The American government has several significant achievements in science under its belt. These include the development of the atomic bomb and landing men on the moon. Having seemingly conquered the world outside us, newer efforts have turned to the world inside us. One such project was the mapping the human genome. The trend has continued with the Obama Administration’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, in which a large group of medical doctors and PhDs will utilize $4.6 billion over 12 years toward brain research.
Since becoming effective in early 2014, the program has been marching toward its simple goal of mapping every neuron in the human brain. Well, maybe not so simple. Unlike with the Human Genome Project before it, neurons aren’t being mapped with As, Ts, Cs, Gs and Us. What’s being recorded is their activity, which is a hard and in many ways subjective thing to define. Every brain on earth can’t be mapped, so scientists will have to take samples to create the typical human brain. Since every brain is different, and brains change as we age, things aren’t set to be perfect with these results.
Perfection aside, the goal is to make vast improvements in the understanding of the human brain and its conditions. The real payoff would be better mental health practices in American society, on both a personal and medical level.
Of all the goals Obama has set for us, I feel that understanding the brain is his most lofty and also the most unlikely to succeed. Defining what activity a neuron is performing sounds impossible enough, but there’s also the aspect of selecting brains representative of the wide swath of personalities and mental conditions. Whose brain could represent the average human?
Obama himself has an interesting mind. It’s sharp, witty, warm and compassionate. Or at least Obama himself comes across with these traits. When he addresses the nation, is he sharing a piece of his mind? Or is he just using a piece of his brain? Is there a difference? Here’s a quote about Obama written years ago by his then-girlfriend Genevieve Cook: “But I feel that you carefully filter everything in your mind and heart —
legitimate, admirable, really … But there’s something also there of smoothed veneer, of guardedness … I’m left with this feeling of … a bit of a wall — the veil.” Even a lover couldn’t get past the image of Obama that the public sees. What does a warm, compassionate “veneer” hide? What could results from Obama’s initiative tell him about himself?
I wouldn’t pick on a president without a reason. The presidency of the United States is perhaps the most cognitively demanding job in the world. Yet, if we look to Obama for an example of how to think, we’re left with veils, mysteries. The leader of the free world, however, is not different from his followers. We are all mysterious and use the veils that society has given us to maintain some kind of integrity or order in our lives. In order to change ourselves, change our brains, or both, we need to be able to see what part of us is superficial and which is our true self. While that may seem easy, scientists have had less of a go at it than most Eastern religions. It seems unlikely that the 21st century will be remembered for creating a new path to Nirvana.
I’d like to see the BRAIN Initiative be successful. There are vast areas of mental health care that could greatly benefit from even modest improvement. The money will be well spent if it can provide us with a collective net gain of mental well-being.
PAUL BEREZOVSKY can be contacted at email@example.com.
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Photo by CA Aggie Photo Team