You Are Not “Your Brain”

By Neuroskeptic | April 30, 2012 4:03 pm

Best-selling mysterymonger Deepak Chopra announces Good News: You Are Not Your Brain.

We are not our brains. We are “conscious agents”… It’s very good news that you are not your brain, because when your mind finds its true power, the result is healing, inspiration, insight, self-awareness, discovery, curiosity, and quantum leaps in personal growth. The brain is totally incapable of such things. After all, if it is a hard-wired machine, there is no room for sudden leaps and renewed inspiration…

Chopra is saying that you are a conscious agent, with the power of self-awareness and curiosity etc. Which is true. He then says that “The brain is totally incapable of such things”, but you are, therefore, you are not your brain.

The problem is that Chopra has a concept of “the brain” which is essentially a passive, “hard-wired machine”. He’s right that we are not such a machine; his mistake is to call that machine “the brain”, because brains aren’t like that either.

But this is not a mistake unique to Chopra. As I wrote previously, the concept of “the brain” is inherently misleading -

What do we mean when we talk about “the brain”? Easy, right? It’s this (picture of a human  brain). 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.

“The brain” brings to mind an inert squishy lump of a certain size and color. This mental image corresponds perfectly well to a dead brain – which is all the proof needed, I think, that it fails to capture the essence of a living one.

“The brain”, in other words, is a mere simplified caricature of the brain.

So when Chopra says “You are not your brain”, he is right, in the sense that you are not what Chopra (or anyone else) understands by “your brain”, but that doesn’t mean you’re not your brain.

This mistake also crops up in more serious discussions. There are philosophical arguments that go something like this: the human mind can do things that it is inconceivable for a brain to do. Therefore, the mind is not the brain. But couldn’t it be that it is the brain, itself, which is inconceivable?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bad neuroscience, media, philosophy, woo, you
  • Adam

    “There are philosophical arguments that go something like this: the human mind can do things that it is inconceivable for a brain to do. Therefore, the mind is not the brain. But couldn't it be that it is the brain, itself, which is inconceivable?”

    If this is true, then we couldn't come to a logical conclusion. We have to presuppose an understanding of the brain in order to assert anything about it. If we lack that understanding, we can only make an epistemological claim that points to the limits of our understanding, and not the ontological relation between the brain and the mind.

    That is not to say I don't agree with your statement regarding our categorical error when we refer to the brain, though.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03510764104865886283 Pallas

    Peter Hacker says ” On the current neuroscientist’s view, it’s the brain that thinks and reasons and calculates and believes and fears and hopes. In fact, it’s human beings who do all these things, not their brains and not their minds. I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about the brain engaging in psychological or mental operations”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    “We have to presuppose an understanding of the brain in order to assert anything about it.”

    Hmm. I wonder about that, if I say “the human brain weighs 1200g” that doesn't assume I understand the brain, it just means I can weigh it. Or if I say “the brain is composed of 100 billion cells that communicate via synapses” all that assumes is that I can (as it were) cut the brain up into its components.

    I agree that some kinds of statements about the brain do assume understanding e.g. if I say “the brain can” or “the brain can't” do X, then I am assuming that I understand it.

    But it's just that kind of statements that I think we ought to avoid.

    I think this leaves us open to make lots of other statements, not perhaps as many as certain philosophers would like, but that's my point ;)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Pallas: Thanks. Actually I had Peter Hacker in mind when writing this post!

    “I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about the brain engaging in psychological or mental operations” – I agree, it doesn't make sense, but I see this as saying more about our 'sense' than anything else.

  • Anonymous

    We are what we know ourselves to be – ie we are a model. The brain is obviously a huge part of that model, and for good reason, for if we destroy parts of the brain we know that we destroy parts of us. Most importantly we destroy the ability to create those models – us.

  • Jeff

    Interesting post, and I definitely agree. Another thing that bothers me about the mind-as-brain framework is that it completely ignores the fact that the brain is (very roughly) a command center for the entire nervous system, which extends throughout our entire bodies.

    The mind, or Chopra's sense of 'self', has much more to do with the nervous system as a whole than just the brain. For example, consider the notion that pain “happens in the brain”. It's alluring (if you're a certain type of person) to say to someone who's complaining about a sharp pain in their arm, “Hey, the pain isn't in your arm, it's in your brain! Look at an fMRI sometime, moron!” But that completely misses the point (and is incorrect). Without sensory neurons in the periphery, there'd be no pain activation in the brain at all. To conceive of the brain as a stand-alone organ is grossly inaccurate (much like your Wikipedia example). And so to perpetuate the mind-as-brain misconception (which Chopra does implicitly even if he rejects the misconception) is itself a problem. Chopra is right that the mind/self is not the brain. It's much more than that. But his argument is the wrong one. It's not about the brain in isolation. Brains exist as part of nervous systems, which themselves exist embedded in a certain environment.

