Unsolved Problems in Neuroscience

Ralph Adolphs, ‘The Unsolved Problems of Neuroscience’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19 (2015), 173-5.

Well, I am looking to be of some assistance here, if I can. Adolphs sets out a list of unsolved problems, under five headings:

(i) ‘Problems that are solved, or soon will be’, e.g. ‘how does sensory transduction work?’
(ii) ‘Problems that we should be able to solve in the next 50 years’, e.g. ‘how do we make decisions?’
(iii) ‘Problems that we should be able to solve, but who knows when’, e.g. ‘How could we make everybody’s brain function best?’
(iv) ‘Problems we may never solve’, e.g. ‘How and why does conscious experience arise?’
(v) ‘Meta-questions’, e.g. ‘How could we build a brain?’

It’s an interesting read, sometimes because the chosen questions are familiar and sometimes because they are not. It does not seem all that optimistic to me: fifty years is a long time, and that’s only the second category. The concession to ‘never’ was unexpected.


But I am here to help, by continuing to suggest things that literature knows about the brain. And I think a couple of the ‘meta-questions’ can be answered in a way that is, I think, part-serious, part-glib, and part-poetical. The answer is genre: that is, we might do well to approach the mind by means of different forms of thinking, forms of thinking that originate, after all, in its own mechanisms.
      So question XXI asks ‘What counts as an explanation of how the brain works?’, to which I want to answer, in this serio-poetico-glib spirit, how about Ulysses, or Shakespeare’s Sonnets, or Endgame, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or Ovid’s Metamorphoses? And I would want to add the necessariness and also incompleteness of all of them together — and they all need reading again.
      And question XXIII asks ‘What are the different ways of understanding the brain?’. To its parenthetical suggestions (‘function, algorithm, implementation’) I want to add lyrically, epically, comically, tragically, novelistically, and on and on, blank verse and ottava rima, prose essay, verse essay, and on.
      I am no more optimistic than Adolphs about solving the problems of neuroscience, inasmuch as they are problems. But all the time I read things out of which crystallize moments of ‘explanation’ and ‘understanding’ that could be valued more than they are, by more disciplines than they are.
      I have a feeling I am going to come back to this post in the future and furrow my brow a little. I’ll probably blame it on a week of Sicilian sunshine. For now, though: onwards and upwards!

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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