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Understanding the human brain


The human brain is a complex thing. It controls nearly everything that we do, right from regulating our heartbeat and body temperature to thinking thoughts about the brain itself, like I'm doing now. No other living thing that we know of comes anywhere close. We are spending billions of dollars on artificial intelligence that can match what our brain can do, and none of those efforts are anywhere close either.

Over the last couple of weeks, I read a biographical account of Elon Musk, the closest person alive to Marvel's Tony Stark, a.k.a Iron Man. The book details out how this man has invested all his time and money in building companies that potentially have far-reaching consequences for the future of our planet - Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity. It is a fantastic read. But since the time the book was published, Elon Musk has gone on to found another company with potentially even more far-reaching consequences for the future of the human race.

This company is called Neuralink. And their website states that "Neuralink is developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers."

Right out of sci-fi thrillers, I love the idea. Incredible, but incredibly hard. To get an idea of how hard it is, consider the following scenario.

When you enter a room that you have never been in and want to turn on the light, what do you do? You flip every switch you can find in the room in the hope that one of them is the switch that turns on the light. Eventually, you will find that switch. It may be a little annoying, but it is a very simple task at the end of the day, because the room has at the most ten switches that you have to turn on and off before you find the right one.

Now, if this room were wired different to most rooms you have been in, and it is possible for the switches to work in combination, that raises the complexity by several orders of magnitude. For example, if turning a switch on or off was not enough by itself to turn on the light, but what was needed was a combination of switches to be on at the same time, you could spend a lifetime trying to turn that light on. With ten switches, it is the equivalent of guessing someone's four-digit ATM pin by brute force.

Our brain is like this weirdly wired room. Only instead of ten switches, we have a hundred billion neurons that work in combination.

There has been great advances in physics and biology giving rise to something called optogenetics. This is a neat piece of work that lets you turn specific neurons on and off using light when they have specific genetic markers. Hence the name optogenetics.

Without optogenetics, you would be a woman without hands in that room with a billion switches, faced with the task of finding the right combination of switches to turn on the light.

Optogenetics gives you hands.

It's a massive improvement to the situation prior to that, but still left with an incredibly daunting task ahead. But we humans are undeterred by odds like that. We like to keep on pushing the boundaries.

So, there have been neuroscientists running experiments on mice and other animals using optogenetics to understand the animals of these brains better.

But, in doing so, they have realised that the switches are not exactly like switches that one can turn on and off, but more like the temperature regulator on the air-conditioner or the speed regulator on the ceiling fan, with a range between minimum and maximum activity.

This has now increased the complexity of the problem by a few more orders of magnitude.

So, we have a long way to go. But we will eventually get there.

In the real world that we live in day in and day out, where neuroscience experiments and optogenetics aren't household names, we are constantly faced with scenarios we like and don't like. And we are constantly trying to make sense of why these might be happening, why we didn't get that promotion, or why that cute guy didn't call back after the first date, or how Donald Trump is still holding the Presidency.

Unlike the complex workings of the brain, we have a simple hack at our disposal.

Unlike the attempt at understanding the workings of the brain, we don't need causality. All we need to do is assume responsibility. The moment we do that, we are in control of how we respond and we will respond to improve and make the situation better, or in the least, learn from it.

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