Mapping the Brain to Better Understand Ourselves

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Life can be an emotional roller coaster. Maybe you've been down in the dumps after a bad breakup or gotten ecstatic after news that you scored a huge promotion. Maybe you've totally forgotten what you were about to say or blurted out something hurtful that you didn't mean to someone you love. Our minds play tricks on us. Our brains do the darndest things. But why?

President Obama has proposed a brain mapping project to help us better understand what's going on inside our noggins. But with the limited capacity we have to understand our brains today, can we even fathom the full implications of such a large-scale study? Dr. Rafael Yuste is a neuroscientist at Columbia University and one of the coordinators of the Obama administration's new Brain Mapping Project.

The first question that arises out of a project like this is simply, how can it be done? Similar-looking wrinkly piles of gray matter have produced peace advocates and mass murderers, impressionist painters and rock-and-roll musicians. The task of mapping the brain is probably much larger than we can imagine. The other question is, once the brain is mapped, what then? Is it worth pouring millions of dollars into a project with no predictably useful results?

It's not the first time ambitious scientific projects have had to contend with such questions. The Human Genome Project and the Human Microbiome Project have both sought to map unseen scientific phenomena -- and the results are just beginning to produce real-world benefits. Gary Marcus is someone who understands the challenges and possibilities that spring from these kinds of projects. He's a cognitive psychologist at NYU and blogger for the New Yorker. 


Gary Marcus and Rafael Yuste

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Comments [4]

Jorhn from USA

This is a massive waste of money that will continue to support "scientists" who spend decades torturing animals in laboratories with no valuable results ever being realized.

Sep. 10 2013 06:57 PM
Adesuyi from Sugarland TX

Understanding the human mind and the biological basis of it's array of action us critical to further human. Civilization. The human brain is perhaps the most superbly engineered structure in the known universe. Lets do this without partisan bickering. Both Obama and Rumsefeld are brilliant men.

Feb. 21 2013 04:47 PM
Jeff from Lyndenhurst

I think that we might want to consider the new grant proposals and the excellent base work already completed by the Allen Brain Institute right here in Seattle.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, someone just mentioned the fruit fly model and the mouse model, ABI already has open source mapping of a mouse model and is starting the next steps.

I suggest they chat with ABI soon...

Feb. 19 2013 04:21 PM

I thought it odd in the extreme, that The Takeaway would include Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's incisive comments about "known unknowns and unknown unknowns." Rumsfeld wasn't confused, and he wasn't fumbling for words. He was suffering no "cranial crisis." In fact, your audio editors probably had to go out of their way, to attempt to paint Rumsfeld in that light.

Rumsfeld was very cleverly going through a process of strategic analysis. He was explaining that there were "known knowns," "known unknowns," and also "unknown unknowns." Rumsfeld's press conference in 2002 has of course drawn howls of criticism from the left, largely because Rumsfeld was a member of the George W. Bush Administration. If Bill Clinton or Leon Panetta or John Kerry had talked about "known unknowns and unknown unknowns, public radio would have lovingly recorded it and rebroadcast it as a TED Talk.

A lovely summary of this issue was done by the blog author of "StevesPeeves." Steve, it turns out was not a right wing apologist of Rumsfled; he was a critic of the Bush Administration. But he had a great respect for the language, and could find no fault in the Rumsfeld quote, which he analyzed in marvelous detail.

Feb. 19 2013 01:30 PM

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