The ‘Mind’ Does Not Reduce to the ‘Brain’

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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21 Responses to “The ‘Mind’ Does Not Reduce to the ‘Brain’”

  1. Alicia Says:

    I was never a fan of reductionistic theories. I felt that they took things for granted.

  2. Jason Buchanan Says:

    I agree the a strict determinist approach to cognitive understanding is limiting. I accept the premis that the plasticity of the brain allows for creativity and individual personality, and through those processes the concept of ‘will.’ If you would be so kind as to indulge me, I have a four of questions. First if the mind is emergent from the brain, and the plasticity exhibited in the brain, then is the mind not dependent on that structure and the processes of that structure to exist? The corilary of that question is does not the mind change the physical structure of the brain as it ‘thinks?’ Has it not been demonstrated that changing the brain structure does in fact change the mind, the cognitive construct of a person? Finally, I will re-read the article, as I am most likly missing something, but doesn’t our ability to communicate or share in culture understanding build upon commonalities in our biology that allows to form connections at all, even with other species?

  3. Brad Says:

    Hi Jason – Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Before I try to respond, I want to say that the present article was intended to critique the futility of current approaches, and not detail a fool-proof theoretical alternative – it would take a lot of time, and quite frankly, I’m not sure I have it figured out yet – I just know what won’t work. I hope that does not take away from the critiques I presented.

    At any rate, it is my opinion that all of the ‘mainstream’ definitions of the mind have gotten it wrong. If you want an idea of what I would consider to be a ‘good’ theory of how the mind-brain interact, I would advise you to check out an article by Dijk et al. (2008), published in Theory and Psychology, called: “Can there be such a thing as embodied embedded cognitive neuroscience?” They outline a position called Embodied Embedded Cognition (EEC), which seems to be on the right track in my humble opinion. Let me see though if I can answer your questions:

    1) In my view the mind is an emergent phenomenon that is partially realized through the brain’s plasticity – to the extent that we cannot have a mind without a brain, then yes, it is dependent on the neurobiology, but again, it is my view that it cannot be reduced to ‘nothing but’ neurobiology. We can turn that around and say that the mind is equally dependent on extended aspects of our sociocultural worlds – language, customs, beliefs, norms, institutions, symbolic abstractions, cultural meanings, history, and so on. These are some of the ways that humans are arguably different from non-human primates. It might be tempting to say that the mind could still work like a computer, with a few minor revisions that would allow the environment to do a lot of the programming – where we would maybe have ‘hard-wired’ mechanisms and ‘soft-wired’ mechanisms. However, we would still have the subjective-objective gap, where our objective science looking at reductionistic mechanism will only see one piece of the puzzle – it fails to account for the extended meanings that the mechanisms are tied to. The temptation to see ‘input’ and ‘output’ would also have us scratching our heads about the causative direction – do my neural networks serve as the input to my behavior (as brain stimulation studies can sometimes show), or does the environment serve as the input (triggering the mental event), or is there more likely some kind of interaction, or will it perhaps depend on the ‘level’ of mental event (e.g. touching a hot-stove versus thinking about Plato’s Apology)?

    2) Your second question is very perceptive – yes, I would say that the thinking mind (which we must uncomfortably recall involves the mechanisms of the brain), would change the physical structure of the brain. One example is that of ‘Executive Functioning,’ which is primarily mediated by the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) and is involved in the most complex kinds of human behaviors – anticipating, planning, concentration, inhibiting and directing responses, etc. Using your PFC, you can direct attention both within (e.g. focusing on your breathing or heartbeat), or outside (a noise, a smell, etc.). When we do this kind of directive attention, it activates different parts of our brain facilitating for those actions. As you know, neural activation is likely responsible for the functional neural networks that are created, strengthened, or weakened. It has been thought, for example, that meditation (staying in ‘the moment,’ or within one’s body, without going into thought), involves effectively ‘shutting down’ certain parts of the PFC (e.g. Dorsolateral PFC). By doing this kind of training, we might suspect that experienced meditation gurus would be better at ‘shutting off’ these parts of the PFC (because their NS has been functionally wired – through experience – in a way to more easily downregulate that neural activity). This is exactly what fMRI studies have shown. Then there are all the other more straightforward studies about finger use and so on, leading to greater neural density in the areas responsible for their use, and even clinical examples where we can imagine how ‘obsessive thoughts’ might be neurobiologically strengthened through the process of thinking, which reinforces their tenacity.

