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Home >Opinion >Columns >Why is the mind so difficult for science to understand?

Since the age of 16, I have waited for science to say paranormal things. I want there to be magic. Magic that is not only physics, but magic that is magic.

There are phenomena that point to exotic states of reality, like the infinity of space, and gravity, which is a distortion in space. But these are among the same half a dozen things in popular theoretical physics that I have been hearing about over the past many years.

The years of hoping that the extraordinary exists has taught me two things about science journalism. If the headline of an article is a question, it means the writer does not know the answer. If the writer knew, the answer would have made the headline. The other thing I know about articles without having to read them is that anything about ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ is nonsense (unless the article is about this fact); and any scientific article on the subject would always conclude that we know nothing yet. The latest issue of the MIT Technology Review, entirely devoted to “the Mind", did not change my mind. I knew that if there was anything new and dramatic I needed to know in neuroscience, this issue would contain it. I read the magazine with a mixture of familiar hope and anticipation of disappointment. Hope for confirmation of the exotic, and disappointment out of habit.

In the last few years, humans have understood a lot about the physical part of the brain, its electrical circuits, where and how memories are stored, and how psychedelic drugs work. We have even improved our understanding of a banal aspect of consciousness—being awake. For instance, scientists have discovered that many comatose patients might be more conscious than previously thought. But our understanding of the more philosophical aspects of consciousness, the idea of self-awareness, is the same as thousands of years ago. Vague conjectures are all we have. With no clear idea at all about the meaning of consciousness and where self-awareness comes from, the brain is merely yet another organ; more complex, but yet another organ.

When what is important to humans has no scientific explanation, then something that resembles science takes over. Today, a guy with ‘neuro’ in his past or present job description can spout anything about the mind and related ambiguities like meditation, and his words would be influential. Others who want to speak about the mind can interview neuro-somethings and write books on the subject, or tell us their findings through that new medium of American over-articulation—podcasts.

The consumers of spurious news about the mind are the world’s melancholic. A key quality of the melancholic is that they were always so, always searching for solutions, always finding them, always reverting to melancholic states after their inner peace turned out to be transient. The history of the melancholic is also the history of the wellness industry.

All along, science has valiantly tried to crack the mind. Governments have spent billions of dollars to understand consciousness.

Over the past decade, one set of scientists funded by the US attempted to map the entire human brain. “At the level of individual neurons," as Emily Mullin writes in the “Mind Issue". The idea was to cure a host of famous diseases and also answer that great question: “How does the brain bring about consciousness?" Former US President Barack Obama called it the “next great American project". A few years before this attempt, neuroscientist Henry Markram tried to “make a computer simulation of a living human brain… a fully digital three-dimensional model at the resolution of the individual cell…" The EU gave him $1.3 billion to build that brain model. The US would spend “nearly $6 billion" on the mapping idea. But the two grand projects have contributed nothing certain to our understanding. “…Instead of answering the question of consciousness, developing these methods has, if anything, only opened up more questions about the brain and shown just how complex it is."

American tech billionaires, too, are trying to understand the mind. This is probably because they are scared of dying. A misfortune of their wealth is that dying is more expensive for them than it is for others. Maybe they think death is an obsolete natural technology that updates species without any care for how special an individual is. And billionaires feel that if they can understand consciousness, they may be able to figure out how to sabotage their own decay. Some, like Elon Musk, plan to download their brains to a computer. But the news from their labs does not hint at any breakthroughs. Forget a new technology of the mind, we still do not even know what it is.

Our consistent failure in understanding consciousness is remarkable. Generally, we do not fare so poorly in science. I do not think it’s the abstract nature of the mind that is the problem. Maybe the issue is that the mind is not abstract. Maybe, like the physical nature of the brain, there is nothing special about consciousness either, beyond its complexity. It is just another illusion of a chemical machine, like sight and touch. Primordial microbes became the neurons of the brain, and they have no idea what they are doing or why they send signals that make a human ask, “What’s the point of it all?" Maybe all of philosophy is merely a question asked too early in the evolution of science.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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