Time to Re-Mind the Brain
A radical rethink is needed to understand the brain, a neuroscientist complains. A radical rethink is needed to understand human exceptionalism, too.
Modularity is a mistake, says Henrik Jörntell on The Conversation. This senior lecturer on neuroscience from Lund University wants science to abandon the idea that the brain is composed of modules like engine parts, where each piece has its own function.
Understanding the human brain is arguably the greatest challenge of modern science. The leading approach for most of the past 200 years has been to link its functions to different brain regions or even individual neurons (brain cells). But recent research increasingly suggests that we may be taking completely the wrong path if we are to ever understand the human mind.
Appealing though it be, modularity oversimplifies the brain. Evidence has been growing that functions are distributed across the whole brain. He says we need a more holistic way of thinking about it. Experiments with electrodes that seem to support modularity, as well as functional-MRI scans, mislead scientists into a “perfect trap of the intellect,” Jörntell argues. Why would science try to subdivide the brain when the task of all science is to find correlations? That’s ironic. Instead of finding independent functional modules, scientists should look for “the underlying connectivity of brain regions as part of a complex network.”
The bottom-up approach of connecting modules into a brain has proven fruitless. “So far, there is no general solution to this problem – just hypotheses in specific cases, such as for recognising people,” he says. To get out of the blind alley, a “radical rethink is needed to understand” the brain. Some neuroscientists are showing a way forward:
Some researchers now believe the brain and its diseases in general can only be understood as an interplay between tremendous numbers of neurons distributed across the central nervous system. The function of any one neuron is dependent on the functions of all the thousands of neurons it is connected to. These, in turn, are dependent on those of others. The same region or the same neuron may be used across a huge number of contexts, but have different specific functions depending on the context.
A network-centric approach unites rather than subdivides. We shouldn’t think of speech, the sense of self, or diseases of the central nervous system as isolated to one brain region. The brain itself is not isolated to the skull. It is tied into all its sensory organs, interacting with muscles as well. “Without the full picture, we are not likely to be able to successfully cure these and many other conditions,” he says. Sadly, much of the pharmaceutical industry is tied to the modular picture.
In this way, neuroscience is gradually losing compass on its purported path towards understanding the brain. It’s absolutely crucial that we get it right. Not only could it be the key to understanding some of the biggest mysteries known to science – such as consciousness – it could also help treat a huge range of debilitating and costly health problems.
But does Jörntell’s approach lead down another blind alley? He appears to be a monist and materialist, viewing the mind as a consequence of the physical brain (see first quote above). And he thinks the brain evolved:
Connecting back to the physical reality is the only way to understand how information is represented in the brain. One of the reasons we have a nervous system in the first place is that the evolution of mobility required a controlling system. Cognitive, mental functions – and even thoughts – can be regarded as mechanisms that evolved in order to better plan for the consequences of movement and actions.
This view cannot be true, because it refutes itself. We would have to conclude that Jörntell’s own reasoning about the brain emerged from the bottom up, from blind actions of evolution that had no goal of rationality. As such, his irrational brain produced an irrational article. And if ‘understanding’ is what he wants, he needs to first understand the evolutionary theory upon which he depends. He misrepresents neo-Darwinism, thinking that requirements can produce solutions out of blind, impersonal processes. You can read requirements for avoiding avalanches to a snowbank all day, but it won’t come up with a controlling system to avoid hitting animals on the way down. In Darwinian theory, no “mechanism” evolves something “in order to better plan” for something else. Planning for consequences requires a mind with a goal. Regretfully, we must relegate Jörntell to the Blind Leaders of the Blind Society.
What Does It Mean to Be Human?
An article on Mosaic: The Science of Life discusses the work of Clive and Geraldine Finlayson, who have spent 25 years studying Neanderthal remains in caves on the Rock of Gibraltar. Gaia Vince joins them to search for the distinctive traits that identify humanity. Another radical re-think is needed here: the subtitle of the article states, “Gaia Vince discovers that analysing the genetics of ancient humans means changing ideas about our evolution.”
