Your Mind & Your Brain

Your Mind & Your Brain

The Brain is Complicated!
The Brain is Complicated!

On the Way to Your Mind & Your Brain: Which Is More Real, A Quark, A Photon, or Galaxy GN-z11?

Quarks, photons, and distant galaxies might seem an odd place to start a discussion of our brains and our minds. But it’s a good place to start in that physics is the hardest of the hard sciences. In physics, it is or it isn’t (except in quantum mechanics with the paradox of quantum superposition, wherein it both is and isn’t at the same time; look up “Schrödinger’s cat”). With gravity, the apple did fall and Isaac Newton worked out the details. But none of us will ever see a quark, a photon, or galaxy GN-z11(well, maybe a smudge on a photographic plate) even though evidence is solid confirming that they are there. So the fact that we don’t see the mind in the brain does not mean it’s not there. And with some imaging techniques we can see the tracks of thoughts and feelings zipping here and there within the brain.

The Mind, The Brain, and Neurologic and Psychiatric Illness

The fact that the mind is in the brain, and that we live in our brain, is easier to see in some neurological disorders that in psychiatry. If a person gets a cancer in their brain’s temporal lobe, the functions controlled by the temporal lobe go bad, like hearing, learning, and memory. If someone has a stroke in his occipital lobe at the back of his head, vision goes, leaving him unable to identify objects, recognize colors, or even to see at all. Since the brain changes that cause the problems we call psychiatric are much tinier, we can’t see them like we can a tumor or a stroke. But those tiny changes are there.

New Bottles for Old Wine? – Which Metaphor to Use for the Brain-Mind?

Thomas Huxley was a 19th century biologist who strongly defended Darwin’s On the Origin of Species theory of evolution. His grandson was Julian Huxley. He wrote a book in 1957 entitled, “New Bottles for Old Wine” (Huxley, J.S. 1957. New bottles for old wine. New York, Harper and Brothers). Though most people have long since forgotten the book (or never knew about it), the title has stayed with us as a way to say that one can put a new cover over something old to make the old thing look different and maybe new, when in fact, it’s not new or different at all. So, here’s how the brain-mind problem is the old wine that the computer age has put into new bottles.

The Hardware & Software New Bottle for the Old Wine Brain-Mind Situation

The brain-mind (or mind-body) problem is certainly old, and in this metaphor is the old wine. With the computer age, the new bottle in this metaphor is hardware and software. Computer hardware is the hard, physical part of the computer, with motherboard chips and various cables and wires. The software is the written lines of code in some computer code language that tells the hardware what to do. So the metaphor that seemed to emerge automatically is that our brain is considered to be hardware. We change something in the brain with learning new ideas and concepts, so change, learning, and social interaction is the software.

The Hardware-Software Metaphor in Medicine

At this point we want to introduce a brilliant and famous guy, Dan Stein. The list of his degrees and what he has done is long. In brief, he’s a Professor and the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cape Town, South Africa. While his regular research is on anxiety, stress, and trauma, he’s known as a great contributor to profound thinking about the philosophy of psychiatric illness. Thus, his take on the hardware-software metaphor in medicine, and particularly in psychiatry, is considered to have merit. For example, the comparisons have been proposed that medications change our hardware, the brain, and psychotherapy changes our software, our brain’s instructions. But, is the brain really just a thinking machine? He prefers the term “wetware”. He uses this term “wetware” in an attempt to illustrate that the brain-mind is biological through and through.

The “Wetware” Metaphor for Our Brain-Mind

What Dr. Stein is saying here is that by using the two different words, brain and mind, we automatically see them as two separate things. He says this is wrong and confuses the reality of ourselves. He prefers the one, unitary term “brain-mind”, and that brain-mind is the one word for that thing we all have inside our head. So, he refers to the brain-mind as “wetware”, not separate hardware and software. Our brain work of thinking and brain emotions of feeling are built into the substance of our brain-mind, and the brain-mind is continually shaped by our social activity. You see, it’s true that every time any of us think a thought or feel an emotion some part of our brain is working, and working in a way that we can see. We can even take a picture of it. These active areas of your brain light up in a scanner. It’s real.

