Part 2 — “Are You Your Brain?”
Who are you? Think about it. Who are you, actually?
Are you that three pound grey mass in your skull called your brain? Without the billions of neurons connecting with other billions of neurons in your brain are you you? Philosopher Rene Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am,” does that mean you are your brain?
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’ve posted two blogs about this question: Are You Your Brain?
In the first blog post “Are You Your Brain?” we started the discussion with the notion that if you have to “think” in order to know an answer, that suggests you wouldn’t, or couldn’t, know whom you are without your brain to do the thinking about, the pondering of, that question. In other words, you need a brain to know who you are.
The second post takes the question and explores the possibility that the answer is no, you are not your brain. Now that we’re deep into exploring this question there might be a third answer, another possibility that is yes AND no. For now, here are excerpts from experts who argue no; you are not your brain.
The brain is only part of the story.
The analogy “brain-as-calculating machine” assumes that human thought–personality, memory, and emotion are located somewhere in the gray matter protected by the skull. In an age when fMRI has enabled us to see images of the brain functioning in real time, and when many prominent public intellectuals (Stephen Hawking, Eric Kandel) have argued in favor of “yes, you are your brain,” it’s a bold assertion to suggest that you are not.
“But you’re not,” says Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, in his book Out of Our Heads. “Human nature is no less mysterious now than it was a hundred years ago,” Noë writes. “Just as love does not live inside the heart, consciousness is not contained in a finite space — it’s something that arises, something that occurs: a verb rather than a noun,” explains Noë.
“The evidence is this says Noë: We still do not have an adequate theory for consciousness. Everybody working in this field understands that we haven’t gotten to the stage even of having a back-of-the-envelope sketch of what a good neural theory of consciousness would look like. If I said to you, is consciousness happening in this individual cell?’ you’d laugh.”
Noë seems to suggest that scientists should be looking for the answer to “are you your brain?” in other places. What Noë is advocating “is an entirely new approach — what if we were to try expand our conception of consciousness by crossing that boundary out of the skull, to encompass “not just our bodies, brains and our movements over time, but also the dynamic interactions that we have with the larger world around us, including the social world?” Human connectivity it seems is a clue not to be overlooked.
“Consciousness does not happen in the brain,” Noë claims. In an especially insightful article in Scientific American Jascha Hoffman writes about Noë’s theory, “But his position is not as extreme as it sounds. The point is not that neural states are irrelevant to our experience but that if we are ever to understand the nature of conscious awareness we will have to consider more than just our ‘wet, sticky, meat-slab brains.’ The sense of consciousness, according to Noë, is the ongoing product of a wide-ranging interaction between the body of a living creature and the world it inhabits. Noë’s main point is: if we want to understand the conscious mind, we need to take a wider view of the whole person interacting with their environment.”
There are two sides to an argument. One on hand the brain controls what we think, who we are, our values and actions. It is the brain that changes, not us. On the other hand Rebecca Gladding M.D., co-author of You Are Not Your Brain, begs to differ. She believes “that the mind is intimately connected with, and can exert some pretty powerful effects on, the brain. In short, [Gladding] believe[s] that people are so much more than what their brain is trying to tell them they are and that the brain often gets in the way of our true, long-term goals and values in life (i.e., our true self).” The ‘gets-in-the-way’ part of Gladding’s point may be a bit hard to swallow but let’s go with her main premise that we are much more than just our brains.
Dr. Gladding asks do we have the power to influence our brains or not? “Obviously, Dr. Schwartz and I believe that we do have the ability to harness the power of focused attention to change our brain in ways that are healthy and beneficial to us. Even more to the point, many of the thoughts, impulses, urges and sensations we experience do not reflect who we are or the life we want to live. These false missives are not true representations of us, but rather are inaccurate, and highly deceptive, brain messages.”
In short, according to the Drs. Gladding and Schwartz, the brain and the mind are two distinct entities. You don’t have control over of deceptive brain messages, but you can choose how to react to them.
This blog post makes me want to write my brain a letter to straighten things out.
You say I’m not good enough, but I believe I am. You make me think there’s something wrong with me but there isn’t. Or if there is, I’m ok with that. You’ve whispered that no one likes me but that’s not true lots of people like me. You’ve said that my value depends on being perfect. Well, we all know no one’s perfect. And you have argued that I don’t deserve to be happy. But I am, not all the time but most of the time. You may be that voice in my head, that nagging often annoying arguing voice, but you are not me.
PS What do you think?
by Richard Tavener, Executive Producer, My Virtual Dream