Within the psychological literature it has become commonplace to talk about the mind as a function of the working brain. Neurophysiological activity, in other words, is considered to be the ‘cause’ of the subjective experiences of the mind – how and why we think, feel, or act in the ways that we do. Indeed, we seem to have emerged from ‘the decade of the brain’ – the 1990’s and beyond – with a new understanding of what it means to be a human. Psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies began claiming that mental illness were disorders of the brain, and it was not long before the phrase ‘chemical imbalance,’ became part of the layperson’s vernacular understanding of mental health. Even now, on a near daily basis, researchers are telling us that they have discovered the brain areas responsible for ‘curiosity,’ ‘morality,’ ‘love,’ ‘religiosity,’ and so on, presumably unveiling the working components of the human machine. More often than not, this emerging neuroscientific ‘evidence’ is additionally regarded as justification for researchers to speculate further about the evolutionary significance of these presumably hard-wired psychobiological capacities. All would seem to suggest that there is solid evidence to back up such claims. But is there? Or is the ‘evidence’ only valid if we accept certain theoretical or methodological assumptions? If so, what assumptions must we accept – and do we have reason to question them? If our theoretical and methodological assumptions are plagued with logical errors, then the all the ‘evidence’ in the world would not be enough to support many of the ‘scientific’ claims that are frequently being made.
Let us first agree on one point – that our biological nervous system must be somehow involved in the process that gives rise to the actions of the mind. That is, we cannot have a ‘mind’ unless we have a functioning nervous system. To think otherwise would entail some kind of ‘dualism’ – believing that the body and mind can exist independently of one another. Our believing, for example, that when the physical body dies, a separate part responsible for controlling the body (e.g. a soul), would not die with it, but would somehow transcend its physical limits. Such leaps of faith may be fine for the religious crowd, but they are not part of a rational or scientific approach to such matters. So we are not concerned here about whether the mind is tethered to the body (we will assume it is), but about accurately describing how they relate to one another.
Reductionism is an integral part of the empirical sciences: that is, trying to explain ‘higher level’ processes by breaking them down into smaller pieces, categorizing them, and studying the separate parts until the underlying components are able to better explain the larger whole. This scientific approach has been historically successful and has led to an enormous wealth of knowledge and understanding about the physical world. It is only natural for us to believe that this tried and tested methodology can also help us understand human psychology. But are there reasons for doubting its applicability in trying to understand ourselves? What could possibly give humans some ‘special status’ making them exempt from explanation by way of classical biological reductionism?
Limitations of Neuroimaging Studies
Many of the reductionist assumptions can be found in neuroimaging studies. It is interesting that neuroimaging studies seem to be given special credibility over standard psychology research – presumably due to the assumption that by investigating some material thing, they are freer from conjecture, speculation, and theoretical biases. Most of these studies base their conclusions on data showing that specific kinds of mental processes appear to activate certain parts of the brain. But how will we interpret the data? What can we draw from it? What must we assume? The theoretical and methodological biases of the researchers will still influence the interpretation of the results. A related problem, which is seldom acknowledged, involves the limitations of the neuroimaging techniques themselves.
The EEG, for example, involves placing a number of electrodes on the scalp, which are hooked up to a computer capable of reading moment-by-moment electrical currents presumed to arise from the underlying activity of neurons. This kind of scan has excellent temporal resolution – that is, it can measure brain activity with very keen precision to the timing of neural events. However, the EEG has poor spatial resolution – we know that some kind of brain activity is occurring beneath a certain electrode, but exactly where, and at what depth, we cannot know with any real precision. Localizing the operative brain areas will therefore involve a fair amount of assumptive guesswork. Another example, the fMRI, involves an imaging technique with excellent spatial resolution – we can see the brain and its structures very clearly in high visual resolution, however the fMRI also has weaknesses, including its poor temporal resolution – it measures blood oxygenation presumed to correspond with neural activity, but the peak time is often as much as 5 seconds after neural activation, which can make it a bit difficult to determine the specific anatomical areas involved in some mental task. These are only a couple examples of the limitations of neuroimaging studies – there are plenty more (e.g. Seixas & Lima, 2011).
