4. The importance of understanding the meaning of words.
Interview statement: “Today, scientists use the 20-micrometre model as a reference brain.”
Very often, understanding the meaning of words makes life-or-death situation. Below you should see why it is so.
My Question 1: Is it true that 3D 20-micrometer model exists?
My Answer: This is, actually, one of the big problems with BigBrain “model”: authors keep stressing that the model is created in 3D space, and has 20 microns resolution. However, contrary to the interview’s presentation, 20-micrometer model does not exist in 3D . The reconstruction of the brain in 3D was achieved only up to 100 micrometers resolution (400, 300, 200, and 100-micrometer resolution files are available). At twenty micrometer resolution there are separately stored series of registered two-dimensional sections in coronal, sagittal and horizontal planes. So, at 20 micrometers the BigBrain model is actually represented not by one “3D model”, but by three “2D models”.
My Question 2: What does “model” mean, in what sense BigBrain can be called “brain model”?
My Answer: You might think that this is a philosophic speculation. But no, in our case this is purely practical question. It is a pity that the term “model” is used everywhere, often – unnecessarily. In this regard, it is useful to remember that the European Human Brain Project was originally funded with the aim of creating a computer model of the human brain. Immediately, we have to note that BigBrain model has nothing to do with the model planned by Henry Markram. Markram’s idea is to develop a realistic functioning model of human brain in super-computer, which will be used “to explore some fundamental questions about how the brain works” [as, for example, it was explained in his 2009 lecture]. “Functioning” is a key word here, because there is nothing functional in BigBrain model.
So, as we see, the term “model” can be used in many ways [Wikipedia], but presenting just it as “picture” cannot be found in any suggested definition. Still, BigBrain is just a set of big pictures. Combined together, they will create very-very big picture, and even on modern computers it cannot be stored in one”chunk”. Because of its size, it takes a large amount of memory or space on a hard drive, and it takes a lot of efforts to display it on a computer screen. But it is just a picture.
The goal of science is to report true facts. The opposite is dangerous not only because of the harm it causes to science, society, and our consciousness. It is also dangerous because in our time lie cannot be easily identified as such. No, I do not mean the danger of being sued, which can very well happen also. I mean ambiguity of the terminology, provided by complex technology.
Perhaps, it is clear to many that one brain section image cannot be called a “brain model”. But if we combine together 7400 of such images – is this already a model of the brain or is it still not a model yet? Can da-Vinci’s “Gioconda” be called a model? If it hangs on the wall in the Louvre, it probably can’t. But what if its image is stored on a computer? If we manage somehow “to project it” in the third dimension, can it be considered a model, if not of a woman, then at least a model of a painting by Leonardo?
Let’s add to the puzzle that the majority in the audience has no clue what “model” is, and how images are stored in the computer, and we have no intention of explaining it either! Walking along this slippery slope we can go too far very quickly.
Calling an image “a model” is misleading, especially in a context of European Human Brain project. In essence, the difference is easy to understand. Markram’s model suppose to show how living human brain represents the Universe. Amunts’s “model” shows how dead human brain looks like under the microscope. Indeed, as I promised, it is an example of a life-or-death difference.