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Does Neuroscience need a Newton?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This past weekend, I read an interesting piece in the New Yorker. It’s another one of the current rash of pieces that are warning us (rightly!) to beware of neuro-hype. It references another recent piece in the New York Times, which referenced those fighting back against things like “How Creativity Works” (correct answer: it’s very complicated and we don’t know), and the ever-present fMRI studies hyped in the news (I’ve been guilty of a few of those, though I try very hard to be skeptical). Both pieces referenced the excellent Neuroskeptic and Neurocritic (though sadly, the NYT didn’t give them the links they definitely deserve). And both pieces warned that neuroscience is more, and better than, the gee-whiz of “This is your brain on poker“.

I particularly liked the New Yorker piece, for making clear the incredible complexity of the human brain.

The brain, though, rarely works that way. Most of the interesting things that the brain does involve many different pieces of tissue working together. Saying that emotion is in the amygdala, or that decision-making is the prefrontal cortex, is at best a shorthand, and a misleading one at that. Different emotions, for example, rely on different combinations of neural substrates. The act of comprehending a sentence likely involves Broca’s area (the language-related spot on the left side of the brain that they may have told you about in college), but it also draws on the parts of the brain in the temporal lobe that analyze acoustic signals, and part of sensorimotor cortex and the basal ganglia become active as well. (In congenitally blind people, some of the visual cortex also plays a role.) It’s not one spot, it’s many, some of which may be less active but still vital, and what really matters is how vast networks of neural tissue work together.

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I love this, and I’m making a promise that I will put something like this, to make it REALLY clear, into every future fMRI piece I write about (and readers, CATCH ME and yell at me if I don’t!). We neuroscientists often neglect to mention that sort of thing. We know, intellectually, that when you see a study showing “activity” in the striatum with a drug-associated cue in an addict, they are filtering out the other activity. The activity in the occipital cortex from seeing drug-associated cues. The sensory activity filtering in from the sounds of the machine and the touch of the pad they are lying on. The highly integrative activity at the level of the thalamus, corpus callosum, and higher areas to process all the sensory information. And the activity at this constantly going on at “lower” levels like the pons, medulla, and others, to keep your hear beating, your lungs breathing. We know all this intellectually, and it’s takes a long time to say, so we just…leave it out and focus on the significant findings, just like the authors of the paper usually do. It’s not a bad thing, as long as you keep it in mind. But most readers are not scientists and don’t know that to say “so and so had higher striatal activity when focusing on a crack pipe” is a simplified view of what’s going on.

So I really enjoyed these pieces, and I am very pleased that there are lots of neuro-critics and -skeptics out there to call out the hype (even when they call out me, cause I usually deserve it). I’m amazed that anyone would want to just give up on neuroscience because of some sloppy coverage of sloppy studies. We know we can do better coverage, and better studies. But I did find it rather ironic that the New Yorker piece emphasized the gaps in neuroscience knowledge thus:

Scientists are also still struggling to construct theories about how arrays of individual neurons relate [to] complex behaviors, even in principle. Neuroscience has yet find its Newton, let alone its Einstein.

From a warning about over-simplifying, and a reminder of complexity, to bemoaning the lack of a neuroscientific “Einstein”. I’m sure what the author really meant was in regard to say, someone “neuroscience Einstein” figuring out how all networks of individual neurons produce all corresponding behaviors, but…even this doesn’t really make sense. To seek a neuroscience Newton (alliteration sounds better), is to seek after that same oversimplifying that the author is even now protesting against. I don’t think the author meant that we should seek a neuroscience Newton, instead he was commenting on how neuroscience does not yet have a lot of the answers, but should we? Does neuroscience need a Newton?

I personally think such a concept is impossible. Physics, math, these are simple, elegant fields. When it comes down to the very basics in physics and math, particles, if they behave in one way under certain conditions, will always behave that way. A mathematical formula that works once will always work again. At the basis of physics and math, there are unifying ideas and theories that will persist. There are basic principles. But neuroscience is not so elegant. There are basic principles, of course, but they cannot be scaled up. A neurotransmitter may always act on one type of receptor, but how much neurotransmitter is there? How many receptors? What neurons are the receptors on? How many? What types of neurons? Where do they go? Where do the neurons that those neurons contact go? Who do they contact before they get there? Have the receptors themselves been changed or desensitized or understimulated? Change one or a few of these variables, and it’s simple. But change all of them. Every single time. For every single connection.

