A Conversation With Ed Boyden in Edge:
How can we truly understand how the brain is computing the mind? Over the last 100 years, neuroscience has made a lot of progress. We have learned that there are neurons in the brain, we have learned a lot about psychology, but connecting those two worlds, understanding how these computational circuits in the brain in coordinated fashion are generating decisions and thoughts and feelings and sensations, that link remains very elusive. And so, over the last decade, my group at MIT has been working on technology, ways of seeing the brain, ways of controlling brain circuits, ways of trying to map the molecules of the brain.
At this point, what I’m trying to figure out is what to do next. How do we start to use these maps, use these dynamical observations and perturbations to link the computations that these circuits make, and things like thoughts and feelings and maybe even consciousness?
There are a couple of things that we can do. One idea is simply to go get the data. A lot of people have the opposite point of view. You want to have an idea about how the brain computes, the concept of how the mind is generating thoughts and feelings and so forth. Marvin Minsky, for example, is very fond of thinking about how intelligence and artificial intelligence can be arrived at through sheer thinking about it.
On the other hand, and it’s always dangerous to make analogies and metaphors like this, but if you look at other problems in biology like, what is life? how do species evolve? and so forth, people forget that there are huge amounts, centuries sometimes but at least decades of data that was collected before those theories emerged.
Darwin roamed the Earth looking at species, looking at all sorts of stuff until he wrote the giant tome, On the Origins of Species. Before people started to try to hone in on what life is, there was the tool development phase: people invented the microscope.
People started looking at cells and watching them divide and so forth, and without those data, it would be very hard to know that there were cells at all, that there were these tiny building blocks, each of which was a self-compartmentalized, autonomous building block of life.
The approach I would like to take is to go get the data. Let’s see how the cells in the brain can communicate with each other. Let’s see how these networks take sensation and combine that information with feelings and memories and so forth to generate the outputs, decisions and thoughts and movements.