Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Love Hate Relationship With Neuroscience

It all started with Bertrand Russell's Analysis of Mind while I was undergrading in philosophy.  After reading Descartes' ghost in the machine dualism, Russell's clear eyed, rational explanation of the mind came as a shocking revelation.  That mind didn't have to be elevated to metaphysics made me happy; we should be able to make sense of our selves without resorting to fantasy.

An interest in neuroscience grew out of that reading and dovetailed nicely with my ongoing apprenticeship in computing.  I especially enjoyed learning about the people who played a part in inventing the modern world; computing is really our fascination with our own minds recreated.  Computational neuroscience is our attempt to recreate a mind.  Computer engineering was also often driven by neuroscience's need for massive increases in computing power.  They are two very complimentary areas of interest.

Today I suddenly found myself in a strange confluence of neuroscience.  @melaniemcbride's link on twitter about adopting neuroscience as a means of guiding education asked some hard questions.  Then, while driving, I heard on Quirks & Quarks an interview with a computational neuroscientist that gave me pause.

His book: Connectome offered some interesting insights into how neural networks create complexity, but one response he gave made me pause.  When asked what this sort of research could lead to in relation to neuro-atypical brains, Dr. Seung replied suggesting that, in time, as technology advanced, we could eventually rewire all atypical brains to become normal; to operate according to the same criteria.

In the last little while I've had a wave of atypical neurology going on around me.  A diagnosis of ASD-PDD-NOS in one generation and a diagnosis of bi-polar schizophrenia in another.  When dealing with the bipolar nastiness, all I can think about is trying to normalize the behavior, but I also believe (because I know it about myself), that this atypical brain chemistry also produced atypical mastery in other areas.  I know this because I can see it in myself; I'm a generational link in this neuro-atypicality.

So there I am, listening to a computational neuroscientist who thinks that a granular understanding of the mechanics of thought will eventually allow us to create the ideal mind, over and over again.  My family could be normal, typical, manageable.

There is a fear that technology will leech us of our individuality, make us easier to enslave, a more perfect race?  That took me back to Gattaca.  In a world full of engineered, genetically perfect people who have been measured, categorized and optimized, where is there room for suffering or the creativity that can come from it?  Of for the opportunity for exceptions to produce the astonishing?  In that utopia there are no Van Goghes, or DaVincis, or Helen Kellers.  There is no room for the atypical, only the quantified sameness of someone's idea of perfection.

I've been wracked with fear in the past year, that I've been infected by insanity courtesy of my genome, and passed it on to someone I love dearly.  I've been wrestling with the idea that I've put someone into the world who can't compete with it.  Standardized testing at school and psychological testing elsewhere have quantified these failures that I've caused.  The human race doesn't treat atypical neurology very nicely; we're really still a troop of apes at heart and the best you can hope for with difference is toleration.

According to Dr. Seung, once we get the computational power together to understand the mechanics of the brain, we'll be able to 'rewire' errors.  I suspect, as we develop a finer understanding of the mind, there will be a moment where, as I did reading Russell's clear eyed analysis of mind, we will suddenly realize that we are free of misunderstandings based on ignorance.  In that moment, it's my hope that we realize that a mechanical understanding of the mind means embracing atypical neural states as part of what it means to be human.


If we fail to realize this knowledge, we ultimately tie our minds to whatever we think they are, constraining ourselves to our expectations.  Our idealized expectations of ourselves do not include madness, or students who don't all learn the same way in neat, organized, financially efficient rows.

Neurotypicals don't make Starry Nights, or general theories of relativity; you'll miss us when we're gone.

Neuro-atypicals might not always be the cheapest, or easiest to manage but you won't find a lot of neuro-typical output in a gallery, or museum.  It's a shame we only celebrate their exceptionalities after they're gone but bemoan their differences while they're here.