    All this is to support your point, Neuroskeptic. Just as the heart is useless without a functioning circulatory system (just try clogging those arteries and see what happens), the brain is useless without a functioning peripheral nervous system, connected through the spinal cord. We have a tendency as humans to imbue the seemingly central object in a system as BEING the system itself. Synecdoche is a nice heuristic that we too often take literally.

  • Alec

    The mind is not the brain in the same sense that the operating system is not the computer. For that reason, it seems silly to say that the mind can do things that it is inconceivable for a brain to do. Would we say that the operating system does things that it is inconceivable for a computer to do?

    That something is at a higher level of conceptual abstraction does not mean that it does not depend upon or is not part of the lower levels. Concretely: if anything that exists inside a computer can do something, the computer can do that something… because it IS doing that something.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00011548114422637862 Maria Lopez

    A difference between computers and operating system
    is that the mind is implied by the hardware configuration. You cannot load another one into the same brain, nor is there a separate place set aside to store it.

    By hardware configuration I mean the configuration of the body as whole, though the brain is most important. Still you would act differently if your peripheral nervous system were changed.

  • toomanycrayons

    My impression of Chopra is that he's just a mesmerizing talker, to some. Charming man, no doubt, but ultimately only talking about talking.

    “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.”

    My suggestion is that the new “yellowy lump” is, and has been from early on, Language and the built-in prejudice/blindness of a brain selectively evolved because of, and for it. I like what I think was one of Pinkers' statements, that language is not the same as thought. Well, moving on ( within the limitations of language), thought/consciousness is not the same as either brain or mind. The sensation itself may in fact be a biological dead end by product of an evolutionary event: Language. Just say'n…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04684052925980478870 Asher Kay

    What really needs debunking is the Hoffman article Chopra mentions in the piece. Hoffman attempts to “flip” the common conception that consciousness arises from neural activity, to end up with what he calls a “non-physicalist monism”.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08306979702373176880 Stephen T Casper

    Want to write a post for the neuro times on the disease of neuro-nihlism?

  • Frank

    The Observer had a debate a couple of days ago between Eagleman and Tallis related to this argument:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/apr/29/neuroscience-david-eagleman-raymond-tallis

    Props to the Mind Hacks blog for pointing it out.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18379669883853001278 TheCellularScale

    I am surprised that 'the brain is a hardwired machine is still a believed or popular concept. It seems that almost every popular neuroarticle recently is structured something like: “Scientists used to think that the brain/memories/neurons were fixed, but recent work by so-and-so shows it's actually plastic and changable” so many articles that it seems trite and my usual reaction is “scientists haven't thought the brain was fixed for like 50 years” get with the program Chopra.

  • http://whatisautismanyway.wordpress.com/ whatisautismanyway

    I'm fascinated by the human ability to actively ignore 50 years of research.

    Philosophers often appear to have little knowledge of biology, but still seem to think it's OK to pontificate about brain function. I've read comments about people 'just' having headaches, or 'just' learning to drive – it's not the brain that does these things, it's the whole person. Try doing either without a brain. And Wittgenstein's analogy about seeds containing their full potential for development and 'unfolding' keeps cropping up even though it's a century out-of-date.

  • Anonymous

    “the brain is useless without a functioning peripheral nervous system, connected through the spinal cord. “

    Not so. Christopher Reeves did some valuable campaigning after losing the connection with his spinal cord. His brain was definitely not useless.

    DC

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Alec: “The mind is not the brain in the same sense that the operating system is not the computer. For that reason, it seems silly to say that the mind can do things that it is inconceivable for a brain to do. Would we say that the operating system does things that it is inconceivable for a computer to do?”

    That's a great analogy!

    It's interesting that we get into conceptual muddles over “brains” more than “computers”, although in many ways the problems are similar.

    I think the difference is that we have lots of experience with computers as such – when you're interacting with a computer, you know you are doing that.

    Actually we have even more experience interacting with brains, but we don't realize it, it seems (roughly) like when we're talking to someone (say), we are talking to a head!

    If all computers were embedded inside humanoid robots, and you had to talk to them to interact with them, we might get into the same problems.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12987483359214068938 Will:Power

    The brain is more dynamic than even most neuroscientists realise.

    http://www.cell.com/trends/neurosciences/abstract/S0166-2236(10)00002-0

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    TheCellularScale: Well I see the essential problem is that the concept of “the brain”, as a physical object (a lump), is inherently static.

