Cogito Ergo and Then Some

Though reluctant to declare mind-body dualism defunct, professional mind-watchers’ views have come a long way since Descartes’—sort of, two new books suggest.

Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. Patricia Churchland. 304 pages. W. W. Norton.

A Very Short Tour of the Mind: 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain. Michael Corballis. 106 pages. Overlook Press.

256px-Descartes_mind_and_bodyWhen Descartes famously pronounced, “I think, therefore I am,” the I wasn’t his physical being but his extracorporeal one. Descartes is the godfather of the modern notion of mind-body dualism, the idea that somehow “mind” (the you who’s reading this article) is actually some kind of spirit, soul or essence apart from the sweating, breathing, hairy, bloody bits of body.

Of course, Descartes’ dualist contention came nearly 400 ago, before the discovery of neurons, neural impulses, brain imaging and cognitive science. Those are just some of the post-Cartesian perspective shifts on the neural mass in our skulls that most contemporary thinkers see as the seat of mind.

Two new books illuminate how far professional mind-watchers’ views have changed, or not, on the relationship between mind and body or, more particularly, brain—and notably how hesitant academics are to call mind-body dualism a dead idea.

A Very Short Tour of the Mind collects previously published short magazine essays. This assemblage provides less an organized tour than a random walk at night with a flashlight that fails to provide a clear view of the terrain. The book’s 100 small pages are dinner-party light: chatty and entertaining with some memorable factoids but ultimately not cohesive.

Too bad. From the introductory chapter, it’s clear that Corballis, an emeritus psychology professor at the University of Auckland, has great stories to tell. (His mentor was Canadian psychologist Donald Hebbs, a pioneer in the field who developed sensory deprivation experiments, forerunners of Guantanamo torture techniques.)

In those five introductory pages Corballis provides a thumbnail history of just how much the professional view of mind has shifted back and forth in just the past half century.

He notes that with the rise of behaviorism in the mid-1950s as the dominant psychological approach, “the concept of mind was abolished, and replaced with behavior … (which) is directly observable and therefore amenable to measurement and scientific analysis.”

Thank computers for prompting renewed interest in the mind. Corballis notes the emergence of digital computing largely sparked the cognitive revolution in psychology. “The mind was reinvented as a computational device,” he says, and psychologists began to measure such things as memory and response times. Add real-time functional neuroimaging, an awakening understanding of neurotransmitters, and the professional interest in feelings as well as actions, and you have the makings of modern brain science.

Yet for a book that mixes “mind” and “brain” interchangeably in its title and subtitle, Corballis (remarkably, to my mind) pulls short of saying Descartes’s views are dead.

“It may never be possible to entirely prove or disprove the theory that the mind is separate from the brain,” Corballis writes, “but the more we understand the brain and observe its influence on how we think, feel and behave, the more unlikely the theory becomes.”

Churchland grounds her discussion in storytelling and anecdotes, both professional and personal.

In contrast, Patricia Churchland’s Touching a Nerve convenes the latest thinking on brain science to pull the plug on mind-body dualism.

From Churchland’s opening-sentence riff on Descartes—“My brain and I are inseparable,” she writes—the book is a cris de coeur for the application of the latest hard-nosed science to our view of our minds.

The book is organized as a systematic refutation of the extra-corporeal notion of mind. Chapters build from the idea of soul, the afterlife, the biological origins of morality and religion and the cellular basis of consciousness.

What gives the book its narrative chops is that Churchland grounds her discussion in storytelling and anecdotes, both professional and personal.

Touching a Nerve is sprinkled with wonderful and insightful stories from the author’s childhood on a farm in rural British Columbia. Churchland recounts the tale of a childhood friend, Christine, who fell off her bike and hit her head, developing an “egg-sized lump above her right ear.” More worrisome, though, was the fact that Christine “stared blankly at her left leg and asked whose it was.”

“Later I came to know that subjects with damage to the parietal cortex of the right hemisphere may believe that limbs on the left side, such as an arm, do not belong to them, a condition known as somatoparaphrenia,” writes Churchland, an emeritus professor of neurophilosophy at the University of California, San Diego.

With anecdotes like this one Churchland ties theory and experiment to everyday experience, showing us how our very notion of self is indeed just a bonk-in-the-head away from being shifted.

This makes Churchland a pioneer in what I think is a new kind of neurobiological autobiography; a new way of thinking about our lives, and events in them, in relation to how our brain-minds function.

For me, the most intriguing element of this discussion is how Churchland explains the neural origins of morality and religion, the biological Ten Commandments. She makes a detailed and clear connection between genes, neurons, brain macrostructures, neurotransmitters and hormones and behavior when it comes to doing what’s right.

“Your values are what they are because your brain is what it is,” she writes.

She contends that much of moral behavior starts with mammalian parenting of dependent children. When the live birth of dependent offspring evolved in mammals, it selected parallel behaviors supporting parents nurturing these children. In terms of mind, the fascinating upshot of this relationship is that parents and children are no longer just I but we. Our minds are not just me but me and mine, and thus how I feel it’s correct or moral to behave toward particular others is deeply driven by my biological connection with them.

Many people, academics and truck-drivers-for-Jesus alike, feel offended and threatened by the fact that our brains are us.

Churchland recounts a university elevator ride with an anthropologist who hissed, “You reductionist! How can you think there is nothing but atoms?” At the time she was flabbergasted. Her book is the delayed, nuanced, calm and lengthy reply necessary to explain her position: that if reductionist means truth-seeker, getting down to the essence of things, then that’s her—well, her brain.

Jacob Berkowitz is a science writer and author of the children's science book Jurassic Poop: What Dinosaurs (and Others) Left Behind (Kids Can Press, 2006). His latest book, for adults, The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars, was published in 2012 (Prometheus).