Friday, January 26, 2007

The Pitfalls of Mind-Brain Dualism

Wall Street Journal science writer Sharon Begley has written Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, on the practical implications of the mind-body connection. In particular it’s about how the power of thought can, as she puts it in a recent article based on the book, “sculpt our grey matter.” Cool! But why would we want to sculpt our grey matter? Presumably because the brain controls behavior, mood, personality, etc. So if you can control your brain using your thoughts, you’ve got ultimate control over yourself.

But hold the phone. Who or what controls thought? Where does thought come from? Mind-brain research of course shows that thought comes from the brain. Without the brain, there are no thoughts, as far as neuroscience can tell. So what Begley describes in the article (I haven’t yet read the book) as a causal path from thinking to brain-sculpting is really the brain sculpting itself, with thought simply being the subjective experience of what the brain is doing.

Begley – a very smart, perceptive reporter on cutting-edge science – here seems somewhat in thrall to the last vestiges of mind-brain dualism, and it isn’t hard to see why. Supposing that we can just think our way to a better brain offers a kind of control we otherwise wouldn’t have. Since I can think whatever I want, I can bootstrap myself into better brain-based mental health, and who wouldn’t want that kind of power?

In the article, Begley states the dualistic metaphysics behind this scenario that none other than the Dalai Lama suggested might be the case:

[I]n addition to the brain giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to this thing we call the mind, maybe the mind also acts back on the brain to cause physical changes in the very matter that created it. If so, then pure thought would change the brain's activity, its circuits or even its structure. (emphasis added)
And the payoff is described by scientist Michael Merzenich at the University of California, San Francisco:

We choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, we choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves. (emphasis added)
So: the pure thoughts that we as immaterial selves choose to think sculpt our brain, to make it function better. But again this just raises the question about the source of the immaterial self and its thoughts. As Begley herself recognizes in the first passage quoted above, it’s “the brain giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to this thing we call mind.” If this is true, then our mental selves arise from grey matter, so we can’t in any sense stand apart from our brains and manipulate them. The brain, embedded in a body embedded in an environment, is an entirely physical cybernetic control system that changes in response to the demands put on it as the organism makes its way in the world. Conscious thought, along with sensations and emotions, is what it feels like to be such a system; thought isn’t a magic lever over the system itself. There isn’t an immaterial soul in charge of the brain.

To see this is crucial, since otherwise the failure to just choose our way out of our difficulties is unexplainable except as the fault of the soul, in which case we’re susceptible to massive self-blame, guilt and shame. And the myth of pure mental power might lead us to ignore the fact that our psychological states stem a great deal from the physical and social circumstances we’re in; we actually lose control by supposing we can (and should) just rise above our circumstances, instead of seeking to change them.

Dualism, therefore, has little going for it, either as an accurate picture of the mind-brain connection or as a practical approach to mental health. A science-based, fully naturalistic understanding of ourselves suggests that the conscious mind – sensations, thoughts, emotions, etc. – is what it feels like to be a brain-body system acting in the world. Knowing this, we’ll be less susceptible to soul-guilt and better situated to sculpt our physically-instantiated selves to our liking.