    Actually even the concept of “neuroplasticity” implicitly buys into this. If something is plastic then it has a definite, albeit malleable, shape. Like plastic. It's still static, just it can change from one static state into another static state.

    Which is perfectly true in terms of brain structure, which we know is plastic in various ways; what we don't know is what if anything that has to do with mental function.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    To clarify that last comment: the other day I added some new RAM to my computer.

    So you could say that my computer's RAM is plastic. I can buy new RAM modules and install them, or remove old ones.

    The same is true of most other parts of my computer, I could buy a new graphics card or hard drive etc. Those are all plastic.

    But – that kind of “structural” plasticity has nothing to do with my computer's functional plasticity or flexibility, i.e. the fact that it can run any of millions of different pieces of software.

    Those are two very different kinds of plasticity and I wonder if, in the brain, we tend to mix them up, because we have this idea that the brain is static (which implies that any 'software' change must be preceded by a 'hardware' change).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05660407099521700995 petrossa

    “This mistake also crops up in more serious discussions. There are philosophical arguments that go something like this: the human mind can do things that it is inconceivable for a brain to do. Therefore, the mind is not the brain. But couldn't it be that it is the brain, itself, which is inconceivable?”

    This is the crux. Already the 'Me' is a result of an overseer of all regulatory systems. To have yet another layer that could oversee the overseer would lead to a total block of all activity.

    It would create the mental equivalent of two mirrors facing each other. Endless reiterations. Be glad it doesn't exist. You'd just sit there and be eaten by the first predator the walks along.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Stephen T Casper: Thanks. I'll have to decline for now because I have been trying to write a post for like that for a while & haven't quite worked out how best to do it… but I will let you know if & when I do!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04221071378558470213 Animelee

    Chopra is, and always has been, a charlatan and a hack.

  • http://cocoladka.livejournal.com/ cocoladka

    I think the main question is “what is life itself?” Why living brain become a dead brain? Why there is a process of “dying” which starts from the birth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18001492312162861823 Richard Gipps

    OK, so this is giving me a bit of a headache. Some reflections:

    1. Chopra says that the brain is totally incapable of healing. Sure: it can't heal like a doctor (unlike many other people) can heal. But certain parts of it can heal in the way that, say, my grazed knee can heal.

    2. Neuroskeptic wonders if it may be the brain, rather than the mind, that is ‘inconceivable’. Presumably Neuroskeptic is using the term 'inconceivable' metaphorically, since we don't normally say that bodily organs are either conceivable or inconceivable. But how are we to treat the metaphor? Also: we are told that the mind can 'do things' – but whilst minds, like brains, have properties, it is not obvious to me that they act – is that any less the mereological fallacy?

    3. Adam and Neuroskeptic disagree about whether the brain is conceivable. The trouble seems to be that they have not yet agreed on a use for 'conceivable'. Adam is clearly talking about our ability to grasp the concept 'brain'; Neuroskeptic is probably – although I’m not sure – talking about whether he can understand, say, how the brain works.

    4. Neuroskeptic says, in relation to Pallas' post that “I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about the brain engaging in psychological or mental operations” – I agree, it doesn't make sense, but I see this as saying more about our 'sense' than anything else. But what is the force of the ‘our’ here? Perhaps two things are being run together: i) the question of whether a distinct use has been provided (in a definition or with a paradigm case, for example) for phrases like ‘my brain thought that / perceived x’ so that we know what to do with them; ii) our understanding of how the brain works – the empirical whats and hows.

    4) Anonymous says that we are what we know ourselves to be. So: I know that I am a psychologist, and it is also true that I am a psychologist. It is not possible that I could know (and not merely believe) myself to be something which I am in fact not. But this does not mean that I am only that which I know myself to be: my cat is an organic life form despite his ignorance about this. As for 'ie we are a model': I have a model aeroplane on my desk that neither does nor doesn’t know what it is… Without a disambiguation of ‘model’ the ‘i.e.’ doesn’t help.

    5) Jeff tells us that we need to think of the brain in the context of the system. And that is true if we are to understand its functioning. But to understand its functioning is not the same thing as, say, grasping what it would mean for the brain-in-context to be able to perform human actions like thinking or deliberating or imagining or running about or throwing up. We still haven’t been told what it would mean to say of a brain-in-context that it could, say, understand anything. In what abilities does this understanding consist? We could hardly say that the context is the total person without destroying the idea that we have said anything with this holistic slogan – since we didn't need neuroscience to tell us that it is people that understand things!

