: the function of the system, the computations the system carries out, and how these computations are implemented in the brain. Recording brain cells firing away on their own, even thousands of them, will only get us so far. Imagine being able to visualize the electronics of your computer while tapping away at an email. The patterns you see might tell you broadly how things are working, but you could not divine that you had a web browser open, and certainly not that you were writing to an old friend. Instead, to gain a full understanding of the computer, you would need to understand the software itself, as well as how it is implemented in hardware. In an article in the journal Neuron, the scientists behind the BAM proposal remind us that brain function emerges “from complex interactions among constituents”. They seem to agree with Marr. But while we don’t know the full details of the proposal, in its current form the majority of BAM funding will be thrown at understanding only one of his three levels: implementation.

Studying one level without the other is rather like building the Large Hadron Collider without also investing in theoretical physics. Psychologists and cognitive scientists are experts at bridging the gap between the workings of the mind and brain. For example, by carefully designing behavioral tests that can probe mental dysfunction, they are beginning to delve beneath the traditional classifications of mental disorders to understand how particular components of the mind go awry. These individuals need to walk hand in hand with the technologists on the frontline of brain science. The new technologies championed by the BAM scientists will produce a rich harvest of data about the brain, and they are a crucial part of a long-term investment in the brain sciences. But without similar investment in the mind sciences we will be left puzzling over how the pieces fit into our everyday lives. Only by considering the mind when tackling the brain will we get more BAM for our buck.

55 thoughts on “When tackling the brain, don’t forget the mind

  1. “Psychologists and cognitive scientists are experts at bridging the gap between the workings of the mind and brain.”

    I’m not sure that this statement is well-accepted. Psychologists and cognitive scientists often do not consider the brain part at all.

    However I still agree that psychological concepts will be important and perhaps even critical for a complete understanding of the brain, but maybe more by guiding neuroscience research than by linking to it.

    • Cian – this point is well taken. I agree that many cognitive scientists do not consider the neural implementation, or need to consider it to do excellent work. My point was that the expertise of this group of individuals is important if one wants to effectively bridge the brain-behaviour divide.

  2. I think both the Brain Activity Map and the Human Brain Project (met with abject despair amongst many neuroscientists in Europe) are a bit like embarking on the Humane Genome Project before the discovery of DNA 🙂

    • Ben, I know what you mean – there is so much still to be settled even e.g. about the neural code (does timing matter, or is it “just” a rate code?). But I think the BAM project, to be fair, is aimed at tackling those sorts of questions. It just doesn’t make the headlines. The European project I fear assumes those answers have already been found.

  3. I appreciate the well written, and–as far as I can see–well-enough balanced write up on BAM. I very much look forward to the outcome of the project, and do wish it well.

    I tend to think that it can only work towards positive, and productive-in-outcome results. As highlighted in the write-up, it may be a great start for putting all the ‘bottom-up’ work in a good connected order. I think that Henry Markram’s approach with the Blue Brain Project is from the biological level up, and surely other ‘neuronet’ approaches are too. Thus I look forward to what can happen when all the bits and pieces, here and there, can be put together.

    Perhaps we could say that putting those results together with the ‘top-down’ approach of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, would only work to help fill out the big picture more. Then, as Edward Slingerland has so well captured in his work providing encouragement for the humanities to get more involved with the sciences, we should, I argue, get more ‘armchair’ fellows providing any fine-tuning that can be productive–without too much entanglement. (As Francis Crick would surely have concerns about.

    I appreciate and look forward to further blog posts, Steve, and do wish to encourage you with this !

  4. Great post Steve. I think many of us were pretty confused when the project was first announced. It wasn’t clear to me how it was different from the Human Connectome Project, or why the US needed two totally independent “big brain” projects. At least now it seems that BAM will focus more on electrophysiological recordings.

    Personally, I find myself torn on these huge projects. On the one hand it is great to see some top-down investment and recognition for our field. I really believe that we desperately need greater networking and homogeneity of methods, which these projects can really promote. Still I am very wary of the argument from investment- as you point out, it is hard to believe that brain science will yield the same kind of payout as the HGP. And like others have echoed, I can’t help but wonder if that money might have been better spent on 500 individual, behaviorally targeted programs.

    Regardless, you hit the nail on the head with the missing link to behavior in these big projects.

    • Hi Micah – I share your feelings of being torn. I am 100% behind investment in neuroscience, and I think a visionary project that captures the public imagination can be very special indeed. But the allusion to a “Human Genome Project for the brain” unsettles me.

      There we had a clearly defined goal of mapping the sequences underlying different genes. The goal for the brain project seems more amorphous, and subject to change as knowledge in a number of fields changes in parallel (artificial intelligence, biology, cognitive science, computer science, neuroscience, psychology). Throwing several funding eggs in one basket at this stage may skew the playing field when we really need to keep everything going in parallel. I just hope I am proved wrong!

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  6. Reblogged this on word alchemy and commented:
    An incredibly cool idea. The results of a successful project could be enormously helpful.

    Being able to read the brain’s internal language behind mental disorders is an undeniably useful trait. But the thing that intrigues me the most is– as the title says– it requires looking at the mind as well as the brain.

