Cere­bral myths

Jasanoff's book takes on the en­dur­ing mys­tique about the hu­man brain be­ing ab­stract, sov­er­eign and piece­meal RAKESH KALSHIAN

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -

A new book de­codes the mys­tique of the hu­man brain

IN THE Hol­ly­wood sci-fi thriller In­cep­tion, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a con artist who, to­gether with a team of hi-tech spies, steals trade se­crets by bur­gling the minds of busi­ness barons. They first drug the victim and then in­sin­u­ate into their minds care­fully crafted fake worlds that come alive as they are fi­nessed into a state of lu­cid dream­ing. Once the set-up is in place, the thieves them­selves sneak into their dreams un­der var­i­ous plau­si­ble guises, even­tu­ally con­ning them into be­tray­ing the cov­eted se­cret.

This is of course pure, not to men­tion highly byzan­tine, fan­tasy, even though it hasn’t de­terred mav­er­icks like the bil­lion­aire Elon Musk from putting their money into projects that seek to digi­tise hu­man brains. None­the­less, the movie’s cen­tral the­sis that it is pos­si­ble to “hack” the brain to ma­nip­u­late, for bet­ter or worse, a per­son’s per­sona un­der­scores the ap­peal of the widely-held dogma that we are noth­ing if not our brains. This view now in­fects not just mod­ern sci­en­tific think­ing but also pop­u­lar dis­course, from court­rooms and psy­chi­atric wards to news­rooms. Per­haps the most telling symp­tom of this glam­orous delu­sion is ter­mi­nally-ill patients spend­ing thou­sands of

dol­lars to have their brains frozen for pos­ter­ity just in case science might find a way to re­vive the brain, and hence, more sig­nif­i­cantly, but un­re­al­is­ti­cally, the orig­i­nal self of the dead.

Alan Jasanoff’s ab­sorb­ing and sub­ver­sive The Bi­o­log­i­cal Mind calls the bluff on this en­dur­ing fic­tion. Broadly, he puts the blame on what he calls the “cere­bral mys­tique”—a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non that de­i­fies the brain as the sole repos­i­tory of in­tel­li­gence, cre­ativ­ity, power, spir­i­tu­al­ity, and what have you, thereby erect­ing an im­pen­e­tra­ble wall be­tween the brain and its am­bi­ence whereas the wall in re­al­ity is very por­ous. In Jasanoff ’s elo­quent phras­ing, “In our brave new neu­ro­sci­en­tif­i­cally in­formed world…our ul­ti­mate hopes and fears can come to re­volve around this or­gan, and in it we may seek an­swers to eter­nal ques­tions about life and death, virtue and sin, jus­tice and pun­ish­ment.”

For Jasanoff, who stud­ies the brain at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, the cere­bral mys­tique is con­jured up and sus­tained by five over­lap­ping myths about the brain. The first three, that it is ab­stract, im­pos­si­bly com­plex, and frag­mented, cre­ate a false di­vide be­tween the brain, on the one hand, and the body and the en­vi­ron­ment, on the other. The last two myths—that it is au­ton­o­mous and glo­ri­ously soli­tary—fol­low from the first three.

He traces the his­tory, a strictly Western one, one might add, of how thinkers start­ing from the an­cient Greek philoso­phers to mod­ern scientists have ro­man­ti­cised the brain. Bar­ring a few ex­cep­tions, most of them em­bel­lished at least one of the at­tributes that make up the cere­bral mys­tique.

For in­stance in the Vic­to­rian era, min­dread­ers called phre­nol­o­gists sliced up the brain into spe­cific re­gions gov­ern­ing spe­cific traits, lead­ing to an ob­ses­sion with col­lect­ing and analysing brains, espe­cially of il­lus­tri­ous men (no women,

mind you) such as Lord By­ron (he had the weight­i­est brain at 2.2 kg).

