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Neuroscientist: Your Brain Isn’t for Thinking, Just Surviving

Lisa Feldman Barrett hopes that her materialist perspective will help us deal with our current anxieties

Last Sunday, we featured the views of philosopher Samir Chopra, who argues that anxiety, while distressing, is a normal outcome of our human ability to see the past and the future as well as the present. A pig gets anxious when he sees that his trough is empty. But he cannot, by nature, know that he is destined for the menu at a local fast food place, let alone that all his kin have gone that way. Knowing the past and sensing the future opens up both great powers and vast avenues of anxiety for a human mind.

But, in an op-ed in the New York Times, psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett (pictured), the author of Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, offers a very different perspective on anxiety from Chopra’s:

First, in her view, your brain is merely a “command center” that evolved from a “tiny sea creature” over countless aeons to run your complex body. Your brain doesn’t even exist in order to think:

Your brain’s most important job isn’t thinking; it’s running the systems of your body to keep you alive and well. According to recent findings in neuroscience, even when your brain does produce conscious thoughts and feelings, they are more in service to the needs of managing your body than you realize.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, “Your Brain Is Not for Thinking” at New York Times

She asks us to image our brains as operating a series of deposits and withdrawals:

This budgetary account of how the brain works may seem plausible when it comes to your bodily functions. It may seem less natural to view your mental life as a series of deposits and withdrawals. But your own experience is rarely a guide to your brain’s inner workings. Every thought you have, every feeling of happiness or anger or awe you experience, every kindness you extend and every insult you bear or sling is part of your brain’s calculations as it anticipates and budgets your metabolic needs.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, “Your Brain Is Not for Thinking” at New York Times

The promise? “In stressful times, this surprising lesson from neuroscience may help to lessen your anxieties.”

But does it? How, exactly? The notion of our brains running our mental lives as if they were the bank (“a series of deposits and withdrawals”) might feel like a satisfying metaphor for Barrett. But how would it help the rest of us deal with anxiety?

If our brains are like banks, why should we think that they are any use to us in coming up with new ideas for dealing with new problems? Because fresh ideas are what we need, what we have always needed in tough times. There is nothing like a new approach to a problem to diminish useless anxiety. It becomes obvious to most people that the energy going into anxiety may as well be channeled into a new approach.

So where will we turn for help? Traditional religion? That’s a good thought. There’s a lot of background knowledge there about dealing with anxiety from thousands of years of sages and prophets.

But the first thing traditional religions will tell us is to forget approaches like Barrett’s, which tacitly assume that the mind does not really exist. We will be told instead that the mind does really exist.

For one thing, if the brain is really just a mechanism for deposits and withdrawals, who or what thought up the image that describes it that way? Unthinking things cannot characterize themselves. The brain is characterized, correctly or otherwise, by something that operates with but beyond the brain. For convenience, we refer to it as the mind.

While we are here, neuroscience tends to support the reality of the mind, even though many neuroscientists are not in a rush to tell us that.

And that is why anxiety is a normal part of the human condition. There is no known fix that will turn us into pigs, who are happy (or unhappy) for purely physical reasons in the present, the only moment pigs ever know.

Barrett also tells us,

Your burden may feel lighter if you understand your discomfort as something physical. When an unpleasant thought pops into your head, like “I can’t take this craziness anymore,” ask yourself body-budgeting questions. “Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I dehydrated? Should I take a walk? Call a friend? Because I could use a deposit or two in my body budget.”

Lisa Feldman Barrett, “Your Brain Is Not for Thinking” at New York Times

Those are all good ideas in principle. We are physical as well as mental beings, of course. But we must be very careful about assuming that, if the things happening around us seem crazy, the cause is merely some disorder in our own physical bodies. Why should it be?

Perhaps the scene we are viewing really is crazy in a general way that we can identify using our reasoning skills and communicate to others. And maybe even do something about.

But to make use of those reasoning skills, we must first begin by accepting the reality of the mind. We are not bodies ruled by a brain bank. Life was never meant to be that easy.

Note: The featured photo is courtesy Andrew Neel on Pexels.


You may also enjoy:

A philosopher writes in praise of… anxiety! It is part of the ability to think about life in a human way. Samir Chopra argues that anxiety is a “dogged, unpleasant and indispensable” companion to philosophy.

Your mind vs. your brain: Ten things to know

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Four neuroscientists whose work sheds light on the reality of the mind.


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Neuroscientist: Your Brain Isn’t for Thinking, Just Surviving