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Why every brain needs a user's manual

July 5, 2019

The brain is the most complex machine. It's misunderstood, does go wrong. Marco Magrini has written a "user's manual."

An fMRI scan of the author Marco Magrini's brain
Image: Northwestern University, Neuroimaging Research Lab, Chicago

DW: You've written possibly one of the hardest things: A user's manual for the brain. There's so much we don't know about the brain, and so much where experts disagree. Clearly, that fascinates you. Why?

I'm fascinated by the fact that the human brain can produce Bach's preludes and fugues, and that it can produce Leonardo da Vinci's works, or Hegel's thinking.

I'm amazed by that.

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My fascination started when I was 18, because all of a suddenly I turned out to be a good student. I hadn't been a good student up until then. I'd had attention deficit disorder and I failed twice at high school.

Then, all of a sudden at 18 I turned out to be good at writing and studying, and that surprised me.

All through my life I have wondered what would have been if that disorder hadn't stopped by itself. It's a genetic condition, so I was lucky to have it solve itself. And that's where my fascination with the brain started.

Most of us only tend to think about the brain when things go wrong. And there's so much that can go wrong that it's become common for us to talk about a "spectrum" of mental conditions. You say, for instance, that brain illnesses are unique to each individual — that no two phobias are the same.

Exactly. We talk about an autistic spectrum because the manifestations are so different from one another. It's really hard to pinpoint the problem. There's also a lot of talk about comorbidity — having more than one disease at the same time, overlapping. That's why it can be so wildly complicated.

Author and science journalist, Marco Magrini
Author and science journalist, Marco MagriniImage: Alberto Conti

But because of the emergence of this — I'll call it a philosophy of spectrums — in mental illness, some people say it's led to people feeling they can self-diagnose. In a sense, it allows them to put themselves on a spectrum. Especially among young people there is a feeling that they have been trained to think of themselves in mental illness categories. How do you see that? We've got this growing awareness of the diversity of mental health and, at the same time, a means for people to sort of construct their own personalized conditions. Isn't there a danger in that?

Yes, self-diagnosis is risky. You cannot ask Wikipedia to solve your mental problems because it's quite complicated. At the same time, there are a few mental conditions where, if the patient is aware of the nature of their illness, it can be a first step towards an easing of the effects of the illness.

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I'm thinking of borderline personality disorder, for instance. It can help if you're aware that you have it. So, I feel people should know the basics.

We are our brains. And a brain should know that a brain is not static — it's not immutable. It keeps changing. This is true of mental problems, malfunctions. And it's true of functioning brains. You can learn new things, or you can correct bad habits, even if they've become dependences. You can improve your memory. People should know that.

In your book, you mention some of the "imaginary illnesses" that have cropped up over the years. Things like the idea of homosexuality as a personality disorder, or "drapetomania," an idea from the 1800s that suggested slaves who ran away had a personality defect.

Isn't that funny! [Ed. Magrini means funny in a sad way.]

It is very funny. But if we're talking about influencing the way that our minds work, those wrong ideas about the brain make me wonder about the people who come up with them. For instance, the American surgeon Samuel A. Cartwright, who invented drapetomania. Did he truly believe that because he didn't understand the brain, or was he trying to manipulate other people's lack of understand about the brain?

Well, this is an apt topic if you think of fake news. What is fake news? A complicated entrenchment of false memories and several kinds of biases, like confirmation bias, where you interpret the news you receive as a confirmation your prejudices.

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We know that false memories can be planted in people's minds via social media. This is a serious problem. Because memory is reconstructive. It's not a film that plays frame-by-frame. It's more like a detective, connecting different things that reside in different places. So, it's very easy to have false memories. And every brain, not just those effected by some kind of disturbance, can malfunction in this way.

Artificial Intelligence – Hype and Hysteria

So speaking of bias, what about bias in technology, like artificial intelligence or machine learning? If there's still so much for us to understand about the brain, isn't it too soon to be making brain emulations such as these? Shouldn't we first understand the brain better to help us make truer emulations of the brain? Or are the biases true in themselves, because humans are biased and quite often wrong?

Brain emulations have been quite successful — up to a point. But we have not solved the mystery of intelligence.

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So I can't say whether we should stop researching this, because researchers are doing statistically beautiful things. There are new trends in emulating the six layers of the cerebral cortex, and in hardware, neuromorphic chips.

But artificial intelligence is a bit overhyped. And I don't buy the idea that AI, in its current form, will turn into a conscious thing anytime soon.

It may happen, but not for a long time.

Marco Magrini is the author of "The Brain: A User's Manual — A simple guide to the world's most complex machine," which was originally published in Italian as "Cervello. Manuale dell'utente." It's been translated into French, Polish, Portuguese, and an English translation, which is published by Short Books in the UK.

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people