Editorial: Brain Alight

Paul Bouissac

Contemporary semiotics is rich in various models and methods which have clustered over the years to form hybrid descriptive tools. Most approaches are unashamedly eclectic and researchers usually engage in heuristics rather than in some normative logic of discovery such as those which are believed to characterize the empirical and formal sciences. Although a few semioticians confuse dogma and theory, most would probably agree that the field of semiotic research lacks a well established theoretical ground. This is probably why nobody has yet been able to produce a credible textbook in semiotics. Sub-domains of biology, psychology, and culture have been successfully probed using semiotic concepts and algorithms which had been first developed in philosophy, phenomenology, and linguistics. In some interesting ways, semiotics as it stands now is an art rather than a science. Like all great arts, though, it changes our perception of ourselves, our social and cultural environments, and even our cosmology through its uncanny capacity to describe in novel ways what we are taking for granted. This is, of course, an important step toward the counterintuitive knowledge that the scientific inquiry keeps ushering in since the beginning of the Enlightenment with amazing transformative power.

A region of intellectual effervescence like the free-wheeling speculations of today’s biosemiotics, which owe more to philosophy, if not theology, than to scientific inquiry, may be a precious epistemological commodity. Ideas sprouting from metaphors and word games can generate bold hypotheses without which research would stagnate. It is obvious that semioticians of all hues ask good questions even if the answers they offer generally fall short of expectations because they lack clarity and applicability. Cloaked in the garb of the philosophy of mind, they still dance around the black box. But this Dark Age is coming to an end. Two current developments will shortly bring light to the brain. It is not a stretch to predict that this will change semiotics, under any other name. A new dawn will rise when semiotics can proceed from the descriptive and speculative stage to the explanatory and predictive horizon.

First, a new generation of fundamental brain research is on the move. Connectomics has been coined after genomics because its goal is as ambitious as were the earlier attempts to map the human genome. It consists of mapping the neurons and their connectivity one by one in the whole brain. The Human Connectome Project received a $40 million grant last September from the National Institute of Health (USA). Several teams are busy developing the project at MIT, Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Minnesota, and the University of California in Los Angeles. The challenge is daunting and, expectedly, this mapping will first concern the brains of small mammals like the ubiquitous laboratory mice. The horizon, of course, is the human brain, at least a million-petabyte data set in the opinion of one of the leading scientists running the connectome project, a far cry from the current anatomical and functional mapping available to researchers and pathologists.

The second development, which has now reached the operational stage, is dubbed optogenetics. The last decade has witnessed dramatic advances in using photoreceptor proteins to selectively monitor and even control neural activity on a millisecond time-scale. Details on the history of this method (which was chosen as Method of the Year across all fields of science and engineering by the journal Nature Methods) are available in Wikipedia. It seems that the method literally brings the brain alight. Even hard-dyed dualists, who are increasingly toying with the notion of embodiment, will be curious to find out how the processes they dub signs or semiosis work, or do not work, when we can visualize the complex networks of micro-, if not nano-chain reactions which create and sustain what we still call meanings, ideas, and emotions.

This level of observation, experimentation, and representation will allow us, in the long run, to go beyond the delusional intuitions of natural phenomenology and commonsense logic which provide the root metaphors of contemporary semiotics. There is no doubt that these advances will usher in an epistemological revolution and a new understanding of life, society, and thought. Those who proposed, toward the end of the 19th century, the first explicit agenda for a “science of signs” were well informed about the state of scientific knowledge in their time. Semiotics must take stock of today’s extraordinary advances in the understanding of the brain…or die.

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