The first podcast reviewed here is a preview of a documentary of the first year of the Blue Brain project (available here). This is a 15 minute video which looks at the Blue Brain project. The sound in the video is clear, the images clear and there are interesting views of graphical representations of the computer modelsThe podcast features an interview with Henry Markram, the neuroscientist heading the European Blue Brain project. The BlueBrain project aims to simulate the human brain and in the interview Markram tells us that he is looking at a 10-year goal of achieving this aim. Markram is convincing in his discussion. Computer modelling of neuroanatomy is often criticised on the grounds that we really do not know enough to produce realistic models. However, Markram is quite emphatic in stating that we do know enough to do this and here I suppose is the point behind this project. The point is that a computer model gives you a very sharp focus, honing down the possibilities, making a bold assertion and then testing it to see if it makes any sense. These models can be compared with contemporary experimental results and learning can take place. What are we left with, without this approach. The answer is that we are left with a simple understanding that is limited to that which can be communicated in discussion or else to statements (mathematical or otherwise) about abstract parts of neuroanatomy. The computer model on the other hand defers the task of holding many interactions in memory and performing the calculations to the computer. A human would not be capable of performing these types of tasks with billions of calculations and functions being manipulated in virtual space. It is then up to the human to work with the computer to interpret the results, refine the model, communicate with other groups and find testable applications. It’s difficult to see how else an understanding of the brain could proceed satisfactorily. Such is the complexity of each part of the brain, that neuroscientists can spend an entire lifetime focused on a single area. Yet as we know, the brain is a function of all of the areas acting together and so even a profound expertise in one single area needs to be complemented by an understanding of all of the other brain regions. Markram is confident that an understanding of the brain can be arrived at within the next 10 years. Quite what this understanding means is open to discussion.
The second video reviewed here is another in the series of ‘ideas worth spreading’ in the TED series and available here. In this episode, neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe gives a short (about 16 minutes) presentation on how people understand each other. While this is a difficult task to undertake in so short a space of time, Saxe gives a relaxed and accomplished performance. The essence of her presentation consists of demonstrating that some children are delayed in being able to give a reasonable account of what other people might be thinking. She suggests that some of these abilities might lie in a region around the right temporoparietal region and then proceeds to demonstrate the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation before summarising some of the results of stimulating the right TP region on moral judgement. The implication is that moral judgement is impaired. It should be noted that the TMS will not only have a localised effect but will influence some wider regions also and so it is difficult to attribute causality to the temporoparietal region alone. Nevertheless within the space of 16 minutes Saxe has delivered an engaging narrative in an attempt to persuade the audience of a role for this region in moral judgements and understanding others.
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