The greatest mysteries yield the biggest opportunities. And for Christopher deCharms, the human brain is the most mysterious thing of all.
A neuroscientist specializing in real-time brain imagery, deCharms suggests that the next wave of knowledge, technology and business will come from cracking the code that gives humans the capacity to perceive, think and act.
He flashes a slide on the screen listing a dozen things we don’t know: How does the brain make choices? Predictions? Plans? How does it produce an impression of identity, of experience? How does it adjust to change? How do we see, hear, touch, taste, smell? Why do we feel motivated one moment, depressed the next? Why do we sleep?
One thing that makes the answers so elusive is the staggering complexity of what the brain does. It’s such a thicket that scientists and philosophers can’t even reach consensus on a definition of consciousness. The quickest route to answers, deCharms says, is to break down the problem into manageable pieces. He differentiates between brain functions that involve high information density — say, reading and writing to the visual cortex — and those involving very small amounts of information, like moderating pain.
“Neurotechnology may benefit from questioning what kinds of low-information-content signals we can read and write before we try to upload and download consciousness,” he says.
Case in point: Deep brain stimulation. DeCharms shows video clips of Parkinsons patients moving involuntarily in a jerky, repetitive, exhausting dance. Their ability to control motion is so disrupted they speak in gasps. Switch on the electrodes reaching into the motor cortex, and suddenly they stand still and start talking about how good it feels.
The rest of deCharms’ presentation is devoted to groundbreaking research in brain cartography, perceptual function, neuronal physiology and several ways to mediate brain activity from drugs to biofeedback. Still, he’s circumspect about the prospect of rapid advance in practical developments.
“If this research follows the usual pattern, progress will take longer than we imagine — but when it happens, it will deliver more benefit than we can imagine,” he says. The bottom line is that the frontier has been breached and wave after wave of troops are flooding over the border, mapping the territory, reshaping it, bringing new capabilities, hopes and challenges.
The mystery won’t remain a mysterious for long.