2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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Neuroscientist, Baylor College of Medicine; Author, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Ceaseless Reinvention Leads To Overlapping Solutions

The elegance of the brain lies in its inelegance.

For centuries, neuroscience attempted to neatly assign labels to the various parts of the brain: this is the area for language, this one for morality, this for tool use, color detection, face recognition, and so on. This search for an orderly brain map started off as a viable endeavor, but turned out to be misguided.

The deep and beautiful trick of the brain is more interesting: it possesses multiple, overlapping ways of dealing with the world. It is a machine built of conflicting parts. It is a representative democracy that functions by competition among parties who all believe they know the right way to solve the problem.

As a result, we can get mad at ourselves, argue with ourselves, curse at ourselves and contract with ourselves. We can feel conflicted. These sorts of neural battles lie behind marital infidelity, relapses into addiction, cheating on diets, breaking of New Year's resolutions—all situations in which some parts of a person want one thing and other parts another.

These are things which modern machines simply do not do. Your car cannot be conflicted about which way to turn: it has one steering wheel commanded by only one driver, and it follows directions without complaint. Brains, on the other hand, can be of two minds, and often many more. We don't know whether to turn toward the cake or away from it, because there are several sets of hands on the steering wheel of behavior.

Take memory. Under normal circumstances, memories of daily events are consolidated by an area of the brain called the hippocampus. But in frightening situations—such as a car accident or a robbery—another area, the amygdala, also lays down memories along an independent, secondary memory track. Amygdala memories have a different quality to them: they are difficult to erase and they can return in "flash-bulb" fashion—a common description of rape victims and war veterans. In other words, there is more than one way to lay down memory. We're not talking about memories of different events, but different memories of the same event. The unfolding story appears to be that there may be even more than two factions involved, all writing down information and later competing to tell the story. The unity of memory is an illusion.

And consider the different systems involved in decision making: some are fast, automatic and below the surface of conscious awareness; others are slow, cognitive, and conscious. And there's no reason to assume there are only two systems; there may well be a spectrum. Some networks in the brain are implicated in long-term decisions, others in short-term impulses (and there may be a fleet of medium-term biases as well).

Attention, also, has also recently come to be understood as the end result of multiple, competing networks, some for focused, dedicated attention to a specific task, and others for monitoring broadly (vigilance). They are always locked in competition to steer the actions of the organism.

Even basic sensory functions—like the detection of motion—appear now to have been reinvented multiple times by evolution. This provides the perfect substrate for a neural democracy.

On a larger anatomical scale, the two hemispheres of the brain, left and right, can be understood as overlapping systems that compete. We know this from patients whose hemispheres are disconnected: they essentially function with two independent brains. For example, put a pencil in each hand, and they can simultaneously draw incompatible figures such as a circle and a triangle. The two hemispheres function differently in the domains of language, abstract thinking, story construction, inference, memory, gambling strategies, and so on. The two halves constitute a team of rivals: agents with the same goals but slightly different ways of going about it.

To my mind, this elegant solution to the mysteries of the brain should change the goal for aspiring neuroscientists. Instead of spending years advocating for one's favorite solution, the mission should evolve into elucidating the different overlapping solutions: how they compete, how the union is held together, and what happens when things fall apart.

Part of the importance of discovering elegant solutions is capitalizing on them. The neural democracy model may be just the thing to dislodge artificial intelligence. We human programmers still approach a problem by assuming there's a best way to solve it, or that there's a way it should be solved. But evolution does not solve a problem and then check it off the list. Instead, it ceaselessly reinvents programs, each with overlapping and competing approaches. The lesson is to abandon the question "what's the most clever way to solve that problem?" in favor of "are there multiple, overlapping ways to solve that problem?" This will be the starting point in ushering in a fruitful new age of elegantly inelegant computational devices.