Who we are largely resides in our brain, a dense network of 100 billion neurons. So far we have gained only tiny insights into how it is connected to give us the extraordinary capabilities and consciousness humans possess.
However one researcher may have found a path to uncover that rich lattice of connections, potentially showing us the essence of who we are.
Video: Real-time brain activity visualization from UCSF
An excellent article today in the New York Times titled Sebastian Seung’s Quest to Map the Human Brain describes the mission of Prof. Seung of MIT and Princeton Neuroscience Institute to map literally all the connections in a human brain.
Seung published a paper in the prestigious journal Nature, demonstrating how the brain’s neural connections can be mapped — and discoveries made — using an ingenious mix of artificial intelligence and a competitive online game. Seung has also become the leading proponent of a plan, which he described in a 2012 book, to create a wiring diagram of all 100 trillion connections between the neurons of the human brain, an unimaginably vast and complex network known as the connectome.
…to map a human connectome would be, Seung has argued, to capture a person’s very essence: every memory, every skill, every passion. When the brain isn’t wired properly, it can lead to disorders like autism and schizophrenia — “connectopathies” that could be revealed in the map, perhaps suggesting treatments. And if science were to gain the power to record and store connectomes, then it would be natural to speculate, as Seung and others have, that technology might some day enable a recording to play again, thereby reanimating a human consciousness. The mapping of connectomes, its most zealous proponents believe, would confer nothing less than immortality.
Seung is using crowdsourcing to help map these connections, in a way similar to the well-known Fold-It project, which allows game players to research protein folding.
Seung started EyeWire, an online game that challenges the public to trace neuronal wiring — now using computers, not pens — in the retina of a mouse’s eye. Seung’s artificial-intelligence algorithms process the raw images, then players earn points as they mark, paint-by-numbers style, the branches of a neuron through a three-dimensional cube. The game has attracted 165,000 players in 164 countries. In effect, Seung is employing artificial intelligence as a force multiplier for a global, all-volunteer army that has included Lorinda, a Missouri grandmother who also paints watercolors, and Iliyan (a.k.a. @crazyman4865), a high-school student in Bulgaria who once played for nearly 24 hours straight. Computers do what they can and then leave the rest to what remains the most potent pattern-recognition technology ever discovered: the human brain.
The potential of mapping the connectome is exceptional.
Scientists believe that every thought, every sensation, is a set of tiny electrical impulses coursing through the brain’s interconnected neurons. But when a little girl learns a word, for example, her brain makes a record by altering the connections themselves. When she learns to ride a bike or sing “Happy Birthday,” a new constellation of connections takes shape. As she grows, every memory — a friend’s name, the feel of skis on virgin powder, a Beethoven sonata — is recorded this way. Taken together, these connections constitute her connectome, the brain’s permanent record of her personality, talents, intelligence, memories: the sum of all that constitutes her “self.”
We cannot know today the possible implications of mapping the connections of the human brain in intricate detail. However exponential technologies, aided by new approaches such as crowdsourcing, mean that before long we might uncover part of the essence of who we are.