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2. Neurosurgeon and Neuropsychologist Agree: Brain Is Not Mind

Michael Egnor tells Mark Solms: Neuroscience didn’t help him understand people; quite the reverse, he had to understand people, and minds, to make sense of neuroscience

Recently, distinguished South African neuropsychologist Mark Solms discussed the real state of brain research with Stony brook neurosurgeon Michael Egnor at Theology Unleashed (October 22, 2021).

In the first portion, Solms, author of The Hidden Spring (2021), proposed in his opening statement that “the source of consciousness in the brain is in fact in the brain stem,” not the cerebral cortex, as is almost universally assumed. Dr. Egnor now responds that his clinical experience supports that view — and also the view that the mind is not simply “what the brain does” as some popular neuroscientists claim:

A partial transcript, notes, and links to date follow:

Arjuna [host]: And now, Michael, could you give a brief explanation of your views? [00:13:00]

Michael Egnor: Sure. I recommend to all the viewers to read The Hidden Spring. What Mark describes about the clinical reality of neuroscience, as patients experience it, is very true.

For example, his observation that consciousness does not reside in the cortex: Every neurosurgeon knows that. That’s crystal clear. And it’s remarkable that so much of neuroscience doesn’t know that…

My own experience actually resembles Mark’s in some way. I think he mentions in his book that his brother had a head injury when he was young. And that, I think, inspired Mark to try to understand the mind and the brain. My mother had an aneurysm rupture when I was a young child, a brain aneurysm. And she survived it. She actually had surgery. But she had cognitive difficulties because of that. [00:14:00]

And so, I struggled with that same question: What was going on with her mind and what was going on with her brain, and how did they relate to each other? So, I was fascinated by this, and of course, also experienced all the emotional trauma this kind of thing raises, as a child. [00:14:30]

When I was in college, I was fascinated by Freud. I read as much of Freud as I could, — The Unconscious: Interpretation of Dreams, A Psychopathology of Everyday Life — and I was particularly fascinated by Freud’s concept of the unconscious. And it seemed to me to be absolutely true, meaning, that there really is an unconscious, and it’s really a tremendous part of our lives. [00:15:00]

Note: Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was the founder of psychoanalysis, at one time as important in popular thinking as Marxism and Darwinism: “He articulated and refined the concepts of the unconscious, infantile sexuality and repression, and he proposed a tripartite account of the mind’s structure—all as part of a radically new conceptual and therapeutic frame of reference for the understanding of human psychological development and the treatment of abnormal mental conditions. Notwithstanding the multiple manifestations of psychoanalysis as it exists today, it can in almost all fundamental respects be traced directly back to Freud’s original work.” Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Many of his once widely accepted positions are controversial today.

Michael Egnor: I moved away from Freud as I got older because Freud was an atheist and a materialist. And I came to see things in different framework. But to paraphrase a statement about Napoleon, Freud is as close to the truth about the mind that an atheist and a materialist can get. Meaning that he really had very deep insights into the mind. [00:15:30]

When I got to medical school, I was thrilled at being able to study neuroscience. My first day of medical school, I bought all the textbooks for neuroscience… I was fascinated by the basal ganglia. And I was thinking that when I really studied neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, that I would understand the mind on a deeper level, not just the structure of the brain and the physiology, but what the mind was and what a person was. [00:16:00]

I thought this was the Rosetta Stone into understanding deeply what it is to be human. And I found in medical school, and then in my neurosurgical training, that it didn’t really help that much. In fact, it was almost the other way around. I had to understand what people were and what the mind was in order to make sense of neuroscience! And I still find that. [00:16:30]

Basal ganglia/Lim S-J, Fiez JA and Holt LL (2014) How may the basal ganglia contribute to auditory categorization and speech perception? Front. Neurosci. 8:230. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2014.00230. CC 3.0

So, I came to a very different perspective. I saw very much the same things that Mark wrote about in his book. I saw patients who didn’t have frontal lobes, or at least most of their frontal lobes, who were completely conscious, in fact, rather pleasant, bright people. I’ve had children who have hydrocephaly, who are most certainly conscious. They’re quite handicapped, but they have emotions. They obviously have profound mental states. [00:17:00]

I have a patient who’s had most of his brain destroyed. He’s a young man who had an arteriovenous malformation of his brain (hemorrhage) about 30 years ago when he was a small child, and it destroyed most of his brain. I see him in the office, he has a shunt for hydrocephalus, for fluid on his brain. He can’t speak very well and he sits in a wheelchair. But he’s actually an extremely perceptive person. His family says that he understands other people’s emotions and thoughts better than most people do. I’ve got a young girl who’s missing at least half of her brain, including a lot of her frontal cortex, who just recently graduated from high school as an honor student. She’s a brilliant child, a perfectly normal kid. [00:17:30]

So, what Mark says is completely true. Consciousness certainly doesn’t come from the cortex. Where it comes from is a whole another fascinating question. But I found that what’s in the neuroscience textbooks simply doesn’t match up to real everyday experience.

