Who are you? Think about it. Who are you, actually?
That fact that you have to “think” in order to know an answer suggests that you wouldn’t, or couldn’t, know whom you are without your brain to do the thinking about, the pondering of, that question. You need a brain to know who you are. Or do you?
That’s quite the question isn’t it, from many perspectives: Medical, Spiritual, Moral, Philosophical, Personal, Religion, and The Universe. It’s hard to know where to begin or where this discussion might go.
At My Virtual Dream we like to say we’re possibilitists. This means we are open to what’s possible and that our focus is more on asking questions not as much having answers. With that in mind, we’re going to make two blog posts about this question: Are You Your Brain? The first post takes the question and explores the possibility that the answer is yes; you are indeed your brain. The second post takes the question and explores the possibility that the answer is no, you are not your brain. Once we’re deep into this there might be a third answer, another possibility that is yes AND no. Hmmm, we’ll see.
Yes, you are your brain.
French philosopher René Descartes’ famous quote “I think therefore I am” suggests that you are your brain. Descartes’ philosophy was built on the idea of radical doubt, in which nothing that is perceived or sensed is necessarily true. The only thing that remains true is that there is a mind or consciousness doing the doubting and believing its perceptions, hence the famous formulation, ‘I think therefore I am’, or in Latin, the cogito—‘Cogito ergo sum’. Descartes was certain that one could not be fooled about one’s own existence. With this Descartes meant that the only thing he did not doubt was his own existence, because the act of thinking about, and doubting, the reality of his perceptions was affirmation of his existence.
Nobel laureate Francis Crick, writing in The Astonishing Hypothesis The Scientific Search for the Soul says “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.” As Crick sees it, “Why shouldn’t consciousness have a physical basis? Hearing does. Seeing does. Why not being as well?”
Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California at San Diego, says, “Our hopes, loves and very existence are just elaborate functions of a complicated mass of grey tissue.” Her most recent book is Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, in which Churchland suggests that the same is true about “realizing that when we’re conscious, when we make decisions, when we go to sleep, when we get angry, when we’re fearful, these are just functions of the physical brain.” The question “are you your brain? is “unnerving…we’re not in the habit of thinking about ourselves that way,” adds Churchland.
According to Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience and physics at MIT and author of the book, Connectome, the answer to the question “are you your brain?” is yes. He argues that theory has many important implications for understanding our minds and human behavior. “The wiring pattern of your brain is what makes you uniquely you,” says Seung.
(Aside: Sebastian Seung is heading up Eyewire.org where people can come help his team map the human retina by playing a game that is very much like a coloring book. Friend of My Virtual Dream Amy Robinson, Director of @eye_wire, has been part of discussions with us about this topic and several others).
David Eagleman, PhD, author of the New York Times bestseller, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, provides an extraordinary look at the human brain and current neuroscience research. Eagleman argues, “It is clear at this point that we are irrevocably tied to the 3lb of strange computational material found within our skulls…. our personalities, hopes, fears and aspirations all depend on the integrity of this biological tissue.”
Eagleman’s position makes sense because when the brain changes, we change: Neuroplasicity. Eagleman adds, “Our personality, decision-making, risk-aversion, the capacity to see colors or name animals – all these can change, in very specific ways, when the brain is altered by tumors, strokes, drugs, disease or trauma. As much as we like to think about the body and mind living separate existences, the mental is not separable from the physical.”
Convincing arguments for “yes you are your brain.”
Our co-leader Dr. Randy McIntosh reminds our team that The Virtual Brain and My Virtual Dream gives us the means to understand more about our brains, embracing the complexity of what makes each of us unique. We are building The Virtual Brain and presenting My Virtual Dream to help us be better humans. Shimon Peres has a lovely phrase in his talk encouraging global efforts in brain research. He convincingly states, “If we understand our brains, and thereby better understand ourselves, we would have no other path but to be better humans, be better to each other.”
What do you think?