So, Dr. Stein Would Say It’s Our Wetware, Not Our Hardware and Software

So, that’s Dr. Dan J. Stein’s point. If we’re going to use a metaphor for that thinking and feeling thingy inside our skull, he wants us to use one that makes sense, that fits what our brain-mind does and is. It’s wetware, our brain-mind, a single unit, the place where we live, and a biological entity through and through. The hardware and software metaphor continues the myth of René Descartes’ idea of a separate mind/soul and body, that is, Cartesian Dualism. And promulgating an incorrect myth doesn’t help anyone.

Hey, Wait a Minute, Who’s René Descartes?

For the Western World, René Descartes is the most recent famous originator of this whole brain-mind conundrum. When one thinks about the brain and the mind separately it says that they are two different things. The fact that this idea is believed by so many of us is not an accident. It was devised deliberately a long time ago. Like having printed books and gears that mesh and turn, things and ways of thinking are invented and then stick around for a long time. After a few centuries we don’t even think about them anymore. They just are, they’re part of our lives. And everybody, at least almost everybody in the Western World, thinks this way. But here’s the thing. It’s not true! Cartesian Dualism is just one possible shared version of the world. We’ve all agreed to believe it.

Did Descartes Invent the Separate Mind, Brain, and Body Idea?

René Descartes has gotten the credit for inventing this way of understanding how individuals are put together. But he didn’t really invent it. A few others have thought this way for millennia before Descartes. Recall that Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone. It was invented first by Elisha Gray, and even others before him. And Guglielmo Marconi didn’t invent the radio, Nicola Tesla did. The wrong people can get all the credit. So while Descartes might not have been the first with the idea of a separate body and mind, he was the guy who sold it to the world of medieval Europe and got the credit. René Descartes was a French philosopher who lived from 1596 to 1650. This was the period when the astronomer Galileo Galilei, the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and Blackbeard the Pirate were alive.

Why Did René Descartes Promote the Separation of Mind and Body?

Descartes was trying to prove the existence of God. We need to mention at this point that in medieval Europe the mind and the soul were pretty much thought of as the same thing. So what he was saying was that the soul and/or the mind is separate from the body. He believed that the mind and body were different because he thought that the mind/soul could exist without the body but the body could not exist without the mind/soul. In his view of the world, the mind or soul was capable of thinking while the body was made up of matter that could not think. (Does this sound a bit like hardware and software?) This conceptual framework allowed science to study the physical world and assigned the soul/mind to religions as immortal. Descartes thought he had solved a problem.

But Cartesian Dualism Didn’t Solve the Problem

Descartes’ idea that the soul and the body are separate, Cartesian Dualism, refers to the dual parts: mind and body. Though Descartes thought of his ideas as new and never before considered, in fact, the puzzle of how we as individuals are put together had been discussed for at least two thousand years. And, while he stirred up a great deal of interest in who we are, he really didn’t solve the question. But, he did again raise public awareness of the question. The debate over whether we are of two parts, one temporary and one immortal, has continued through the past four hundred years. It’s the Mind-Body problem.

A Reader Asked: Who cares?

A great question, and the point is well made. Most people don’t care, and that’s fine. But there are inquisitive people who want to know how we’re put together. Dr. Darko knows a 36 year old woman who recently read a book on autism and wondered then if she was autistic. Of course she wasn’t, but this successful professional woman was searching, questioning, how is she put together as a person. She empathized with some of the struggles of people with autism, confronted by a puzzling world. So, those who care about the mind and the body really do care. And it affects the choices people make. Will taking a medication for depression help? Or, will psychotherapy help more? Will anything help or is it just human nature to be depressed? Maybe how we’re put together doesn’t matter until we start to feel we’re not put together very well.