    The logic behind that being, even if you could roadmap all the electronic signals you wouldn’t be able to really interpret what’s going on. Research needs to be done on both sides of the process: how the brain’s stimulations produce neurological effects, and how our minds act based on the brain’s behavior when either afflicted by a disorder or under emotional duress.

    Will definitely be following the Brain Activity Map. Very cool.

  7. I think, even if we do map out the brain, it won’t give us a fuller understanding of the human mind. The human mind is so complex and so full of contradictions, it’s amazing we’ve gotten this far in so little time. But if we do end up mapping the brain, I hope it can help with certain psychiatric disorders, especially ones like schizophrenia, depression, or autism, which affect so many people in any given year.
    Nice pun at the end, by the way. Gave me a little smirk there.

    • I agree. And in regards to mental illness like Schizophrenia, I know that many discoveries have been made. However, I also know that even if we do find that gene responsible — which I have heard we have made great progress in doing — there is the challenge of figuring out what that really means, interpreting it, understanding it, and then utilizing its potential towards making better treatments. I only hope that efforts such as this one become that successful. Great post.

  8. “The computer scientist David Marr noted that the mind can only be fully understood by linking three levels: the function of the system, the computations the system carries out, and how these computations are implemented in the brain. ”

    Consciousness itself is being neglected in this approach. The Hard Problem and Explanatory Gap are not addressed so that there is no link between computation, system function, brain implementation, and anything resembling sensory-motor experience of any kind. If this view were adequate, then we, like computers, would need no visual or auditory experiences, no feeling of participation or will, no flavors or intuition, just the i/o of generic binary data.

    As long as awareness is seen as a trick or accidental side effect of mechanisms rather than as the fundamental basis ontology itself, we will never understand the brain’s relation to consciousness.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. The BAM proposal does allude to consciousness as being an explanatory target, but as you point out they are pointing to a functional account of conscious behaviour (the “Easy” problem). I think even the Easy problem is tremendously difficult, and nowhere is it more important to develop effective bridging principles between brain and behaviour than when studying consciousness.

      However, I think your concern about the Hard Problem is not going to be satisfied by any neuroscientific account, no matter how advanced… I have written elsewhere on this blog how the Hard Problem is likely to remain a philosophical, rather than empirical, puzzle: https://elusiveself.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/in-defence-of-cognitive-neuroscience/

      • Yes, the Easy problem is indeed not-so-easy (and I think that David Chalmers was being somewhat tongue-in-cheek when he referred to the two problems that way).

        I agree that the Hard Problem is not necessarily approachable by neuroscience at the moment, but I think that could change with more experimental tools – brain implants, studies on brain conjoined twins, etc. The key is that any scientific approach has to bridge the first and third person views by meeting us halfway. At the moment, the assumption is something like ‘you think you are eating lasagna, but really there is activity in these regions of your brain’.

        To really bridge the Explanatory Gap (which is really what we are talking about, btw – how mind and matter relate… the Hard Problem is a little different – it has nothing to do with matter but rather asks ‘Why is anything like consciousness even a possibility in the universe?’), we have to assume that eating the lasagna is at least as good of a description of the physical event as the brain activity. It is the brain activity view which is a back-end diagram, and is meaningless on its own were it not for the lasagne eating qualia that we care about. Understanding that physics is a continuum between private facing experiences through time and public facing bodies in space is, to me, the most important, undiscovered idea in understanding consciousness. Without honoring that continuum (really a spectrum) of the ontology of privacy itself, no approach has much of a hope of deep progress IMO. Not to say it isn’t important to study consciousness from the brain side as well – of course it is, for medicine, for education, etc, but for consciousness itself, we need to bridge not just from both sides to the middle directly, but also from each side into their respective domains. This means seeing the psyche as rooted not in bottom up computing processes, but in terms of myth and imagination, psychedelia and psychosis – not as exotic birds on the fringe, but as the fundamental clay of the human experience from which we emerge and return to.

  9. By “mind,” do you mean something along the lines of mental experiences? Like tasting something good or feeling pain? I’ve thoroughly confused myself overthinking what you mean by “mind”….

    • Hi Matilda,
      By “mind” I was referring to the study of behaviour and cognition, rather than the study of neurons, cells etc. So a psychologist who is studying how language develops, or a computer scientist developing an artificial model of memory, are all studying parts of the “mind”. So this term is not just focussed on subjective experience, although this is of course an important part of what it means to have a mind!

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  12. Scientists have found that any kind of mindfulness meditation practice is linked with actual physical changes in the brain — changes that may even have protective effects against mental illness.

    Researchers from the University of Oregon studied past data from a 2010 study of 45 undergraduate students, as well as a past study on 68 students at the Dalian University of Technology, who practiced integrative body-mind training. The meditation technique places heavy emphasis on being aware of the mind, body and environment.

