Internet Freebies

Up to this point, many of my blogs have focused on the darker side of technology and social media.  Although there certainly is a yin to every yang, I do not wish to come across like a curmudgeon with regards to technological progress.  So for this blog, I decided it would be interesting to explore some of the more wonderful aspects of technology and the ways that it is improving modern society.  This blog was mostly inspired by an article featured in the New York Times today.  The article, which can be viewed here, details the remarkable progress that researchers have achieved while mapping the human brain.

The mapping project is being undertaken at Washington University by a large team of skilled scientists, who are using computers and data from over 1,000 volunteers, to create the most extensive and complete map of the healthy human brain to date.  The massive amount of precise readings being collected, is made possible by non-invasive MRI scanners; a technological wonder that has allowed modern scientists to view brain activity in real time.  In addition to collecting the data, the research team is working to build an interactive map that will allow people to see the ways neurons are connected and develop a more complete understanding of how the brain works.

The detailed map is itself an impressive feat that is only possible with modern software and computers.  One researcher highlighted the important role technology plays when he said (hopefully) “that the Human Connectome Project will be a step toward… something more like Google Maps, which is interactive and has many layers.”  Like Google Maps, a highly detailed interface such as the one the research team is attempting to create, requires input from as many sources as possible.  In the case of the Connectome Project, the input comes from 1,000’s of brains volunteering to be studied; as well as a few brilliant brains willing to do the studying.  Each person that volunteers participates in hours of testing, with the resultant data taking multiple more hours for researchers to interpret.

The best part about this large, highly-ambitious, technological undertaking?  All of the data and the detailed map resulting from the data; a project that is costing millions of dollars to complete, will be made available to everyone (not just scientific researchers)…for free!  The doors that this aspect of the project alone will open, are countless.

Now, how does a massive study on the human brain relate to a digital class on rhetoric?  Well, the first way that comes to mind is of course communication.  In the beginning of the blitzkrieg-paced winter course, Dr. Martin stressed that rhetoric is not one way communication, as it is often viewed today.  The Connectome Project, both its undertaking and the finished product (which is free!) would not be possible without a large amount of rhetorical communication.  Consider the amount of arguments that had to be made just to get the project started, then the amount the were made to give the project direction.  There was without a doubt multiple, practical arguments made that fundamentally shaped the project.  I’m sure even something as basic as giving the project a name required at least a measurable amount of debate.

Secondly, the project itself is a rhetorical discussion.  By allowing the completed project to be available to all for free, the research team is inviting everyone to discuss the important issues of brain function and health.  After the project is completed, independent research teams will be able to use the data to accomplish their own specialized goals.  Who knows, maybe a foreign team will discover a cure for schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s with the help of the Connectome Project.

Finally, the project is like our class in that is being made possible with the aid of technology.  The research team is able to communicate with each other, publish data in Washington that can be viewed in Georgia and visually produce the brain map because of technological advances in the past 30 years.  Similarly, our small rhetoric class is able to have discussions, look each other in the eye, and interact with the same documents; despite the fact that we have never been in the same room together.

I hope this article has the rest of my class as excited as I am about the project.  I think it represents an important push in multiple fields and a commitment to share important medical data without a price tag.  Also, I hope this blog does something to curve the image I feel I have digitally created so far; that is, of an an old man distrustful of those new-fangled computa-mah-jiggys.  In short, it’s fascinating to read an article written in New York, and then feel the neurons in my own brain fire and spark a chain reaction all the way to whatever little piece of grey matter holds the things learned in this class.

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One thought on “Internet Freebies

  1. Josh,
    I think the human brain is the one last (or at least the most important) thing we have not been able to understand. I am wondering if there is a reason behind that. While I am a faithful person, having once been a Lutheran pastor, I am not a person who disconnects science and faith. For instance, I do not see evolution and creation as mutually exclusive concepts.

    However, over the last three years I have watched the elderly person for whom I care and love struggle with progressive dementia. It is a terrible disease. In addition, I have watched the other people who are in the memory facility with her. Many have died in the three years she has been there. The disease has no recipe card because people do have have the same brain responses nor do they have the same personality. As such, while there are overall thought processes that determine care, there is no clear sense of how someone will progress or decline.

    This is indeed an interesting project.

    Dr. Martin

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