Mapping the Brain to Better Understand Ourselves

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Life can be an emotional roller coaster. Maybe you've been down in the dumps after a bad breakup or gotten ecstatic after news that you scored a huge promotion. Maybe you've totally forgotten what you were about to say or blurted out something hurtful that you didn't mean to someone you love. Our minds play tricks on us. Our brains do the darndest things. But why?

President Obama has proposed a brain mapping project to help us better understand what's going on inside our noggins. But with the limited capacity we have to understand our brains today, can we even fathom the full implications of such a large-scale study? Dr. Rafael Yuste is a neuroscientist at Columbia University and one of the coordinators of the Obama administration's new Brain Mapping Project.

The first question that arises out of a project like this is simply, how can it be done? Similar-looking wrinkly piles of gray matter have produced peace advocates and mass murderers, impressionist painters and rock-and-roll musicians. The task of mapping the brain is probably much larger than we can imagine. The other question is, once the brain is mapped, what then? Is it worth pouring millions of dollars into a project with no predictably useful results?

It's not the first time ambitious scientific projects have had to contend with such questions. The Human Genome Project and the Human Microbiome Project have both sought to map unseen scientific phenomena -- and the results are just beginning to produce real-world benefits. Gary Marcus is someone who understands the challenges and possibilities that spring from these kinds of projects. He's a cognitive psychologist at NYU and blogger for the New Yorker.