Tuesday, December 18, 2007
"I just found out there's something wrong with my brain... Thank goodness there's nothing wrong with my mind!"
What is the difference between the mind and the brain? Surprisingly, scientists who study human behavior/minds/brains don't agree on the answer to this question.
The answers people have are below:
1) The mind is the software that runs on the brain, which is the hardware. The mind as software view is mainstream cognitive science. Most cognitive scientists look at the mind/brain difference basically this way. I am one of these cognitive scientists.
2) The mind and the brain are the same thing. Specifically, there is not mind, there is only brain. This is the identity theory of mind.
Elimative materialists and radical behaviorists believe this. The Churchlands (Paul and Patricia) and a whole lot of dead behaviorists fall into these groups, respectively. This means a rejection of the cognitive science philosophical position of functionalism. And as a result, it suffers some problems. For example, if an alien visited Earth and was walking, and talking, feeling and emoting, but had no brain, we would still want to say the creature had a mind.
Non-scientists can sometimes hold a third view,
3) The mind is a non-material substance; the brain is material. This is what Descartes thought, and a lot of people (though not all) who believe in souls and new age bullshit. One of the many problems with this view is the famous mind-body problem, which is basically this: how does a non-material substance interact with a material substance?
View #1 has a similar problem, the "mind-brain problem," which, as of this writing, is not a term popular enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry. I think it's effectively solved with the software-hardware description. Now that we have computers and computer programs that run on them, it' s quite easy to understand how the mind might interact with the brain.
Most people hold view 1 or 3. I was just reading an interview with Oliver Sacks in Discover Magazine (Kruglinski, 2008). In it Sacks talks about a case in which a woman who can't perceive music (she hears it as noise) finds out that it has a neurological basis. She was relieved to find out that it's not "just in her mind" (quoting Sacks here).
Okay, so it's not just in her mind, but my goodness, it's surely in her mind too. If you can't make out music, believe me, sister, there's something wrong with your mind. So sad! Imagine never being able to appreciate the genius of Hello Nasty.
Descartes's dichotomy of the non-material mind and the material brain still lingers on in our cultural understanding of psychology. One place I think it arises is in the "problem" of free will. Your brain determining how you react to an environment is not a troublesome notion if you think that the brain running your mind is all you are. People say "but my brain controls me!" As though the "me" were some spirit. Your "me" is just the software running on the brain. Your brain and mind determining what you do is your exercising of free will, at least in any meaningful sense of the term.
Pictured: Someone using their mind. And brain.
Kruglinski, S. (2008). The Discover interview: Oliver Sacks. Discover, January, 2008, 72--78.