Decoding ‘the Most Complex Object in the Universe’
June 14, 2013
Christof Koch, Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Science.
He’s also the author of “Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.”
Patricia Kuhl, Director, NSF Science of Learning Center, Professor and Co-Director, Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, University of Washington
The human brain contains some 100 billion neurons, which together form a network of Internet-like complexity.
Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, calls the brain “the most complex object in the known universe,” and he’s mapping its connections in hopes of discovering the origins of consciousness.
Each time we look with better and better tools, with better with better microscopes and other tools, we see more and more complexity.
So now we realize there are not just two types of nerve cells, but there are a probably 1,000 different types of nerve cells
the brain is a physical system like any other physical system in the universe.
But it exudes this magic thing, these feelings. I wake up each morning, I open my eyes, I have pains and pleasure. I remember who I am. How does that [consciousness] arise out of the physics of the brain?
You can look at the fiber tracks that are connecting areas. You can look at activity using magnetoenceph alography.
So in learning of language, which we know we’re geniuses at between zero and seven but not so good every two years after the age of seven, you’re falling off the curve with regard to your ability to learn a new language. After puberty, it really gets difficult.
We can now look with diffusion tensor imaging at the superhighways in the brain.
You can see how language areas and executive control areas are related to the reward system.
You know, that squirt of dopamine that I hope you’re all getting now as you listen to me talk, and you’re imaging your little child and your little grandchild, that squirt of dopamine in the reward system has a lot to do with how it is that we learn at different ages.
do we have a definition, does everybody agree on a definition of what consciousness is?
KOCH: No, nobody agrees.
There’s no question that dogs, in fact all mammals, have conscious states, right?
There’s no question your dog can feel happy, he can feel sad.
A bee is a very complicated system.
The brain of a bee is 10 times more heavily wired than we.
Of course it has many fewer neurons, roughly a million neurons, but it may well feel like something to be a bee.
And so the question is: How does this feeling, how does this subjective feeling come into the world?
That’s always been the mystery. It’s always been the central mystery about consciousness.
a little pulse that’s being sent by one neuron to roughly – we don’t know – anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 other neurons.
some theories try to address that, in fact, the part of the brain that’s not reducible, in some sense, that’s what gives rise to consciousness.
it’s when millions of neurons are coordinated to do something like listen to a word and recognize it, to have an idea in your head requires this – that you will compute all the statistics and create an idea.
bilingual brains are more creative. They’re more – they’re not smarter. It’s not your general IQ.
But it is your ability to be a flexible thinker.
When solving a problem, if you’re bilingual – whether you’re a baby or whether you’re an adult – you’re going to be better at solving a novel problem.
we want to see the next generation of something like magnetoencephalography. I mean, it is picking up a current flow, and it’s able to see with millimeter accuracy, but we want to get even smaller than that – a millisecond accuracy
What is the physical thing that constitutes thought?
In your book, you compare the brain with its hundred billion neurons to the Internet, which has several billion computers there.
Could consciousness arise from the Internet?
let’s first look at the analogy. The brain is a very complicated network that consists of individual elements called nerve cells. OK? Now, of course, it doesn’t make any sense to say one nerve cell conscious. But a large collection of neurons – not all of them. My spinal cord isn’t conscious. My second brain in the gut isn’t consciousness. But some part of the neurons generate consciousness.
So now I look at another network, very, very complex, the Internet. It has 10 billion nodes. Each node consists of, you know, between two and 10 billion transistors. So maybe it’s also possible that collective, as a whole, it also feels like something to be the Internet.
There’s a very large project. It was just funded to the tune of 1 billion euro in the European Union called the Human Brain Project, where they’re exactly trying to do that.
Over the next 10 years, they’re to build a special-purpose supercomputer, because you need – you know, it’s terabytes of data.
So they’re trying to build a special-purpose computer to simulate the human brain.