reviews and essays

The Obstinate Mind

Neuroscience’s recent attempts to understand the mind

By NAKUL KRISHNA | 1 November 2012

THE MIND IS “TURBULENT, STRONG, OBSTINATE”, cries Arjuna dolefully in the Bhagavad Gita. Obstinate in the face of efforts to control it, and to understand it. The two obstinacies are not unrelated. The culmination of the European tradition of inquiry into the mind—ranging from Plato to Freud—is the contention that there is such a thing as the unconscious mind, a thing to whose secrets the conscious mind is not privy. The unconscious will not yield easily, certainly not to introspection or some other simple effort of the will. But that is not to say it will yield to nothing.

People have long known of the mind’s intimate connection with a particular bodily organ: the brain. The Roman royal physician Galen of Pergamon had remarked upon the connection in the 2nd century AD while working with patients who had sustained brain damage. But it has only been in the last few centuries that we have acquired the wherewithal—the use of the microscope and other observational techniques—to study the brain in its constituent complexity. Crucially, further work on brain damage from the late 19th century onwards has enabled us to map with an unprecedented degree of precision the relation between specific mental functions and specific parts of the brain. The development, as we shall see, was not a wholly unproblematic one.

Confronted with these methods, the mind began to yield at least some of its secrets to the modern world’s most reliable technique for acquiring new knowledge: the scientific method. It is a sign of our trust in this method, and the discipline it has created—neuroscience—that we express so many of our old puzzles, our old anxieties, in the vocabulary it has given us. The fear that the appearance of control and freedom in our lives is a mere illusion, the fatalism of the ancients, is now directed not at the caprice of the gods but at neurological ‘determinism’, the view that all our actions are determined by facts about our brain states and their histories, facts over which we have no control. We seek cures for the maladies of the mind—the pre-modern world’s manias, melancholy, and madness—by manipulating the condition of the brain: hence our talk of addictions, depression and cognitive impairment.

As one of the reigning sciences of our age, and one in whose results the non-scientist takes a natural interest, neuroscience has had its share of charismatic popularisers. The lay reader is likeliest to have read something of VS Ramachandran’s work on synaesthesia and phantom limbs, or Oliver Sacks’s collections of case histories of patients with rare neurological conditions. Much of the interest of these works comes from the unsettling awareness they afford us of other, stranger, ways in which some human beings apprehend the world. To read Sacks’s eerie essay (‘An Anthropologist on Mars’) on Temple Grandin, an academic with autism to whom much animal behaviour seems far more comprehensible than that of human beings, or his narrative about the artist who lost his colour vision in an accident (‘The Case of the Colorblind Painter’), is to be confronted with a sense of how much our seemingly ordinary ways of perceiving the world rely on the maintenance of a fragile equilibrium in our brains.

The last few years have seen such hits as Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist (2007), whose title offers a reasonable summary of the book’s central contention about neuroscience’s relationship with the humanistic tradition of inquiry into the mind and its mysteries, and of its author’s belief that other methods than those of the sciences have given us an improved understanding of our minds, an understanding whose value does not rely on its being reducible to the terms of the sciences. There have also appeared the inevitable reactions to the discipline’s tendency to overstate its achievements, in such books as the neurophysician Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (2011), which took its readers through a range of old and new arguments against any simple attempt to identify mental states with the sorts of information about brain states given to us by Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Last year saw another popular work, David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (2011), a catalogue of intriguing neuroscientific results. Like other books occupying the same market niche, it gives us a sense of the image the discipline seeks to show the world, and therefore offers us a convenient starting point in taking stock of neuroscience’s achievements, and its inadequacies.

Neuroscience’s idea of itself is nicely conveyed in the potted history of scientific discovery that opens Incognito: the discovery that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe, that the earth is far older than it had previously been thought to be, Darwin’s theory of human evolution, quantum mechanics, the discovery of the structure of DNA. And now, he says, “neuroscience has shown that the conscious mind is not the one driving the boat”. We are not what we thought we were. In Eagleman’s phrase, given to us as a matter-of-fact pronouncement attended by neither consternation nor glee, “we have experienced the fall from the center of ourselves”.

Ought we to rue these ‘dethronements’? No more than we ought to rue the many dethronements that preceded it, Eagleman argues. “The act of dethronement tends to open up something bigger than us, ideas more wonderful than we had originally imagined. Each discovery taught us that reality far outstrips human imagination and guesswork.” The point is well taken. Neuroscience is not the enemy of the awe we feel at the mysteries of the mind. It only provides that awe with new and more deserving objects. In this, Eagleman and his fellow neuroscientists follow those other splendid popularisers Richard Dawkins (“Mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved”) and Richard Feynman (“I see a deeper beauty that isn’t so readily available to others”).

