‘There’s so much going on.’ Why human brains may be too complex to be ‘understood’

| | February 24, 2020
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Credit: BBC
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The question of how we might begin to grasp the entirety of the organ that generates our minds has been pressing me for a while. Like most neuroscientists, I’ve had to cultivate two clashing ideas: striving to understand the brain and knowing that’s likely an impossible task. I was curious how others tolerate this doublethink, so I sought out Jeff Lichtman, a leader in the field of connectomics.

“I think the word ‘understanding’ has to undergo an evolution,” Lichtman said, as we sat around his desk. “Most of us know what we mean when we say ‘I understand something.’ It makes sense to us. We can hold the idea in our heads. We can explain it with language. But if I asked, ‘Do you understand New York City?’ you would probably respond, ‘What do you mean?’ There’s all this complexity. If you can’t understand New York City, it’s not because you can’t get access to the data. It’s just there’s so much going on at the same time. That’s what a human brain is. It’s millions of things happening simultaneously among different types of cells, neuromodulators, genetic components, things from the outside. There’s no point when you can suddenly say, ‘I now understand the brain.’”

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