The Problem Part: Saying It With Soul

The ideas of mind and soul were not very different in medieval Europe. And for many it’s still not a clear distinction. So it can become a problem to talk about his area and start talking about the immortal soul. Especially if someone is religious, saying that the soul and the body are one unit and that both die together upon death can really upset them. It’s easier to get everyone to agree if you say that the body and the soul are separate. But then, are the body and the mind the same or separate? These days, in 2021, where do you draw the line between the mind and the soul? This is the part that makes some people very upset, that is, whether the mind is separate from the soul.

Watching Our Brains in ActionYour Mind & Your Brain

With the miracles of medical science we can now watch people think and feel emotions. We can watch our brains in action. A huge amount of scientific research has been published during the past twenty years. One can make images of the brain working, the brain as it works. It’s possible to actually see the brain solve arithmetic problems. We’re able to see our living brains as we react to picture and feel emotions. Many brain scans can be taken quickly over time and then can be fit together as “movies” of our brains while they are working, that is, while they are thinking thoughts and feeling emotions.

Seeing Thoughts and FeelingsYour Mind & Your Brain

So these brain images spliced together into movies allow us to see our human thoughts and feelings. Really, it’s true. And here’s what has been discovered. Every time you think a thought, every time you feel an emotion, your brain is working. When you review your credit card statement, when you watch your children play, when you enjoy a good meal, circuits in your brain light up with activity. Specific areas and circuits go into high gear, depending on what are the thoughts and emotions. The brain’s nerve cells are active, using energy, sparking with electricity, pumping out chemical transmitters to talk to other cells. We now have been able to record these moving scans of brain activity. It might seem like maybe Dr. Stein’s wetware metaphor does indeed apply to our brain-mind.

Heart and Soul, I Fell in Love With You…

“Heart and soul, I fell in love with you…” is a line form a song, and we offer due apology to the memories of Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser, who wrote the song in 1938. This part of this topic is another area that can stir some individuals to object to a wetware concept. As we said above, people understandably are sensitive about their immortal soul. They don’t want science types messing with the part of them that’s going to heaven (or not). Where does our heart come into play, heart meaning feelings, not that pumping organ in your chest? And the difference among the heart, the mind, and the soul can start to feel pretty vague at times, pretty abstract, to many people. They feel, and rightly so, that, “I know what’s in my heart and it’s not the same as what’s in my brain.”

This Is Not Science vs. ReligionYour Mind & Your Brain

As you can see, when these topics come up many people run for safety, saying, “You’re arguing science vs. religion!” Not so. All this medical science is not an argument against religion. We at the Neuroscience Research and Development Consultancy value our immortal souls as much as you do. Science has no way to study or talk about souls or religious beliefs, so to this extent maybe René Descartes was right. It’s likely, or at least quite possible, that this whole other spiritual world exists, heaven, immortal soul, hell, and so on. (It is interesting, however, that while everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.)

But the Scans See What They SeeYour Mind & Your Brain

Brain scanning machines go by many big names: Magnetic resonance imagers (MRI images); Computed Axial Tomography (CT or CAT scans); Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans); Magnetoencephalography (MEG images); Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NRIS scans); and Single Photon Emission Computerized Tomography (SPECT scans). But all these big machines are simply recording devices. It’s like taking a video with your mobile phone. It just records what the camera lens sees. The fact that God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world does not change what scientists around the world have discovered and seen. That is, every time you think a thought, every time you feel an emotion, some part of your brain is working, and working in a way that we can see. The active areas of your brain light up on a scanner. It’s there. It’s real.

But the Scans Don’t and Can’t “Read Your Mind”

Are you telling me that doctors can read my mind with a brain scanner? Nope! Happily, it’s not possible to read anyone’s mind. And not to let any cats out of any bags, but we at the Neuroscience Research and Development Consultancy would be really upset if brain scan machines could read our mind and tell what we’re thinking. The scanner can tell what part of your brain lights up when you think a thought or feel an emotion, but the scanner cannot tell what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling. Thank God that part is very private.

But, Maybe Medical Science Can Read Your Mind a Bit?