    6) Alec proffers the functionalist idea that mind is not brain in the same sense that operating systems are not computers. That distinction helps free us from the simplistic wish to identify minds and brains. But then again do we really have a firm grasp on what it is to say that one thing is not another thing ‘in the same sense’ as something else is not some further other thing?

    7) Whatisautismanyway seems to be inferring from our inability to do x without a brain to the conclusion that it is wrong to say that it is the person and not the brain that does x. If someone could explain how this inference is supposed to work that would be very helpful!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12349512743773427178 Sometimes Life

    Perhaps I am being simplistic when I say that the whole meaning of Chopra's message would be viewed differently if he had added one or more other words, for example: you are not 'only' your brain.

    I am not a particular fan of Chopra's or any of these people who make a lot of money sending out a simple message. On the other hand, many find it comforting to think of ourselves as more than just a brain…and I say brain, not thinking of it as a yellow mass that sits within my skull, I say it with an understanding (albeit a layman's understanding)that it is me in the sense that I function in almost every way because of it. Many people are currently more informed about the brain and its processes – for example Horizon put out a series dedicated to neuroscience. Example anyone who saw: the one which asks “are we in control”

    Chopra simply puts forward an idea that there is/may be something beyond the solid; the flesh, blood, bones and brain…something unseen; something beyond the understanding of science. It is unfortunate that words and how we use them change what we mean by them.

  • Daniel

    Does “mind” have an operational definition? No. Then it can have no place in any theory. If it has no place in any theory then the term is without meaning in science. So what is all this nonsense about mind vs brain? The brain has an operational definition!

    This is so much nonsense.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Richard Gipps: “Neuroskeptic wonders if it may be the brain, rather than the mind, that is ‘inconceivable’. Presumably Neuroskeptic is using the term 'inconceivable' metaphorically, since we don't normally say that bodily organs are either conceivable or inconceivable. But how are we to treat the metaphor?”

    What I mean is that we cannot adaquately conceive of brain activity; we can of course conceive of 'the brain' as a physical organ but because we can't conceive of how it works (its activity) this conception of the brain is a misleading one.

    “Also: we are told that the mind can 'do things' – but whilst minds, like brains, have properties, it is not obvious to me that they act – is that any less the mereological fallacy?”

    My point is that there is no mereological fallacy (at least with regards to the whole brain; I'm not defending ascribing actions to parts of brains.)

    Brains do act. That seems odd, yes. Because we can't adaquately conceive of the living brain. So it seems like a fallacy, but it's not, it's a failure of our intuitions about what “seems odd” (this is what I meant when I said the problem is with our 'sense').

    How do I know brains act? Well, imagine your brain was surgically removed, placed in a vat, and wired up such that you could get visual input from a camera (connected to your occipital lobe) and send output through a robotic arm (connected to your motor cortex).

    This is not that far fetched. You could probably do it to a monkey if you could keep the brain supplied with oxygen etc.

    So your brain is in the vat, and it could act. It could, for example, try to take revenge on the people who put it there, by choking them with the robot arm. Or it might decide it can't face life in a vat, and pull the plug on itself, so to speak. Or it could do something else.

    Now I think you could rewrite that last paragraph, replacing “your brain” with “you”, and it would mean exactly the same thing.

    Hence, brains act.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Or let me put it another way…

    In spoken Mandarin Chinese, there is no distinction between “he”, “she”, and “it” – they are all “ta”. (In written Chinese there is.)

    In English, we say that a brain is an “it”.

    I am arguing that philosophical problems would be removed if we switched to Chinese, at least as regards brains, because it would remove the distinction between brains (it) and persons (he/she).

    Actually this wouldn't solve the problem because we'd also need to abolish the distinction between “you” and “it” as well, but you see the point…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13039202616469172686 Edgarooney

    At any given instant, billions of cascades of orderly molecular mechanisms are in progress in your body (including your brain). They are all happening in parallel in the same space, somehow, and they continue to function in orderly and repeatable ways for decades in an astonishingly reliable way.

    We have almost no understanding of what is happening in your body at that level of specificity. At the molecular level, what is the entire sequence of events that lead to the blink of your eyes when you are surprised?

    Whenever I hear anyone in the medical profession brag about how much we know, and how reliable our present drug testing methods are, and how wonderful our tools are, I know that he or she is exhibiting his or her profound ignorance of our profound ignorance. It will be many years before we even have the tools to figure out how a brain works. Or how the tip of a finger works. And years before we have the computational power to assemble all that new information into something humans can understand.

