The most obvious problem with claiming that mind and brain are the same is the lack of an explanation as to how consciousness can arise from matter. In the past, some scientists adopted the denial strategy, saying that mind and consciousness didn’t actually exist. The American behaviourist B.F. Skinner went as far as to say in 1953 that they were ‘invented for the sole purpose of providing spurious explanations … Since mental or psychic events are asserted to lack the dimensions of physical science, we have an additional reason for rejecting them.’
Others, such as Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, explained that consciousness was simply the subjective experience of brain activity: ‘ “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules …’
What materialists failed to explain was how cells, molecules and atoms could give rise to consciousness when they have no consciousness-creating properties. Scientists wishing to account for this problem would invoke ‘complexity’ as the reason. Create a complex enough network of neurons and—whoosh!—consciousness arises. But in the words of B. Alan Wallace:
“No matter how complex this network of cells might be, it strikes me as mystical thinking to imagine that something as radically different as an emotion or a dream could emerge from neurons. We could just as easily believe in the emergence of a genie from a magic lamp.” (Quote from Minding Closely – a book I highly recommend.)
The hold of reductionist materialism, still strong today, is especially puzzling when you consider that it fails to explain some of the most basic aspects of mental activity. Take memory. Recall ability is an assumed part of our moment-to-moment consciousness. If mind really is brain alone, then memories must be physically stored somewhere in the brain. But attempts to find memory traces have been unsuccessful despite billions of dollars spent on decades of research.
In the early twentieth century, psychologist Karl Lashley carried out a gruesome series of experiments in which he destroyed different parts of rats’ brains in an attempt to locate the centre of memory. To his surprise, he found he could burn out even large amounts of brain tissue and the rats would still remember how to find their way to food. From this emerged his theory of ‘equipotentiality’—if certain parts of the brain were damaged, other parts would take on their role.
Exactly how memories might be physically stored in brain cells is a particular conundrum given that these cells, like all others in our body, are subject to ongoing death and replacement. How are memories handed on from one cell to another? Or leap from destroyed brain cells to cells that were intact, in the case of the rats who had parts of their brains destroyed?
The loss of memory due to brain injury or the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease are sometimes offered as evidence that memory resides in the affected areas. If that were the case, then other people lacking these same parts of the brain would be similarly affected. But British neurologist John Lorber, who scanned the brains of more than 600 people, discovered that the cranial cavity of about 10 per cent of these was more than 95 per cent filled with cerebrospinal fluid. In other words, they had tiny brains. While some individuals were retarded, others were mentally normal and several performed extremely well in IQ tests. One individual, with a first-class degree in mathematics and an IQ of 126, had a brain only 5 per cent the normal size. This led Lorber to ask a provocative question: is the brain really necessary?
The paragraphs above are a (lightly) edited extract from my book Why Mindfulness is better than Chocolate. The book explores the nature of mind in much more depth.
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The material in this blog is dicussed in much more detail in my book, Why Mindfulness is Better Than Chocolate.
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