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You are not your brain

March 25, 2009

I just read a very interesting Salon interview with Alva Noe. Noe is a philosopher who has a new book out, titled Out of Our Heads: Why Your Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness.

In the interview, Noe argues that many attempts by neuroscientists to explain consciousness are misguided. He stipulates that understanding the brain is necessary for understanding consciousness. But understanding the brain is not sufficient. Thus, he takes exception to statements like the following from Francis Crick:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

At the outset of the interview, I wondered if Noe was going in the direction of fuzzy, anti-scientific holism. But that was not the case at all. When Noe says that the brain is necessary but not sufficient for consciousness, he is arguing for a rigorous scientific approach to studying the mind, but one that takes a fundamentally different view of what consciousness is. To Noe, consciousness is irreducibly about the relationship between the brain and the outside world. That “irreducibly” is key. It’s not just enough for neuroscientists to say, “Well, yeah, I’ve got stimuli in my fMRI designs.” In accounting for conscious experience, you have to go deeper.

The core of Noe’s argument reminds me a lot of the early conflict in psychology between structuralists and functionalists. The structuralists believed that if you want to understand some aspect of mind, you needed to break it down into its lower-level constituent pieces. The functionalists believed that to understand an aspect of the mind, you needed to understand how it relates to the organism and its environment. So, for example, a structuralist might study emotions by trying to identify components of emotion: stimulus, appraisal, physiological response, expressive behavior, etc. And in modern times, many structuralists try to understand emotions by understanding the interactions of brain networks. By contrast, a functionalist might study emotions by asking what does and does not trigger them, how emotions relate to the individual’s goals and beliefs, and how an emotion can change an organism’s relationship with its environment.

The structuralism-functionalism debate was a contentious one in the early days of psychology. If you think the obvious answer is “you need to do both,” you’re right, but only trivially so. It’s easy to pay lip service; but in practice, it’s a challenge to do research and formulate theories in a way that doesn’t hew to one or the other approach. Many neuroscientists would repudiate overt expressions of greedy reductionism, but they approach conscious experience like structuralists. This approach leads to hidden assumptions that affect how they set their agenda and formulate their theories. And occasionally the hidden assumptions are not so well hidden, like in the Crick quote above, or when misguided neuroscientists assume a direct, invariant relationship between physiological activity and mental experience. (To wit: “they exhibited high levels of activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala, indicating anxiety.” Seriously?)

So although it’s easy to say “you need to do both,” it’s a hell of a lot harder to actually do both in a smart way. The interview mostly focuses on how Noe thinks that neuroscientists are doing things wrong. I’m curious to see whether his book has good ideas about how to do it right.

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