If there was a neuroscience Newton, they existed back when we were first discovering the building blocks. Ramón y Cajal, who first described the neuron as the fundamental unit of the nervous system. Ferrier, who showed that parts of the brain correlated with motor activity. There are many others. But even these are not really neuroscience Newtons. They are not because as we gain more and more knowledge of the brain, we are able to see: there is no unifying theory of the brain. I do not think that we will ever be able to predict an overall production of behavior from a random network of neurons. Yes, we will be able to show what particular networks of neurons do. We will be able to specify (someday, hopefully soon!), how particular networks interact, how they change in response to stimuli, and how they produce behaviors. We will be able to show (and are able to show already) how modification of DNA via epigenetic mechanisms can change the “behavior” of a neuron. We are able to show how certain receptor modifications can change behaviors, can change circuitry. And we can use this ever-growing knowledge base of design new treatments, to apply new drugs or old drugs to new problems.

And in the end, does neuroscience need its Newton? I really don’t think it does. Instead of one Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants, neuroscience has thousands (over 30,000 attend the society for neuroscience meeting each year alone) of people, each solving their own part of the puzzle. Each figuring out, under certain sets of conditions, what is and is not true, what is and is not changed. If neuroscientific discoveries should not be simplified in their description, then neither should neuroscience as a discipline. Our field is complex, and many thousands, or millions, of little truths will have to come together before we come to a complete picture of the brain. And for those millions of little truths, you will need a million little scientists.

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. notscientific 7:32 am 12/3/2012

    I think that it’s unwise to compare physics with biology and state that: “physics, math, these are simple, elegant fields. When it comes down to the very basics in physics and math, particles, if they behave in one way under certain conditions, will always behave that way.”
    Actually, no, physics isn’t as simple as you make it to be and the quantum world shows that things don’t behave the way we think they do at all times.
    Having said that, I do get the point you’re attempting to get across: that biology, especially “brain science” relates to more variations. But I think this is only because our knowledge is so limited at this point in time. Things appear to go beyond our simplified laws and notions only because we do not understand the entire picture just yet. The more we comprehend what the hell is going on and why specific mechanisms exist, the better picture we’ll have. But the more detailed information we’ll see we’re missing.
    Should neuroscience have a Newton? That’s not feasible, isn’t it? Science is no longer done by one individual but by teams of scientists. And paradigm shifts that such scientists as Newton created now only tend to happen when groups go far beyond everyone else or new fields are pioneered (for e.g., thanks to multi-disciplinary approaches). Today, research groups focus, as you said, on specific pieces of the puzzle and push our knowledge in a direction that’s already established a little further.

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  2. 2. himberg 7:50 am 12/3/2012

    Alliteration is… awesome. So the question should be, do we need a neuroscience Newton, encephalic Einstein or cerebral Curie? :)

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  3. 3. scicurious 8:36 am 12/3/2012

    Kahlil: I guess to me the big issue with trying to get it all simplified down in neuroscience is that, in the end…you’ll hit physics. :) I think even getting the most possible information, we’ll be able to predict different systems based on different information, but I do not think we will ever come to some “unified theory” of the brain.

    Great point about modern science! It’s true, the scientific model now is a very very different beast. Old white men don’t toil alone in their ivory towers, and virtually all projects are collaborative.

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  4. 4. naya8 8:55 am 12/3/2012

    Brain and neurons work according to physics laws. In order to understand neurocience we should understand bhavior of people in real life. We shuold not concentrate on mere experements and animal models, for we have the main clues in our daily behavior. Take for instance a simple behavior like making s decision; this is an outcome of equilibrium between two neurons or two groups of neurones. I have noticed that people from the same origin even they never met can make a unique face language that is not made by other people in the world. This is an indication that equilibrium in neurones became a stable condition and a real trait that generat the same behavior.The bottom line is: Neurocience needs a combination with real behavior withen same groups and comparing it with other different groups.

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  5. 5. curiouswavefunction 9:32 am 12/3/2012

    I think the question to ask is if we can have a universal “theory of the brain” like we have a universal theory of gravitation. Given the many levels of emergent behavior in the brain this seems unlikely.

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  6. 6. scicurious 9:33 am 12/3/2012

    curiouswavefunction: yup. Exactly what I think.

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  7. 7. notscientific 1:41 pm 12/3/2012

    I think at its most complete of understanding, the brain’s magic can indeed be encompassed in a universal “theory of the brain.” Indeed, everything can be encompassed in a perfect theory actually, IMHO, from the brain to nature itself. Whether we will live up to a time when our understanding does indeed reach such an enormous level is probably extremely slim however.

    Which makes this particular discussion more of a philosophical one, I suppose. Fascinating nonetheless. But perhaps I’m sidetracking here…

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  8. 8. rogerharris 2:59 pm 12/3/2012

    What are the point of either this article or the one preceding it ? So “we need an Einstein of the brain”, rebutted by “NO, we need to be happy with cutting up the neuroscience pie into socialism of the subject”

    neuroscience has a lot of people who have that stuff to make big breakthroughs, and a lot who dont , but do their bit. As soon as you have large groups of people content to share the pie, the grounds are created for an increasing lack of vision. Somebody opportunizes on this. Result a paradigm shift we did not expect. Science and many fields are littered with this pattern.

