Discovering the relationship between the brain and the mind is one of greatest challenges that scientists face in the 21st century. The implications of such a discovery will radically change our conception of what it means to be a conscious being, and will have radical effects on neuroscience, metaphysics, judicial law — and psychology. Even the concept that humans act with free will, an idea that is central to our conception of who we are, may turn out be false.
The relationship between mind and brain is currently the subject of great debate. The conventional view dates back to 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes and his major work, Discourse on the Method, and is known as Cartesian Dualism in his honor. Descartes separated the mind from the body with his famous statement “I think, therefore I am,” a phrase known as “the cogito” after the Latin translation “Cogito, ergo sum.” Descartes laid the foundation for the way that we usually think of ourselves, today — that our mind is separate from the matter of our bodies, and it’s the source of our feelings, decision making capabilities, and all of the aspects that make us who we are. Our mind, a kind of indefinable “ghost in the machine,” gives the orders, and the subservient brain simply makes our bodies carry them out.
Neuroscientists now say this is not so — that there is no higher-order mind that exists separately from our brain telling it what to do, no such ghost in the machine. In fact, the neuroscience position is that there is no mind at all, there is only our brain. Our mind — our consciousness, our sense of self — is just an illusion created by the workings of our brain as it runs through all the processes that we need to it to do to keep us alive. These processes, carried out by connecting the billions of neurons in our brains, include everything from keeping our heart beating to, some neuroscientists say, making moral judgements. “Our brains, hence all these processes, have been sculpted by evolution to enable us to make better judgments that increase our reproductive success,” explains neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in his book, Who’s in Charge?
How did we get to this point? Experiments using fMRI scanners allow neuroscientists to measure activity in the brain, which correlates to thoughts and emotions in human subjects. That in itself just shows correlation, and correlation doesn’t rule out a mind-to-brain causal system. But increasingly more accurate brain scans have shown that there is activity in the relevant part of the brain before the subject of the experiment is conscious of these thoughts and emotions. So the thought cannot be causing the brain activity, because the brain activity occurs before the thought. The idea that we are willing an action to happen — that we have conscious thought — is an illusion. It was actually your brain that made you do it.
If the mind is an illusion, and all of our thoughts and actions can be reduced to the workings of the brain, does that make psychology redundant? If we’re talking about the very long-term future, when every minute gradation of thought, and every shade of feeling, could be recorded by a brain scan, the answer is maybe. But that scenario is a long way off, if it happens at all. What’s more, most practitioners of neuroscience and psychology think that the two disciplines can coexist, and even complement each other. As Jonathan Roisner writes in an article for the British Psychological Society titled “What Has Neuroscience Ever Done For Us?,” “The hope is that better specification of the proximal causes of mental health problems will result in better treatment.”
One reason for this is that psychology and neuroscience have different objectives. Psychologists seek to solve problems by analyzing symptoms, while neuroscientists are seeking the root physical causes of those symptoms. “Mental health practitioners rely on descriptive definitions, in which the symptoms specify the spectrum or diagnosis,” says Roisner. The symptoms still exist, irrespective of how they are caused. It’s useful to remember that Freud’s own theory of how the brain works is false, but knowing that is false does not reduce the efficacy of psychological techniques. “Psychology is needed because we can learn useful, important things about human nature without knowing a thing about what goes on in the brain,” says Dave Munger in online journal Cognitive Daily.
What’s more, the idea of a “semblance of mind” is being considered by neuroscientists. Some neuroscientists argue that the brain has a kind of organisational level that could act a bit like a mind. It’s important to understand that this is not a mind as we usually describe it. No neuroscientist believes in what’s called the “top down” model — that there’s a kind of mind-like ghost in the machine that tells the brain what to do, and the top down model is anathema to neuroscience. But according to Gazzaniga, the brain’s many processes are now thought to be independent, sometimes competing, systems that are distributed throughout the organ. These systems may take on a collective existence that is generated by the brain but is different from it, a kind of neurological example of the saying “the sum is greater than the parts.” (In scientific terms, this is known as Emergence.)
It’s possible that the collective system may take on some of the controlling properties that we now attribute to the mind. “There is an absolute necessity for Emergence to occur to control this teeming, seething system that is going on at another level,” writes Gazzaniga. This idea, however, is controversial among neuroscientists, and may even border on scientific heresy.
The science seems sound, but many are skeptical of the idea that our consciousness is a byproduct of our brain processes. At a fundamental level, there is no scientific agreement on what it actually means to be conscious — the state has no universal scientific definition. Skeptics point out that it’s illogical to attribute consciousness to the brain if we don’t know what consciousness actually is. But neuroscientists respond that this is just the point — it’s neuroscience that holds the key to a definition of consciousness, and the mystery of its existence will finally be solved by their discipline.
But neuroscience would not get very far without psychology to guide it, says Munger, writing in Cognitive Daily: “Psychologists have identified many phenomena for which neuroscientists have yet to find analogous activity in the brain. Neuroscientists can use research like this to guide their work…Together, psychology and neuroscience can help us all understand how the brain shapes behaviour,” Munger says.
Roisner thinks that the future will see neuroscience and psychology coming together to find new treatments for mental illness. “In the short term the most important effect [of neuroscience research] will be to encourage us to change the way we think about symptoms, focusing on proximal causes at the level of the brain and how these relate to psychological processes,” he says. “Longer term, the hope is that by recognising mechanistic heterogeneity we will develop better classification systems, new approaches to intervention, and further tools to enable practitioners to choose the right treatment for the right individual,” says Roisner.
With luck, and a lot of scientific research, we’ll be able not just to diagnose mental illness from outside the black box of the brain, but cure it by peering within.