The Woeful State of Our Knowledge of the Brain, and the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health

The major theme of this blog is how family systems issues have been denigrated in psychiatry and even psychology in favor of a disease model for everything.  For this reason, you might think that I would be highly critical of the National Institute of Mental Health and its director, Dr. Thomas Insel. He has led the agency to focus almost entirely on neuroscience to the exclusion of research into family dynamics and other types of social psychological phenomena, without which I believe it is impossible to really understand even the neuroscience, let alone human behavior in general.Dr. Thomas InselInsel has been particularly supportive of President Obama’s BRAIN initiative (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), with its emphasis on such things as bio materials, engineering and nanoscience. He has been critical of the field’s diagnostic manual, the DSM 5, because it is limited to just observable signs and symptoms rather than the causes (etiology) of the various mental disorders.While I certainly am critical of his neglect of handing out research dollars for social psychological and other such issues in mental disorders, I certainly have nothing against studying the brain in more detail.I was pleasantly surprised by a recent article about Insel in Clinical Psychiatric News (August, 2014) that showed that he was at least realistic about both the current state of our knowledge about the brain as well as the prospects for our ever really understanding it.I was particularly pleased about the following facts he emphasized to the newspaper:“We can get cells to turn into neurons, but getting cells to turn into circuits is still a challenge. We don’t even know what a neural circuit is. We don’t know where it begins, where it ends; we don’t know how big it has to be; we don’t know exactly what the dynamics are.”“…it may turn out that our brains simply aren’t smart enough to figure out how they work…It may be just a cosmic joke that we’re evolved enough to ask these questions, but not evolved enough to answer them. We’ll have to see.”And then there’s his comments about the whole issue of emergent properties that characterize anything as complicated as the human brain. As an analogy, think of a car. Is it just a collection of bolts, screws, gears and metal shafts? Well, yes and no. It is definitely comprised of those things, but if you just look at those things alone (reductionism),you’d be hard pressed to understand a vehicle which can transport humans and other cargo over long distances. Other properties of the car emerge from the interactions of the parts.So for the brain:“…there is this whole body of work now that says, ‘Don’t worry about those hundred cells, or even those individual cells, and don’t even worry about looking at the circuitry because the key activity in the brain that is associated with attention, and thought, and consciousness is very slow oscillatory activity……these oscillations that go in and out of the cortex create the dynamic of the cortex – some people call these cortical avalanches – seem to be pretty important for the way the mind works.It would be like saying we want to know what’s on a television screen, and that you actually do better if you step back and get the whole picture, but don’t worry about any given pixel, because the emergent property of that television show is actually the whole thing together.’”You can say that again!


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