In short, neuroimaging studies may not be as objective as some would like to think. There are still large gaps between observation and interpretation – gaps that are ‘filled’ by theoretical or methodological assumptions. It is then no surprise that researchers have difficulty replicating experimental findings, and that one lab may often find results that contradict those found in another lab where researchers have slightly different biases and make different methodological assumptions (Miller, 2010). This is not to dismiss neuroimaging studies altogether, but rather to suggest that there needs to be more skepticism about what grandiose conclusions we draw from them.
Assumptions of Genetic Determinacy
If someone is in some psychological state of being, their body is simultaneously in some physiological state. Psychology is clearly dependent on biology, though it is important to also note that biology is not the sole cause of psychology or mental life. To a degree, our neurobiology is genetically pre-specified –there is no refuting that. We have lower level reflexes that mediate autonomic nervous system responses, pain mechanisms, basic emotions, and so on. But such is not the case for our entire nervous system. We know that the more recently evolved parts of our neocortex (e.g. tertiary, secondary, and associational cortices) are especially plastic. These parts of our brain are not ‘fixed’ at birth, but are instead shaped through experience-dependent neural activation (Kolb & Wishaw, 2003). In the words of Donald Hebb: ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ – thereby creating functional neural networks (e.g. through Long Term Depression or Potentiation of synapses) that contribute to the organization and structure of the brain. Plasticity is additionally achieved through synaptogenesis (the formation of new synapses) and neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons), which is known to occur throughout the lifespan (Kolb & Wishaw, 2003). All of this is thought to explain the neural basis of learning and experience-dependent neurodevelopmental organization (e.g. Kilgard, 2002). For the present purposes, it is notable that these aforementioned parts of our nervous systems – those parts that are more plastic or flexible – make up the majority of our neocortex, and are thought to be involved in the kinds of ‘higher-level’ and more ‘complex’ psychological processes that researchers seem to be most interested in.
It would appear that our brains were shaped, and are continuously being shaped, by our interpersonal experiences and the sociocultural worlds that we inhabit (Siegel, 1999; Schore, 2003). Even neuroimaging studies have supported this idea, showing for example, that the brain can be shaped by various experiential factors including skill acquisition (Gobel, Parrish, & Reber, 2011), exercise (Helmich et al. 2010), meditation (Jang et al., 2011), therapy (Linden, 2006), and so on. Neuroimaging studies have also found significant differences among individuals based on various aspects of their cultures (e.g. Park & Huang, 2010; de Greck, et al., 2011), pointing yet again to the enormous flexibility of our nervous systems in representing those psychological differences that we can clearly see and feel. Indeed, emerging fields such as ‘cultural neuroscience’ and ‘neuroanthropology,’ are beginning to emphasize the greater plasticity of the nervous system, including how sociocultural experiences shape the brain (e.g. Ambady & Bharucha, 2009; Duque et al., 2010).
It would appear that beneath the complexity of our interpersonal and sociocultural experiences (i.e. those related to ‘morality,’ notions of ‘free-will’ or what it means to be ‘evil’), are distributed neural networks that somehow represent those emergent mental experiences and their significance to us as individuals. The most important question, which we need to get right, is – how did it get there? Unless you are an evolutionary psychologist, it makes sense that much of the time our psychological flexibility can be explained by our abundant neuroplasticity – not its being hard-wired or innate. We might therefore question the assumptions of researchers that tend to minimize the brain’s plasticity in favor of genetically determined explanations.