    3) Yes, it has been shown that changing the brain will change the mind (i.e. Phineas Gage). If the mechanisms are a necessary component of the mind, then it only stands to reason that if you screw around with the mechanisms, you screw around with the ability of the mind to function. In Gage’s case, his PFC was impacted by a tamping iron, which affected his executive functioning. He reportedly became short-fused and much more ’emotional’, likely do to the fact that he was less in-control of his behavior (again, that is one of the functions of the PFC).

    4) With regard to your last comment about ‘biological commonalities’ about ‘communicating or sharing’… This is a very big question to answer. How you answer it will depend on your own assumptions about both language and culture. I will try to write a related article at some point, but my position is that the thing that makes us unique from other animals is our PFC and those more plastic areas of our neocortex – contrary to popular opinion, I do not believe that language is a functionally circumscribed phenomenon that is the result of some innate Language Acquisition Device (LAD). I instead view ‘language’ as an emergent process largely dependent on our being able to think symbolically – (this quality may be innate), while our greater neuroplasticity during childhood allows the shaping of associational areas that will carry out the more specific functions of language within the context of our cultures. This thesis is probably best outlined in Terrence Deacon’s “The Symbolic Species.” He argues that language drove both brain and cultural development to the point where we are part of this extended symbolic world of created meanings. Other species have the capacity of crude inter-species gestures or even associative communication, but no other species comes close to the high level of symbolic abstraction characteristic of our species. We are in another league entirely.

  4. Erin Says:

    I love this with every fiber of my being. I’m so heartened that others think and feel this way, and take the time to write it down and share it with the world. Superb!

  5. Brad Says:

    Thanks Erin – I am glad others are willing to challenge mainstream assumptions… good to know we’re not alone.

  6. Todd I. Stark Says:

    Have you seen Terrence Deacon’s recent “Incomplete Nature?” It has some complementary thinking to this and offers a fairly detailed speculative dynamic account of what the missing bridge between mind and brain might look like.

  7. Brad Says:

    Hi Todd, thanks for stopping by. Deacon’s latest book is on my reading list for the near future. I have been hearing good things and am looking forward to checking it out.

  8. Dada Sandi Says:

    Thank you very much for this visionary and bold yet logically conclusive piece of work.
    Your logic is excellent and clearly states the fallacies in a reductionist model of the mind.
    I wonder however why not take one step further. If the mind is not contingent to the brain or vice versa it follows that the mind is not the same as the brain. This logical conclusion leads to the hypothesis that there is a substance dualism between the mind and the brain, something that has been proposed for hundreds of years (cartesian dualism).
    The origin of consciousness is not something we could find within the brain since tangible empirical evidence does suggest that the mind exerts causal or rather top down influence on the brain (neuro-plasticity). It suggests that the causal role of the mind is very different from the functional role of the brain and thus also suggest that there is a fundamental difference between thoughts and neurons. I would appreciate your views on this point. Obviously it is a controversial point but it is only controversial because of cultural constrains and the current physicalist paradigm of modern science. Your thinking outside the box is much appreciated.

  9. Brad Says:

    Thank you for your kind words (and your offering an interesting thought experiment). We can agree that the mind and brain are not the same – are we describing different qualia? Yes, I believe so. Does that lead to a substance dualism? In a sense, maybe… but, I think a hard-nosed materialist might still argue that the mind emerges (at least initially) from an interplay of physical processes – we just need to ‘extend’ those physical processes to our sociocultural worlds and appreciate the fact that our neurophysiology can ’embody’ the meaning systems found there. When we say that “the mind exerts causal or rather top-down influence on the brain,” I think we need to be careful not to sound like there is some mind ‘floating out there’ in space, controlling the brain and body (I am not suggesting this is your position, just reminding ourselves of the challenges here)… the mind is simultaneously the brain, but not just the brain… the extended environment and context is part of the mind in a weird way. Yes, I think we would then conclude that thoughts are more than even their neural representations – at least in the day-to-day use of our nervous systems. The biggest ‘gap’, in my opinion, is understanding the relationship between neurophysiology and complex human meaning (the stuff of consciousness).

