Minds, Myths, and Madness

July 11, 2016

Even while science affords us ever greater understanding about the universe around us, the universe within us remains a distant mystery in many ways. Material reductionism about the brain and ever-better scientific tools and computerization should, one would expect, help us to uncover the mechanisms that make brains and thus minds work as they do, as well as help clarify their various malfunctions. It appears to be the case that brains are the sum and total of our minds, and that there is no deus ex machina responsible for our mental selves. If we only look closely enough at the material that makes up our brains and the ways in which that material works, then the mystery of minds will be revealed, and we can even, hopefully, fix them when they perform in ways we don’t want them to.

              Brains are extraordinary, but they are limited. They are physical and observable, and ultimately should be able to be understandable and replicable to some degree. There are (only) about 86 billion neurons in a normal human brain, and 100 trillion synapses connecting them. These are big numbers, but thanks to Moore’s law in computing (by which the power of computing machinery doubles at a predictable rate over time), we are within about 10 years of being able to model the nodes and connections of a brain “in” a computer. As well, recent trends in neuroscience, including imaging technologies that are meant to enable us to better pinpoint the areas that function in brains during various tasks ought to provide us with better understanding of not just how brains are wired, but how they function in live human beings.

              Sally Satel and Scott Lillenfeld’s excellent 2015 book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience does a great job pointing out some of the tremendous shortcomings of tools like fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and other such efforts to provide us with live pictures of working brains. Essentially, the authors undercut a fair amount of the statistical confidence ascribed to such studies, and do a good job pointing out just how little we know about brain functioning, despite our new tools. In 1974, Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness made waves by calling into question the objective basis of mental illness as a category, arguing that most of what then (and indeed, now) were categorized as mental diseases were not properly, scientifically diseases. While surely physical, the physical bases for mental illnesses could not be objectively measured, seen, observed, etc.. The prevalent and continuing means of diagnosing mental diseases was by interview and self-reporting, with reference to tools like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is now in its 5th edition. But the categories, according to Szasz, are social constructs and not scientifically objective in any meaningful way.

              Szasz’s insights served for the scientifically-minded as a challenge to better understand the brain’s mechanisms and improve our ability to identify how it may malfunction. The neuroscience revolution that ensued, and that is still very much in its infancy, leads in the direction of better, objective criteria for understanding brains as well as mental illness. There are still a number of reasons to remain skeptical and to realize that the understanding we seek is a long way off.

              Mental illness exists. People suffer. But our current understanding of the nature of diseases of the mind remains largely divorced from typically objective, scientific understanding of diseases of the body. Recently, a study by Swedish researchers cast even further doubt on the use of fMRI studies by finding a software error may have tainted results for the past 15 years. In sum, the progress that may have been thought to have been legitimately made based on the use of fMRI to understand how brains function is now in need of re-testing, setting aside the many other doubts regarding the use of fMRI raised by Satel and Lillenfeld as well as many others. We are not much closer, in light of this, to discovering the material foundations of thoughts and other brain functions, or matters of the mind, than we were when Szasz raised his concerns.

              In 2013, more than a billion Euros were granted for the Human Brain Project. Henry Markram received the grant from the European Commission with the goal of building a computerized model of a human brain, motivated by his interests in the physical bases for mental illnesses. Two years after it started, the project was in “disarray” according to a report in Scientific American. A parallel program, the US’s BRAIN initiative (projected at nearly 4.5 billion USD) may be in better shape bureaucratically-speaking, and may provide some better hope for the future. It has made some progress in understanding Alzheimer’s, for instance. Much more progress has also been made in developing better, more precise tools for studying brains as well as better computer modelling and tools. In any case, these tools and these efforts are to understanding and observing the material foundations for thoughts and diseases of the mind as the V2 rocket was to the Saturn V and landing on the moon.

              We have every reason to believe that minds are material phenomena of the brain, and have good reasons to believe that mental illness exists as results, in part, of malfunctioning within that matter, but we have made little progress in the last century in finding the mechanical causes of such malfunctions, and attempts to try to replicate even the most basic functioning of minds artificially remain elusive. The science of the mind, and the neuroscientific connections between minds and madness, should be a focus of great study despite its halting success and relative failure to date. But we need to be cautious about our expectations, or believing headlines or research programs that overplay their hands, claiming successes based upon what appear to be flawed models and faulty methods and tools. Meanwhile, our societal approach to mental illness must be both compassionate and skeptical, aware as we are that people suffer, but cognizant of the shallow state of our knowledge about mental disease. 

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