By Chet Yarbrough
The Idea of the Brain (The Past and Future of Neuroscience)
By: Matthew Cobb
Narrated by: Joe Jameson
Matthew Cobb is a skeptic. “The Idea of the Brain” cautions the public about claims of doctors, psychologists, chemists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and technologists who claim breakthrough understandings of the brain. Cobb explains the history of how, where, and why the brain creates thought and action. Even to this day in the 21st century, brain function remains a mystery to science and the general public. Cobb does not deny progress has been made but his history of “The Idea of the Brain” shows progress has been slow, often misleading, and sometimes flatly wrong.
He explains how, in the time of Aristotle, the source of human’ intelligence and emotion were believed to be in the heart.
As the present takes hold, it becomes clear that intelligence and emotion come from chemistry and neuronal activity of the brain and body with its primary loci in the brain. The shift in understanding from heart to brain is proven by science, but details remain as much a mystery in the present as in the past.
Cobb skeptically reviews modern science’s explanation of brain function. He questions the detail value of brain imaging (MRI), and researchers’ comparison of computers with brain function. MRI does not analyze brain function at a neuronal level. It offers broad information about areas of the brain that influence action. It fails to reveal anything about the brain at a neuronal level.
Cobb acknowledges brain imaging offers some insight to specific areas of the brain that process information for thought and action. However, Cobb notes MRI is a blunt instrument of analysis because it only indirectly notes stimulus by showing increased blood flow to specific areas of the brain.
“The Idea of the Brain” recalls the history of patients who have been treated for epileptic seizures. The seizures are partially abated by brain surgery.
The consequence has been mixed in that the seizures are reduced but some motor skills or memory functions are diminished. Cobb also explains a consequence of separating the two lobes of the brain. When they are separated, the surgery literally makes the person of two minds, one of which knows little about the other’s thoughts and actions. The separation of the two halves of the brain confirms the differences in perception and utility of each lobe of the brain in viewing and understanding the world.
Cobb goes on to criticize comparison of brains to computers by noting neuronal activity is much more complex than the most sophisticated computer programs.
He notes a brain’s network of neuronal activity is different from a computer’s processing of information in fundamental ways. A brain predetermines future action of the body before it knows what action will be taken. There is no predetermination in a computer.
Cobb explains a human brain processes information through chemical as well as electrical impulses.
Cobb notes brains create reality from past recollection and present perception. A brain reconstructs the past from experience and interpretation. A computer does not interpret the past or create thought. Input to a computer is based on coding past and present information that is interpreted and input by humans. There is no homunculus in the human brain. A human brain mysteriously creates the past and present to form thoughts and action. Human thoughts and actions are based on emotion, imprecise memory, and intellect. Computers only correlate, not create, information. A computer devises plans based on correlation rather than creative thought implied by human neuronal activity.
Cobb makes the point that today’s computers do not think in a human sense. Computers do not create but only correlate information with results that are plans for action and execution.
Cobb suggests a computer singularity like that suggested by some futurists is too far into the future to be predictable. Until there is testable proof and understanding of human neuronal action, computers will remain lifeless tools of humankind.
Cobb’s research makes him skeptical of chemical treatment for psychological disorders because of their unsuspected side effects. He acknowledges some of their success in abating Parkinson’s symptoms and other chemically caused maladies. However, Cobb forthrightly warns anyone taking prescribed drugs for mental disorder to continue taking their drugs under the supervision of qualified physicians. Cobb notes two major pharmaceutical companies have abandoned research for chemical treatment of mental disorders because of their imprecise medicinal benefit.
In the end, Cobb is optimistic about science’s ability to fully understand the brain. However, he suggests it will be centuries before full understanding is achieved. Cobb believes the avenue for further research should be on living things which have fewer brain cells. He argues the complexity of neuronal function requires understanding at a neuronal level before expecting a breakthrough that will reveal the mystery of consciousness and human thought and action.
To Cobb, science requires experimental proof. That proof must begin with repeatable experiments that result in the same answers by different experimenters. He argues understanding at a neural level will be key to understanding brain function and its chemical and electrical activity.
Cobb implies present-day computer comparison to the brain is a dead end. He infers–when neuronal brain activity is understood, today’s comparison of computers to brains will be the equivalent of science recognizing the brain, not the heart, is the source of thought and action. Cobb’s implication is that with an understanding of neuronal brain function, artificial intelligence may, in the far future, create life and consciousness. The ramification of that thought is that human procreation may be a thing of the past.