Javier de Felipe (Madrid, 69 years old) says that, after many decades, he is now beginning to understand something about the brain. “And they want to retire me,” he laments. The researcher, one of the most prominent neuroscientists in the country of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the founder of the discipline, now works at the Biomedical Technology Center of the Polytechnic University of Madrid, on the outskirts of the Spanish capital. There he continues to study the anatomy of the brain on a microscopic scale to try to understand how ideas or brain alterations arise in people with epilepsy. He also leads the Cajal Blue Brain project, to create a simulation of how the brain works at the molecular level. In the past he participated in NASA’s Neurolab project to study the effect of space flight on the brain, and in ambitious international projects such as the Human Brain Project.
De Felipe has just published the book From Laetoli to the Moon, a journey that refers to the journey of mankind from standing on its feet, as recorded in the footprints at the Laetoli site in Tanzania, to landing on an alien world. That story is the story of the brain, “the place where our humanity is found,” says the researcher. In the text, which combines what he has learned from decades of research with his reflections and readings of literary classics, he tries to explain how the history of neuroscience is also the history of what it means to be human.
Ask. Do you think neuroscience will allow us to answer existential questions like why are we here or how does consciousness arise?
Response. The great mystery is the emerging processes: memory, intelligence, imagination, ideas, how the activity of the connections of the neurons, like the spark that we have in the brain generates that. For now we don’t know. You may think that the brain has been created or we have evolved to have memories, ideas and abstract thought, but it could also not have happened. It could have been that we were like automatons.
Q. In the title of the book, he calls the journey of the human brain “unusual”. Why is our brain unusual, is it something totally different from that of other species?
R. Our brains have many things in common with other mammalian species, including many aspects that we think of as very human. Chimps also teach their offspring to do things, and dogs get depressed. I used to think that these were intimate things of the human being. But each brain has its mental world, they are all different. No two can be the same, because starting with the retina, the first point of information processing in humans is already different from that of a cat or a dog. In the end, our mental world and that of the dog have nothing to do with it, even though we live in the same environment.
There are colleagues of mine who think that the only difference in the human brain is complexity, but we also have unique cells that we can associate with our properties. But that does not mean that we are better, even if we are unique, just like other animals. If you study the brain of a lion, it is totally different from that of the giraffe and that of the giraffe, different from the rat. One thing I’d love to do is be a dog for a couple of minutes, to figure out what it is, what that world is. That would be spectacular.
Q. In the book he talks about some of the most enigmatic leaps studied by science: the appearance of the universe after the Big Bang, the appearance of life and the appearance of consciousness.
R. Our brain, for unknown reasons, has reached a level of complexity that has allowed us to make that trip to the Moon. How has it been possible? How is it possible that everything arises from nothing and that a human brain arises on top of it? I am interested in those great leaps, the appearance of matter from nothing, then the appearance of life and later our brain. And there are also incredible similarities. An astrophysicist once showed me a supercomputer simulation of the universe, and the picture of galaxies held together by gravitational filaments looked like a network of nerve cells, on completely different scales.
Q. Is the appearance of human consciousness gradual or do you see it as a leap similar to the appearance of the universe or of life?
R. I believe that the appearance of consciousness is gradual, but it is also being studied. About 40,000 years ago what is called the human revolution occurred, which was when objects began to appear, such as the lion man, a figure with the head of a lion and the body of a man, and other signs that the human being at that time he was capable of abstract, symbolic thought. There are indications that even the erectus it produces geometric marks on structures that are like ostrich egg shells, but it is really when the Venus or the Altamira paintings appear, 30,000 years ago, when that human revolution began. But when does man begin to enjoy poetry, literature, writing? 8,000 years ago writing began to develop, the first symbols, something very simple, and from there it evolved.
Our neural forest has been unchanged for millennia and I’m sure our ancestors watched a sunset and enjoyed it just like we did, but they couldn’t write it down. And these reflections lead me to think about madness. A large number of the great heroes of science, music, painting are people who have psychiatric problems. Ruben Dario spoke of those divine madmen, to whom we owe human development. Their brains work in unusual ways, sometimes like daydreaming, seeing things others can’t. It is possible that during part of human evolution we had the base, but not the environment. Imagine that suddenly there is a person, one of these ancestors who was crazy and does something that suddenly changes your environment, a tool or the wheel. And he begins to imitate himself and builds on top of it, he progresses.
Q. How do you think artificial intelligence will emerge, if at all? Will it be a moment when someone presses a button and shows up or will it be an emergency at an unexpected time?
R. We have invented machines that do the same as us, but much better. Like adding or subtracting machines. At the time, it was believed that chess was a sublime thing, and that it would be very difficult to create a machine that could defeat a human. And in the end Deep Blue beat Kasparov and it was amazing, but now we have computers that are worth €50 and beat any chess champion. It’s a shame. There are also machines that create music and there are contests to see if you can guess whether a composition was made by a machine or by a musician. I think intelligent machines will be achieved, but there are things like the perception of sadness or a color, which will always be something individual.
Q. He quotes Richard Feynman in the book when he said: What I cannot create, I do not understand. How is it possible that we consider creating intelligent machines, but we don’t know how to cure Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s?
R. But it is that we still do not know how the brain works and we are far away. It is difficult to study complexity. The problem is that almost everything we know about how the brain works is based on experiments on animals, because you can genetically manipulate them, manipulate the circuitry and see how it works. Then we tried to extrapolate that to the human brain, but it turns out that our brain is different from that of the mouse.
What we’re doing now is trying to develop technologies that allow us to study the human brain directly. That is to say, taking a brain from a person who has died in an autopsy and analyzing it in the most detailed way possible in the laboratory. We have few techniques yet, but some are very powerful. We are making models of human neurons, based on real data, not possible extrapolations. Little by little we are reaching more and more information about the human being. I am optimistic about what we will know in the future.
Q. Interstellar travel and the creation of artificial intelligence are ubiquitous ideas in science fiction, but they seem a long way off in reality.
R. Our imagination is always far ahead of science. But we are coming. I remember when I saw the movie star trek as a child and they spoke from a distance through a screen, it seemed absurd to me. But now we have it on our mobiles. There are things that we thought were impossible and they are here. And this is thanks to education. Michelangelo’s Moses was possible because Michelangelo was a genius, but he was because he had an education, someone who taught him to handle the chisel and study forms. How many Goya, Picasso, Dali, scientists, writers have we lost throughout human evolution because they did not have the right environment?
Now it happens with many boys and girls who don’t go to school, who could be great geniuses, but they won’t be because they have no education. I would invest much more in education. If all the money spent on missiles, on bombs, were spent on education, on eliminating hunger, we would live in paradise. With what a missile costs, I have two years of research. If I were a politician, I would put a lot more money into education, which is what a better-educated society would do. But that’s also dangerous for politicians, because if you’re well educated, they can’t handle you.
Q. Will knowing in depth the functioning of the human brain end the illusion that we are free?
R. Spinoza said that we believe that we are free because we are aware of what we do, but we are ignorant of why we do it. You get up in the morning, you take the car, you go to work. It’s an automatic thing, you don’t think because you believe one thing or another, because you do this and that. We follow rules, routines, that we have invented. The same as when it is said that something is a tradition and has been invented less than 200 years ago. Before we had the gladiators, a show in which the more suffering, the better. Now that is inadmissible. Our evolution is to have an increasingly civilized, more human brain. Atrocities are still done, but less and less. There is increasing respect for human rights.
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Source: EL PAIS