(Lack of) Progress in neuroscience

Here is what I just posted to the epic thread on Connectionists:

The original complaint in this thread seems to be that the main problem of (computational) neuroscience is that people do not build upon the work of others enough. In physics, no one reads the original works of Newton or Einstein, etc., anymore. There is a set canon of knowledge that everyone learns from classes and textbooks. Often if you actually read the original works you’ll find that what the early greats actually did and believed differs from the current understanding.  I think it’s safe to say that computational neuroscience has not reached that level of maturity.  Unfortunately, it greatly impedes progress if everyone tries to redo and reinvent what has come before.

The big question is why is this the case. This is really a search problem. It could be true that one of the proposed approaches in this thread or some other existing idea is optimal but the opportunity cost to follow it is great. How do we know it is the right one?  It is safer to just follow the path we already know. We simply all don’t believe enough in any one idea for all of us to pursue it.  It takes a massive commitment to learn any one thing much less everything on John Weng’s list. I don’t know too many people who could be fully conversant in math, AI, cognitive science, neurobiology, and molecular biology.  There are only so many John Von Neumanns, Norbert Wieners or Terry Taos out there. The problem actually gets worse with more interest and funding because there will be even more people and ideas to choose from. This is a classic market failure where too many choices destroys liquidity and accurate pricing. My prediction is that we will continue to argue over these points until one or a small set of ideas finally wins out.  But who is to say that thirty years is a long time. There were almost two millennia between Ptolemy and Kepler. However, once the correct idea took hold it was practically a blink of an eye to get from Kepler to Maxwell.  However, physics is so much simpler than neuroscience. In fact, my definition of physics is the field of easily model-able things. Whether or not a similar revolution will ever take place in neuroscience remains to be seen.

Addendum:  Thanks to Labrigger for finding the link to the thread:


4 thoughts on “(Lack of) Progress in neuroscience

  1. I glanced at the thread. I don’t really follow alot of this stuff though i used to. I even once talked with Karl Pribram at Stanford about grad school (met Paul Cohen—of logic (godel)— on same trip for same idea). Pribram (who later taught in SW Va.) had papers on applying quantum theory (holographic theory)to the brain. I read some of Hopfield’s stuff on neural nets, analogy to spin glasses. (Later on they show neural nets are universal computers, just as spin glasses can be viewed computationally (sherrington-kirkpatrick)).

    It seems there is a big divide between those who do abstract modeling and those who actually look at the brain via neurology and molecular genetics. This is similar to what i saw in biology—many biologists i came across who worked in the field (studying fish, or insects) had no use for theoretical biology (population genetics, mathematical ecology). I think Enest Mayr also had this view.
    Its the theorist/experimentalist divide. Theorists can, after studying alot, come up with many theories in a few days which would take years to confirm. in the field. (eg Higgs boson).

    I was or am into the rumelhart/mclelland connectionist school. This approach (as is well known) goes against the Chomskyite/evolutionary psychology school of ‘innateness’ (language modules, fe/male modules,number modules, art modules). Then there is the ‘quantum’ approach a la Pribram—ranging from jerome busemeyer (indiana u), ‘quantum cognition’ (d. aerts—-some of which is questionable (wrong)), del guidice, vitellio (quantum dissipation). Jack Cowan and also H Umezawa (‘quantum brain dynamics’) had related stuff in the 60’s. Oh yeah, there’s roger penrose, and staurt hameroff of arizona (famous for sherrif’s, shootings, super-reactionary mathematical biologists, and assorted other lunatics (one of whom helped me jump a train, and then i had to jump off when the situation went bad, almost got killed
    and then had to ask some people for some new clothes). I did a stint in a biochem lab looking for calmodulin, which is related to microtubules. (I was radioactive everyday so we decided i wasn’t cut out of the same cloth).

    One good idea seems to come from someone with impeccable credentials in the ‘field biology’ (experimental) area, who worked on AIDS. That’s Luc Montaignier, who has a noble prize and even a paper on arxiv with del guidice and vitellio (the theorists, who work on the same stuff as t’Hooft—local, deterministic quantum theory, which appears to be a ‘final cause theory” (see r f streater ‘lost causes’). . Memory, apparently, although thought to be in the brain, actually is in the water. This is why homeopathy works, and why people concerned with health may want to drink water. Water remembers everything (unless its photons—eg the ‘information paradox’ which was discussed on arxiv yesterday by s hawking, who lost a bet on the Higgs (i was on his side)). . Brian Josephson, also with a Noble (BCS theory, and i saw Leon Cooper speak a few times on his brain theory) perhaps might suggest that water, besides having memory, also has ESP, perhaps due to entanglement (or as S J gould would have ti ‘tangled banks’—see also ‘the network of global corporate control’ (vitali, Plos1 2011).

    The relationship of water to the brain is also discussed by Talking Heads (sortuh like cspan or fox, except a band who started in the same town where leon cooper taught for awhile) in ‘once in a lifetime’ (on you tube) and in ‘submission’ by the sex pistols (also on youtube)—draggin me down, down under the water…under the sea. (One time when it was 4 degrees up at great falls i walked across the potomac from my litlle island and fell through the ice; it took me all day to warm up)..


  2. ps geoffrey hinton is on kojo show WAMU) now talking macine learning. funnny. of course, almost all reasonable people no we’re just living in a computer simulation (max tegmarck, seth loyd, sirens of titan—kurt vonnegut etc.)


  3. Carson,
    You wrote the following:
    I think you believe that the brain is irreducibly complex so that Kolmogorov complexity of the brain is the brain itself. Is this true? If this is true, then the only model of the brain is the brain itself.


    Now, I may be wandering out in left field, but it would seem to me that such a statement is not true. From a developmental standpoint, the number of synaptic connections declines monotonically throughout adulthood.


    In other words, the brain becomes less interconnected with aging. In some ways, the connections of an adult brain are just a subset of the connections of a childs brain. Yet, additional information is also learned and encoded in the ever-shrinking brain of an adult. If an adult brain with fewer connections can compute the same sorts of information that a younger brain with more connections can compute, doesn’t that suggest that the Kolmogorov complexity of a younger brain is somewhat less than the same brain a few years older?

    In a similar thread, I could produce examples where individuals have had one of their two cerebral hemispheres removed early in childhood. Yet, such individuals can go on to graduate high school and perform in the median ranking of their peers. In other words, for human cognition, a half of a brain is sufficient to operate in the adult human world.


  4. Hi Tom,

    No argument here. I wrote that statement as an argument against Jim Bower’s view that the brain is irreducible complex. My entire research program is predicated on the fact that the brain is reducible.


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