Desperately seeking a theory
Not just seeking, but desperately seeking.
In other words, scientists lack a basic, overarching theory about healthy brain function that would explain how memories, thoughts and behaviors emerge from dynamic activities in the brain – any brain.
That doesn’t sound like a theory of the brain. That sounds like what is desired is a theory of consciousness. This does not surprise me; it’s the big hairy audacious goal for many neuroscientists. I have a message for my fellow neuroscientists about this.
People, chill out. You don’t need a theory to make excellent progress in understanding how any of those things work.
Let me draw a parallel. Consciousness is a network property of certain combinations of matter. Life is also a network property of certain combinations of matter. We want to explain what are the conditions necessary for those network properties to appear. So, the task of understanding consciousness for neuroscientists is very similar to the task of understanding of life for biologists.
We do not have a theory of life in biology.
By this I mean no theory predicts what configurations of matter are capable of life. Could you have a silicon based life form? A life form that exists in liquid methane instead of water? We have no idea. We have been surprised by extremophiles on Earth that live in conditions that were generally predicted not to be able to support life.
In my estimation, one of the last hopes for a unifying theory that separated life from non-live was vitalism: the idea that all living things had an “essence” that non-living ones did not. But we now know that there is no clear distinction between animate and inanimate matter, and vitalism is dead.
Of course, we may develop a theory of life, particularly if we can ever discover other independent origins of life, whether it be “shadow life” on our planet, evidence of life on other planets, or develop artificial life.
It’s not that we lack theories in biology; we do have them. Evolutionary theory and cell theory are the two main (some would argue only) theories in biology. But neither of these do the job of predicting what configurations of matter have what properties of life, and which don’t.
Similarly, neuroscience does have has theories: neuron theory, for instance. It doesn’t explain the “consciousness, but then again, its biological relative, cell theory, doesn’t explain “life,” either.
Yet this lack of a theory has not prevented an explosion in our understanding of biology. Inheritance and the development of complex multi-celled embryos from single cells were once viewed as great mysteries. Work on DNA and stem cells and gene regulation and so much more means that we have extremely good understanding of these processes. We did all of that without a “theory of life,” and there is no end in sight for biological discoveries. Biologists are not complaining that not having a “theory of life” is limiting their research. Almost nobody in biology is worrying about it.
I am not saying it wouldn't be nice to have a grand unified theory for consciousness. Theories are wonderful things to have. With the Society for Neuroscience meeting being one of the biggest scientific meetings in the world, it seems that neuroscientists are not being limited in making discoveries by their lack of an overarching theory.
Hat tip to Erin McKiernan.
When is neuroscience not neuroscience? When it’s neurobiology
Nominees for the Newton of neuroscience
Prying open the black box of the brain
Photo by FunGi_on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons licence.