The challenge of mapping the brain

Mapping can be applied to many different fields, disciplines, and interests. I teach a course in mapping once a year. I ask my students to define “mapping.” Students will offer several variations which I can summarize thus: “Showing on a piece of paper the location of things on the Earth’s surface.”

For those that don’t make maps on a regular basis this definition may seem fine. Except it isn’t fine. Not in the 21st century.

The simple definition I offer as a sample above incorporates too many conceits. Maps do not have to be paper-based. They do not even have to be tangible. Maps on our phones are not tangible; we feel the phone, not the virtual map projecting from the phone.

People have mental maps embedded in their minds which helps us navigate from place to place, or help us remember where we last had our car keys, or help us remember the 40-minute bike route we had to take to visit friends in high school.

Maps are not simply limited by “things.” Maps do reflect the presence or absence of nouns – people, places, “things,” or ideas. Yes, even ideas can be mapped. Ideas take the form of things that do not have any substantive form, like insurance, religion, or stocks. I am making a distinction between the idea – the concept – and the physical forms an idea assumes. I cannot map an insurance policy, but I can map the distribution of people who have an earthquake provision included in an insurance policy. I cannot map “Jainism” (the belief system of Mahatmas Gandhi) but I can use Census data to map the distribution of people who attest to being Jainist.

Anything can be mapped. Anything can be mapped if a set of coordinates can be established which are of sufficient density to capture the information needing to be mapped and will help separate one data point from being confused with adjacent data points.

And, this brings me to Brain Mapping. Only technology limits our ability to accurately map the brain. Science desires to map the brain for a variety of reasons, all of which might be distilled to this one singular reason: “To better understand ourselves.” Whether we are trying to determine how to repair damage from a stroke, to treat cancer, to understand emotions, to understand brain damage, to understand how the brain repairs itself, to understand what provides people their innate cognitive abilities.

My personal belief is the human brain is an organic massively complex parallel processing unit, with multiple cores many of which are redundant, running 24/7/365.

Given sufficient technology sensors can be developed to map the brain and its functions. Mapping the brain and all of its characteristics forms a fundamental base from which all other studies can be launched.

Mapping the brain is very similar to mapping the Universe. Mapping the universe I also find fascinating for pretty much the same reasons. To learn not really who humans are biologically, but who we are as a biological race, where we have come from, and, far more importantly, where we might go if we can put aside forever our manufactured differences.

Global Public Square

President Barack Obama announced the “BRAIN” Initiative in 2013. It’s an effort to show the brain’s neural circuits work together in real time. To find out more about efforts to map the brain, watch the “Moonshots” special on December 28 at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET.

Zakaria:Is it more difficult to map the brain than it was to map the human genome, which took about, initially, 10 or 15 years?

Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist: It will take a lot of time.  Realize that the Human Genome Project only talked about maybe 20,000 genes or so that may that govern the human body. The brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10,000 other neurons.  That’s as many stars as there are in the Milky Way Galaxy.


Kaku: And so it will take time.

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