Where are you?
I don't mean in which city or on which subway line, but rather where is what you call me, what place does your sense of existence occupy in your body, of perceiving the world, of thinking about it.
Let me guess: it's somewhere behind your eyes and between your two ears.
That's how we all feel.
But that's only because light enters through our eyes and sound through our ears.
Now imagine that an evil surgeon removes your brain and puts it in a fish tank, preserving all its connections with your eyes, your ears and so on.
To imagine, suppose you are standing there, looking at your own brain submerged in the fish tank.
Where is your self now?
It's probably in the fishbowl, right?
That's what everything you know about neurology tells you, be it a lot or a little.
But it's not what you feel.
You think you are still behind your eyes and between your two ears.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett raised something similar in the nineties, but I can't find it.
These days we have seen an amazing advance in neuroscience, the complete map of the brain of a fly larva, with its 3,016 neurons and the 548,000 connections (synapses) that form between them.
That is 30 million times less than a human brain, but with all its modesty it must be able to allow the larva to orient itself towards light, to guide itself by smell towards food and to remember where it is when it has to return to it, or to avoid a hazard.
It is not a loose piece of
, but an integrated, self-consistent system that organizes the behavior of an autonomous individual.
All that vital complexity must necessarily be there, in the complete map of neurons and their synapses (the connectome) that the Cambridge scientists have drawn.
The bad news is that we still don't know how to read the map.
It is very likely that all the data necessary to understand the behavior of the larva is already there, in front of our eyes.
But the information is not enough.
We need to turn it into knowledge.
Reading the human genome, said Sydney Brenner, is an achievement comparable to taking a man to the Moon, but the most difficult part is missing, which is bringing him back.
In her metaphor, bringing him back means understanding the genome, capturing it, learning to read it.
What happened with the genome happens again with the connectome: we need to convert information into knowledge.
But Brenner was radical.
The truth is that understanding everything up to the very core of it is not necessary to start using it.
And the size of the investigated organism will surely grow in the future, because there is no problem in principle.
It is a matter of investment.
Mapping the mouse brain can take 15 years and a billion dollars, and for the human species those numbers would have to be multiplied by some unknown factor.
But one day we will be standing looking at the map of our own brain, with its 86,000 million neurons and all the synapses between them, and we will ask ourselves again as in the parable of the fish tank: where am I?
Reason will tell you that you are that inextricable map of neurons and synapses, nodes and links, but you will continue to be behind your eyes and between your two ears, right?
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