Why learning neuroscience is so hard

Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a model of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a model of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

I've been reading about neuroscience these last four months, and I've really been struggling to integrate the material into my own words, hence the dearth of blog posts.

I decided to google why neuroscience is so hard, and while it's in part because only long-time meditators and intellectual heavyweights- of which I am neither- really comprehend neurophenomenlology enough to verbalize the subtle and complex processes in a way that laypeople can understand, there are few other reasons.

First of all, there is still so much even neurobiologists don't know about the brain, and parts we don't understand the function of.  There are 100 billion neurons- or nerve cells- and endless combinations they can connect with each other.  The connections between the neurons, called synapses- are shaped by both genes and life experience, but we don't know to what extent genes shape connections, and experience shapes connections.

Nerve cell.  Image from bbc.co.uk. 

Nerve cell.  Image from bbc.co.uk. 

Moreover, neuroscience requires both objectivity and subjectivity.  If we're going to understand the phenomena of consciousness, on the one hand, we need scientifically valid observations of the brain; on the other, first person subjective accounts of peoples' internal experiences.  Because both the brain and the mind come together to form consciousness, scientists need to get creative and develop tests that measure and scientifically quantify mental phenomena. 

There is a complicated interplay between the brain and the mind: the mind and its attendant concepts and meanings is rooted in the activity of the brain, and the brain- due to its plasticity- is constructed itself by the mind.  As a result, the brain is turning its social circuits that normally attunes to others, inside out and is interacting with itself.  However, we know from the famous double-slit experiment (on the interference pattern of electrons being shot through a double-slit apparatus) that the mere act of observing electrons changes their behavior; just the same, mindfulness research has demonstrated a similar conclusion- that the mere act of becoming aware of your own awareness alters the form and function of your brain.  Your awareness is goes back on itself in a re-entry loop where the emergent process takes on a life of its own, improving memory, focus, and empathy.

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.
— Dr. Daniel Siegel

Some philosophers would say our consciousness is simply reducible to the chemical and electrical firings of our neurons, while others prefer to hold out for the discovery of the "self node" tucked away somewhere in the folds of our gyri like a pearl in an oyster shell that can answer for each and every one of our thoughts and decisions. 

To make things even more difficult, up until a few years ago, neither the field of psychology or neurobiology had a working, agreed-upon definition of the mind. 

Dr. Siegel, whom I mention a lot, only because I'm reading his book right now (The Mindful Brain), recounts how he has gone around the world speaking to mental health practictioners, and at every event, asked for a show of hands of who had ever had a lecture at any time in their training that defined what the mind was.  His finding- out of the 100,000 mental health professionals that he's taught- was that less than 2% had.  While it's true that philosophers and psychologists have been trying to answer that question since the ancient Greeks at least, what's cool is that we're actually at a unique time in history where we know enough to cobble a rough definition together.  Here is Siegel's own working definition:

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.

But there are other concepts that are still undefined.  Think about it.  Can you define consciousness?  Neither can psychologists.  What about self, or identity?

The next challenge is that the brain consists of more than just the pinky-brown organ in the head.  As the control centre of the entire central nervous system, the brain's nerves are routed through the spine and spread all the way to the soles of the feet.  The fact that this complex system works in concert to keep our bodies in homeostasis is nothing less than jaw-dropping.  As one scientist wrote, "If given the choice between having to pilot a plane without knowing anything about how to work any of the controls, and sitting at the dashboard of my central nervous system, coordinating the millions of outgoing and incoming processes happening every second, I'd choose the pilot job in a heartbeat."

Finally, because my purpose in studying the brain is to understand how brain form and function relates to different personality types, and that research is still in its infancy, there is little that can be said with objective certainty, although Dario Nardi (among others) have been doing some interesting research at UCLA, mapping the brain patterns of Carl Jung's legendary MBTI types, and is now starting to work with Enneagram types.  I'm sure more research funding will be forthcoming the more it becomes clear how brain research is important to our collective health, but in the meantime, we rely on anecdotal observations.  For example, during an informal study of brain activity and Enneagram types, Dr. Daniel Siegel noted in an interview with Russ Hudson and Jessica Dibb that Type Two's (one of the Enneagram's three image types) "have a lot of mirror neurons".  There is no book yet out there detailing what these observations could mean, but hopefully someone bright will pen the first one soon.