Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Writer's Notebook - 6 January 2015

Relationship Between the Brain and the Mind

Scientists seem to have accepted that the mind is created by the brain, e.g.:
  • "[O]ur brain creates the experience of our self as a model - a cohesive, integrated character - to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout a lifetime and last lasting impressions in our memory." Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. xiii [Goodreads]
  • "Everything we think, do, and refrain from doing is determined by the brain. The construction of this fantastic machine determines our potential, our limitations, and our characters; we are our brains." Dick Swaab, We Are Our Brains: From the Womb to Alzheimer's, Allen Lane, 2014, pp. 3 [Goodreads].
  • "the human brain, in all its electro-chemical complexity, creates what we call our minds. The neurological functioning of the brain, like the structure and functioning of other parts of the body, is a a human universal." David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods, Thames & Hudson, 2005, pp. 6 [Goodreads].
  • "[T]he mind is not the brain but what the brain does, and not even everything it does, such as metabolizing fat and giving off heat." Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works, Norton, 2009, pp. 24 [Goodreads].
The idea is not new, just newly accepted:
It should be widely known that the brain, and the brain alone, is the source of our pleasures, joys, laughter, and amusement, as well as our sorrow, pain, grief, and tears. It is especially the organ we use to think and learn, see and hear, to distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, and the pleasant from the unpleasant. The brain is also the seat of madness and delirium, of the fears and terrors which assail us, often at night, but sometimes even during the day, of insomnia, sleepwalking, elusive thoughts, forgetfulness, and eccentricities. -- Hippocrates
But note how recently the scientific establishment has come to accept the thesis that the mind is what the brain does. in 1997, Pinker needed to add a huge and careful caveat to his book:
The evolutionary psychology of this book is, in one sense, a straightforward extension of biology, focusing on one organ, the mind, of one species, Homo sapiens. But in another sense it is a radical thesis that discards the way issues about the mind have been framed for almost a century.
The so-called mind-body problem has been discussed and argued for millennia. Plato thought they were separate, Aristotle thought they were two aspects of the body. The combination of religion and respect for classical culture confused philosophers on the issue so deeply that real progress was obliged to wait for modern neuroscience in the post-computing era. Even twentieth century philosophers like John Searle did no better than repeat Aristotle's argument of a false dichotomy.
Today we tend to think of the mind as transient, malleable software running on the brain's hardware. That is a poor analogy, but it is the analogy of our age. Earlier ages uses steam engine or clockwork analogies and no doubt future ones will choose new analogies. A better way to think about the mind is that it is an emergent property of the brain's general ability to learn, as in Jeff Hawkins Cortical Learning Algorithm.

Quote of the Day

"If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong." -- Arthur C. Clarke

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