We know why rain falls from the sky and how distant stars are born. We know the exact height of our planet’s tallest peak and the depth of its deepest ocean. We know that all the world’s landmasses split asunder eons ago from one super-continent and that human beings share a common ancestor with apes. We know why whooping cranes migrate, why salmon swim upstream, and why bats hang upside down. We know that the planet Mercury’s core accounts for about 42 percent of its volume and that the surface temperature of Neptune’s moon Triton plunges to as low as -234 degrees Celsius. We know how to split the atom and unleash unimaginable carnage.
Taking into account all the discoveries we’ve made over the past 2,000 years, it’s amazing that what we know least about is, well, us — specifically, the human brain or, as President Barack Obama describes it, the “three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”
But that will soon change. (And by “soon,” we mean sometime within the next decade.) The president recently unveiled details of an ambitious new plan to map the human brain. According to the White House’s website, this $100 million undertaking might lead to much-needed benefits such as better treatments or even cures for neurological and emotional disorders, including Parkinson’s, PTSD, traumatic brain injury and bipolar disorder. Although much further in the future, the research might also lead to some sort of advanced human-computer language interface.
The official title for the project is — take a deep breath — the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Its ultimate goal is to “produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space.” Furthermore, it aims to determine how exactly “the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought.”
This is exciting news indeed, as the NIH Brain Initiative could very well end up being Obama’s Apollo 11 moon landing or Human Genome Project — to name only two similarly bold, landmark scientific and exploratory projects pushed by Presidents Kennedy and Clinton. Basically what we’re talking about here is reverse-engineering the human brain. By devising a map that explains how the 100 billion neurons in our brains connect, behave and operate, we’ll finally begin to approach an understanding of us that rivals the extent of what we know about the carbon cycle, the mating habits of the great white shark and the composition of Martian soil.
Besides practical applications, the NIH Brain Initiative will hopefully give us answers to questions, both profound and trivial, that have stumped even the greatest minds. For instance:
Why do we blush when we feel embarrassed or ashamed? What’s the evolutionary purpose of laughing and expressing humor? Why are yawns contagious? Why do we dream, and why are they sometimes so vivid and lucid as to seem as real as “reality”? Why did every primitive culture develop the idea of divine beings, and why do so many millions of people continue to subscribe to the cults built around them? What is consciousness exactly, and why must it be tied to one single person at all times? How can our brains be so goddamn complex — the best of which are able to devise new poetic forms and musical genres, theorize the existence of dark matter and sketch an accurately-detailed mural of the New York City skyline from memory — yet they are so clunky and inefficient that we often have difficulty recalling where we left our car keys or what we just read?
Practical results of this years-long study will not come overnight. Hopefully the BRAIN Initiative’s efforts will lead to new treatments and cures of neurological and neurodegenerative disorders and help us become happier, healthier beings. Besides that, who knows what else we might find buried deep in the coffers of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears? Just as the Human Genome Project has led to advancements in molecular medicine, DNA forensics and bioarchaeology, the NIH’s research will likely have major neurological and societal implications that will change the face of humanity forever.