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Surreal brain tree in a desolate land and a determined person watering it using a sprinkling can. Man splashes the green shrub using a water pot, taking care of mental health. Human mind concept
Surreal brain tree in a desolate land and a determined person watering it using a sprinkling can. Man splashes the green shrub using a water pot, taking care of mental health. Human mind concept

It’s Not Even Clear How the Mind Relates to the Brain

Journalist and editor Ken Francis asks a series of skeptical questions of those who claim that the mind is really just the brain

Kenneth Francis, co-author with Theodore Dalrymple of The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd (2018), offers some thoughts at New English Review on why the mind cannot be the same as the brain. The context is whether artificial intelligence will ever have minds or be able to read our minds (as opposed to scanning our brains):

Without even a basic understanding of what consciousness is, the idea of putting it into a machine, while not difficult to imagine in the fantasy of science fiction, becomes almost impossible to grapple with when it comes down to real and practical implementation…

As to where the mind resides, that is the biggest mystery in philosophy. Although it interacts with the brain, it can’t be a kind of invisible vapour hovering above one’s head. Nor can it be located in some part of the universe, as it’s supernatural and outside of space and the material world.

If epiphenomenalism (mind is brain) is true, then how come fake drugs sometimes work in placebo effects? And at what point in evolution did the atoms in brains develop morals? That we can have logic, reason and truth evolving out of a material process that is aimless, purposeless, misguided and unaware of self seems absurd.

Kenneth Francis, “The Mind is Not the Brain” at New English Review (March 2022)

Indeed, the mind doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the brain in particular. Many people naturally think of the cerebral cortex as the seat of the mind. But neuropsychologist Mark Solms and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor agreed in a recent discussion at Theology Unleashed that their professional experience does not support that view:

Mark Solms: I have been led to the view, over a few decades of working in this field, that we’ve made a big mistake in our conception of consciousness in neuroscience. The mistake has a very long history, which I won’t go into, but it boils down to the view that the seat of consciousness in the brain is the cerebral cortex. This is an absolutely universal view with a very few… few exceptions, myself included, obviously.

It’s our evolutionary pride and joy. But … a lot of evidence, suggests that the source of consciousness in the brain is in fact in the brain stem, which is a much more ancient, much more primitive structure that we share, not only with all other primates and all other mammals, but in fact, with all vertebrates. The basic structure of the brain stem in you and me is the same as it is in fishes. If you’re going to look at it from the physical point of view, which part of the brain, is bound up with this mental property that we call consciousness? It is the reticular activating system, in particular, of the brain stem. It’s primitive core. I said, there’s tons of evidence, but let me just mention the most dramatic bit of evidence.

News, “Consciousness: Is it in the cerebral cortex — or the brain stem?” at Mind Matters News (November 6, 2021)

Michael Egnor replied,

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…

News, “Neurosurgeon and neuropsychologist agree: Brain is not mind” at Mind Matters News (November 7, 2021)

As a matter of fact, in 1998, two mind specialists made a famous scientific wager on that very topic:

TWENTY years ago this week [1998], two young men sat in a smoky bar in Bremen, northern Germany. Neuroscientist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers had spent the day lecturing at a conference about consciousness, and they still had more to say. After a few drinks, Koch suggested a wager. He bet a case of fine wine that within the next 25 years someone would discover a specific signature of consciousness in the brain. Chalmers said it wouldn’t happen, and bet against.

Per Snaprud, “Consciousness: How we’re solving a mystery bigger than our minds” at New Scientist (June 20, 2018)

There is a little over a year to run and no specific signature of consciousness has been found so far. It could easily be the wrong thing to look for — somewhat like trying to capture ether or phlogiston, concepts long accepted in science that turned out to be based on mistaken notions of what is happening.

falling pills

The placebo effect that Francis mentions is both one of the best attested effects in medicine and the simplest demonstration of the power of the mind. Patients start to get better when they believe they are going to, quite apart from the actions of medications:

A drug licensed for use must demonstrate greater effectiveness than a placebo (a capsule of sugar or an inert substance, perhaps) in clinical trials. That standard does not mean, as is sometimes supposed, “greater effectiveness than nothing.”

Many conditions for which we seek treatment respond—at least for a time—to the simple belief that we are receiving treatment …

Not only is the mind-body connection not “nonsense,” it isn’t really even news. It’s just unpopular. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine illustrates the efforts underway to “problematize” the placebo effect once again. And that’s a tough slog, considering the weight of the evidence that writer Gary Greenberg, psychotherapist and author of The Book of Woe, introduces:

“Tell someone a normal milkshake is a diet beverage, and his gut will respond as if the drink were low fat. Take athletes to the top of the Alps, put them on exercise machines and hook them to an oxygen tank, and they will perform better than when they are breathing room air — even if room air is all that’s in the tank. Wake a patient from surgery and tell him you’ve done an arthroscopic repair, and his knee gets better even if all you did was knock him out and put a couple of incisions in his skin. Give a drug a fancy name, and it works better than if you don’t.”

Ah. One must pause here to say that pharmaceutical manufacturers who advertise to directly to patients, as they are allowed to do in the United States, put a great deal of thought into that last point (“a fancy name”) and into unpacking the many lifestyle assumptions it encapsulates. If their campaigns didn’t work, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

Whatever they may say they believe about the placebo effect, they surely believe in it where the bottom line is concerned.

Mind Matters, “Yes, the placebo effect is real, not a trick” at Mind Matters News (November 16, 2018)

If the 21st century turns out to be the Century of the Mind, it is likely to be very different from what materialists predicted in the 20th century.


You may also wish to read:

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. Egnor saw patients who didn’t have most of their frontal lobes who were completely conscious, “in fact, rather pleasant, bright people.”


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It’s Not Even Clear How the Mind Relates to the Brain