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?