Vince notes how different her hosts, the husband-and-wife Finlayson team, appears: “How different we humans can look from each other.” Yet she commits historical racism in the next sentence by sending Neanderthals to the back of the bus: “And yet the people whose home I am about to visit truly were of a different race.” Then she relegates all the archaic humans to other races: Homo heidelbergensis and others, who as far back as 600,000 Darwin Years ago knew how to hunt and use fire and make stone tools. Her historical racism reaches a screechy fortissimo when she admits that Neanderthals, Denisovans and other bore children with modern humans but were somehow “other” than us. Consider: “This geographic separation enabled genetic differences to evolve, eventually resulting in different races, although they were still the same species and would prove able to have fertile offspring together.” Isn’t the essence of racism to de-humanize others, making them members of an outgroup? And yet a few sentences later, she admits that within Gorham Cave, “people not so different from myself once sat here.” Indeed, since her genome shows she is 1% Neanderthal, she feels “it is an extraordinary experience to be so close to the intelligent, resourceful people who bequeathed me some of their genes.”
So what does the Gibraltar evidence show Vince about what it means to be human? The Finlaysons have collected surprising evidence of culture in this place – once an idyllic habitat that Clive calls ‘Neanderthal City’. They have found evidence of fire, sleeping chambers, carvings (including a “hashtag” symbol that might be an attempt at symbolic writing), necklaces, stone tools, ornaments, and burial sites for the dead.
Other signs of symbolic or ritualistic behaviour, such as the indication that Neanderthals were making and wearing black feather capes or headdresses as well as warm clothes, all point to a social life not so different to the one our African ancestors were experiencing.
They seem pretty human. Vince speculates about this society’s demise, perhaps due to climate change rather than competition by modern humans. She thinks they might have been suffering genetic collapse. Does that make sense? They were around for hundreds of thousands of Darwin Years in the evolutionary tale, yet had children by modern humans. Then she makes this remarkable statement:
There is far less genetic difference between any two humans than there is between two chimpanzees, for example.
Given the wide disparity in features between living humans, which she admitted earlier, on what basis could she classify Neanderthals, Denisovans or the other populations non-human? Wouldn’t that be like chimpanzees committing racism with members of their own species?
Gaia Vince then moves to Siberia, where the twin brothers Eske and Rane Willerslev study human remains. Eske studies genetics; Rane studies humanities. Which is the wiser in interpreting evidence? “There exists an uneasy relationship between biology and culture,” Rane told Vince. “Natural scientists claim they can reveal what sort of people moved around, and they are not interested in having their models challenged. But this cannot tell you anything about what people thought or what their culture was.” And for his part, Eske recognizes that genes don’t tell the whole story, either. His own work has overturned hypotheses about the evolution of lactose intolerance and skin color.
Back in the Gibraltar museum, Gaia becomes a little unnerved at artist reconstructions of Neanderthals.
At the Gibraltar Museum, a pair of Dutch archaeology artists have created life-size replicas of a Neanderthal woman and her grandson, based on finds from nearby. They are naked but for a woven amulet and decorative feathers in their wild hair. The boy, aged about four, is embracing his grandmother, who stands confidently and at ease, smiling at the viewer. It’s an unnerving, extraordinarily powerful connection with someone whose genes I may well share, and I recall Clive’s words from when I asked him if modern humans had simply replaced Neanderthals because of our superior culture.
“That replacement theory is a kind of racism. It’s a very colonialist mentality,” he said. “You’re talking almost as if they were another species.”
She never did answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?”
What it means to be human: it means to be a creature fashioned in the image of God by an all-powerful, all-knowing, wise and good Creator. It means to be fully equipped with other physical creatures of the planet for survival, reproduction and adaptability—but not only for survival alone. To be human is to have unique gifts of intellect, emotions and will, a capacity for art and beauty, a conscience, an inquiring mind, an awareness of one’s createdness, and a longing for significance. It means to be an individual, aware of one’s self, one’s unique identity as a person. It means to be a sinner because of our ancestry in Adam and Eve—the federal representatives of the human race—when they disobeyed their Creator and took their lineage along with them into a broken relationship with God. It means to live in a cursed world, subject to fear, disease and death. It means to live somewhere forever beyond this life. To be fully human means to be reconciled to the Creator through the provision he made for sin—the substitutionary sacrifice of the incarnate God the Son, and thus restored, to enjoy God forever. During this life, it means to love the truth and to love others enough to woo them away from lies, such as materialism, evolutionism, racism and anything else that contradicts what the Creator has declared in his eternal word.