Idea Brief for Project 3?

Idea Brief (Working)

1. The Goal

The goal of the design would is aimed at helping people re-think the metaphors they are currently using to understand the brain, so as to maybe reconsider the way we are talking about and approaching neuroscience research, and perhaps to also consider other fields other than just strictly science and technology. (Lots of maybes/perhaps I know!)

2. The Idea

Looking at various metaphors for the brain (and throughout history) and critique how they influence how we approach neuroscience research now and in the future.

3. The Problem

With Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, they claim they’ve formed an interdisciplinary team to tackle this “grand challenge” of mapping/visualizing brain activity. However, this team is made up of mainly neuroscientists. Indeed, even some people who are already on the steering committee of the Initiative are expressing worries about the makeup of panel:

“‘…it’s a worry that they are packing the committee with users, rather than tool builders,’ Yuste says, adding that he and some allies are asking NIH to add members to the panel. ‘We are asking for more technologists.'”

Packing a panel dedicated to looking at brain mapping with neuroscientists seems to intuitively make sense, but that may mean we will have only one narrow view through which we view the findings that result from the research…

4. Background / History

What views might these include? Consider a brief look through history via which humans have used metaphors to talk about the brain.


Phrenology – Popular in the 19th century, “The distinguishing feature of phrenology is the idea that the sizes of brain areas were meaningful and could be inferred by examining the skull of an individual.” (Wikipedia)


The Brain as Computer – As Daniel C. Dennett, the philosopher of mind/consciousness puts it:

“I’m trying to undo a mistake I made some years ago, and rethink the idea that the way to understand the mind is to take it apart into simpler minds and then take those apart into still simpler minds until you get down to minds that can be replaced by a machine.”

“It meant that basically you could treat the brain as a computer and treat the neuron as a sort of basic switching element in the computer, and that was certainly an inspiring over-simplification. Everybody knew is was an over-simplification, but people didn’t realize how much, and more recently it’s become clear to me that it’s a dramatic over-simplification, because each neuron, far from being a simple logical switch, is a little agent with an agenda, and they are much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.”

“We’re beginning to come to grips with the idea that your brain is not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order, a very dramatic vision of bureaucracy. In fact, it’s much more like anarchy with some elements of democracy. Sometimes you can achieve stability and mutual aid and a sort of calm united front, and then everything is hunky-dory, but then it’s always possible for things to get out of whack and for one alliance or another to gain control, and then you get obsessions and delusions and so forth.”


The Brain as “Swiss Army Knife” – With the increased use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to understand and localize various phenomena of the brain to different regions, this metaphor of the brain is the most prevalent one today. It’s related to the idea of “brain as computer” I think, but more of the focus is on which parts of the brain do what. For example, we have a facial processing region (the fusiform gyrus) dedicated to processing faces (or anything that looks like a face, like the Virgin Mary in your toast). Or we have this big area in the back of our heads which is all dedicated to visual processing.

However, these conceptions are problematic. This article from Scientific American points to the various ways brain scans and how they are depicted in popular culture can potentially mislead us.

“Such brain scans, however, are misleading on a number of levels and have led some neuroscientists and the media to overemphasize the localization of brain function.”


5. Examples

Lots of examples in pop science and in our everyday language. For example, describing mental illness or sociopathic behavior as the result of neuronal circuits not wired up correctly. Or turning on/off various parts of the brain. Even the popular and trite phrase used to describe cognitive neuroscience (that said scientists hate using but sometimes have to just to explain what they actually do): “We look at how the software of the mind is implemented in the hardware of the brain.”

6. The Audience

I still need to think about this… Maybe either just laypeople (not scientists) or at the opposite end of the spectrum people who decide who gets onto neuroscientific panels.

7. The Approach

Would be good to talk to some experts about this and get their take on it. Look at examples of this more in pop science / culture / movies / media.

8. Challenges

Accessing said experts… they are busy! Honestly, finding the time to read up on this as thoroughly as I’d like to in the midst of thesis and all 😦



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