Biological Reductionism: Misplacing Meaning
Classical psychobiological reductionism assumes that ‘the mind is what the brain does.’ Research working within a reductionist theoretical framework will typically explain some mental phenomenon by effectively reducing ‘mental states’ to ‘brain states.’ In other words, scientists want to show that the object of interest, P (e.g. ‘the mind’), can be reduced to objects x, y, and z, – thereby demonstrating that object P is ‘nothing but’ the assembly of x, y, and z. The assumption is that all meaning contained in the initial object (P) can be captured by the addition of its individual parts (x, y, and z). But while it may be true that certain psychological processes are contingent on some neurophysiological activity, we cannot necessarily say that psychological processes reduce to ‘nothing but’ that activity. Why not? – Because much of the time we are not dealing with cause and effect, as many neuroscientists seem to think, but rather two different and non-equivalent kinds of description. One describes mechanism, the other contains meaning. Understanding the physical mechanisms of a clock, for example, tells us nothing about the culturally constructed meaning of time. In a similar vein, understanding the physiological mechanisms underlying the human blink, tells us nothing about the meaning inherent in a human wink (Gergen, 2010). Human meaning often transcends its underlying mechanisms. But how does it do this?
Neurophysiology is a quality of the objective physical world, but psychological meaning, and the labels we attach to that meaning, is in part created by and dependent on, the external and socially constructed worlds in which we live – the worlds by which our individual neurophysiologies were shaped. To suggest that ‘the mind is what the brain does,’ involves confusing mechanism with meaning (Gergen, 2010). The underlying mechanisms are part of a web that extends into the sociocultural world of meanings – the place where the nervous system was shaped and where meanings were originally tied to mechanisms through experience-dependent neural activation occurring throughout our ontogenetic development. When we study just the mechanism, as many neuroscientists are trying to do, it is at once separated from the sociocultural web, and the psychological meaning that we had hoped to explain is lost.
One can alternatively think about our higher-level neurobiological mechanisms as an experientially organized sociocultural ‘map.’ Like all maps, our ‘neurobiological map’ contains symbolic representations – in this case functional neural networks – pointing to those things that it is representative of. In this metaphorical example the ‘neural map’ may be representative of past or present interpersonal experiences, sociocultural meanings, learned associations, and so on. A series of functional neural networks, for example, might represent a set of images, thoughts, or feelings, related to one’s father, one’s political affiliation, notions of morality, and so on.
Many neuroscientists, and those who are consumers of their research, suggest that by studying the ‘map,’ we can find the cause of mental activity. But the map is not the same as the territory it represents. The map is rather symbolic of, or representative of, some territory out there in the world… without knowing that territory, and more importantly, what the neurobiology (i.e. the map) represents, we know nothing. Each person will have a different underlying neurobiological structure and arrangement of associative connections dependent on their own life experiences and web of representational meaning systems. This is why no matter how advanced the technology gets, one will never be able to look at a brain scan and know exactly what someone is thinking. The most you could ascertain, is whether someone is thinking of or perceiving an image, experiencing a feeling, planning a motor movement, and so on – that is because the areas responsible for these mental actions are roughly partitioned within the brain, while the more complex aspects of human consciousness involve areas that are comparatively plastic and would have been flexibly shaped by that person’s individual life history – you could not know what territory the map represents, unless you mapped out that person’s entire nervous system and the sociocultural meanings that are represented by them – which, given the brain’s complexity, would be practically speaking, impossible. To repeat – we cannot understand psychological meanings by looking at physical mechanisms.