  10. Dada Sandi Says:

    As an afterthought, the subjective and objective aspects not only relate to socio-cultural implications of creating meaning when describing functions, but they also relate to the mind itself.

    Let me illustrate.

    If you take your consciousness/mind as an object of investigation this suggests that the mind has at least two chambers contained within it (objective chamber and a subjective chamber). When you look at consciousness it is consciousness looking at consciousness. In contemplating the aspects of consciousness obviously your objective mind forms some image within (such as when reading a paper). But it is the subjective chamber that makes the analysis or rather the conceptual work. Having only an objective image in the mind does not create meaning. Likewise, subjective relfections are not possible without an object/image in the mind. This clearly suggests that our mind has an objective part (perceptions, information) and a subjective part (conceptualising information, aquiring meaning, cultural conditioning of language etc.).

    The question here arises as to how a physical brain can create such subtle and subjective chambers in the brain, if indeed it were at all possible. Neuroplasticity may explain the adaptive brain but it obviously is not the cause of thoughts. rather thoughts seem to be the cause of neuroplasticity as demonstrated in several studies involving methodological thinking without external agency (i.e. meditation). When thoughts effect the brain and cause changes in brainfunctions (plasticity) thoughts must be regarded as something real and probably independent from the brain (to some extent at least).
    I wonder why such logical conclusions are not drawn? Nobody has ever found the existence of thoughts within the physical brain and yet we all know our thoughts are very real. No surgery of any kind would produce any thought. According to your appreciated views mind and brain are somewhat contingent. But then we have to either say that thoughts do not exist (they are only electric currents) or thoughts do exist and are not neurons or any physical element. One can not logically say that thoughts exist but actually negating their existence by reducing thoughts to neural activity.

    As we have an objective and a subjective chamber we either need to find a neurological correlate (brain within the brain) or we have to accept the substance dualism of the mind and brain.

  11. Brad Says:

    I do not know if we can separate the mind into ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ compartments, unless we agree that one might exist simultaneously with the other… in other words, I think there is a fair bit of overlap. When you say that there might be a ‘subjective chamber’ making the analysis, I think you will agree that it is simultaneously in some neurophysiological (objective/mechanistic) state that gives partial facilitation of the subjective state. I am not sure about where we go with it from here. I think we can both agree however that the mainstream approaches are futile and that they create a ‘scientific image of man’ that could be harmful if we all buy into it.

  12. ronbc Says:


    First, let me say that your article is another example of how well and how clearly you write. It is always a pleasure to read your too infrequent postings.

    Second, there is very little in your article with which I would disagree. Does this surprise you?

    I think that with regard to consciousness most of our apparent differences can be attributed to three factors.

    (1) My primary intent has been to distance cognition and self-awareness from classical dualism, so that when I talk about the mind being the product of the brain, I mean by that something different from the computational or methodologically reductionist approaches that you rightly criticize. Much more on this, below.
    (2) My blog is a popularization, due both to my own amateur status in the fields about which I write and to the equally nonspecialist status of my intended and typical audience. I am well aware that, as a result, I use terms rather more loosely and explain concepts rather more incompletely than is done in the professional papers you prefer (papers which I also read, although I’m sure not as many).
    (3) My own thoughts about consciousness are stated incompletely and scattered piecemeal throughout a large number of short articles, the primary purpose of which is to summarize others’ ideas. I’m sure that this makes it harder to collect and judge what I think. This is also partly a fault of the short article, “book report” format I often use.

    I believe that we agree on the substantive issues far more than we disagree.

    Among others, here are some of the things you say with which I am in complete agreement:

    (1)It would appear that our brains were shaped, and are continuously being shaped, by our interpersonal experiences and the sociocultural worlds that we inhabit.

    (2)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.

    (3)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.

    And here are some of the points I have made in recent blog articles with which I believe that you would agree:

    (1) Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain — and, for that matter, of the rest of the body, and of some of the environment.

