Sunday, 19 June 2016

Brains and Brain Modelling

In May Professor Mark Humphries from Manchester University
spoke to Greater Manchester Humanists on the subject of Brains and Brain Modelling.  With a gentle introduction to the topic, Mark introduced us to a multiply-appendaged soft toy called Ben.  Ben is a neuron, and one of 87 billion in any human brain.  Mark explained that Ben sends electric spikes to other neurons and that these control all bodily functions.  At the present time neuroscience has not mapped all these connections so we cannot understand the cause and effect of each spike.  Here lies the reason for brain modelling which in Mark’s view is one of the toughest jobs in the world as it focuses on understanding how the brain works.  Mark advised that through continued brain modelling all the spikes in a brain will have been mapped in 5 to 10 years!

Mark talked about one of the contributing figures in the early world of neuroscience - Walter Pitts who was born into a disadvantaged background.  He was bright and at the age of 12 he spent three days reading Principia Mathematica in a library.  He then wrote a letter to Bertrand Russell pointing out some mistakes in it.  He decided that he was interested in neuroscience and took on a role as a janitor at the University of Chicago.  Warren McCullock, an expert in the field of neuroscience at the University, recognised Walter’s talent and hired him.  They worked together and in 1943 provided the foundation for the first brain theories showing that the neuron was the basic logic unit of the brain.  Their model continues to be the standard reference in the field of neural networks.  

Mark went on to talk about some known’s.  Before any muscle action there is increased neuron activity or spikes and during the action there is less; the phenomena of blind sight where people who cannot consciously see have an awareness that would normally be attributable to sight, for example they can catch a ball; and the independent consciousness of the right and left sides of the brain and how they talk to each other and fill in gaps for the other side.  

Mark took a number of questions from the audience.  In reply to a question whether computers could be conscious he answered no because computers cannot have sensations.  Another question led Mark to talk about how learning associated with brain functions was being applied by Google and Apple in their artificial intelligence products or programmes.   

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