All that privacy stuff said and agreed, medical science might have a window into the brain more than we thought possible. In 2016, the National Geographic Channel carried a documentary with actor Morgan Freemen as host, entitled The Story of God. In Season 1, Episode 4 Morgan Freeman met with a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Andrew B. Newberg, MD. Dr. Newberg has created a field of study called neurotheology, the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences.

Neurotheology: Does it Sound Great or Spooky?

In the list above we mentioned a type of brain scan machine called Single Photon Emission Computerized Tomography, or SPECT for short. With a SPECT brain scan Dr. Andrew Newberg measures blood flow in brain areas during mental activities. In his scans, when truly religious people, believers in God (for example, Franciscan nuns in prayer, or Tibetan Buddhist monks while meditating) were scanned, the brain’s frontal lobes became more active during their spiritual mediations. But, when an atheist who was a long-term, experienced meditator was scanned there was no similar increase in frontal lobe activity. The individual who did not believe in God was not able to activate the structures usually involved in meditation on God, even when he was focusing on the concept of God.

To Get To The Bottom Line on This Topic We Need to Visit Automotive History

Yes, it’s true. We really need to take this digression. We need to take a short side trip into the history of automotive construction. A hundred years ago engineers would build a vehicle frame, a metal square with the four wheels, holding the engine and transmission. A coachmaker, who used to make horse-drawn carriages, would make the car’s body, with seats and windows and such niceties. The car body would be bolted onto the car’s frame. Starting about seventy years ago, maybe a bit more, car makers started making the car all in one piece, not a separate coach and chassis. This was called a unitized body, or unibody, construction. We are like this. We have a mind and a body and often they are thought of as separate. They aren’t. We are all one piece, not a separate brain/mind and body. We are made with unibody construction.

The Problem with Medical Specialties

So, there you have it. We’re put together all at once to work as one piece, unibody construction. Our brain-mind is our “wetware’. In the early days of medicine, and still mostly until now, it’s been easier to study one organ system at a time. And the doctors interested in each system worked together. So there came to be cardiologists who study hearts, gastroenterologists who study stomachs, endocrinologists who study glands, rheumatologists who study bones and joints, and so on. And psychiatrists and neurologists to study brains and nervous systems. But this is not reality. We aren’t separate pieces. These are scientific training wheels on a child’s (medicine’s) first bicycle. We are unibody construction with our wetware in control. And medicine is just now starting to catch up to this reality.

Helpful Links:

National Center for Biotechnology Information on Neuroimaging in Anxiety Disorders

PubMed Central, National Library of Medicine on Neuroimaging the Effects of Psychotherapy

Psychiatric Times October 2021, go to page 51 (numbered page 44 in the document)

Mass General Hospital Psychiatry Research on Mindfulness and Brain Grey Matter

UCLA Newsroom on Feelings into Words Effects on the Brain

Progress in Neurobiology on Neuroimaging of Emotional Self-Regulation

Dr. Neeta Mehta. Mind-body Dualism: A critique from a Health Perspective. In: Brain, Mind and Consciousness: An International, Interdisciplinary Perspective (A.R. Singh and S.A. Singh eds.), MSM, 9(1), p202-209.

University of Colorado, Boulder on Thoughts as Things

American Psychological Association on Scanning the Brain

Andrew B. Newberg, MD on the Nature of Theology

Books by Dan J. Stein, MBChB UCT, FRCPC, PhD, DPhil:

Problems of Living: Perspectives from Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Cognitive-Affective Science
Philosophy of Psychopharmacology: Smart Pills, Happy Pills, and Pepp Pills
Serotonergic Neurocircuitry in Mood and Anxiety Disorders
Cognitive Science and the Unconscious
Cognitive-Affective Neuroscience of Depression and Anxiety Disorders.

Reference

Dan J. Stein, MBChB UCT, FRCPC, PhD, DPhil and Awais Aftab MD. Traveling the Middle Road Between Skepticism and Scientism: Conversations in Critical Psychiatry. Psychiatric Times Vol. XXXVIII No. 10 October 2021, pp. 44-46.

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