    (2) As much as I believe that there’s nothing more than physical that generates consciousness, I don’t therefore believe that consciousness is a mechanical or completely reducible phenomenon.

    (3) The best explanation of consciousness I can offer is that consciousness is our perception of the interactions of physical body and brain systems operating in dynamic relationships in changing environments.

    While I have written that the mind is the brain, I have really meant that the mind takes place in the brain. This is obvious to me, and it’s on this basis and this basis only that I am a “reductionist.” Again, in my own writing my intention has been constantly to defend that our mental processes are entirely physical, that there are no non-material components to the brain, the mind, consciousness, or the “I” of the self. This does not mean that I believe that by mapping or otherwise identifying all of the neurochemical events in the brain we have “explained” or “understood” anything other than the mechanics, the parts of a dynamic system which is in no useful way made meaningful merely by that act of mapping or identification.

    Yet it seems clear to me that mind is, in one narrow and perhaps idiosyncratic sense, nothing (no thing) other than brain. No matter what homeostatic, sensory, or socio-environmental inputs shape the brain’s physical circuits or determine the contents of thought; no matter how much socially-determined concepts or shared language give us our understanding of what we’re thinking, and of what we’re doing when we think; no matter how much interactive complexity (plasticity, or dynamic systems, or “embodied and engaged” operations, or a global neuron workspace, or any other of the many ways of expressing the idea of complex interaction as the basis of consciousness – consciousness takes place nowhere else than in the brain.

    It is entirely possible that given this narrowing clarification you may decide that I’m not a reductionist at all. In other words, it may be little more than my imprecise or inappropriate use of the word that separates us. I’ll wait for your assessment of that.

    Finally, there are two minor points in your essay on which I would like to comment briefly.

    (1) Classical psychobiological reductionism assumes that ‘the mind is what the brain does.’

    This may be the heart of our semantic problem. There are at least two, quite different ways of parsing this assertion. (1) The mind is the same thing as the brain (2) The mind is produced in the brain.

    (1) is simplistic “hard” reductionism.
    (2) is one way of saying what I have been saying above.

    I know that we both reject (1), and I believe that we can substantially agree on (2), as limited above.

    (2) 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.

    Not all of us have easy access to journals, nor would all of us benefit from that access. And while there certainly are a lot of “pop-science” books out there – just look at the Best-Seller Lists on Amazon – there also are a number of well-written, content-rich “popular” books that are scientifically sound and worth reading. Prominent researchers – including Gazzaniga, Damasio, and Ramachandran, to name just a few whose efforts I have read recently –have written this kind of book.

    This reply has turned out to be longer than I had originally intended. But I don’t think that any of it could be cut without reducing the evidence for my belief that we are in essential agreement on the origins, nature, and content of consciousness.

    I am posting this comment on both blogs, yours and mine, and I suggest that you do the same with any response you’d like to make.

    Once again, thank you for your very informative essay.

  13. Brad Says:

    Thanks Ron. I enjoy your blog precisely because of your ‘book report’ format – something interesting to think about a couple times a week. I am a bit surprised (pleasantly), that we agree on more things here than not. Yet, when you say that you really meant that “the mind takes place in the brain,” “our mental processes are entirely physical,” I think we find a point of disagreement again (and something I believe I addressed in my article). Perhaps it is a language barrier – you say that “consciousness takes place nowhere else than in the brain” – yet, when you look “in the brain,” you will not find consciousness. I believe we are back to describing mechanism (i.e. the brain) versus meaning (i.e. the mind). In addition, you say that the environment, culture, social relationships, and so on, are more-or-less ‘inputs.’ The implication of your position is that you see the brain as some thing that does the ‘processing’ – but where do these necessary ‘processors’ come from? Some are genetically pre-specified, yet others are shaped by other experiences, which means they must have (at some time) been an ‘output’ of some other process. So what was doing the processing? Well, I dunno, because I try not to talk in this kind of language, but it seems to be the result of some emergent/extended/embodied process, and not the result of a computational input (environment) – processing (brain) – output (thought, action, feeling), that we so often use in computational language. In short, I find the information-processing model limiting and the language they use makes it extremely likely that they will confuse mechanism with meaning and make certain assumptions about the direction of causation (if we can even determine what that is). I think we are still divided. You would seem to say that “the mind is produced in the brain,” whereas I would not. I would say the mind is equally produced by culture, history, experience, relationships, and so on – you will not find them in the brain or its mechanisms. Therefore, it does not make sense to say that “the mind is produced in the brain.” The most you can say, and perhaps you would agree, is that “the mind requires and is in part dependent on the brain.” It may seem like we are playing a game of semantics, but I think the implications are very important.

