“You cannot understand the mind without understanding how the brain works”—Patricia S. Churchland, Touching a Nerve
“Each human brain is part of a dynamic, interacting system of other brains embedded in culture… why are the shops full of books such as Touching a Nerve, which show that it is the brain that makes decisions, determines moral values and explains political attitudes? I can only assume that these are the modern equivalent of Gothic horror stories. We love to be frightened by the thought that we are nothing more than the 1.5 kilograms of sentient meat that is our brain, but we don’t really believe it”—Chris Frith, “My Brain and I,” Nature
“While culture can be referred to as “collective mind,” the mind can be conceptualized as “culture in the brain,” or “individualized culture.” These are not just two elements of the same—symbolic and mental—reality, they are one and the same process occurring on two different levels—the individual and the collective, similar to the life of an organism and of the species to which it belongs in the organic world. The fundamental laws governing this process on both levels are precisely the same laws and at every moment, at every stage in it, it moves back and forth between the levels; it cannot, not for a split second, occur on only one of them. The mind constantly borrows symbols from culture, but culture can only be processed—i.e., symbols can only have significance and be symbols—in the mind”—Liah Greenfeld
By Liah Greenfeld
In previous posts I have already began the discussion of the possibility that humanity is a reality of its own kind, an emergent phenomenon, based on our animal (biological) nature, but irreducible to it and, instead, defined by culture (on the collective level) and the mind, or as some other languages refer to it, the soul (on the level of the individual). There are three biological conditions for the emergence of this autonomous reality, I suggested: a highly developed brain, signs, and the larynx specific to our species. The first two, I further argued, are reflected in the widespread proofs of the animal abilities for what neuroscientists call “learning” and “memory,” to which I added “imagination.” We share these cognitive abilities with numerous animal species. In this post, I want to continue the discussion of the special human reality, going beyond its biological conditions.
“An important task these days is to harvest the exciting gains made by science and data while understanding the limits of science and data. The next time somebody tells you what a brain scan says, be a little skeptical. The brain is not the mind”–David Brooks
“The basic elements of psychology, like beliefs, desires, goals, and thoughts, will likely always play a key role in our understanding of human behavior, which is why science needs researchers who study the mind every bit as much as it needs researchers who study the brain. Our aim should not be to pick the brain over the mind, or vice versa, but to build stronger bridges between our understandings of the two”–Gary Marcus
“What most distinguishes Greenfeld’s model of the mind from so much else in the field is that she brings together biological and cultural approaches to mental illness inclusively rather than exclusively, in a way that enlarges rather than diminishes both. While accepting the biological reality of major mental illnesses, her analysis is focused not simply on the brain, in a reductive sense, but on the mind as a product of experience and learning as well as biology. Likewise, she applies cultural concepts to psychiatry not in the reductive, purely social-constructionist manner of Laing, Foucault, and Szasz, but so as to foster understanding of cultural and historical variations in the incidence and expression of mental illness that biology alone cannot explain”—Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D., Harvard Medical School
By Liah Greenfeld
It is hard to exaggerate Darwin’s contribution to the understanding of the world around us. Biology, the science of life, came into existence solely thanks to his theory of evolution through natural selection. The interest in life is very old, of course, and many attempted to study organic phenomena, but their study produced nothing but typologies and classifications, i.e., systematic descriptions of their subject matter, without explaining anything about it: biology was not a science and, not being a science, it did not progress.
Marcelo Gleiser in “Mind And Matter: Confessions Of A Perplexed Soul” on the NPR blog 13.7 Cosmos and Culture:
To facilitate things, let’s say that mind is a faculty that conscious, intelligent beings have, the ability to think, feel and reflect about the world and the subjective experiences it presents. It is then legitimate to ask whether other animals have minds or whether machines can one day have them too. This is a key aspect of the debate, since the mind-body problem has traditionally split the line between two sides: Mind is a property of brains that reach a certain level of cognitive complexity and hence a state of matter; or mind is not matter — it is something that can’t be reduced to how the brain works.
Of course, this kind of mind-matter dualism dates back at least to Descartes, something that nowadays is mostly not seriously considered, at least by cognitive neuroscientists. …
What we call the world happens inside our brains, teased from the outside or from the inside. (Dreams are worlds within, with arbitrary physical laws and narrative rules.) A key question to be answered is whether consciousness needs organic matter to sustain it or whether it can exist merely through electronic circuits. Of course, we all like to think that circuits will do it, that it is a matter of time before we build an intelligent, conscious machine. But we don’t really know whether that’s even possible, do we?
Liah Greenfeld in Chapter 1, “Premises,” of Mind, Modernity, Madness:
…the recognition of the tremendous world of life as an emergent phenomenon proves that such improbable new autonomous worlds are possible. And this, in turn, suggests that experiential reality which is conceived of since the beginning of the Western philosophical tradition as having only two aspects, the real or material and the ideal or spiritual (both or only one of which may be considered essential and autonomous), may be approached from an altogether different perspective. Reality may be imagined as consisting of three autonomous but related layers, with the two upper ones being emergent phenomena — the layer of matter, the layer of life, and the layer of the mind. This opens the way to the scientific investigation of the mind.
Andrew Brown in “Depression is not a ‘brain disorder‘” in The Guardian
The mind is not just some decorative pattern read off the brain and mistaken for the real thing. Consciousness is not just the whistle on the steam train, as William James put it. Treating unhappiness as a problem in the brain is good for the profits of drug companies, but doesn’t actually make us all happier in the long run.
To say that the mind depends on the brain is easy enough – and true, so far as we know. But that doesn’t mean that they are the same thing, or that understanding the one will supply a sufficient understanding of the other. Talking about depression as a brain disease is a warning sign that someone has their ideas all wrong – and that’s not a problem with their brain.