    Do we now need a 3rd article to correct this and state the obvious ? Whats that ? A dozen or more breakthrough neuroscientists will complete the job, and cause change of direction in the field. Maybe there will be one, who shifts everything. I doubt there can be one, but why think thats out of possibility ?

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 3:05 pm 12/3/2012

    I mostly agree with the comments of notscientific and curiouswavefunction.

    In addition, I think that neuroscience’s contributions would be vastly improved if studies that draw generalized conclusions on the nature of the human brain from fMI studies of a few volunteer undergraduate university students – never saw the light of day!

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  10. 10. DonPaul 3:20 pm 12/3/2012

    The current attempts to unscramble the brain’s activities resemble an attempt to extract the gas laws by calculating the Newtonian dynamics of all the little particles banging around. Yes, that does make it a complex problem. What is meaningful in the data or how to assemble the measurements into something meaningful is sorely lacking.

    And, Yes, given the lack of the means to interpret the hard data, the question of a universal “theory of the brain” is fundamentally philosophical, but that only points out the present chicken or egg question: Which should come first? the theory or the data. I think even Einstein would agree that data can only support or VERIFY a theory. No amount of data can CREATE a theory. What to test? What data to select? What to do with it? So, yes we do need a Neural Newton. Someone with a grand theory who can be proven right with real measurements. (Or wrong, but then s/he’s not the Neural Newton)

    The “theory of the brain” question is not much different than any scientific question that has come before. Like former large theoretical steps, before an acceptable, testable theory can be created, a big (mostly philosophical i.e. human) stumbling block must be overcome. For a “theory of the brain” this block is the question of “free will” (or not.) Overcoming this conundrum is exceedingly difficult because any proposal is likely violate some deeply entrenched scientific, religious, or social belief system concerning the fundamental nature of physical/mental reality (usually all at the same time and within the same individual) and initially will be rejected forthwith.

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  11. 11. zfaulkes 5:09 pm 12/3/2012


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  12. 12. hharrison 11:32 pm 12/3/2012

    I’d like to a dissenting opinion to the mix. Yes, there is something different between biology and neuroscience on one hand and math and physics on the other. The former may seem more complicated, in a sense. But saying that it *must* be that way is defeatism, I think.

    Yes there is such variation in life and in intelligence, but there is something living things have in common that we can’t quite pin down.

    I think we need a scientific revolution of the sort anticipated by the biologist Robert Rosen: he believed that the contemporary model of physics – which he thought to be based on an outdated Cartesian and Newtonian world of mechanisms – was inadequate to explain or describe the behavior of biological systems. He argued that biology is not a subset of physics. Rather, complex systems and the associated epistemology are the general case, and simple mechanistic systems are the special case.

    The very notions of entailment modern science uses are inadequate to answer the questions of biology. A Newton is needed not just for neuroscience – but for all science. Someone who’s role it will be not to discover these ideas – as they have already been brewing for a while – but to demonstrate them in a way that will shake our foundations. Or are we too deep to budge?

    Anyone interested in these ideas should check out Rosen’s book “Life Itself.” Truly mind-blowing if you are into things like philosophy of science, epistemology, the role of formal systems, etc.

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  13. 13. Neosteo 3:37 am 12/6/2012

    I would prefer a Walter Russell of neuroscience and maybe I am working on something that will revolutionise how the human mind works in relation to physics, emotion and duality.

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  14. 14. sjfone 7:13 am 12/7/2012

    There is no endgame man, just a horizon,like totally.
    Neat drawings by Dr. Cajal.
    Circuitry that creates. All this pondering is wearing me out, where’s my game controller?

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  15. 15. Edward ! 12:44 pm 12/10/2012

    As a neuroclinician, it strikes me that it is not how all the parts (arbitrarily defined) of the brain work but what drives the process.

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  16. 16. vinodkumarsehgal 9:52 am 12/11/2012

    Before proposing any “theory of brain” on the pattern of theory of gravity, it will be necessary to understand the difference in Mind and Brain. Neuro scientist leans dominantly on the assumption that Mind is the off-shoot of neuronal firing. But any model of Mind based upon this assumption fails in explaining even rudimentary mental functions let alone higher cognitive functions.

    So let neuro scientists first have a more in depth understanding of Mind before proposing any “theory of brain” . An intricacy of difference between “theory of brain” and “theory of mind” should be well understood

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