Sometimes neuro-science needs to give way to more useful explorations of an individual that can be derived phenomenologically.
The study of human communication always calls into question the kind of language that will be used to describe a specific person or message. This discipline has a long tradition of describing someone’s expressed intentions, verbal habits, and preferred appeals in their own words. And the language is description is usually pretty close to the ground, as when a scholar in political communication characterizes Barack Obama’s rhetoric as “cautious,” “detail oriented,” and prone to strings of qualifiers. Of course we would need to know more. But its clear that verbal demeanor obviously has something to do with the personality and character of the whole person: what is going on in their mind.
Over time, all of us gain insights into how others think and what they say by noticing the forces that have pressed in on their lives. This is a basic life skill. When we say we ‘think we know another’s mind, we are expressing confidence that their particular history and life circumstances have made them at least somewhat transparent. We use this process to gain a sense of who another person “is,” and to make predictions about how they might react to events yet to unfold.
These core starting points are now more frequently being challenged by another class of analysts aspiring to be students of human behavior. More cognitive neuroscientists believe the keys to human conduct lie in mapping the organ of the brain; that human behavior can be understood in the aggregate rather than through the signature style of the individual.
Interest in the human brain risks outpacing what should be the continual human project of understanding the person as the possessor of a mind.
To be sure, the organ itself is awesome: composed of some 100 billion neurons (!) and incalculable numbers of potential neural pathways that can form consciousness and thought. Thought itself is an astonishing process that allows nearly infinite sets of unique “circuits” and combinations. And, without doubt, we need neuroscience to learn how various centers function, and how the brain learns, ages, or is altered by biological or foreign agents.
But to study a brain is not the same as learning the features of someone’s mind. The sciences naturally aggregate data, looking for valid universal causes and applications. And there’s the rub. Interest in the organ risks outpacing what should be the continual human project of understanding the person as the owner of a unique consciousness. To my thinking, it is useful to know that the ear captures and sends impulses to the auditory cortex. But my interest begins to flag if someone wants to track how the reception of, say, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony spreads to other neural ‘circuits.’ It would be foolish to claim that nothing of interest could be learned. But it still strikes me as the equivalent of trying to enter a door through the cat door. It would be more useful want to know a person’s reactions, their feelings and images the music evokes in them. I short, I’d be interested in what they have to say about the experience. Those insights would come mostly from queries about their prior experiences, making studies like MRI brain scans of people listening to music seem hopelessly reductionist. At some points, the sciences based on biological observation need to yield what can be learned from phenomenology of human experience. The scientific method tilts toward not noticing individual uniqueness. And yet it’s our individual attitudes and dispositions that best explain why they behave as they do.