Popular books on neuroscience work best as compilations of striking experimental results, and neuroscience most intrigues the non-specialist when deriving surprising conclusions about the mind from seemingly commonplace phenomena—perception, sexual attraction, sleepwalking. However, the prehistory of the discipline’s investigation of brain damage is still reflected in the preoccupations of much recent research, and it is easy to understand the fascination with the uncanny neurological case study given what it might tell us about the relation between the mind and specific parts of the brain. There is a strong sense in all this of neuroscience as adventure, of the neuroscientist setting out on a grand romantic voyage with little idea of what fantastic or disturbing things he will find. (Ramachandran, for one, is wont to see himself in the lineage of the intrepid Victorian scientists—Faraday and Darwin—and rues the professionalisation of science.)

Yet another preoccupation of popular neuroscientific writing is the development in the science of MRI, and the excitement in the prospect of mapping the brain without having to wait for a patient with a yet more recherché neurological condition to walk into the laboratory. The discipline has learnt some of the lessons of history, and is properly wary of suggesting that the brain is basically a sort of colour-chart with regions that can be matched up to the ability to play piano or a predilection for fascism. Raymond Tallis is rightly harsh on this sort of silliness (it is one species of what he dubs ‘Neuromania’), while Eagleman notes the obvious parallel with the early Victorian—as we now know—pseudoscience of phrenology, with its obsessive and wholly misguided attention to bumps on skulls. The moral of which we may take to be this: knowing that the mind has something to do with the nervous system does not mean we are yet fully clear about what that relation amounts to.

One unfortunate vice of popular neuroscience, and one it shares with popular genetics and economics—as much the fault of bad science reporting as of scientific hyperbole—is a fixation on questions about sexual attraction, marred by a thorough insensitivity to the role of culture and history in determining human behavior, and an adolescent (male) sense of humour. It is the sort of science that reveals more about the demographics of scientists than about its actual subject matter. Ramachandran’s infamous paper ‘Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?’ (Medical Hypotheses; pp 19-20; January 1997)—in part a “satire on ad hoc socio-biological theories of human mate-selection”—will give some sense of the tone of this kind of writing:

Several authors have suggested that certain florid displays of secondary sexual characteristics—such as the peacock’s tail or the rooster’s bright-red wattles—may serve the purpose of ‘informing’ the female that the suitor is healthy and free of dermal parasites. I suggest that being blonde, or light-skinned, serves a similar purpose. Every medical student knows that anemia, (usually caused by intestinal parasites), cyanosis (a sign of heart disease), jaundice (liver disease) and skin infection are much easier to detect in fair-skinned individuals than in brunettes.

A MORE THREATENING SPECTRE that haunts the public reception of neuroscience is a philosophical thesis to which the discipline can sometimes seem committed: that of neuroscientific “reductionism”, the view that in its most extreme form claims—in Eagleman’s formulation—that “we are no more than the cells of which we are composed”. He takes us succinctly and more or less reliably through the arguments against such views:

If we were to work out a complete physics of neurons and their chemicals, would that elucidate the mind? Probably not. The brain presumably does not break the laws of physics, but that does not mean that equations describing detailed biochemical interactions will amount to the correct level of description. As the complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman puts it, “A couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine are, in real fact, a couple walking along the banks of the Seine, not mere particles in motion.”

Or, as Kauffman might have put it, the couple are most certainly particles in motion, but the neuroscientist is not entitled to that “mere”.

Even when explicitly repudiated, however, the allure of reductionism is not always resisted successfully: A good test for a science writer’s sensitivity to philosophical complexity is their treatment of the problem of free will. There is a real question here about whether neuroscience has in fact ‘proven’ that we do not have free will, whether it has shown that our actions are determined by factors outside our conscious control. And if this is so, then many of our common practices of praise and blame, more generally of attributing moral responsibility, would seem to rest on a thesis proven false. But alas, it is deplorably common for scientific writing to omit mentioning the most fertile area of speculation on the subject: the view that free will, or something more or less like it, might exist even if determinism is true, and that there is no inconsistency in affirming both views. This shifts the ground of speculation to what it means for us to have, or to lack, free will; what it means for us to have a will that is not free; what it means for human action to be “determined”—conceptual questions to which neuroscience might not have a great deal to contribute.

Readers interested in these matters will find much to think about in ‘Freedom and Resentment’, the philosopher Peter Strawson’s classic essay from 1962. Strawson argued influentially that it is a mistake to over-intellectualise the notion of freedom involved in discussions of praise and blame. The important thing is to look to the distinctions implicit within our actual practices of apportioning responsibility. Take one of Strawson’s everyday examples:

If someone treads on my hand accidentally, while trying to help me, the pain may be no less acute than if he treads on it in contemptuous disregard of my existence or with a malevolent wish to injure me. But I shall generally feel in the second case a kind and degree of resentment that I shall not feel in the first.

