Jul 13, 2012

No theory - no money!

A neuroscientist I was talking to recently complained that the Higgs-research,even the Neutrino-fluke at CERN is getting humungous funding while neuroscience is struggling for support at a much more modest level. This, despite the undisputed fact that understanding our brain, and ultimately ourselves, is the most exciting challenge around.
Henry Markram of EPFL in Switzerland  is one of the guys aiming for big, big funding to simulate the complete brain. After founding the brain institute and developing methods to analyze and then reconstruct elements of the brain in a supercomputer he now applies for 1.5 Billion Euro in EU-funding for the 'flagship-projects' of Blue Brain -and many believe his project is simply too big to fail. Some call the project daring, others audacious. It is one of the so very few really expensive life-science endeavours. Why aren't there more like that around? Why do we seem to accept the bills for monstrous physics experiments more easily?
Is what Markram and friends are doing so different from the ventures of high energy physics where billions are spent to let particles collide and smash them to smithereens? Are those scientists all just crazy?
Maybe they are.
But there is one difference between accelerator experiments and projects like Blue Brain:
The particle folks have a theory. They have a pretty good working theory that helped explain a vast amount of observations - and more important than that: the theory allows for verifiable (or falsifiable) predictions. One of the predictions is the existence of a Higgs-Boson. Whatever that particle is or means to physicists, it is a predicted particle with properties that can in principle be measured. It is possible to firmly argue for funding.
I fail to see such a theory in 'consciousness'-research or in brain-modeling. Does anybody have a theory about what consciouness is? Not just a hypothesis, not a vision - I mean: a theory. If there was a theory, there would be the possibility to prove or disprove it.
Up to now *all* experiments on consciousness or the self depend on a human being *reporting* some internal states of herself. Today you could not experimentally verify whether or not your coworker, your cat, your computer has an individual self - if they don't communicate with you about it.
Bluntly, that is not science.