Exploring Both Sides of the Brain-Mind Debate

Scientists insist on talking about the brain while the rest of us talk about the mind. Sharon Begley sizes up the two sides of the mind/brain conversation.

Illustration by Malin Rosenqvist

Let’s try a little experiment. Using your right index finger, point to your brain. Now using the same finger, point to your mind. Not so easy. We don’t necessarily think of our brain and mind as being exactly the same thing. One is not as easy to pinpoint, and this has led to two distinct ways we have of talking about mental activity: mind talk and brain talk.

Mind Talk and Brain Talk

To those of us without a degree in neurobiology, it seems completely natural to refer to the mind. We talk about feeling this way and thinking of that, of remembering one thing and dreaming of another. Those verbs are examples of mind talk. Using mind talk, we would say, “I recognized my first-grade teacher in the crowd because she was wearing the necklace with the beetle scarab, which was so unusual I still remembered it after all these years.”

We would not say, “A barrage of photons landed on my retina, exciting the optic nerve so that it carried an electrical signal to my lateral geniculate body and thence to my primary visual cortex, from which signals raced to my striate cortex to determine the image’s color and orientation, and to my prefrontal cortex and inferotemporal cortex for object recognition and memory retrieval—causing me to recognize Mrs. McKelvey.”

That’s brain talk. That there is an interplay between mind and brain may seem unremarkable. The mind, after all, is generally regarded as synonymous with our thoughts, feelings, memories, and beliefs, and as the source of our behaviors. It’s not made of material, but we think of it as quite powerful, or even as who we are.

The mind, after all, is generally regarded as synonymous with our thoughts, feelings, memories, and beliefs, and as the source of our behaviors. It’s not made of material, but we think of it as quite powerful, or even as who we are.

The brain, the three-pound slab of tofu-textured tissue inside our skull, is recognized (by scientists, at least) as the physical source of all that we call mind. If you are having a thought or experiencing an emotion, it’s because your brain has done something—specifically, electrical signals crackled along a whole bunch of neurons and those neurons handed off droplets of neurochemicals, like runners handing off a baton in a relay race.

Neuroscientists don’t object to mind talk for casual conversation. But most insist that we not invoke the mind as if it is real, or distinct from the brain. They reject the notion that the mind has an existence independent of the brain (often called Cartesian dualism, after René Descartes of “I think, therefore I am” fame). Obviously, avoiding mind talk would be a problem for a column about the science of the mind in a magazine called Mindful.

Feelings, Behaviors, and Mindfulness

I fell afoul of the no-mind rule last year during a talk I gave in Salt Lake City on neuroplasticity—the ability of the adult brain to change its structure and function in response to outside stimuli as well as internal activity. I was talking about mind changing brain, a possibility that intrigues scientists who have investigated the power and effects of mental training, including mindfulness. I used examples such as people with obsessive-compulsive disorder practicing mindfulness to approach their thoughts differently, with the result that the brain region whose overactivity caused their disorder quieted down. Ta da: mind changing brain.

Not so fast, said one audience member. Why talk about something so imprecise, even spooky, as mind? Why can’t the explanation for the OCD patients be that one form of brain activity (that taking place during mindfulness) affected another (the OCD-causing activity)? Why do we need mind talk?

Well, we need mind talk because although most neuroscientists reject the idea of a mind different from brain, most civilians embrace the distinction. This competing view of things gets expressed in the real world in stark and startling ways. Take, for example, how the mind-brain dichotomy can play out in the criminal justice system. Neuroscience holds that the brain is the organ of the mind. If something goes wrong with behavior, then it’s because something has gone wrong with the brain (in the same way that if something has gone wrong with, say, insulin secretion, it’s because something has gone wrong with the pancreas). We can probably all agree that criminal assault and downloading child pornography both count as something “going wrong” with behavior. Yet in these and other cases, judges presented with evidence that the behavior had a biological basis have meted out more lenient sentences than in cases where no such evidence was presented.

To which neuroscientists reply, are you out of your mind? Why are you relying on such a distinction? What else is behavior but the result of brain biology? Yet the fact that criminals are treated more harshly if their mind (motives, anger, antisocial feelings…) made them do it than if their brain (aberrant activity patterns, pathological circuitry…) did shows just how deeply average folks believe that mind and brain are distinct.

The Long Standing Debate

This dualism gets at a profound philosophical issue that has divided scholars for decades: what is the most productive and helpful level of explanation for mental activity? When do we go too far in reducing mental matters to physically observable activity? Is it more illuminating, for instance, to explain why Teresa loves Dave by invoking their personalities and histories and tastes, or their brain neurons? Consider trying to explain confirmation bias, in which people remember examples that support their point of view—“You never take out the garbage!”—and forget counterexamples. Is it more illuminating to explain it as the result of the human need to shore up our beliefs or by invoking synapses and neurochemicals?

One case for mind talk is that we have access to our mind. We can recognize and describe what we know, remember, and think. We do not have access to our brain: we cannot tell which regions (my hippocampus? my anterior cingulate?) are active during particular activities.

One case for mind talk is that we have access to our mind. We can recognize and describe what we know, remember, and think.

But many neuroscientists say mind talk is just hand waving. As a result, you can hardly call yourself a psychologist or neuroscientist (cognitive, affective, social, or otherwise) unless your research uses brain imaging. In a 2012 study, researchers performed fMRI scans on volunteers playing a made-up game in which they had to decide how much money (given to them by the scientists) they wanted to share with others—a test of their altruism. (fMRI pinpoints areas of the brain that are more active, or less, than the baseline during a particular mental function.) The researchers found that a region involved in perspective taking—allowing us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes—is more active in the most altruistic individuals.

I don’t know about you, but learning that people who are good at understanding things from someone else’s perspective tend to be more altruistic doesn’t tell me much about altruism that I didn’t already suspect. I mean, did anyone think altruistic people would turn out to be bad at perspective taking?

The mind–brain debate is not about to go away anytime soon, so in this column I will be keeping an eye on the dialogue between brain talkers and mind talkers and to keep exploring what the latest science has to teach us about our minds and our brains. For example, can brain biology alone “define, predict, or explain the emergence of mental phenomena,” as Alan Wallace, a pioneer in the scientific study of the effects of meditation on cognition, behavior, and physiology, has asked? What kind of scientists are willing to talk about mind, and to what extent? What qualifies as “proof” that a practice like mindfulness is improving our lives? Are scientists finding ways to make mind talk like “thought” and “emotion” more rigorous, so we don’t have to be embarrassed around them when we talk that way? And above all, how can what scientists are learning about both mind and brain help us make our way a little better in a challenging world with the tools we have available, whatever names we choose to call them?

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