Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Importance of Maps

Cognition and cognitive processes are complex terms. These terms serve as a genesis to a whole myriad of definitions and ideological constructs across, and between, the various neuro-orientated fields. Regardless of what stance you take on these ideals, the brain, as a neural entity, undoubtedly plays at least some role in cognition. Understanding the human brain and how the quintessential aspects of the human experience emerge from, or are influenced by this neural entity represents one of the most difficult and potentially rewarding aspects of modern science. 

A field which typifies the brain-centric approach to cognition is the field of Connectionism. The Connectionist movement within Cognitive Science, broadly speaking, puts forth that the keys to the core aspects of the human experience lay hidden within the connections, and the unique connectome, that is present in each and all brains. Sebastian Seung in a recent TED talk offers an interesting conception of the human connectome when he speaks of how the connectome is the interplay of genetics and the environment: “I am my connectome!”

So it seems that a connectome map might be of great use to fields which directly or indirectly study cognition. It may come as a surprise then to find that all of the progress being made in the various neuro-centric fields is being done so without such a map. On the face of it this may seem absurd however, creating this map is no easy task. The human brain contains somewhere between 85 and 100 billion individual neurons and well into the trillions of connections. These are mind bending numbers and the sheer scope of this structure alone inherently presents problems. To put this somewhat in context, it took a team of researchers over ten years to map the 302 neurons/7,000 connections of the C. elegans worm and this research is still ongoing. This problem is compounded further by the current state of brain imaging; currently there exists no simple manner in which you can map the human brain accurately on a large scale. Of course the field is in a constant state of evolution and techniques which can map such an intricate structure at an ever increasing resolution are constantly emerging. Yet they are still far from, ultimately, what Cognitive Science as a field needs them to be.

These constraints present sizable issues in and of themselves but these issues should not deter, or delay, progress from taking place. Presented in this 2005 article is an approach that wished to employ the best current experimental methodologies (centred around the use of diffusion imaging techniques) in order to map such a connectome. A recent publication by Sebastian Seung perhaps outlines the direction the next phase of this research may take. This is only a starting point of course; the work which needs to be done in this area will most likely stretch over several generations of researchers. This progress has been accelerated by the formation of The Human Connectome Project in 2009, a group setup with the central goal of creating this map. The creation of this project is indicative of the importance of the connectome to modern science as whole and also typifies the willingness of the various fields involved to overcome the issues presented by this unique undertaking.

Ultimately, even if this line of research produces one usable connectome map, the momentum and solidity this will provide the field of Cognitive Science would be immeasurable; imagine genetic studies without the genome map! The creation of such a map may aid in solidifying the Cognitive Science field further and the development of a usable connectome map would help unify the, at times, widely dispersed ideologies present in these supposedly related fields. Further to this is the inherent continuation from that point: researchers may begin to examine some of the ‘hard problems’ faced by the study of cognition. Ultimately, isn’t this the real goal of Cognitive Science?


  1. From an embodied perspective, which considers the brains connections to reach far into the environment itself, is this connectome any real use at all? Or does it just serve to recapitulate and cement already biased views about the nature and workings of cognition and the brain? Surely something far more radical is needed...

  2. The interpretation as to the extent of influence the internal, biological and structural workings of the brain has is of course up for debate with respect to the various approaches to cognition. However, to begin to have any real discussion as to the nature of cognition should we not first have a full structural understanding of an element which is present in most, if not all, approaches: the brain? I feel this information would ultimately enrich each of the various approaches to cognition as opposed to cementing a more physicalist ideology.

  3. Mouse connectome is apparently well under way. Article on it here: