Can you take a picture of a thought?
December 2, 2004 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Perhaps the largest non-profit you never heard of, the Chevy Chase, Maryland-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently decided on the long-term mission of their currently-under-construction $500 million research facility in Ashburn, Virginia. Janelia Farm will strive to understand human consciousness in a 100-year timeframe. They plan to accomplish this by attracting the best and brightest, and non-conventional scientific minds to live at or near the research facility, and to work in a collaborative, the sky's the limit type environment.

disclaimer: I work for HHMI in a non-scientific role.
posted by pmbuko (41 comments total)
And you're going to hook me up with a fellowship, right?
posted by Adam Greenfield at 12:38 PM on December 2, 2004

disclaimer: I work for HHMI in a non-scientific role.

As long as it isn't marketing, you might just get away with it....
posted by davehat at 12:39 PM on December 2, 2004

The history of HHMI is fascinating. The official "about page" skips over the real story, which is that HHMI was founded as a shell company to shield Hughes and his businesses from the Government... at least in its earliest days. Not to take away from Hughes' interest in science and the great work that they've done, but the whole history is pretty crazy, especially that now it's the second biggest non-profit in the world.
posted by chaz at 12:45 PM on December 2, 2004

I'm with Adam: I should be ready to go in a couple semesters...
posted by ltracey at 12:46 PM on December 2, 2004

It's a non-profit. I'm just a lowly tech with no connection to marketing. Don't kick me out after my first FPP. Please?

But seriously, I think the research direction is pretty cool (and extremely challenging) and the only reason I know about it is that I work here.
posted by pmbuko at 12:46 PM on December 2, 2004

there. work there.
posted by pmbuko at 12:47 PM on December 2, 2004

Funny, they haven't called me yet.

Sounds like it would be a very interesting and rewarding project to get involved in though.
posted by fenriq at 12:47 PM on December 2, 2004

I'm going to piss in someone's wheaties with this one, but here goes.

This would be cool if it were not for the "downside" of learning the actual working mechanics of "consciousness".

Take, for example, figuring out how memory is actually stored. Philip K. Dick had a good nightmare on that one. The Governator made it into a rather bland action movie.

Another example of "consciousness". Rational thought. As we are now, we understand ourselves less than we understand others (because we pick up cues to peoples emotions and thoughts through many non-verbal stimuli) and our brains compress, compact, and analyze this data without our "consciousness" being aware of it. Some people ignorantly refer to it as a "gut feeling" or "instinct" but it is actually just a discipline of data analysis and "connecting-the-dots" as it were.

The other thing that bugs me, is the projected goal of "neuronal networking and imaging". Do they want to figure out how to read peoples brains. Great, until they decide that they can use this technology to read your thoughts, which will invariably lead to "thought crime". Whee. Aluminium Beanie time.

Though this could lead to such neat toys as S.Qu.I.D.'s (like from the movie Strange Days). Or it could lead to the ever so fun brain cleaner. You shouldn't think like that, here, stand there and don't blink.

Snark, snark, snark.

I love science. I also know it's main goal is to tell us how things are. I love philosophy, since it's goal is to decide how things should be. Never should the two intermix, or we'll have philosophers telling us how things are, and scientists telling us that the philosophers are evil.

Maybe we should just figure out how to make really cool holograms. Yeah. Holograms of monkeys.
posted by daq at 12:48 PM on December 2, 2004

daq, SQUIDs exist, have for years.
posted by Adam Greenfield at 12:59 PM on December 2, 2004

Bah. I'm right here in Maryland, and HHMI doesn't list a single job opening that I'm qualified for. What good are you, pmbuko?
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:00 PM on December 2, 2004

Science and philosophy can work together synergistically, you know. Science in the early days was called 'natural philosophy' and fit well with the other philosophical disciplines, and philosophy translates as 'love of knowledge' (or so I hear) - something any scientist should feel.
I don't think scientists and philosophers need to fight each other, they just need to gang up together against their natural enemies, the accountants.
Vive la revolucion! (sp?)
posted by YAMWAK at 1:01 PM on December 2, 2004

will strive to understand human consciousness in a 100-year timeframe.

Time enough for many a convergence and paradigm shift, no?

YAMWAK: Viva la RevoluciĆ³n!
posted by signal at 1:18 PM on December 2, 2004

Say that again?
Super-conducting Quantum Interference Devices exist?

So where are my total immersion technology entertainment toys? I want to see and feel what it's like to be an 18 year old girl masturbating in the shower.

Bastards are hiding stuff from me again.

I'll have to get my army of monkeys to attack. Again.
posted by daq at 1:27 PM on December 2, 2004

This is cool. As soon as we have an adequate understanding of consciousness, we can build a detailed computer simulation.

Hello, sentient robots.
posted by spazzm at 1:31 PM on December 2, 2004

I for one...
no, too easy.

I do hope this leads to some practical applications too. Which is what all pure science does. It's amazing the type of things that have been discovered and implemented in our daily lives that have come from not a company directing something, but by getting some very smart people in a room and just letting them "Jam"
posted by CCK at 1:41 PM on December 2, 2004

This would be cool if it were not for the "downside" of learning the actual working mechanics of "consciousness".

I'm not quite clear from your post just what the "downside" you see is. Unless it's just a general "this new knowledge could potentially be used towards evil ends." That's been true of every scientific discovery since the dawn of man.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:42 PM on December 2, 2004

Take a leg bone, for instance. Instead of bashing members of a competing clan of apes upside the head with it, that one ape in 2001 could have broken it and used bone shards to sew come clothing to hide his hairy ass.
posted by pmbuko at 1:54 PM on December 2, 2004

On the broader topic of HHMI, its origins and what it does, 60 Minutes did a story last July.
posted by pmurray63 at 2:24 PM on December 2, 2004

Janelia Farm will strive to understand human consciousness in a 100-year timeframe.

Ah, but will they be able to tell us what women want?

posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:40 PM on December 2, 2004

This FPP is good. I forgive you, pmbuko. Now to argue!

Daq: Philosophy and science should never mix? What a bizarre assertion. Sure, science is funtamendally philosophical in nature. Philosophy is the groundwork for virtually everything we do.

I would also argue that philosophy is the department responsible for figuring out how things are (i'm pretty sure that's exactly what metaphysics is) and science is a tool which we use to find useful knowledge. The uses, of course, are entirely up to the individual, and his or her goals. (And society, and their goals.) Thus we can have science for good, curing cancer etc.; or science for bad, nuclear weaponry, eugenics, etc.

Science is merely a framework, and we are responsible for what we put into it and take out of it. Philosophy has a role in this (ethics), certainly. Is that a bad thing? Wayyyy to complicated to make a sweeping statement here. Nor could it be any other way.
posted by mek at 2:42 PM on December 2, 2004

DevilsAdvocate -
While not clear (just think, I have to try and communicate everyday through a scatterbrained version of most of my posts), my main point of "teh evils of science" would be that it is bought and paid for by a privately funded entity. Meaning the results of said research don't ever have to see the light of day, being that they are probably wholy owned by the underwriters of the research. Maybe they are trying to create a "digital switchboard" to resurrect the personalities of past dead leaders or personalities. Maybe they are trying to create SkyNet. Who knows, and who can know. Just because it's non-profit doesn't mean it's not doing this for reasons other than for the benefit of mankind.

Yes, I sound like I'm advocating that all research and science should be publicly funded and all knowledge gained from it should be put into the public domain. To a degree, yes. But, I also am well aware of the fact the patents mean money which means corporate entities will want to reap the rewards of funding this type of science. I just wish corpirate business and ethics hadn't become such generally concieved of as opposites never to meet.

Your always in confuzzlement, Lord of the Monkey Army, DAQ.
posted by daq at 2:46 PM on December 2, 2004

I want to see and feel what it's like to be masturbating an 18 year old girl in the shower.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:47 PM on December 2, 2004

uncanny hengeman, *that* is easy. Or at least not very expensive.

The hard part is to see and feel what it's like to *be* an 18 year old woman in a shower. Unless you're an 18 year old woman. And you've got a shower hand. Note that this caveat does not work well for being a bat.
posted by zpousman at 2:53 PM on December 2, 2004

shower handy, gah.
posted by zpousman at 2:54 PM on December 2, 2004

mek -
read the later writings of a rather sharper witted mind than mine known as Albert Einstein on his views and understandings of science and religion and the wars that are fought between the 2 disciplines. I stated philosophy so avoid the always present label of "liberal Xtian hater", though the definition of religion and philosophy in my view are to a greater extent one and the same. Philosophy is the use of ideas to create an understanding of the world and how we should interact with it (philosophy example = Marxism, Socialism, Christian Values, Muslim Tenents of Faith, Plato's Apology, etc, etc). These are things that are not concrete, as they are defined by actions made by will and will alone. Science, however, deal with absolutes in as much as they can be defined. This is simplistic, I know, but it is also a rendering that many would find it hard to argue against. When you step off a ledge, gravity pulls you towards the ground. This is immutable unless some other force is applied to counter your fall. While I beleive I can fly, I know which way is down for a reason. This is how things are. How they should be, well, I have an Army of Monkeys, what have you got?
posted by daq at 2:57 PM on December 2, 2004

On topic, I think that this ambitious research program is the most interesting area currently going in science, and it would, as dag says, answer (potentially answer) philosophical questions with scientific answers. However, these answers might not be very satisfying. And they might not be possible, even on a 100-year timescale. I'm not saying for sure that they can't be answered, just that they might not be.

The same way understanding taste buds and smell receptors and studying the nerve endings in the tongue do not, and probably cannot readily reproduce (and somehow don't even really explain) what it's like to eat a juicy delicious cheese topped hamburger. They don't capture "mouth feel" (page 3 of the doc) or the subjective qualities of eating and enjoying the burger. We may be able to describe in some language the way that conciousness works and the way that "self-awareness," "memory," and other phenomena work. But those descriptions probably won't get us very far down the road to the singularity, or thought control, or pre-crime.

It probably will mean that product marketers and entertainers will get a lot better at selling us things.

That aside, I applaud HHMI for embarking on this project.

[Note: I used to work here, a partially HHMI funded group, doing surprisingly similar stuff. The CBN tries to understand complex animal (including human animals of course) behaviors at the cellular, genetic, and systemic level.]
posted by zpousman at 3:10 PM on December 2, 2004


When scientists are chosen to become a HHMI Investigators, they does not shed their existing associations to public/private colleges or universities. Primarily, HHMI picks up the tab for their research expenses and HR costs. The scientists work on campuses, in their own labs, doing the same work without the pressures of wondering where their next grant is coming from (although they are still free to apply for grants).

The money does come with the expectation that the scientist's performance will not diminish. As always, it's still "publish or perish." And of course, publishing means peer review, which means things do need to see the light of day.

The same conditions will not affect scientists at Janelia Farm, however.
posted by pmbuko at 3:35 PM on December 2, 2004

gah. they do not shed...
posted by pmbuko at 3:36 PM on December 2, 2004

wow, cool. I wonder if they will give me a grant to take lots of drugs and publish the experience in APA format.
I hope within my lifetime we develop brain scanning technology that can scan my brain in real time, down to the detail level of an individual thought, yet encompassing the whole brain, and present it all to whoever is being scanned in some sort of 3d display.
If all goes according to plan, you would be able to see your thoughts and map them out in your brain, allowing you almost complete control over the extent of your thoughts. Become a metaprogrammer, even.
Also, it would look cool.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 4:18 PM on December 2, 2004

you've watched too many cough...Minority Report...cough sci-fi movies.
posted by pmbuko at 4:35 PM on December 2, 2004

I'd like to thank this post for reminding me of a question that's been floating in the back of my consciousness: Why is so much crap named after the mediocre star of Fletch Lives? The answer turned out to be intriguing, but a little disappointing.
posted by designbot at 4:37 PM on December 2, 2004

The money does come with the expectation that the scientist's performance will not diminish. As always, it's still "publish or perish." And of course, publishing means peer review, which means things do need to see the light of day.

I work in a department with an HHMI researcher, and I can say she's a pretty damn sharp scientists and focused on research (and publishing). If she's any indication, they don't hand out grants to just anyone.
posted by AlexReynolds at 4:48 PM on December 2, 2004

Can you take a picture of a thought?

Some researchers recently took pictures of the brains of monks meditating on compassion.
posted by homunculus at 5:01 PM on December 2, 2004

I don't think this will do as much as people think it will. zpousman's point, as funny as it may seem, is the best one so far on this: you can look at charts and diagrams all day, and none of them will tell you what it is to be another person. We'll probably map all the thought-paths out pretty carefully and clearly, but those will only be numbers, charts and diagrams. Somebody else put it really well a long time ago when they pointed out that you can show me pictures of the human ear all day, maybe even shrink me down and put me inside the human ear so that I can watch the sound waves hit the eardrum and the neuron jerk in the brain, and absolutely none of all this would explain to a person born deaf what it means to hear.

There are some things that can't be determined by test and observation, and can only be determined by being. dag, you're right about this much, that the moral question is near the heart of this; how does any of this tell us how we ought to live? But I would go further; scientific tests and experiments mean nothing without certain assumptions which must be grounded. I suspect that there will be some people who realize this around the time that a scientist gets the idea to point his brain-scanner back at his own head: if all thoughts have physical grounds, then all thoughts are contingent, and therefore have no real grounds in observation and logic. All of science becomes an itch that got scratched.

[sorry. /philosophical blathering.]
posted by koeselitz at 5:04 PM on December 2, 2004

I'll have to get my army of monkeys to attack.

They don't look very motivated to me.
posted by homunculus at 5:05 PM on December 2, 2004

Well said, koeselitz -- you win my contact.

I'm very suspicious of this project. To me it is an alarming symptom of a science out of control. To create a timeframe, however flexible, for understanding consciousness is to preemptively circumscribe it, to take for granted that it can be disclosed in scientific terms. Symptomatic, perhaps, of a decadent culture obsessed with absolutes (good/evil, free/unfree, true/false) and of a science granted absolute dominion over human thought. I don't think a world in which ambiguity, context, irony, uncertainty, etc. have been ironed out is a very attractive one.
posted by ori at 10:42 PM on December 2, 2004

Oh, sweet Jebus. I had to check the links to make sure this wasn't a joke. (...although I'll admit I haven't read through all the comments yet, but here goes...)

"Consciousness" does not exist. We made it up. It's a concept people invented, like "intelligence", "creativity", "ethics", "morality", "time", etc. Your dog is conscious; he just can't communicate very well. (I posit: "I communicate, therefore I am", but that's another story...) Your fish, less so. Your houseplant, not a lot. Cellular organism, just barely. A rock? Okay, not really. Put another way: When does a child achieve consciousness? Is it suddenly? He wakes up one day and *blammo*?? Or is it a slow, gradual process? (Again, he is learning to communicate.) Humankind is not God's beautiful and unique snowflake. We're just at the far end of a broad spectrum.

This is a pathetic waste of resources. And I'm just a simple code monkey. Can I have my $500 million please? I want to buy a new girlfriend. Or maybe a first-rate piano.
posted by LordSludge at 1:01 AM on December 3, 2004

LordSludge, your arguments are very confused. First you argue that consciousness is an empty term -- then you argue that fishes, dogs, houseplants are conscious but to a lesser degree than us. You posit: "I communicate, therefore I am". If I were to be bound, gagged and isolated in a sound- and light-proof box, I don't think I would cease to be.

To me, consciousness is definitely something. I can't say exactly what (that would mean answering a very, very big question), but it's definitely not an empty concept.

Put another way: When does a child achieve consciousness?

I'll respond in the form of an old philosophical puzzle, the problem of identity: say every day, a cell in your body is replaced with a mechanical equivalent. Eventually, you would cease to be yourself, and would be composed of entirely new, manufactured material. But when do you stop being yourself? Are you someone else if just one cell is replaced, but the other billions of cells are identical? Two? Three? When do you cease to be yourself? Is it suddenly? Do you wake up one day and *blammo*?

And nevertheless, to speak about "you" is not an empty category or a useless designation. And perhaps (certainly I hope) you strive to understand yourself, even though that self is amorphous, fluid, intangible -- and, to a degree, conceptual. Why, then, can't we strive to understand consciousness?
posted by ori at 1:58 AM on December 3, 2004

thanks, ori.
posted by koeselitz at 8:34 AM on December 3, 2004

ori: If you cannot communicate with another person in ANY WAY, not even wiggle your toe, blink your eye, send an e-mail, reflect light (i.e., nobody can see you -- simply being visible is a form of communication), create sound waves (be heard), etc., how would another person know that you even exist? (much less whether you're conscious? In other words: You do not exist to me unless you can with me, however indirectly. (Think "tree falling in woods...", but more fundamental.)

Sorry for the derail. I'll give you a real-world example to try to tie the example to back to the "consciousness" thread at hand: My lovely nephew is profoundly retarded. So much so, that he cannot even hold his head up or swallow, much less speak or even blink on command. He is, for all intents and purposes, a "vegetable"; he cannot communicate through any will of his own. Is he "conscious"? If so, how is he any more "conscious" than a carrot? (I mean, he could, for all we know, be mentally solving all the Grand Mysteries of the UniverseTM, but if he cannot communicate them... what's the point?) So, then, suppose a Stephen Hawking-esque device is invented that allows him to communicate effectively. Is he then suddenly "conscious"? Has anything changed inside of him? Or has our perception of him changed...? (Does perception equal reality? Not sure how far down this rabbit hole you want to go...)

I remember the same "philosophical puzzle", but it was replacing a ship a plank at a time -- nice brainteaser! It teaches a lot about abstract concepts vs. concrete objects, IMO.

But to continue with your example: "You" means something to people, just as "consciousness" does. But is anyone proposing a foundation to study "you-ness"? I mean, would that even make sense? We study biology, psychology, physiology, all of which are grounded in physical reality -- that is, the physical manifestation of a buncha cells tacked together in a particular way. What is the study of "you-ness"? I mean, I suppose you could do it, but it just doesn't seem particularly useful.

"Consciousness" is the secular equivalent to the religious "soul" -- the "little man" in there behind the scenes. It's a bogus concept, an invention, that doesn't help our understanding of ourselves or the world around us. It's time to move on.

Fun discussion, thanks! Takes me back to late nights at Dunkin' Donuts...
posted by LordSludge at 11:41 AM on December 3, 2004

I got 5/6 of the way to my Psycology degree, and passed Neuro-psyche going into depth with brain chemicals, and the synapse.

And then it hit me. This is all reactionary bumbo jumbo without much use for scientific method, where everyone has a paradigm and there is nothing to put a tape measure on.

Actually, the best Psy course was statistics... Everyone in the whole class could get the same answer to 8 decimal places.

I had a vision of what psycology was, and how people could use it for betterment...

Unlock the "natural language" of the brain, Chemical, situational imprinting, and other ways to "Open the switchboard of the brain"

Warp your OWN mind for Fun and Profit!

But I realized that psycology is all syndromes, and psychosies, and ailments and disease and other people's problems., and having to think about that all day for a living.

I welcome real research into unlocking the brain. Keep the govt. and especially the pentagon out-a my brain.

S.M.+I.(squared)+ L.E.
posted by Balisong at 7:12 PM on December 3, 2004

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