Another very good example of that is, a number of years ago, I was removing a tumor in the frontal lobe of a woman who had an invasive astrocytoma. It involved removing most of her left frontal lobe. We had to do it under local anesthesia, with brain mapping, so we could identify [and avoid] her speech area. As we were removing this tumor, I was talking with her because she was awake under the surgical drapes. And she would ask things like, “What’s that sound?” I didn’t want to tell her, “That’s your brain going up a sucker” or something. [00:18:30]

But I thought, it’s so odd that I’m talking to this woman, whose frontal lobe I’m taking out as I’m talking to her, and she never turned a hair. She was completely normal before the surgery and after and during the surgery. So, the brain is a funny thing. [00:19:00]

And where consciousness is, I have my own views. My views are a little more radical than Mark’s, but along the same lines. Certainly not in the cortex. What I’ve come to believe is a couple of things: Roger Scruton (1944–2020), a philosopher, summed up neuroscience beautifully in a single sentence when he said, and I paraphrase, “Neuroscience is a vast trove of answers with no memory of the questions.” And that really nails it. That is, that there’s so much that has been discovered in neuroscience, but so many neuroscientists aren’t even aware of the questions they’re asking. They’re not really getting to the heart of the issue. [00:19:30]

My own view has been, in studying Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas that the Aristotelian-Thomistic model of the mind fits my experience remarkably well:

Note: Aristotle (384– 322 BC) was the first philosopher of science in Western thought. Thomas Aquinas (1225– 1274) adapted his thinking to Christianity.

The soul, which is what makes a body alive, contains powers, some of which we call the mind. And these powers include vegetative powers, like respiration, heart rate, and things like that. It includes sensitive powers, what Aristotle would refer to as perception, emotion, memory, imagination, and locomotion. And it contains rational powers, which are the ability to comprehend abstract concepts and freewill that follows on that. [00:20:30]

The human soul is the composite of all these powers. The vegetative powers and the sensitive powers are in the brain. But the intellectual (rational) powers are not material. They’re influenced by the brain but we have an immaterial aspect to our souls. [00:20:00]

The tree is what you perceive and your perception is the instrument by which you perceive it.

What I think is fascinating [00:21:00] was a question that Aristotle asked, What is a perception? St. Thomas followed up on this. Their answer was that, for example, when I’m looking at a tree, the tree is not my perception. The tree is that which I perceive, but the perception is that by which I perceive. That is, a perception is the instrument by which we perceive. And the thing perceived is actually the thing itself. It’s the form of the tree that I perceive. [00:21:30]

St. Thomas pointed out that perceptions are not conscious; we’re not aware of them. We’re aware of the objects of our perceptions, but not of the perception itself.

And also conception: That is, we are aware of the objects of what we conceive. If I’m thinking about justice, I’m aware of justice. But I’m not aware of the concept of justice, which is the means by which I can conceive of justice. [00:22:00]

And this notion that perceptions and conceptions are not conscious things, I think, fits beautifully with the Freudian idea of the id. The id is that by which we perceive reality. But reality is reality. What we perceive are the real things out there, the trees and the concepts. And the id is the instrument by which we perceive them. And we’re not aware of the instrument, just like we’re not routinely aware of contact lenses that we wear. But the contact lenses can be tinted and can change how objects appear to us. And the id tints the way we perceive reality.

So, as to Mark’s views on where consciousness is in the brain, I don’t think consciousness is in the brain. I see human experience as subject, perception and conception, and object. The subject is a spiritual part of us. [00:22:30]

It’s the way we’re created in the image of God, as part of our soul. The instrument by which we perceive and conceive is the brain. And we’re unconscious. Everything that goes on in the brain, to us, is unconscious. And the objects we perceive are the things that we’re conscious of. So, that’s the way I see the world. [00:23:30]

I believe that science can be defined fairly easily, despite all the enormous literature and the difficulties people have had. I take the classical philosophers’ definition of science, which is, that science is the systematic study of natural effects, according to their causes. So, you systematically study nature, things in nature, and you look for the causes of things in nature.

I think God is the ultimate cause of nature and the ultimate cause of us. So, I think that understanding God and understanding the spiritual aspects of our soul is a scientific endeavor. And if we leave that aspect of us out, our science is incomplete. So, that’s my view. [00:24:00]

Next: Solms agrees with Egnor that the mind is not the body — but, he tells us, from early on he was warned by professors not to think that way: “It’s bad for your career.”

Here’s the first portion of the debate, where neuropsychologist Mark Solms shares his perspective: Consciousness: Is it in the cerebral cortex — or the brain stem? In a recent discussion/debate with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, neuropsychologist Mark Solms offers an unconventional but evidence-based view, favouring the brain stem. The evidence shows, says Mark Solms, author of The Hidden Spring, that the brain stem, not the cerebral cortex is the source of consciousness.

You may also wish to read: Your mind vs. your brain: Ten things to know

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2. Neurosurgeon and Neuropsychologist Agree: Brain Is Not Mind