Beginning with Bill Clinton’s “decade of the brain” and the advent of widespread public awareness of the great strides made by modern neuroscience, it seems like the prefix “Neuro” has been getting slapped willy nilly onto just about any unrelated field of study. Adding “Neuro” to the name of subjects previously eschewed with the pejorative title of “Soft Science” provides a gravitas that many of these subjects are craving, at least as a public image. While I am dubious of the payoff outside of academia for subfields such as neuro-economics and neuro-marketing, just two examples, they both have solid scientific underpinnings and can be considered serious pursuits. It seems that the public is more interested in abstract and sometimes tedious activities if they think they are learning something about the brain. To put it simply, the brain is cool, and because of this, Neuroscience is cool. Riding high on this wave of SciFi sex appeal, it seems that some neuroscientists have lost sight of how little the public really knows about capital “N” Neuroscience, and because of this ignorance, how terrifying certain subjects of common conversation and intellectual debate amongst the academic community can seem to them.
For example, consider the thought experiment, common to most neuroscience circles, which poses questions about the validity of Binary minds, ie a fully conscious mind made up of the complex interplay of 1’s and 0’s on computer hardware. As an academic exercise, this thought experiment is terribly fruitful. It helps place important issues of information processing and the role of physical circuitry into perspective. It poses a hypothesis, specifically the computational hypothesis of the brain, which is testable at many lower levels and can foster understanding of previously poorly understood phenomena. This hypothesis states that the mind arises from the concerted computations of the underlying neural circuitry, that computation underlies consciousness. If this hypothesis is true, theoretically it means that a computer could harbor a conscious mind.
Or take for example, the recent study from DARPA and Theodore Berger’s lab at USC that showed that a “memory ” pattern could be recorded and replayed via electrodes embedded from area CA1 to area CA3 of a rat hippocampus. For neuroscientists, this is a demonstration of the leading edge of neural engineering techniques. It is impressive for its value as a proof of concept, but limited in its use, unable to actually recreate or procreate memories. For most neuroscientists, however, these issues are no more than a thought experiment, a way of framing the big questions. We take these general hypotheses and bits of information and apply them in ways that either directly or indirectly lead to treatments, drugs, and now even prosthetics that change people’s lives in meaningful ways. This is because most neuroscientists have a deep and complex understanding about how the brain actually works. They know the incredible achievements of the brain’s plastic circuitry, but also understand that it possesses many limitations. They are also keenly aware of the limitations of our current technologies and methods for communicating with the brain. They know that ideas like the binary brain, or hackable memory implant chips, are so utterly unfeasible that the idea of being terrified of their possible negative ethical implications seems almost laughable.
To a public, however, lacking a basic understanding of how the brain works or where the limits of technology stand, these ideas are quite real and quite terrifying. From the lay perspective, academic ruminations on the plausibility of computer enhanced brains or disembodied minds represent the output of a collective scientific community mired in a moral quagmire. It is a harbinger of a group of intellectual elites letting the ideas of what can be done eclipse the sincere and legitimate concerns of what should be done. Neuroscientists should not dismiss these concerns lightly. We must always remember that it is ultimately the taxpayer that funds our science, and that science is a pursuit for the betterment of humanity. But we should also not throw our hands up in defeat and quit our pursuits. So where do the ultimate problems reside and what are the solutions to move forward? I suspect that much of the problem lies in over-hyped, hyperbolic statements made by a few neuroscientists who fancy themselves media personalities. We, as a community, shouldn’t allow this to continue. Let us not allow what has happened to the promises of the human genome project, or the first cell run by synthetic DNA, dubbed rather dramatically by the popular media as “man creating life”, happen to us. While the natural urge is to exaggerate the potentially mundane implications of our work to receive funding and to attract interested and capable partners, let us not forget to temper our inner need for overstatement. Hyperbole in the face of ignorance engenders fear and unrealistic expectations, and we should never forget our place in that equation.
For an example of a situation where a neuroscientists get a bit carried away in their public discussions of the state of the science, as well as some palpably frightened responses from listeners, check out the segment linked below from WBUR and NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook here.
To read the paper from Theodore Berger’s lab at USC, click here.
To come in the next few days, each of the contributors to this blog will weigh in on what we think is a pervasive problem inherent in modern interaction between scientists, the media, and the public. This is a format that we hope to integrate once a month. We hope that it provides multiple perspectives on complex problems from people who are paying close attention.