Tuesday, January 18, 2005

In Your Head

A real understanding of how our brains work stands as a frontier of science today. Even though we've sequenced the human genome in its entirety, understanding how we create thoughts, store memories, or experience music remains rudimentary at best. The tools necessary to study these processes are just now becoming sophisticated enough to begin tackling these important questions.

CNN recently covered a press release from the University of Oxford announcing the establishment of the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind (OXCSOM).
A multidisciplinary research centre at the University of Oxford will examine all types of beliefs, from those that make children think their stockings are filled by Santa Claus to the faith that drives fundamentalist terrorism.
People from six different departments (Anatomy, Pharmacology, Philosophy, Physiology, Theology, and Ethics) will be a part of this virtual center (or centre), with an initial investment of $2 million by The John Templeton Foundation. These investigators, led by Baroness Susan Greenfield, will be looking for physiological differences in people of different faiths - their reactions to the pain of being burned by chili peppers, for example.

Maybe this is a global extension of Faith-Based Initiatives, but I don't think using religious faith as a variable leads to infallible conclusions, or, for that matter, results. If this is just a source of funding for the University of Oxford, then good for them, but maybe they actually want to associate rigorous scientific study of brain function with a foundation that funds spiritual research "including research in love, creativity, purpose, infinity, intelligence, thanksgiving and prayer."

The OXCSOM is not alone in the class of recently-founded-brain-research facilities. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute will open its first research facility to work in that field: Janelia Farm is set to open in 2006 (this was mentioned briefly in ACS's Chemistry and Engineering News here. Their Scientific Agenda, simply put, is to pursue tough problems which require long-term investigations (something actually rare in science today). They have identified two of these uberproblems so far:
The identification of general principles that govern how information is processed by neuronal circuits.
The development of imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis.
In short, they aim to develop new tools in order to better understand what goes on in your head. That's how science works.

Note: If you're into brain science, then check out this article from Scientific American which BoingBoing covered. I also enjoyed Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain (amazon.com).


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