Understanding the Biological Mind

This article is part two of a two-part feature on neuroscientist Alan Jasanoff’s book, The Biological Mind. You can read part one, an excerpt arguing that your brain is neither computer nor CEO, here.

In his new book, The Biological Mind, neuroscientist Alan Jasanoff argues that when it comes to understanding the brain, our minds have been wandering—at least in how we define, speak about, and study them. Jasanoff suggests that many of us have become too enamored of the brain’s seeming centrality and complexity, something he terms the “cerebral mystique.”

As Jasanoff makes his case, he ranges through—and at times unifies—neuroscience, biology, psychology, and philosophy. Several passages in particular stood out to me. I spoke with Jasanoff, prompting him with four of these passages and asking him to unpack the ideas in each.

#1: “The cerebral mystique is a … powerful illusion about the exceptional qualities of our brains and thus about ourselves as individuals … In effect, the cerebral mystique results in a psychological transference of old beliefs regarding the soul to new attitudes about the brain.” (p. 25)

Alan Jasanoff: The cerebral mystique is a set of idealizations of the brain that gives us a false sense of the brain’s power and autonomy. It creates a duality between the brain and the body in a way that previously we had a dualism between the mind and the body. A lot of the ways that we talk about the brain today, especially in the media but also sometimes in the professional community, emphasize ways in which the brain is either different in its substance or different in its causal relationship to the world compared with the body.

#2: “It is in the biological milieu of the brain that the inward-looking world of Wundt and today’s neuroessntialists melts without boundary into the extroverted world of Watson and Skinner. They are one and the same.” (p. 170)

AJ: We had the early scientific psychologists who studied the mind from within, then the behaviorists who studied behavior without the mind. Now we’re back in the era of studying the mind from within. Of course, we know that the brain is required for all behavior. At the same time, we can’t lose sight of what’s going on outside.

Now that we have the ability to see where stimuli from the outside world intersect with our biology, we have the potential to bring together external models of causation and internal models of causation. The answer of course is that there’s no distinct separation between those things, because they actually meet. Increasing awareness of how the brain fits into a causal and physiological fabric can alert us to that.

#3: “The redefinition of mental illnesses in terms of brain diseases—however scientifically accurate and well-intentioned—can clear the way for cold-eyed discrimination based on neurobiological factors.” (p. 178)

AJ: It’s incontrovertible that some things that go wrong with the brain can lead to problems with our behavior that we call mental illnesses. At the same time, simply reducing mental illness to brain disease creates a very narrow picture of what can cause something to go wrong in the brain. One of the biggest arguments for reducing mental illness to brain disease is the idea that the world will think of mental illness in the same way that it thinks of influenza or cancer. There’s no sense that we could blame a person for having those conditions.

That is a valuable contribution that unfortunately doesn’t seem to resolve the stigma of mental illness. I cite a meta-analysis that came out a few years ago, which showed that despite increasing awareness of biological causes for mental illnesses, there doesn’t seem to be an increase in the social acceptance of people with mental illness.

Historically, the idea that mental illnesses were caused by biological flaws was there. The quote alludes to movements to purge the gene pool of the sources of biological flaws that could lead to mental illness. The most famous examples of this took place under the Nazis, who, in what some people view as a trial run of the Holocaust, identified mental patients, people with learning disabilities or schizophrenia, and killed them.

Even in America in the early part of the 20th century we had forced sterilization of people who were identified to have mental dysfunctions. There’s a famous quote from the otherwise progressive judge Oliver Wendell Holmes who said that three generations of imbeciles was enough in justifying the sterilization of a young woman named Carrie Buck, who had learning disabilities and had gotten pregnant out of wedlock.

#4: “The quest for cognitive improvement and immortality through brain technology represents the cerebral mystique and the denial of our biological nature at their most extreme. In its capacity as the gateway to a higher plane of human existence, the brain attains the status of a religious entity.” (p. 208)

AJ: One of the most remarkable phenomena we’ve seen in recent years related to brain science is this increasing trend for people to want to save their brains after death, with the idea that eventually the technology will become available to scan the brain, retrieve the contents of your mind, and upload it to a computer—or potentially rejuvenate the brain and transplant it into a new body. This really emphasizes the idea that people are associating their identities, their selves with the brain. The idea involves the notion that everything important about us is in the brain and it neglects the idea the brain’s connections to the outside world are part of what makes us who we are.