The Wriggling Brain

By Neuroskeptic | January 28, 2012 5:03 pm

What do we mean when we talk about “the brain”?

Easy, right? It’s this:

Certainly, this is the image that comes to my mind.

But this is not an image of a brain. It’s an image of a dead brain.

In a living brain, all kinds of interesting things are happening. Things we literally can’t begin to imagine. Because these are hard to visualize, they can’t enter the mental picture.

To picture the living brain as just a yellowy lump is like picturing Wikipedia as a disc. It’s accurate as far as it goes, but it misses the whole point. You could download Wikipedia onto a BluRay disc, and then you could describe that disc as “Wikipedia” and you wouldn’t be wrong, but Wikipedia is much more than a silver circle.

It doesn’t help much that we know that there’s more to the living brain than a yellowy lump. Yes, most of us know that the living brain is somehow responsible for thought, feeling, perception, and consciousness.

But we have no idea of how it does so, we don’t have any feel for this relationship. We agree with the idea that brain = mind, but that’s just an abstract equation. Just as most of us know that e=mc2, but only physicists understand it.

All this leads to philosophical problems. Wittgenstein wrote:

Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations. – One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing? One might as well ascribe it to a number! – And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these difficulties vanish and pain seems able to get a foothold here.

What he meant is that we only feel that we can ascribe pain (or any “internal” mental state or event) to something which is behaving “externally”.

Now in most cases, that’s fine. Most inanimate objects really don’t have mental states. But brains do. The brain, we feel, is inanimate; it’s just a yellowy lump. By itself the brain is like Wittgenstein’s stone – it seems.

So, we feel, the brain itself can’t really have mental states, only walking, talking, behaving people can, like wriggling flies. Except we know on an abstract level that brains do have mental states; so we tie ourselves into philosophical knots about “brains” and “persons”, asking whether a person is more or less or the same as a brain, and so on.

The whole problem could be removed, I think, if instead of a yellowy lump, we could picture the living brain in all its active complexity; if we could talk about “the brain”, not as an inanimate object, but as the most animate thing in the world.

In the brain there are hundreds of billions of cells, and each one is a hive of movement – not visible to the naked eye or even to a microscope, but the movement of ions and neurotransmitters and ultimately information.

I think many philosophical puzzles would lose their edge if we could somehow get a feel for all that; if we could replace the accurate, but misleading, yellowy lump picture of “the brain” with one that captures the complexity and dynamism of the thing: a city, a hive of insects, a vast machine.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: animals, philosophy, science
  • Bernard Carroll

    This is a reprise of Sherrington's metaphor of the brain as “an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.” Charles S. Sherrington, Man on His Nature, 1942.

  • petrossa

    'We' are a flow of information. A side effect. An abstract construct. Evidently 'we' can't perceive us as such. Not being there and all.

    So a lump of cholesterol is much easier to visualize although not very appetizing. You could try going for a nice gardenia, or a kingfisher.

  • Callum James Hackett

    I think this is a good perspective to have, though I would modify it very slightly. Rather than consider the brain an *especially* animate object, I think it would be better for us all to think of the brain in exactly the same way as we think of body parts being in a constant state of change with cells being replaced, tissues growing or ageing etc. The same changes aren't happening in the brain, but it *is* an active object that *does* change in other ways.

    Our problem seems to be that we can accept that our bodies change – that's obvious enough given the difference between a 1, 10, and 100-year-old – but we don't recognise that our minds change just as often and drastically because this doesn't play into our notion of our lives as a narrative where our consciousness is the one constant.

    But, just as our bodies change, so does our consciousness, which is itself a manifestation of our experiences, sensations, and memories, which, in turn, are different from day to day.

  • Julia

    Very interesting article. I've been reading a lot lately about how the gastroenterologists might take issue with this perspective: “Yes, most of us know that the living brain is somehow responsible for thought, feeling, perception, and consciousness.” The digestive tract is apparently sending a lot more information to the brain than the other way around, and there's a growing body of evidence that it is the gut doing our thinking and affecting our emotions. Google “second brain”.

  • Ryan Stuart Lowe

    The trouble of hopping from “brain” to “consciousness” was so acute that early modern philosophers couldn't do it.

    Descartes (and many English philosophers riffing off him) went so far as to locate the pineal gland as the anchor for the soul, literally translating the spirit into mind — and later into matter (the body).

    This current gap between neuroscience and phenomenology (consciousness as it is experienced) is why so many people shrug and develop a theory of the soul. It is hard to articulate to a thinking being that he or she, in fact, is a hive-mind rather than an “I.”

  • ivana Fulli MD


    You wrote //but the movement of ions and neurotransmitters//

    Please do not forget magnetism.

  • ramesam

    The fact that there is no solidity or physicality to the objects we perceive in the world has been well known and unambiguously articulated in the ancient Indian Philosophy called Advaita (Not-Twoness). Taking off from the British philosopher David Hume, Peter illustrates how there is no physical “apple” really out there other than our 'sensations' of it (

    While some of the philosophies stop at there being no 'thing' other than the sensations, Advaita goes further to say that the sensations do not happen to a “me” or any particular entity or person. They just happen in a placeless space and eternally in the “Now” (i.e. no arrow of time either). This dimensionless (no x-y-z coordinates or time dimensions and attributes like mass, force etc.) and unnamable thing is pointed out by a reference to it merely as “THAT.” THAT is prior to the 'mind.' THAT is the fundamental “Awareness” or “Consciousness” in which even the mind is sensed. This Consciousness is, IMHO, is not the same as the consciousness that psychologists and neuroscientists keep talking about (which is more like a 'spot light on the stage – remember Bernard Baar's Global space Model).

    My question is: Can anyone experience his/her own brain – not the idea or a concept or an image of brain but an actual brain which he/she thinks one has – like your heart or hand, stomach or shingle?

  • Tony B

    Imagine that some physical process in the brain can perceve some piece of information from its own future self. Maybe it is difficult to imagine that?
    Ions, neurotransmitters, magnetism and multi-dimesional quantum state?

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Tony B,

    You wrote:

    ///Imagine that some physical process in the brain can perceve some piece of information from its own future self. Maybe it is difficult to imagine that?///

    My take on this is that a lot of people find it very easy to believe that (and mediums future tellers are very successful worldwide with clients /or believers when they work for free in many layers of societies.

    And I do not object about it- as long as a scientist is not taking it for granted when he does research.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • petrossa

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • Neuroskeptic

    I've removed 3 comments because they were off topic; discussions about autism and the DSM-V are very welcome but they should be kept to posts about autism. (I've saved the comments if anyone wants them.)

  • Adam

    Thinking of the brain as animate does nothing for explaining how mental states become conscious. I think the more important question to ask is what role does the rest of the body play when thinking consciousness? Yes, the brain has the most scientifically measurable and significant effect on our conscious states, but the body plays a much larger role in structuring our experience than seems to be given here (which is why I am concerned with your statement that brain = mind).

  • Neuroskeptic

    Adam: I agree that the body structures our experience, but it does so through its actions on the brain, surely.

    If we were a brain in a vat, we would have very different experiences, but we would still have experiences.

    Whereas if we were a brainless body, we wouldn't have any. Or at least nothing more complex than the experiences that an insect has (the human peripheral nervous system probably has about as many cells as a whole insect nervous system…? Roughly? I guess.)

  • Neuroskeptic

    Actually, that guess may be way off… But the rest of my comment stands even if it is.

  • pay per head

    very nice post I am really enjoyed visiting your blog thanks for sharing…



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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