Thursday, January 24, 2008


Do we mean something different when we talk about "brains" and "minds", or are these two words simply synonyms? The history of Western philosophy would suggest that "brain" and "mind" are linguistic equivalents of the dualism between "soul" and "body". A "brain" is something physical with scientific rules of operation. "Mind", on the other hand, is a far less clear concept with its subjectivity and emotions. Philosophers have been known to make such claims as: "Mind is as wide as the universe itself". Now quite clearly, it is not the bundle of cells in our heads that is being referred to here, but something far more expansive: in a nutshell, it is the ability of human beings to formulate abstract thought accompanied by the most profound feelings. Of course, it is a fairly recent phenomenon for humans to locate the essence of their being inside their skulls. For millennia, wise men and philosophers preferred to believe that the seat of the emotions and abstract thought lay inside the heart. This fact can still be observed in our use of language today: we learn something "by heart"; a cruel person is "heartless"; a courageous person has a lot of "heart"--and so on. The Egyptians were so convinced that the soul lay in the heart, that they carefully embalmed and preserved that organ when preparing a corpse for burial. The brains, in contrast, were regarded as mere stuffing for the head and were unceremoniously hooked out through the nose! In the present day, our knowledge has grown concerning the functions of the brain, but neuro-scientists are still largely in the dark when it comes to explaining the functionality of the billions of neurons that are continually firing inside our heads. On the other hand, everyone knows what mind is like (or at least they think they do!) "Mind" is the process of thought and emotion through which I am able to connect with other humans and the world in general. It is possible to explain our thoughts and emotions, the things we think and the things we feel, in the knowledge that these experiences are also shared by other "minds". However, neuro-science is only just beginning to understand some elementary things about the ways in which our "brains" give birth to the thoughts, ideas and emotions of our "minds". Much has been understood about the visual cortex and how the eyes and brain react together to give us sight. Furthermore, the posterior parts of the brain that deal with motor function have also been studied intensely. However, the connections between the brain's frontal lobes and the abstract thoughts and emotions of "mind" remain almost completely unaccounted for--and this inability to understand how the "brain" gives us the abilities of "mind" goes a long way towards explaining the continuing dichotomy between these two concepts.

Another problem concerning "brain" and "mind" is the way we have invented two different sciences for explaining them. The activities of the human "brain" is studied by the neuro-biologist, but the "mind" is the territory of the psychologist. Evolutionary psychologists try to link the two together, but continue to explain their theories with flow charts and diagrams that are totally unrelated to the physiological structures of the brain. Chomsky and Steven Pinker have told us, for example, that language is (respectively) an "innate" gift and an "instinct"; yet neither has produced any evidence linking their ideas to specific functions and areas of the brain--another clear sign that they are dealing with the "mind" rather than the "brain". There is something decidedly pre-Socratic about the way, psychiatrists and psychologists allow themselves to blithely talk about the "mind" without any real understanding of the human "brain". The evolutionary psychologists tend to be equally deductive when speaking about the importance of human genes: everything (they say) can be explained by genes--but many of these psychologists have an ignorance of the human genetic make-up that is only equalled by their lack of knowledge concerning the human brain! For instance, we are continually given the old fact that the human genetic make-up is more than 99% the same as that of a chimpanzee. However, we rarely hear that dandelions share 35% of their genetic make-up with humans! Perhaps, then, the important point would be to try and understand why a disparity of less than 1% between humans and chimpanzees make us so profoundly different.

The present dualism that exists between "brains" and "minds" is certain to continue until more profound connections are made between the functioning "brain" and the "mind" that thinks and feels. In the final analysis, it is likely to be neuro-science that makes these essential connections rather than the more pretentious but less effective "science" of psychology.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fascinating piece!

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Bunter said...

I like to eat brains.

1:54 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home