Lab Talk

Human Brain Diversity

Introducing the Human Brain Diversity Project

With 7 billion people and an equally large diversity of human life experience, how can we understand the range of normal of brain function?  Join the human brain diversity project to enable large scale understanding of humanity.

How does the EEG of the Tuareg tribes or Saan bushman differ from that in US cities? What about those who live in the hives of Hong Kong and Chongqing? Or in the Siberian steppes? Must it not affect the developing brain to spend one’s life in a jungle versus a desert? Surely it must affect the brain to farm in the Himalayas for a living versus hustling on Wall Street or pearl diving in the ocean? And what about access to technology –smart-phones, cars and air-conditioning that the majority of humanity still cannot access — does this make a difference? Although the gross architecture of the brain may be genetically determined, we know now that the fine scale patterns of connectivity are formed in experience dependent manner and can give rise to different dynamical outcomes.

Once you start to consider the diversity of the seven billion human lives, and the fact that most of what we know about the human brain is based on western college educated folks who live in and around large Universities (and comprise a minority of human life), the questions—important questions—never end: What about the ‘normal’ brain activity of adolescents who spend hours practicing calculus and foreign languages? Must their normal not differ from that of a child who spends time playing sports or is focused on music? What about differences in cultural paradigms of social behavior? Is it really scientific to say that a child who lacks the typical American degree of social behavior has a disorder when it is socially accepted in other regions? What are the consequences of poverty and persecution on the brain compared to the converse of wealth, modernization and freedom? While unpleasant these are experiences of humanity that are ever present, today and throughout history.

What about all the other differences in behaviors that shape our nervous systems? Everyone is aware by now that meditation has powerful effects on the brain (see New Year, New Brain). Does a culture that encourages meditation or other kinds of brain changing behaviors produce a different ‘normal’ brain than mainstream Euro-American society? What about differences in diet? We know that the brain’s development is shaped by its nutrient availability.

Moving to a different experimental paradigm

One issue that makes these questions urgent, (see the myth of the average brain), is that much of neuroscience so far compares individuals or groups with suspected abnormalities to either controls or a ‘normal’ derived by averaging the little data available. No wonder that many of the most profoundly impactive human conditions, such as autism, schizophrenia, and genius, so far largely defy neuroscientific modeling and diagnosis; we have had poor data for the range of normal human variation and the relationships of those parameters to environmental and cultural factors like technology, diet, natural environments, and culture-specific values and systems. And with personalities and dispositions so varied even within the same culture, an average can be skewed by a host of factors never even considered in the study.

If we did have such data, we might be surprised to discover the range of human functional contexts and ‘normality’ extend far beyond what we imagined. We might find differences between brains that inhabit malls and subways versus those that live in open fields, between those inhabiting capitalist, socialist, and / or totalitarian societies, and between those who live and work online versus in factories.

If we had this data, it could change the way we conceptualize ‘normal,’ ‘functional,’ and ‘pathological.’ We could understand better the impacts of choices, heritages and environments, on our minds (brains), personalities, and success. In short, we could develop a model of human neuro-psychological-environmental diversity, an understanding of what it can mean to be human and how we can help all human beings, everywhere, maximize their potential for long happy productive lives.

Building large global datasets

Researching such neurological diversity require much more than the 20-50 subjects of typical studies today, in order to compare, with standard protocols, data formats, and tools, the brain activity of a truly broad cross-section – not tens of subjects, or even hundreds, but hundreds of thousands to millions of individuals. The human brain diversity project seeks both to aggregate existing datasets from around the world and bring them into formats that can be cross analyzed, as well as engage researchers around the world to contribute data, using specified formats, and participate in its aggregate analysis (see Crowdsourcing, Open Science and Data Sharing). Even as Sapien labs builds the platform to enable large-scale data collection and processing, we hope to collaborate with researchers around the world and have made a beginning with efforts underway in four continents. Individual datasets from different sources will become available initially before the full searchable platform goes online. We hope you consider participation. Visit for more information.

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