But what if, instead of trying to map these neural structures piece by piece, we could tease out some underlying principles governing their morphology and architecture? What if we could use a supercomputer to run thousands of statistical simulations so as to predict the way that those neurons are likely to combine and then check the resulting models against real data from biology? Then in theory we could predict those structures and use them to reverse-engineer the human brain. That, in a nutshell, is the principle behind the
"The fact is we are never going to experimentally map the human brain and people who think otherwise are deluding themselves," he says. "Instead, we have to search for the fundamental principles and then use those principles to construct a hypothesis of the bits of the brain no human has ever seen and no human will ever see. Then we have to test those hypotheses and refine the principles until our model gets better. Otherwise, we are just stabbing in the dark."
When Markram speaks this way, it is easy to see how he raises other scientists' hackles. Markram's belief in the ability of computing technology to solve the big questions of neuroscience is messianic. It is a messianism he combines with the tousled good looks of an ageing matinee idol and an undeniable charisma that at TED in Oxford four years ago had some members of the audience spellbound.
In a field dominated by big brains and even bigger egos, each mining their own esoteric field, Markram's big data approach to experimental neuroscience represents a cultural revolution. "We're saying look, if you think you're going to understand the brain on your own forget about it. We're going to have to work very differently. We're going to have to work in teams, in swarms. To someone who is used to deciding what experiment they should do I can see how that might come across as antagonistic."
Markram's belief in the need for teamwork is rooted in his own experience as a brain researcher and his conviction that only neuroscience is capable of solving the deeper mysteries of how the electrical signals zinging between neurons produce consciousness and how interferences or malfunctions in those electrical channels produce disordered or "diseased" thinking. Markram credits the awakening of his interest in these subjects to a Latin teacher at the boarding school in
This interest in biology led him to an undergraduate degree in medicine at the
Instead, Markram switched to experimental neuroscience and in 1985 joined a
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