  14. ronbc Says:

    Yes, we are at some risk of playing a game of duelling definitions. I am not being clear enough yet. I’ll try again. The mind I have now is not the brain with which I started. I agree that the mind is clearly a “product” of the complex interactions among the brain, the body, and the external world (sensation, experiences, language, etc.)Yet “The mind is produced in the brain” is literally true, if only in the sense that there is no other physical place in which these endless interchanges occur, or could occur. This point is so obvious, so primary, that I think that you may be giving me credit for trying to assert something more complicated. In arguing against a supernatural self, I have given the impression that I see the mind as an algorithm, when in fact I agree that it is an environment. Where is the mind? In the brain. What is the mind? Stuff that happens when the brain interacts with the body, with the outside world — and with its ever-changing self. Neurons have a single, universal chemistry, but that’s as reductionist — “grand reductionism” in Weinberg’s terminology — as I get. I hope that I am being a bit clearer.

  15. Brad Says:

    I do not know if I can explain my position without describing a complete theory for how it all works (maybe I will be brave enough to try in a future post or publication), but I will leave you with one question to ponder: What if you stopped looking for a single specific ‘place’ to tether the mind?

  16. Evolutionary Psychology and Theoretical Faith | Modern Psychologist - integrating science and reason Says:

    […] The ‘Mind’ Does Not Reduce to the ‘Brain’ […]

  17. ronbc Says:

    Fair enough, although my materialistic side fears anything that even metaphorically invokes a cognitive “ether.”

  18. davidz Says:

    The problem of understanding the concept of the mind was made simpler for me by reading “The Meaning of Mind – Language, Morality and Neuroscience” by psychiatrist, moral philosopher, social critic and Socratic gadfly, Thomas Szasz. I discovered in his book that the English word ‘mind’ was originally used only as a verb, rather than as a noun, as in, “minding”. There was a time when there was no word for what we now think of as “the mind”. It was and is an activity, rather than an entity.

    There are many parallel ideas in Szasz’s books that I enjoyed reading in this piece. I was surprised to not find him cited here.

  19. Brad Says:

    Thanks for the Book recommendation. I have read some of Szasz’ work, but not the book you cite. Yes, I think there is some use to us thinking about the mind as more of a process – I don’t know if this solves the main problems though (e.g. the first-person perspective, intentionality, agency, the temporal self, etc.).

  20. Renzo Says:

    As a neuroscientist, I have to say that in Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, we do not try to reduce Mind (I would prefer to call it “Consciousness”) to brain activity. There are many epistemological issues; it would be a mistake. What we do is to study the neurobiological CORRELATES of the psychological phenomena, and use these correlates to SUGGEST what is happening in the brain, or within the cognitive systems in the brain.

    I recommend another book. I think this one is the most important book in this field about this Mind-Body issue:

    “The Embodied Mind” (Francisco Varela).

    Kind regards from Chile

  21. Brad Says:

    My apologies Renzo for not posting your response sooner (first-timers need to be approved and for some reason WordPress did not notify me of a new response). I agree with what you are saying entirely. The problem, to me and also for many others, is that many neuroscientists do not even know what epistemology means, let alone the specific philosophical problems that challenge the neurosciences. I think it would be wonderful if undergraduate psychology and neuroscience courses required students to take at least one course in the philosophy of psychology/neuroscience. It would prevent a lot of sloppy conclusions from being published. Until then, we might rely on folks that have that kind of awareness to point out the same issues that arise over and over again. On a related note, I should make a plug for the Neurocritic blog… should be of interest to those following these comments.