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Allen Institute: Why is the human brain so difficult to understand? We asked 4 neuroscientists.

Published in Brain/Neurology.

Is your brain like a computer? An old-timey telephone switchboard? A dense urban landscape?

These are all common analogies for the brain, but most who use them know they are wholly imperfect comparisons. We humans thrive on metaphor and succinct stories, but our brains themselves can’t be summed up so easily.

Many fields of science are complicated, and of course anything under active scientific investigation is not fully understood. But the brain seems different. Extra complex. Extra mysterious. (Although it could be partly our brains’ own biases that tell us how special they are.)

“An electron is complicated. But when it comes to the brain, that simple statement acquires a whole new resonance,” said Allen Institute neuroscientist Stephen Smith, Ph.D. “It’s complicated enough to somehow explain all the richness of the human experience as we know it: All of our feelings, all of our subjective experience, all of human history, human art, human science. Wars, love, greed. The brain is at the root of all those things. Is it appealing to think that a simple machine, easy to understand, could explain all those things? I don’t think so.”

Scientists have known for centuries that the brain is the seat of human thought, but we’re still in the dark about how it works. There are… a lot of reasons for that. I asked four neuroscientists to expound on why we don’t yet understand the human brain, and what it might take to get there.