I just read “The Mind and the Brain” by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley. Someone on an internet forum recommended it to me more than 3 years ago, and well… better late than never. 🙂
Here are a few of the fascinating things I have learnt about the brain’s ability to change itself based on input and directed attention:
- Phantom limbs: the area of the somatosensory cortex that used to deal with input from that limb, in the post-amputation silence, starts to receive signals from other parts of the body in time as neural pathways migrate in from neighbouring regions. This means that typically for an amputated arm, touching the face will give a feeling of that arm!
- Focal hand dystonia: musicians that heavily practise synchronised movements of the fingers can lose individual control of those fingers, because the brain has been fooled into no longer regarding these fingers as separate fingers, and the representations of these fingers in the motor cortex sort of blur into one congealed region!
- In one study, getting people to practise a 5-finger piano exercise produced measurable change in the motor cortex… and getting people to mentally rehearse it produced a change “to the same degree as that brought about by physical practice”!
- Therapies have been developed utilising this neuroplasticity to overcome brain malfunctions such as OCD, Tourette’s, depression, and even to allow stroke patients to regain control over their affected limbs.
All this is amazing, but what really blows my mind is that if so much in the brain can be changed by willful effort, that means you can be changed, which means who you are is not really set in stone at all.
It made me think about morality. If, as this book says, the working of the brain is so contingent on its experiences right from birth, and so little of it is genetically-programmed, it would seem that human values could wander quite far from evolved “defaults”. Laws have not been constant over human history, and this makes sense to me now, in a slightly disturbing sort of way 😯 (think torture, stoning, slavery and so on). On the positive side, it also has to be possible to improve our values, become de-brutalised, etc. Perhaps we can even improve on the defaults evolution has dumped on us, and collectively craft a happier future than would have been possible without the rational self-reflection that… well, that evolution gave us. Isn’t that mind-blowing?
It begs the question, are we predictable?
The book touches on this very question, too. It asks, firstly, if brain processes are really a satisfactory explanation for the subjective experience that is “mind”. Is it possible to get how neuronal activity produces me-ness? “Even if we knew everything about every field and iota of matter in the universe… it is hard to see how that knowledge would produce that elusive ‘Aha!’ moment, when we all say, Oh, right, so that’s how consciousness is done (in the way we might react, say, to a materialist explanation of how the liver produces bile).” (Ch. 1)
Indeed, materialism and reductionism get a bit of a bashing. The book laments that Cartesian dualism in the 17th century broke apart the warring pair, science and religion: science would henceforth be concerned with the material (physical) while religion would hog the realm of the mind (spiritual). And so up to the present day there is a tendency in science to automatically regard a belief in anything seemingly immaterial (such as the mind) as superstitious. Yet quantum physics contains all sorts of weird and wonderful observations that give the impression that reality might be very different than how we currently conceive of it. Consciousness may even be intrinsically inside quantum physics in the effect of the observer, who, making a measurement, causes wave function collapse. Eugene Wigner is quoted as saying: “The laws of quantum mechanics cannot be formulated… without recourse to the concept of consciousness”. (Ch. 8 )
I’m not sure how I feel about materialism and reductionism. I would hate to think that mainstream western science is brainwashing me, and yet I definitely am not inclined to think that there are immaterial influences on the “physical” world (whatever “physical” even means!) that confound our attempts at modelling and prediction from within the physical realm. Why? Firstly, we are doing pretty well at modelling and prediction, even if we have a long way to go, and even if there are other (identifiable) things that confound it in some situations. Secondly, in the past I certainly looked for inexplicable phenomena I could attribute to immaterial influence (God). I was never a 7-day creationist or anything, but I definitely had the unsettling experience of seeing natural explanations for things I’d assumed were safely behind a curtain of mystery. My intuition now tells me to reject the idea that there is anything out there that couldn’t be captured by physical theories. Having said that, I am not repulsed from the idea of the immaterial. But I think mind is an emergent property and not something with a life of its own, even if it can affect what it emerges from.
Schwartz, on the other hand, believes in free will. The most interesting sentence in the book for me was this one, quoting Thomas Clark: “To assert a belief in free will is to … recognize the mind as ‘more or less a first cause, an unmoved mover'” (ch. 9). It showed me exactly why free will makes no sense to me. It is saying there is no further explanation, no way of understanding or (even in principle) predicting what we will do. Arguing for free will puts the mind outside of natural laws, and so directly contradicts the statement in chapter 1 that “consciousness and the mind… are legitimate areas of scientific inquiry.”
Human consciousness is complex enough to allow the possibility of reflecting on our own thoughts, and, through effortful attention, deliberately reprogramming our brains. I have a “plastic” brain and I can choose to shape it with my thinking. But the way I see it, that choice was fully determined by the existing brain structure and the ideas that were input, and not by some completely independent first-cause action of mine.
(Perhaps belief in freedom of choice is necessary for some people though; I don’t feel a lack of this belief has to lead to fatalism, although it easily could: if knowledge can collapse a wave function, why shouldn’t it collapse motivation also? :lol:)