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The complexities of working on the brain


Interest in the brain generates many questionable theories
Francis Crick Scientist
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I think that physicists and computer scientists are interested in the brain. Everybody is interested in the brain. So, they naturally like to apply the idea they have to what they’ve learned about the brain. This, I would say, has had mixed success. Because a, sort of, caricature of what can happen… a physicist works in a certain area, and he has a certain expertise, he learns something rather superficially about the brain. He thinks, oh, my expertise or my way of thinking about it will be useful for the brain and he produces a theory without having any close knowledge of really what the problems are in the brain or even, it seems to me in many cases, not really caring how you would test the idea experimentally on the brain. They just like the idea because it’s such a pretty idea. I’m not… obviously, in some cases that will be useful because it will introduce new ideas from outside. But it does seem as if it introduces many… too many ideas which are unlikely to be right. So there’s an awful lot of noise among the good stuff. And I would say the same thing is… has been happening with people working in artificial intelligence using computers because it’s doubtful if the actual way that you program a von Neumann computer, the sort of thing you have in a personal computer at home, that type of computer, is really the sort of thing that goes on in the brain. And the new type of computing, the parallel distributive processing, which is more brain-like, is… ideas based on that are likely to be more and more useful, but you can’t be sure. In a subject like this, since we don’t know the answers, we can’t say in advance which… for sure, which is going to be useful or not. We can only just have our prejudices. When we know what we think are the right sort of answers, we can look back, of course, and say, you know, that approach was a waste of time. But at the moment, it must… it can only be somebody’s individual opinion.

The late Francis Crick, one of Britain's most famous scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is best known for his discovery, jointly with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, of the double helix structure of DNA, though he also made important contributions in understanding the genetic code and was exploring the basis of consciousness in the years leading up to his death in 2004.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: John von Neumann

Duration: 2 minutes

Date story recorded: 1993

Date story went live: 08 January 2010