    So – yes, it is all exciting, yes, we are learning wonderful new things daily, yes we are much more advanced than we were a hundred years ago – but biology is in it's early infancy, and we know almost nothing yet.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13039202616469172686 Edgarooney

    A friend read what I posted here, and said “What's all that about? NeuroSkeptic was writing a critique about people like Chopra's assertions that “mind” is separate from brains, and you go off on a rant about our ignorance!”

    Sorry – what I was doing was agreeing, vehemently, with NeuroSkeptic's statement that “we literally can't begin to imagine” what's going on inside our brains, so there is no evidence at all that a brain can't do what the Chopras of the world claim it can't do.

    I do believe that mind, consciousness, humor, love and such are products of our brains – anyone who has watched the progress of degenerative brain disease in a friend or relative is likely to believe that. But, of course, neither I nor anyone else can can explain how a brain does all that we think it does. Yet.

    But not knowing how the body's fundamental mechanisms work doesn't justify resorting to mysticism and supernatural explanations of things like curiosity and creativity. Or blinking. Or getting goosebumps when we hear a particular song. Or burping. We don't know anything about the complex cascade(s) of molecular mechanisms that result in the different kinds of human burping. Or, more interestingly to me, burp suppression.

    That's how little we know. Which is fine; we will get there, but it will take a lot of time and a lot of work, and it will be a lot of fun. And the charlatans will dwindle away as fact replaces speculation and nursery stories.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18001492312162861823 Richard Gipps

    So, I like this discussion a lot. But I'm still a bit puzzled. 1. Neuroskeptic says, in response to my post: “How do I know brains act? Well, imagine your brain was surgically removed, placed in a vat, and wired up such that you could get visual input from a camera (connected to your occipital lobe) and send output through a robotic arm (connected to your motor cortex).” But here you have, we will all agree, a system of which the brain is only a part. (Perhaps its a bit like an animal, really, except with a non-fleshy arm.) Neuroskeptic was wanting to come up with an argument that would show how it isn't wrong to say, in the regular case of the brain in the context of that system that is the human being, that the brain acts. But how are we supposed to be convinced of the falsity of the idea that a mereological fallacy is being committed in the one case by committing (as the mereological fallacy believer would have it) the same fallacy in the hybrid case? (This isn't an argument for the correctness of the idea that it is unclear how to talk meaningfully of organs including brains possessing personal-level properties – it is only an argument against a proposed argument against the argument that brains are not meaningfully described as acting, thinking, seeing, hearing etc.)

    And so we need an argument to say that it is the brain that acts here, rather than the system of which the brain is but a part. It is the arm that moves – the brain doesn't itself move. And so just as it has been alleged that it is a mereological fallacy to say that a human brain acts when a person acts by moving her arm, so too I can imagine saying that it is the odd robo-brain system that is acting in this case and that it would be a misuse, or a merely metaphorical, use of 'act' to say that only the one part of the system acts.
    2. On another matter, Neuroskeptic says “What I mean is that we cannot adaquately conceive of brain activity; we can of course conceive of 'the brain' as a physical organ but because we can't conceive of how it works (its activity) this conception of the brain is a misleading one.” I'm still – sorry about this! – unsure of how 'conceive of' is being used here. In what sense is it inconceivable that the brain has the functions it does (it subtends a whole variety of organismic functions like the movements of the body, anxiety regulation, helps with homeostasis, and so on and on and on for a very long list). I'm presuming that it isn't being assumed from the outset that the brain is to be conceived of as performing a range of activities that only people perform – that really would make for something inconceivable! (But the problem would not be a failure of either empirical or reflective thought, so the Wittgensteinian argument goes, but would instead be a product of a conceptual confusion needing philosophical therapy.) It's a bit odd to be writing about not understanding the understanding that Neuroskeptic takes him/herself to have in claiming to not understand something – but that just is where I'm stuck!

  • Anonymous

    To anonymous: Christopher Reeve's brain developed with an intact peripheral nervous system and intact sensory processing system. Through his body's experiences of moving through time and space and through the development of perception and language acquisition during these experiences, his brain had the structures and cognition required to successfully function following his SCI.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, well, where is the seat of consciousness located? Inside the brain, we do not have a body, we are the body. That include the organ we call the brain. Deep-crap choprah is full of it or shit. Remove the brain form the body and see who is present to say 'I am' or be aware of any activities. Funny that this idiot looks to ancient Indian religious non-sense and call that garbage wisdom… PS. He claims that human being can reach 'enlightenment', unfortunately an historical 'Buddha' i.e “enlightened one' never existed, just another made up religious fairy tale created by story tellers and poets. The phenomena of consciousness which includes self-awareness or self-hoodis the emergence of Life and the animal brain (human) evolution.

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Neuroskeptic

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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