Will we ever fully understand ourselves?

Matt Wilson is a neuroscientist at MIT who studies the mechanisms of how we form and use memories. Last week, I had the opportunity to interview him, and I found out that he’s a very articulate guy, who is easily able to turn something very complex – how animals and humans form and express memories – into something understandable and ever more fascinating. We were talking for a while about his discovery that rats use a sort of a “mental replay” in their brains while dreaming and planning. Then, things started to get more abstract.

Dr. Wilson was telling me that the brain really isn’t so complicated. He’s able to actually see patterns of thought and memory in rats’ brain cells, and while humans are certainly smarter and more complex, the expressions of these brain patterns aren’t that different. “When we look at these patterns, we can see how they unfold. It’s accessible,” Wilson said. “It tells us that it’s understandable, and we’re likely to figure out mechanisms that control this.” His research on the hippocampus, he said, is just a small part of the amazing strides being made in understanding the processes of the brain.

“Will we ever fully understand ourselves?” I asked. Wilson’s answer surprised me. Read it below.

Matt Wilson: Will we ever fully understand ourselves? This is a very philosophical question. I have to say, I was trained as an engineer. So my engineering training sets out very pragmatic goals. The goal for an engineer would be to take principles and translate them into devices. So the question could be rephrased; will we ever gain an understanding of the principles of the brain that will allow us to construct a synthetic device? Will we build machines that can think? I think the answer to that is yes. Absolutely yes.

Now, that’s a very different question from the one you asked: Will we ever understand the human brain? I think that it invariably will be impossible to understand any one human brain. We’re never going to be able to fully describe or understand how an individual thinks, or what an individual’s memories might be and how those memories contribute to what those individuals are.

So individual human brains are entirely unique, and entirely inscrutable, and we’re never going to understand that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t extract enough of those basic principles to copy, emulate the function. So I think that’s something we can and will do. But the human brain itself, I would dare say, is infinitely complex. The more we look, the structure and more complexity we see in the details, and every human brain is unique.

Lindsay Patterson