No organ in the body is as important as the brain. It is the seat of our being, the home of our thoughts, loves, dreams and memories. Doctors refer to “brain death” when neural activity crashes but the body remains alive. There is no “heart death” nor “kidney death” because medicine can keep us alive when those organs fail. Dick Cheney survived without a heartbeat, after all. When the brain fails, we cease to be.
Yet the brain is the least understood of all our organs. We build artificial hearts and dialysis machines, but artificial intelligence still has a long way to go when it comes to replicating or simulating our brains.
It was therefore big news when President Barack Obama announced plans to invest $110 million in brain research.
In typical Washington-style, it is not “brain” research, but BRAIN, “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.” In other words, it is stuff that most people without a Ph.D. in neuroscience can only scratch the surface of understanding.
It is also the sort of exciting, cutting-edge work that could radically improve health care and quality of life for everyone.
As humans age, our mental ability usually declines. For every octogenarian still sharp as a whip, dozens suffer memory loss, dementia or other intellectual problems. The young are not immune, either. They can suffer neural issues and brain injuries.
If we could prevent those problems or correct them, we could reduce burdens placed on families forced to care for loved ones. Grandma might not have to move in with her children or a costly nursing home. Junior might not need special education or assistance into adulthood.
Where families do not benefit, taxpayers would because demand for social services and elder care would decrease. The promise is too great not to risk a few million dollars or even a few billion on research.
To see how it might pay off, one need look no further than the Human Genome Project. Scientists mapped our DNA, identified 1,800 genes that cause diseases and developed hundreds of tests that warn people about their genetic risks. New technologies and treatments emerge frequently.
The Human Genome Project cost taxpayers nearly $4 billion over several years. If BRAIN is to succeed, it will require similar long-term investment. This first $110 million is but a small down payment.
Even that pittance is not guaranteed, though. Already politics as usual is erecting roadblocks.
Politicians like showy displays that distract the public from bigger problems. The National Institutes of Health is in line for some of Obama’s funding, but a few million will not offset the $1.6 billion in sequestration cuts NIH endures just this fiscal year.
Some people could not resist making the easy jokes about Obama’s really wanting researchers to figure out the conservative brain. The truth is, Republican leaders support this research. They just wish they, not the president, had thought of it. So they spin. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., likes brain research, but he wants to pay for it by ending funding for social studies and political science research, two frequent conservative targets.
Some tea partiers and libertarians would prefer not to spend the money at all. Let the private sector handle it; government is too big already. If it were that easy, the private sector would be making that investment already.
And then there are the kooks who think this is all some government conspiracy to build mind-reading technology to monitor Americans’ thoughts. They wait on the side ready to muck up the conversation.
Yet for all the benefits and politics of Obama’s BRAIN, there’s a deeper implication to the proposal that’s being lost.
Philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have struggled with explaining how human consciousness and active internal mental life are related to the physical brain. A popular theory that evolved over the centuries differentiates between “mind” and “brain.” Philosophers call it “dualism.”
René Descartes, he of “I think, therefore I am” fame, first articulated modern dualism. He described the mind as a non-physical substance that holds our intelligence and identity. It interacts with the physical brain perhaps through the pineal gland.
Cartesian dualism and many similar formulations wind up in territory more suited to theologians. Our real identity resides in a soul.
If Obama’s researchers succeed, that soul could wind up on the heap of discredited pre-scientific ideas. As BRAIN researchers map out neural connections, identify resonant quantum states and finally figure out how memories, emotions and thoughts emerge from cells, chemicals and electricity, they will not find some independent substance magically controlling everything from some immaterial realm.
Maybe that’s what the opponents of brain research really fear. If we finally understand what makes our minds tick, it would take an even greater leap of faith to believe in a soul and everything that goes along with it.
That would be a small price to pay for genuine understanding and treatments that can ease human suffering.
The Broad Side’s newest contributor Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance, pursues a couple of book projects and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.
Image via the writer.