Subjective Minds and Objective Brains
Part of the problem lies in the fact that we have a methodologically objective science that wants to explain socioculturally shared subjective states. An objective science wants to study these subjective mental processes, but even with the best neuroimaging techniques, the most a reductionistic science could ever access through its objective lens is the brain mechanisms correlated with these mental events. But the mind and brain are not equivalent:
The brain belongs to the individual. The mind, however, does not – well, not quite. The human mind is structured by language. Language is public. In some sense, then, the mind is itself public. In what sense? In the sense that what we know is embodied not just in our brains. In particular, the ascription of meaning is a social process, not an individual one. Symbols acquire meaning insofar as they are social symbols. (Malik, 2002, p. 327)
One of the ways that we attempt to bridge our subjective isolation is through the symbolic languages defined by our cultures. These shared symbols allow us to communicate about our subjective states. We have words for ‘love,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘sad,’ ‘shame,’ ‘moral,’ ‘evil,’ and so on – but many of these words only hold meaning through their social construction and through their continued existence within the sociocultural domain. This is no small point – it seldom occurs to us that when we ‘think,’ we do so by way of the symbolic and culturally determined form of language. A mind can think, for example, “I am hungry,” “I wonder what Bob is thinking right now,” “Sharon looks sad,” and so on. So in a weird way, our subjective mental states are socioculturally shared through our reliance on an agreed upon language and agreed upon sets of meanings that will be carried by it. It is language and culture that helps to structure the activities of the mind. The brain is only one part of the picture: it facilitates the activities of the mind, but it does not solely cause it:
Cognition and behavior emerge from the bodily interaction of an organism with its environment… cognitive states are best explained by a physical system of interacting components, where the brain is only one such component (van Dijk, 2008, p. 298)
The mind might be best conceptualized as both an emergent and extended phenomenon. The mind emerges from the web that involves a brain that extends into the environment and the moving fabric of our cultural realities – this unfortunately muddles the overly simplistic picture of mere cause-effect or input-output relationships currently favored by researchers. The mind might also be considered a process – a moving target comprised of many parts, including the brain, but not reducible to it alone. It arises through a relational interplay of biology and sociocultural learning and experience. In a crude way, our culture can be seen as inserting these symbols in our heads – the meanings are external, though they are represented by a map of neural networks and weighted potentials. When we try to reduce culturally constructed sets of psychological meanings to objective mechanisms – as being ‘nothing but’ the inner workings of the brain – we lose the extended components that are necessary to the emergent process giving rise to the mind – we lose the ability to understand it. Though we think we are explaining causal meanings, we are merely describing mechanisms.
The bias toward assuming everything ‘biological’ to be innate, is a minimizing or downplaying of neural plasticity and is based on some flawed assumptions that go back to old debates about the relationship between mind and brain. In our current historical period, we prefer a science that will define a mind as being made up of selfish-genes – that we are more-or-less held hostage to our biology, indeed, that our physical biology must be the cause of our psychological realities. The science of today has a conservative stance toward human ‘nurture’ and flexible human capacities. Our present-day cultural assumptions want to minimize human freedom and the burden of human agency and responsibility. These biases will then find their way into the minds of researchers, who will interpret the data in ways that fit with their theoretical worldviews and cultural assumptions about what it means to be human – we end up seeing what we wanted to see all along.
But all is held together by what would seem to be faulty logic. When our methodologically reductionistic and objective science wants to explain some emergent and subjective phenomenon, it will understandably run into problems. What commonly happens is either: 1) a denial of the existence of the subjective phenomenon (such as some modern scientists claiming free-will to be an illusion), and/or 2) an explanation of the subjective phenomenon as being caused by, or identical to, the physical mechanisms that our objective science can quantify. This is why we have people saying that depression is a brain disease – they claim to have found some underlying correlates representing the mechanism, but they mistakenly believe it to be the cause.
In sum, an objective science looking solely at facilitative mechanism (e.g. the brain), will no longer be able to comprehend or explain the meaning or true cause of the subjective property it wants to understand (e.g. the mind). Paradigmatic faiths will prevent us from challenging our dogmatically held theoretical preferences for a mechanistic account of the human mind. But I am not the only one who is skeptical and willing to challenge these views – you will not find these folks in your pop-science books… look instead to the peer reviewed journals that discuss issues related to theoretical psychology. It is there that you will find the critical thinkers – and if they exist, then there might be hope that someday logic will prevail.
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