Does Thinking Happen In The Brain?

Inside each of us there is a thing that thinks and feels and wants and decides. Each of us is that thing.

This is the traditional view of mind, the view that has dominated establishment research into cognition and consciousness for the last 500 years.

Contemporary scientists — neuroscientists as well as other cognitive scientists — by and large take this basic schema for granted no less than Descartes did. Of course, today’s thinkers believe that thing inside us, which is the self we are, is a bit of our flesh (the brain). Descartes, for his part, could not conceive of how mere meat could produce mind, so he supposed that mind was an immaterial something. But this difference, it turns out, and as I argue in Out of Our Heads, is merely technical. Despite having learned so much about the anatomy and physiology of the human brain in the last century, we don’t actually have a better account of how consciousness and cognition arise in the brain than it arises out of immaterial soul-stuff.

This last claim is not controversial, not really. But then why are we so certain, as a scientific and as a popular culture, that the secrets to our nature lie inside us, in the brain?

Answer: We can’t imagine an alternative to this “you are your brain” idea that does not end up giving up on science. Either you are your brain, or you are a mystery.

But this is mistaken.

It’s like thinking that the only alternative to finding the value of money in the chemical composition of the bank notes would be supposing that monetary value is magical! And so here, is the case that interests us: there are good, sound, naturalistic approaches to the self and consciousness that give up the shopworn prejudice that we are identical to pieces of ourself inside our heads. The brain is necessary for our life, but it is hardly sufficient. A human being, like every living being, is a locus of densely interwoven coupling with the world around us. We make consciousness dynamically, in our exchange with the world around us. Ultimately, if we want to understand consciousness, we need to go out of our heads and look at the way we are embodied and also bound to and embedded in the world around us.

My topic for today, and next week, is recent work by John Dylan Haynes and his colleagues at the Humboldt University in Berlin on what they call Brain Reading. Let me say right at the outset: This is exciting work. It’s smart work. What interests me, though, is how easy it is to misunderstand the research itself and jump to the conclusion, entirely unwarranted, that it lends support to the Cartesian (= derived from Descartes) neuroscience from which we so urgently need to free our scientific and cultural imagination.

Let’s begin at the beginning: Mental acts and processes of all sorts — for example, feeling excited, thinking about someone, hoping for something to take place, savoring the taste chocolate — happen only thanks to the activation of systems in the brain and nervous system.

Some people confuse this truism — that mental episodes have neural correlates — with the further, entirely different claim that thoughts, feelings, experiences of taste, and the like, are, simply, events in the brain. This latter claim is not a truism. It is not even true.

How my car drives depends on what goes on inside its engine. Modifying the engine affects the driving behavior. Speeding up, slowing down, and such like, in turn, affect the engine. But it would be bizarre to say that the driving really happens in the engine. If my car has no wheels on it, or is up on the lift, it won’t drive, whatever happens inside the engine.

Brain stands to mind the way engine stands to driving. Or, to shift comparisons: to insist that thinking and feeling happen in the brain is rather like insisting that speech — talking — happens in the brain. We could not speak without the brain, to be sure. But speech also depends on many other physical processes — such as articulatory movements in the mouth and throat, and also respiratory activity. And of course it depends on social circumstances, and needs. People speak, and they do so thanks to their brains, and mouths, and throats, and much else besides (e.g. the existence of socially shared linguistic practices!)

Many mental processes or capacities depend on patterns of activation in specific areas of the brain. For example, visual recognition of faces is associated with neural activity in a region that has come to be known as the fusiform face area (FFA), whereas episodes of seeing houses (and other place-related items) are associated with activity in a different region (the so-called parahipocampal place area, PPA). Given correlations such as these, it is should not be surprising that facts about experience (e.g. that one is looking at a face) carry information about a person’s neural states. And vice versa. It ought to be possible, at least in principle, to find out that someone is experiencing a face by direct observation of neural activity in FFA.

Enter John Dylan Haynes and his colleagues at the Humboldt: prospects for “brain reading” have been greatly improved thanks to recent work by Haynes and his colleagues at the Humboldt in Berlin. They have developed techniques that allow one to determine a person’s cognitive state on the basis of neural data, even when, as happens to be the case, there is no one-to-one mapping between the occurrence of that cognitive state and neural activity in a specific location. Making use of computer-based multivariate pattern recognition software, they are able to use information about the brain’s total state gathered from brain imaging tools (fMRI) to make reliable predictions about a person’s mental state, in real time.

Is this brain reading, really? And what does it tell us about the neural substrates of experience? Does the possibility of this sort of brain reading lend support to the stronger claim that mental events are neural events? I turn to this question next Friday.

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