There is no need to ground our instinctive ability to make these commonsense distinctions in some grand metaphysical theory.

Not everyone has been convinced by Strawson—the debate is far from settled—but even if he is right, neuroscientists can still add much to the public conversation about criminal responsibility instead of further muddying the already muddy waters of modern metaphysics, to the extent that the law has always taken a keen interest, commendably clean of metaphysics, in the question of when unsoundness of mind mitigates the blameworthiness of the criminal. And here, modern neuroscience might find more promising questions to which to apply its characteristic methods: questions about the extent to which certain kinds of criminal behaviour are rooted in a person’s brain, the possibility of rehabilitation, and whether and when prison sentences are likely to have any effect on future behaviour.

In this respect, neuroscience has a potentially reformist, even therapeutic, function, one that reveals its essential continuity with the tradition of humanistic inquiry into the mind and its mysteries, inquiries premised on the thought that gaining a better understanding of the mind was part of the project of improving human life. One such tradition—and one that neuroscientists, with their colleagues in medicine and philosophy, have always been ambivalent about—is that of Freudian psychoanalysis, which located many of the ills of human life, such as our psychoses, phobias and paranoias, in experiences hidden from the conscious mind.

The appeal of Freudian psychoanalysis lay precisely in its therapeutic promise, its claim to eliminate the obstacles the unconscious posed to happiness, of bringing buried traumas to the surface and exorcising them. Modern neuroscience gives us MRI scans rather than the couch, and the new cures its allied discipline, psychiatry, has given us for old woes have been chemical ones.

This is a matter of some considerable recent interest, and a recent long article by Siddhartha Mukherjee in the New York Times, ‘Post-Prozac Nation: The Science and History of Treating Depression’ (April 19, 2012) offers a helpful summary of the state-of-play in the debate, with a particular focus on the relationship between levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and depression. Mukherjee is wary of scientific overconfidence, recognising that for all the recent progress in our understanding of brain chemistry, “Depression is a complex, diverse illness, with different antecedent causes and manifestations”, and that serotonin’s “mechanism of action is vastly more subtle and more magnificent than we ever imagined”. Further he is open to “talk therapies”—a range of psychotherapies that include forms of psychoanalysis and newer methods such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy—while legitimately curious about:

[W]hy “talk therapies” work in some patients and not in others, and why the combination of talk and antidepressants seems to work consistently better than either alone. It is very unlikely that we can “talk” our brains into growing cells. But perhaps talking alters the way that nerve death is registered by the conscious parts of the brain. Or talking could release other chemicals, opening up parallel pathways of nerve-cell growth.

The humility and speculative quality of Mukherjee’s prose here are entirely proper. The history of 20th-century science gives us some cautionary examples of medical arrogance, none more vivid than the brief and terrifying popularity of lobotomy as a response to the most trifling of mental problems. In the face of the current state of our knowledge—one might say the current state of our ignorance—science is yet to supersede other traditions of inquiry into the unconscious, and scientific medicine yet to vindicate a purely chemical solution for illnesses of the psyche. It is no irrational anti-scientific prejudice to hope that other flowers may continue to bloom.

One reason for hoping this is a political one. The more we understand the mind, the more we seem to be able to change it. But how shall we decide when it is proper to do that? And who should have the power to do so? The state, someone murmurs ominously. But do we trust them with such power?

The relative safety of the human mind from the meddling of the quack, or the apparatchik, has had much to do with how little we have understood of its workings, a sign, if ever there was one, that the expansion of human knowledge is rarely an unmixed blessing. It is with neuroscience as it is with nuclear physics or genetic engineering—science cannot itself tell us what we should do with its discoveries.

We cannot unlearn what neuroscience has taught us, and for the most part—in medicine, and in several areas of public policy—we should not want its insights ignored. But the discovery that the human mind is more knowable, and consequently more easily manipulated, raises questions that take us out of neuroscience into questions about its proper place in human life. And to answer that question we will need more than neuroscience. 

Nakul Krishna’s reviews and features have appeared in the New Statesman, the Sunday Guardian, the Indian Express and Tehelka. He lives in Oxford, England, where he is working on a doctoral thesis in moral philosophy.


186 thoughts on “The Obstinate Mind”

Free will is a concept with deep roots in Christian theology. It’s importance is by no means shared by all cultures. So the free will debate should be seen as a culture specific rather than a universal problem. This is one of Prof Balagangadhara’s main points.
Indic traditions have leaned towards determinism, or even more radical, agencylessness. They also focus on revealing how this determinism works by careful examination of the mind. In a way, this makes us more free. But this freedom again involves specific cultural concepts like when one talks about being free from karma, or the process of dependent origination.

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