The Brain, in Exquisite Detail

James Gorman in The New York Times:

BRAIN-sfSpanAs a professor at Washington University and a leader of one of five teams there working on the Human Connectome Project, Dr. Barch focuses her research on the way individual differences in the brains of healthy people are related to differences in personality or thinking. For instance she said, people doing memory tasks in the M.R.I. machine may differ in competitiveness and commitment to doing well. That ought to show up in activity in the parts of the brain that involve emotion, like the amygdala. However, she points out that the object of the Connectome Project is not to find the answers to these questions, but to provide the database for others to try to do so.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is that the brain functions and can be viewed at so many levels, from a detail of a synapse to brain regions trillions of times larger. There are electrical impulses to study, biochemistry, physical structure, networks at every level and between levels. And there are more than 40,000 scientists worldwide trying to figure it out. This is not a case of an elephant examined by 40,000 blindfolded experts, each of whom comes to a different conclusion about what it is they are touching. Everyone knows the object of study is the brain. The difficulty of comprehending the brain may be more aptly compared to a poem by Wallace Stevens, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Each way of looking, not looking, or just being in the presence of the blackbird reveals something about it, but only something. Each way of looking at the brain reveals ever more astonishing secrets, but the full and complete picture of the human brain is still out of reach. There is no need, no intention and perhaps no chance, of ever “solving” a poet’s blackbird. It is hard to imagine a poet wanting such a thing. But science, by its nature, pursues synthesis, diagrams, maps — a grip on the mechanism of the thing. We may not solve the brain any time soon, but someday achieving such a solution, at least in scientific terms, is the fervent hope of neuroscience.

More here.