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Does the Brain Constrain the Mind Instead of Creating It?

There is no systematic, science-based reason today to think that’s not true and plenty of evidence suggests that it is

In Miracles (Geoffrey Bles, 1947, rev. 1960), Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) wrote,

That spearhead of the Supernatural which I call my reason links up with all my natural contents—my sensations, emotions, and the like—so completely that I call the mixture by the single word ‘me’. Again, there is what I have called the unsymmetrical character of the frontier relations. When the physical state of the brain dominates my thinking, it produces only disorder. But my brain does not become any less a brain when it is dominated by Reason: nor do my emotions and sensations become any the less emotions and sensations. Reason saves and strengthens my whole system, psychological and physical, whereas that whole system, by rebelling against Reason, destroys both Reason and itself. (Chapter 4)

One implication is that the brain, far from creating the mind, constrains it, forcing it to use the body’s machinery and senses. That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s view. Egnor, author with me of the forthcoming The Human Soul (Worthy, December 2024), told Arjuna Das on a Theology Unleashed podcast in 2021,

The philosophical influence that the brain doesn’t generate the mind, the brain constrains the mind, is one of the deepest insights into philosophy of mind.

It’s particularly born out with results from studies of near-death experiences, that when the soul is freed from the brain, from the body, one has an enormous enlargement of experience, enlargement of knowledge rather than a loss of knowledge. The body constrains the soul. It’s not source of it. (01:14:06)

It’s worth noting in the context that “constraint” is our usual experience of the human body. There are colors we don’t see and sounds we don’t hear because the human body is not adapted to them. In other words, that’s true even in the physical world.

What do neuroscientists say?

Neuroscientists generally avoid these topics. Materialist atheist philosopher Jerry Fodor (1935–2017) said in 1992, “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.” (Quoted in New Scientist in 2011).

And nothing much has changed. To insist that the mind is not real and can’t be constrained amounts to taking a philosophical position, not one based on science. There is no relevant science.

In an interview at Nature, University of Washington neuroscientist Chantel Prat, author of The Neuroscience of You (Dutton, 2022), pointed recently to another issue:

The first is that the one-size-fits-all approach to neuroscience that has dominated the field for over a century doesn’t fit anyone very well. Most of the books on the shelf talk about how brains work.

But this view is based on group averages, and it’s not even based on very representative group averages. What I’m hoping to show people is that “normal” when it comes to brain functioning, is a mult-dimensional space and not a single value. And that in that space there are lots of different ways that brains can work that are not necessarily better or worse than one another, just different. They’ve evolved to solve different problems.

Dom Byrne, “Understanding the difference between the mind and the brain, Nature, April 7, 2023

If every human mind is unique, an imminent materialist smackdown may be all the less likely…

Prominent neuroscientist Christof Koch offered a possible way out:

“It may well be possible that while in principle we can sort of understand how the brain works, given its vast complexity, humans may never fully understand,” Koch said. “Maybe what it means to understand shifts from the kind of classical model of scientific understanding, like Newton’s apple or the double helix of DNA. The details of the brain may be way beyond human capacity and capability to understand, so we may more and more need to rely on computer models to give us correct answers without us knowing why those particular answers are correct.”

Rachel Tompa, “Why is the human brain so difficult to understand? We asked 4 neuroscientists,” Allen Institute, April 21, 2022

Depending on a powerful computer to figure it all out sounds like a forlorn hope under the circumstances.

Some scientists don’t even think the mind can be best understood as confined to the brain. UCLA professor of psychiatry Dan Siegel, author of Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (Norton, 2016) told Quartz in 2016:

“I realized if someone asked me to define the shoreline but insisted, is it the water or the sand, I would have to say the shore is both sand and sea,” says Siegel. “You can’t limit our understanding of the coastline to insist it’s one or the other. I started thinking, maybe the mind is like the coastline—some inner and inter process. Mental life for an anthropologist or sociologist is profoundly social. Your thoughts, feelings, memories, attention, what you experience in this subjective world is part of mind.”

The definition has since been supported by research across the sciences, but much of the original idea came from mathematics. Siegel realized the mind meets the mathematical definition of a complex system in that it’s open (can influence things outside itself), chaos capable (which simply means it’s roughly randomly distributed), and non-linear (which means a small input leads to large and difficult to predict result).

Olivia Goldhill, “Scientists say your “mind” isn’t confined to your brain,or even your body, Quartz, December 24, 2016

So does the brain constrain as opposed to creating the mind? There is no systematic, science-based reason today to think that’s not a reasonable interpretation. And plenty of evidence suggests it.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Does the Brain Constrain the Mind Instead of Creating It?