Tag Archives: neuroscience

“Brain” or “Mind?”

                        Times Higher Education

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.

“Mere?” Not so Much.

 Individuals who flatter themselves by being about “action” must ultimately face the undeniable fact that survival in American life depends on the water of communication.  What we say matters. A lot. 

In parched California, getting caught watering the sidewalk rather than a patch of grass is likely to annoy neighbors.  And a clueless homeowner’s response that what is involved is “merely” water won’t help.  Everyone understands  what’s at stake.  Water makes life possible.

My incredulity matches those neighbors when I hear someone dismiss another’s comments by noting that those expressions are “mere rhetoric.”  In my field this is the professional equivalent of a thumb in the eye.  I’ll give the phrase it’s due; it hangs around our public discussion like mosquitoes in a Michigan summer.  But it’s a misguided thought.

We use the “mere” put-down to devalue someone’s words, usually on the mistaken assumption that we have other means for understanding each other.  In the usual form, the preferred reality is to preference “deeds” over words.  And that is sometimes the case.  For example, we generally expect that people will act on their stated intentions: that their behavior matters. But even in such cases we are also interested in making conclusions about character based on spoken promises.  Individuals who flatter themselves by being about “action” must ultimately face the undeniable fact that survival in American life depends on the water of communication.  What we say matters.  A lot.

The “mere rhetoric” mistake is often spoken by reporters and politicians, the very folks who most need to acknowledge the debt they owe to the fluency of others.  Their fuzzy thinking sometimes comes with a statement such as this:  “For the moment let’s set aside all the rhetoric about this subject and get to the point about what’s at stake.”  This supposed set-aside is then followed by. . . well. . . more language. Staring at each other in complete silence isn’t much of an option. Not understanding our debt to words shows the same kind of lack of self awareness that allows someone to worry about the government “taking over” Medicare.

Over the centuries thinkers have wondered if there isn’t a better cure to misunderstanding than via verbal pathways.  Most have usually ended up with a synthetic symbol system that mimics mathematics.  No one ever misunderstands what “2” means.  And we don’t think others are hurling abuse in our direction if they talk about a “dozen.”  Mathematical language has the virtue and liability of being completely stipulative.

Football on television is functionally as much about the announcing as the action on the field.  Try watching an entire game without the sound.

But our expressive needs require more.  We revel in rhetoric that is loaded, judgmental, evocative and sometimes rude.  We seek out people who use beautiful constructions that engross and engage.  And this isn’t just in the realms of the novel or poetry. Football on television is functionally as much about the announcing as the action on the field.  Try watching an entire game without the sound.  Similarly, a judgment in the form of a letter grade often matters more to a student than their actual work.  And parents rejoice when their young children begin to pass through the threshold of literacy.

To be sure, we are theoretically capable of stepping back from the rhetorical world.  But the requirements are harsh and, for most of us, not very welcoming.  Lock yourself away in a silent place.  Don’t talk. Don’t listen to others.  And try to control the verbal chatter of a rhetorical mind that can probably run circles around  even your most loquacious relative.  It’s not fun to be denied the gifts of utterance.

The scholar Kenneth Burke reminded us that “Language is equipment for living.”  We are toilers and pleasure seekers in the information age, often allowing our bodies to wither while our heads surf through endless waves of verbiage.  Even social scientists who pride themselves on being rigorous empiricists usually end up studying verbal behavior most of the time.  As for the neuroscientists who often use brain scans to seek the origins of our actions?  Well, that’s mere neuroscience.  The human mind is more than the organ of the brain.  It’s the source and signature of our verbally constructed selves.