Saturday, October 2, 2010

Nailing Down Who You Are

Here's the latest in a long line of hypotheses about what makes you "you". Here is Sebastian Seung telling us that we are our "connectome". Here is Seung giving a talk at a TED conference:

I'm not convinced. This is but another claim of reduction of complexity to something simpler and comprehensible. I'm all for reductionism but I'm not big on the idea that the complex can be reduced to the simple. I'm willing to accept that the connectome may capture some essential parts of the mind and thinking, but I think there will be many phenomena that will dance just outside the connectome because they will live in the complexity of activation of neurons and even the chemistry inside neurons. What evidence do I have? Well, experiments with magnetic fields show that you can control brain states via these fields, e.g. read this. They don't change the connectome, but they sure change behaviour! I suspect when the brain story is fully worked out it will have chapters at the level of structure (the gross morphology of the brain and its functional areas), of detailed connection (the connectome), of activity (neural activity), of chemistry (the bath of neurotransmitters and the states of the gates the excrete or accept these chemicals), and the chemistry of gene expression (activities deep in the DNA with events such as epigenetics). In short, the whole story will be immensely complicated and muddled. Probably far too vast for us to really understand, but we may be able to make models of mind (computer simulations) that can help us find a way toward manipulating and in some sense 'understanding' this complexity.

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