The Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci guaranteed his immortality when he literally put his name on the map—at least, if the map you’re looking at includes the Americas. (16th century European explorers were not renowned for their shyness, humility, or general reluctance to slap their names on anything that would stand still long enough.)
Neuroscientist and former PhD physicist Sebastian Seung hopes to achieve a little immortality of his own by mapping the human connectome.
If you’ve never heard of it before, the connectome is understood as the basic wiring diagram of the brain. It would chart out all of the main neural pathways and connections.
Using standard mapping techniques, the project would have an estimated timeline of something like a trillion years. Seung is hoping to considerably shorten the schedule, aided by Google maps-style technology, crowdsourcing, artificial intelligence, and a unique form of online gaming.
So why map the brain? In Gareth Cook’s New York Times article “Sebastian Seung’s Quest to Map the Human Brain”, Seung uses the Colorado River as an analogy.
Imagine the Colorado River sloshing about. This river is like your thoughts, providing you with sensory and emotional real-time experiences. As the water rolls through the riverbed, it carves a pattern, shaping the landscape and leaving behind a geographical record: the Grand Canyon. Similarly, your neural connections provide you with both your moment-by-moment perceptions, and the results: the material of your memories.
So every thought you have—your last email, how to ride a bike, your second grade birthday party, the taste of lemon in the tea you’re currently sipping, are represented by and quite literally embodied by the same machinery. Your neural pathways are both river and riverbed.
Seung believes that a mapping of those pathways would “capture a person’s very essence: every memory, every skill, every passion.” If human connectomes could be captured and understood, distant technology might allow for the “reanimation of a human consciousness.”
This means that when someone like an Albert Einstein or a Rosalind Franklin dies, we could have a method of cataloguing and preserving those ingeniously wired minds.
Critics suggest that even complete connectome mapping will fail to capture every nuance of a system that’s had millions of years to evolve. In the end, they say, it might be interesting but of very little practical value—more science fair project than game-changing breakthrough.
Seung remains undeterred, suggesting that the first step of discovering what is and isn’t possible is to go ahead and start mapping.
Will we all one day be living in the land of Seung? Only time will tell.