About 10 years ago the promise of neuroscience was reaching a frenzied high point, which means that it was just beginning to tarnish. The 1990s were supposed to be, per the first President Bush, a “Decade of the Brain.” During this decade, loose metaphysical ends such as the question of consciousness and the nature of human feeling were to be tied up.
Older generations of researchers were held back from brain research because they couldn't see into the living brain, the narrative went. When the boundaries to observation disintegrated, the scientific method could set to work in earnest, and we'd unlocked the brain.
Literally millions of scientific studies on brain function and organization and cognition have entered the literature over the past twenty years, each making its own modest contribution to advancing human knowledge. This work led to better understanding of, if not treatments for, neurodegenerative conditions and brain injuries.
But the Decade of the Brain never panned out. We still have a lot to learn about Alzheimer's, for example, and we still don't know what consciousness is—although we have many pictures representing the flow of oxygenated blood to different brain areas under different test conditions. For all the advances made, the grand vision didn't coalesce. Now, we're going to give it another go.
In his State of the Union address in February, President Obama announced the beginnings of a large federally-funded initiative that would deliver, in return for billions of taxpayer dollars, definitive insights both scientific and practical about the most important organ of the human body. Obama declared a decade of the brain—although this one will be more coherently defined.
The first Decade of the Brain was an open-ended inquiry, which stood in stark contrast to the defining biomedical undertaking of the 1990s, the Human Genome Project (HGP).
The HGP accomplished its goal by decoding the human genome. Never mind that we are still interpreting this information, or that the funding was funneled towards a project of data analysis, which distracted everyone from epigenetics and systematically ignored things like “junk DNA” that didn't fit our preconceptions about the genome as a rational language. The project had a very clear outcome: a list of the 3.3 billion base pairs that make up the human genome.
You wouldn't expect, by scanning a long sequence of the letters A, T, G, and C, to learn anything about human nature, and indeed you will not. But the specificity of the project made its success quantifiable, which is an unfortunate requirement of such promises like Bush's.
It's odd to think about the 1990s as a time of introspection—more accurately, perhaps, it was a decade of flattening. What was inside would soon surface. The genome was a wound ribbon; the brain, a landscape of convolutions. The question of what it means to be human would be answered when these surfaces were ironed out and mapped. A broad cultural fascination with the brain, and the “biological basis of behavior,” moved in phase with a massive infusion of federal and private funds into brain imaging studies.
More studies, more models, more images, more thinking about ourselves as brains with a discrete set of localized functions that coalesce into behaviors and thoughts and feelings. Sociologists and anthropologists who study the popular impact of scientific ideas began calling this “cerebral subjecthood,” but the same sentiment comes across in the slogan of the San Francisco “brain gym” vibrantBrains: “You are your brain.”
Replicating the completionist model of the HGP, this initiative aims to map the activity of each of the brain's 100 billion neurons. Presumably, Obama is aware of the previous Decade of the Brain. One hopes that somebody in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is reportedly organizing the project, did some digging to find out what exactly the old Decade of the Brain did.
Aside from the impact of ubiquitous brain images and localization arguments on the behavioral sciences and on popular culture, we didn't get remotely close to "unlocking" the basis of human behavior or understanding cognition on anything more than a schematic level. Economic innovation is always a centerpiece of selling a Big Science initiative to the public, even if it's often misguided.
Did the Decade of the Brain produce new drugs, new products to market, new technologies to hook people on? The 1990s produced all of those things, but researchers hashing out the functions of the cerebral cortex played a minor role, if any at all. The grand irony, when the Decade wound down, was the emergence of “neuromarketing,” which uses brain scans and localization models to explain why commercials make us feel certain ways: because they activate parts of the brain associated with feelings.
Will this decade of the brain be like the old Decade of the Brain's evil twin? Will scientists figure out mind control and thought policing, and learn how to implant false memories in our neural circuitry? (A Philip K. Dickade of the Brain?) Frankly, neither our goals nor our inability to accomplish them have changed much, despite impressive advances in imaging technology and data storage capacity. There's certainly nothing wrong with trying, but the way we go about such a large project will have an impact on the health and human sciences as a whole.
It's dangerous for scientists placed under a perverse mandate to churn out significant results.
However, it's dangerous to conflate science and economics in the way that politicians must in order to make utilitarian arguments about spending taxpayer money (Obama did exactly this in his State of the Union, declaring that “Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy.”). It's dangerous for scientists placed under a perverse mandate to churn out significant results, as if those results will flow right into the product-development pipeline and create jobs plus cure cancer for working-class Americans.
Another decade of the brain is good if we can take this opportunity to ponder the irresolvable nature of consciousness. It's good if we can do that while holding out hope that our efforts will eventually lessen the suffering caused by dementia, traumatic brain injury, and other neurological afflictions. It is unclear to many researchers whether a brain activity map of the type proposed will do any of these things.
The Decade of the Brain never ended. It's been with us through the Iraq War and the return of neurologically-injured veterans, the rise of Adderall, the autism epidemic, and assorted “brain health” trends, which look a lot like regular health trends with added Sudoku puzzles. The fact that we're declaring it again might just reinforce the circularity of our urge to self-discovery. A new decade of the brain might also produce modest innovations, but we should prepare to talk honestly about the costs—not in dollars, but in perspectives obscured and paths not taken.
Image: John Salmon/Creative Commons