  13. when they started the HGP scientists still thought that it was all in our DNA, but now it is understood that input into cells turns gene’s on and off. By the time this project is finished there may have been an equaly big shift towards input and output in terms of what impact the environment has on neurology.
    I liked the analogy ‘like building the Large Hadron Collider without also investing in theoretical physics’ because whilst we are fascinated by inteligence for the purposes of AI, I do feel that without factoring in chaos, there is a strong chance that we will miss the point about conciousness and just end up with a sophisticated piece of AI. Although it will be impressive it will have failed to understand what makes us human, our conciousness, and yes our MIND.

    • I agree that the output of the BAM project will hopefully turn up unexpected findings just like the HGP did, and I am thoroughly in support of this kind of research. But as you point out, without similar investment in AI//cog sci, we will have a hard time understanding what such unexpected findings mean.

  14. Adjusting the physical mechanics of the brain in order to create a better human being is like adjusting the engine of a race car in order to create a better race car driver. It may help a little but it still misses the mark by a wide margin.

    Thank goodness strides are being made in science that grant legitimacy to heretofore ignored concepts and paradigms. Remember, electricity was witchcraft before science vindicated it and nerves were considered to be mere connective tissue before electricity was introduced into the experimental mix. What we need now is the recognition of a new “electricity” so that we can actually see what the mysterious “nerves” are up to. In other words, we need to acknowledge new concepts in, for lack of a better term, energy, and the impact they have on what we perceive in the physical world. Our perception will expand with our willingness to look in new places, especially places that current science scoffs at. They scoffed at Einstein, too. But, he was stubborn.

    We’re still chipping away at the proverbial tip of the iceberg on this one. It’s going to be a slow dig down to the truth if we repeatedly insist on using worn-out ideas to dig with.

  15. Until science can explain to me how I have psychic/knowing moments, I’m not sure I buy into mapping helping understand the intricacies of the brain or even my mind by direct correlation of the physiological effects. I say this as if the mind is considered a byproduct of the perceptual processes of the brain, when I just know things about another person or in my life, things that have not happened but I live into, just what or whose perceptions are filtering into my mind resulting in thoughts and images ie knowing? Yes, I know how this sounds…but it’s true and a part of who I am. That said, great post I am a bit of a science nerd and find the brain fascinating as the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know 😉

    • I want to respond to “I know how this sounds…” by saying it sounds reasonable to me. As the “hard” sciences like Physics move from the easy Newtonian phenomena that conform to our perceptions of reality to what is happening at the very small level (Quantum Physics) or very large level (Cosmology and the creation of the Universe) things get more dicey as they diverge from what we “see”. In a similar way, early efforts to understand the mind by pioneers like Freud and Jung led to interesting insights into human nature. Now that we have technologies to study the brain in great detail, we will likely be confounded and dissatisfied by the findings. It is probable that Buddhism will give you a more satisfying answer to the “why” of “psychic/knowing moments” than mapping the brain will. But just as quantum physics has and will continue to have very useful applications, this effort will likely produce useful insights into the workings of the biological machine evolution has given us, even if a better understand of the machine cannot tell you much about our self-apparent perception of soul or consciousness.

      The findings of researchers in the fields of Mindfulness and Positive Psychology are getting closer to the “why” of consciousness that I think you are looking for.

      • Hi – thanks for reading! I think that it is very wise to maintain an open mind when thinking about the brain. The history of science, as you point out, is certainly replete with surprises. But at this point, building on the tremendous success of experimental psychology and neuroscience over the past 50 years, the majority of scientific effort should be focussed on incremental progress in these areas. The BAM proposals are a key part of this progress.

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  20. I liked the article which gives clarification between brain and mind. But it is still a very long road to travel in order to confirm any theories. And a much longer road to get benefit of all those researches. Thank you.

  21. Reblogged this on Reason & Existenz and commented:
    An interesting project. I will be watching to see if they principal investigators ultimately include input from Bergsonians, phenomenologists, yogis, and buddhist practitioners. I would rather not be so suspicious, but my expectation is that the investigators will continue along the usual technoscientific hegemonic lines of ignoring those branches of world philosophy that conceptualize embodied mind in more than mechanical terms.

  22. This is incredibly interesting. There is a depth to the mind and its intaction with our consciousness that needs more than a road map…. It needs a driving manual as well.

  23. I have recently read many articles about this and feel that brain mapping can help improve areas that need improvement in people or children. If we can map out all parts of the brain and we understand what parts work when we use different parts of our bodies or do different things, this can help us to improve these areas on children or peoples brains that aren’t working as well. I feel brain mapping can lead to many positive improvements and findings for scientists and researchers.

  24. Loved the article and the discussion. One point that appears to not being considered during the research is the effect of culture and cognitive domain variables that help shape a person’s mind and how they think. While the physiological functions of the brain will be the same around the world, the cognitive aspect will be slightly different in different parts of the world, because of different cultures and those components of culture that provide the framework of how people view their world and process the information in their environment to form their opinions, beliefs, and other aspects that are part of the “mind”.
    This project will definitely have a very Western perspective and take on it. I wonder if the portion of the research of the mind’s outcome would be different is performed in another culture?

  25. Pingback: Your at-a-glance guide to psychology in 2013 « RoyMogg's Blog

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