This item is about some interesting scans of the human brain carried out under the Human Connectome Project:
Navigate the brain in a way that was never before possible; fly through major brain pathways, compare essential circuits, zoom into a region to explore the cells that comprise it, and the functions that depend on it.The Human Connectome Project aims to provide an unparalleled compilation of neural data, an interface to graphically navigate this data and the opportunity to achieve never before realized conclusions about the living human brain.
Heady stuff, so let’s keep our feet on the ground here.
The images are colourfully impressive. But no brain looks like this.
What is being mapped here is the movement of tiny particles of water between neurons in the brain. The tracks of this water movement connecting one part of the brain to another are referred to as ‘connectomes’ and ‘fibres’.
But read the small print: all brains are different and all brains learn to act in new ways. These ‘connectomes’ are analogous to the paths of lightening from the sky to the earth. It never repeats itself.
The ‘mapping’ is done by a magnetic-resonance brain scan, i.e. the subject is placed between two powerful magnetic fields. What’s different about these scans is that the machine is much more powerful than normal.
These images are not a map of what the brain looks like inside. Rather they are the result of visualization software and reconstructive computer algorithms. It is this that converts the passage of water molecules into vivid colour. It is an attempt to visualize or imagine how the brain works.
Where are the causal mechanisms? There are none here. In their stead is a lot of metaphor and analogy. The brain is seen as a communication centre, with ‘wiring’ and ‘messages’ and ‘transmitters’. This is ‘associated’ with that. We need a ‘how’.
None of these limitations prevent speculation about how all this could help in treating mental illness and disorder. When the human brain is abstracted from its body and the body is abstracted from the person and his/her community, expect treatments to take the form of corrections to chemical ‘imbalances’. Don’t change a life, take a tablet.
This technology is just as likely to be used to help neuro-marketers sell us stuff we don’t need. (Like this: Marketers exploiting secrets of the living brain and this: Fast-food logos are ‘branded’ on young brains: Study)
The bottom line: the images are interesting, but always demand a causal explanation of these things. Until that comes keep a tight hold of your skepticism and look to who is financing this research.