Brain as com­puter

Thinkers have em­ployed var­i­ous metaphors for the brain—from clay and hy­draulic model (“hu­mours”) to an au­tom­a­ton fit­ted with gears and switches and the loom. But noth­ing’s added more al­lure to the cere­bral mys­tique than the metaphor of brain as com­puter—an in­te­grated cir­cuit of neu­rons linked by synapses. Ever since math­e­ma­ti­cian John von Neu­mann de­scribed brain’s modus operandi as “prima fa­cie dig­i­tal” in his 1958 slim book The Com­puter and the Brain, this metaphor has se­duced many an il­lus­tri­ous sci­en­tist like Fran­cis Crick, Roger Pen­rose, and Stephen Hawk­ing, spawn­ing a large body of re­search un­der­writ­ten by bil­lions of dol­lars of pub­lic fund­ing. Tak­ing the model to its log­i­cal ex­treme, com­puter sci­en­tist Ray Kurzweil and Hawk­ing pre­dict that one day it might be pos­si­ble to down­load hu­man minds into a com­puter and, by im­pli­ca­tion, live hap­pily ever af­ter in a solid­state Shangri-La.

For Jasanoff, this is an in­tel­lec­tual copout. “In iden­ti­fy­ing our brains with com­put­ers, we also tac­itly deny the messy, mor­tal confusion of our true phys­i­cal selves and re­place it with an ideal not born of flesh.” Worse still, as psy­chol­o­gist Robert Ep­stein wrote in the e-zine Aeon, “Even if we had the abil­ity to take a snap­shot of all of the brain’s 86 bil­lion neu­rons and then to sim­u­late the state of those neu­rons in a com­puter, that vast pat­tern would mean noth­ing out­side the body of the brain that pro­duced it.”

Pit­falls of the mys­tique

In the sec­ond half of the book, Jasanoff ex­plores how cel­e­bral mys­tique fos­ters a jaun­diced view of things like crime and men­tal ill­ness. For in­stance, if we are our brains, then it is easy to view the brain as the font of thoughts and ac­tions, lead­ing us, writes Jasanoff, “to overem­pha­size the role of in­di­vid­u­als and un­der­em­pha­size the role of con­texts in a range of cul­tural phe­nom­ena, from crim­i­nal jus­tice to cre­ative in­no­va­tion.” The con­tro­versy over who is a ju­ve­nile and whether a ju­ve­nile’s brain is ma­ture enough to weigh the con­se­quences of his ac­tions in the Nirb­haya rape case il­lus­trates the dan­gers of go­ing down that slip­pery slope. Like­wise, while the fact that minds are rooted in brains may help us get over the age-old habit of la­belling men­tal dis­or­ders as moral short­com­ings, re­defin­ing them as fail­ures of the brain may at­tract a dif­fer­ent kind of stigma of “bro­ken brains”. There is also the risk of doc­tors priv­i­leg­ing drugs, and not ther­apy, as the first course of treat­ment.

A small but grow­ing band of scientists en­dorse Jasanoff ’s re­jec­tion of the cere­bral mys­tique in favour of a more nu­anced con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the brain, the body and the en­vi­ron­ment. Many stud­ies such as on the ef­fect of sounds, smells and sights on the mind, or the ef­fect of glia cells—cells that un­like neu­rons are sup­pos­edly not in­volved in cog­ni­tion—on some well-known cog­ni­tive im­pair­ments, or the role of gut bac­te­ria on the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem, defy the ar­ti­fi­cial split be­tween body and brain.

Mean­while, how­ever, gov­ern­ments and pri­vate com­pa­nies con­tinue to spend mil­lions of dol­lars on brain re­search (mis)in­formed by the cere­bral mys­tique. In 2013, the Euro­pean Union funded the am­bi­tious US $1.3 bil­lion Hu­man Brain Pro­ject which claimed it would sim­u­late the en­tire hu­man brain on a su­per­com­puter over the next decade, and that it would give rise to new cut­ting-edge treat­ments for ill­nesses like Alzheimer’s. How­ever, the pro­ject was in a sham­bles even be­fore the sec­ond year was over, and Henry Markram, the brain be­hind it, was forced to re­sign.

Myths don’t die eas­ily. They per­sist de­spite ev­i­dence to the con­trary. So it might be a lit­tle overop­ti­mistic to hope for an early demise of the cere­bral mys­tique. How­ever, for any­one in­ter­ested in de­mys­ti­fy­ing the mys­tique of the hu­man brain, Jasanoff’s stir­ring and co­gent cri­tique of the re­ceived wis­dom would help clear, so to speak, the cob­webs in the at­tic.

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THE BI­O­LOG­I­CAL MIND: HOW BRAIN, BODY, AND EN­VI­RON­MENT COL­LAB­O­RATE TO MAKE US WHO WE ARE Alan Jasanoff Ba­sic Books | 304 pages | US $19.49

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