Monday, April 13, 2009

Brain fever

I’m a heart guy. When I see metrics, I look for emotional subtext. If someone measures something, I’m thinking about where it comes from, what shaped it, and what’s out of the frame. Numbers seldom resolve complex challenges or decisions. I don’t say this to be awkward, although it often is. It’s just I have the feeling that there are heart people and brain people. Brain people listen to their hearts and vice-versa, but most of us favor one or the other. It's just more natural to us. It’s always smart to challenge what feels most comfortable, so I don’t let my heart allegiance stop me from taking an interest in recent work on the brain.

It turns out that even with the triumphs of the Human Genome Project, our knowledge of the genetic composition of the human brain is pretty much at ground zero. There is a lot of work going on to create an Atlas of the Human Mind (perhaps some of the banking brains we’ve seen in action recently would be ideal subjects for research). Allan Jones, one of the scientists heading the project, refers to our knowledge of the brain being at the same level as the Ancients had of geography. On the hippocampus read, “Here there be monsters”. All in all, they are talking about mapping nearly 20,000 genes, a huge undertaking that was kicked off with a $100 million fund by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame.

Already there has been one major discovery. Each human brain turns out to be unique and infinitely more complex than anyone thought. Well, more complex than any scientist thought. I suspect the rest of us knew that all along – especially those of us with children and grandchildren. The idea that the brain can be simplified so it can be explained seems to me like massive conceit. I feel a King Canute moment coming on when scientists finally discover the secret of the brain. Their conclusion? We are all just cogs in some intergalactic experiment being conducted by another species with even bigger and more unique brains.

Me, I’ll stick to being a heart guy. I believe that in the next few years, intuition, gut, and heading where your heart pulls will create winners.