It was just announced that President Obama wants to start spending one hundred million dollars to "map the brain", and that his oft-times rival Eric Cantor thinks it’s a great idea. But it is a terrible idea, because I can tell you, right now, about half of the big lessons they will learn. For a million more, I could probably gather a group of experts together to tell you about half of what remains. I'm not sure what, exactly, would be left after that, but I'm sure it would be comparatively cheap to figure it out.
The Human Genome Project
Why am I so confident that I know how this story will end? Because the results have been obvious for at least half a century now, and because it will be basically the same story we have had with the Human Genome Project. Yeah, that's right! Despite what the politicians are implying, I assert that any comparison between the current initiative and Human Genome Project suggests that mapping the brain is a terrible idea.
Now, I won't deny that the Genome Project (With its more than $3,000,000,000 price tag!) did create some cool technology, but it ultimately did not do what people thought it would do.
- For some crazy reason, everyone seemed to think we would end up with a list of 100,000 odd human genes. It turns out that there are probably around 20,000, around 1/5th of what was originally expected.
- For some crazy reason, everyone seemed to think that most of the genes would help determine a single, clearly identifiable trait. It turns out that most genes influence many, many traits.
- For some crazy reason, everyone seemed to think that if we sequenced a few people's genes, we'd get a handle on variation. It turns out that the further we get from the initial project, the more obvious it is that there is way more variation in the broader human genome than we thought.
Wow! So basically they found out what the epigeneticits could have told them in the 1960's, and quite possibly even in the 1930's: There are fewer genes than you think. Each one influences many things, and its influence interacts dynamically with the environment. And getting a full picture of the variety of human genes will require testing a huge number of people.
With those messages in mind, we can see that the human genome project told us a lot less than we were promised, and that the main scientific lessons we learned should have already been well known. I'm glad we spent three billion dollars to confirm that.
The Brain Mapping Project
This new project is being touted as the neuro-equivalent of the human genome project. Once again we will be given the same obviously-absurd-from-the-start expectations. We will be told that there are an incredible number of brain regions to be discovered, that each brain area will serves a single function, and that the brain areas will be exactly the same between different people.
Alas, we already know these things to be wrong. There will not be as many distinct functional areas of the brain as we will be led to believe. What areas there are will not serve functions as distinct as we will be led to believe. There will be significant differences in the distinct areas that different people have, and the exact location of those areas between people. Finally, we will be told that really getting a handle on the full range of variation in human brains would take the study of many, many more people than they anticipated.
With that in mind, we can either save $100,000,000, or get a boat load of non-neural social science research done. You see, few will mention one of the dirty little secrets of science funding: Brain scanning is, by a big chunk, the most expensive way to gain insight into the human psyche. You could probably do 20 to 30 times as much good behavioral work for the same amount of money, maybe more.
But won’t there be other deep insights?
Sure, there will be some other insights. But will it justify the cost? I will readily admit that there is a lot about brain science I do not know. However, for probably one or two million, you could bring the right group of experts together over a 5 year period to figure out what most of the rest of this project will find. Instead of giving them $100,000,000, ask them what that amount of money is likely to find, and why. I'm pretty sure they could tell you most of it.
Will there be some things they don't know? Of course. Science is based on there always being unknowns. But if you had the list of things they already knew in hand, you could then design a much smaller budget to try to explore those new areas.
So, there it is! An enormous brain-mapping initiative is a bad idea. There are good ways to study the brain, but this is not it.
Cross posted on my Psychology Today blog at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fixing-psychology/201304/why-brain-mapping-is-stupid-idea