The Astonishing Brain

By Neuroskeptic | April 12, 2013 4:45 pm

A few nights ago, I was in the audience at an event (this) for the public who were offered the chance to ask questions of a panel of neuroscientists.

Now the questions varied, but listening to them, it seemed to me that many of them stemmed from a philosophical confusion, one that also affects many neuroscientists. This confusion is one that I’ve tackled before, but hearing neuroscience talked about from the perspective of normal people helped me see it more clearly. So:

We have two pictures in our heads. One of these is called ‘the brain’, the other we call a ‘person’/’soul’/’mind’, or more commonly we just say I, you, he and she.

These two pictures are very different –

Brains‘ are simple, mechanical, static, measurable, physical, shallow, sparse. The visual image is of a smallish, yellowy-grey lump.

People‘ are complex, organic, dynamic, unquantifiable, immaterial, deep, rich. The visual image is a human face.

So these two concepts have nothing in common, yet (we think) science tells us that they’re the same. This confuses us. We ask: how can one thing be both static and dynamic, material and immaterial? Yet if they’re not the same, how are they related? Where exactly is the soul? But if it’s nowhere, the brain would be doing a soul’s job, and how could it – it’s just a brain…? And so on.

The truth is that the reason our pictures of ‘the brain’ and ‘the mind’ have no overlap is because they’re only partial – they’re views of the same thing from two different angles.

There’s only one thing, and it’s both a material object and a human subject at the same time.

This one thing is the brain – but it doesn’t correspond to your mental image labelled “brain”, because (if it’s anything like mine), that image could just as well denote a dead brain.

What’s inside the human skull is the brain; it’s also the mind, in all its complexity. Everything you can say about people, you can say about the brain. If you want to know what brains can do, find a history book. If you want some pictures of brains, you could do worse than a portrait gallery.

Somehow, human nature fits into a few pounds of tissue. That’s astonishing, but so long as we keep in mind that ‘the brain’ is a thing of astonishing richness, there are no more mysteries after that. The mind-body problem, for example, doesn’t arise; it was, I believe, all along really a rich-sparse problem.

Here’s an example of what I mean: neuroplasticity is a celebrated concept and a buzzword because it contradicts the mental image of the static, dead ‘brain’. In fact, the brain’s ability to change is nothing remarkable because the brain is people, and we already know that people can change, learn, adapt, and remember.

Neuroplasticity is an interesting biological phenomenon, but it’s nothing special, and if it seems counter-intuitive, that’s a problem with our intuitions.

  • Pablo

    For an in depth explanation of how this works, see the teachings of the Buddha.

    • guy incognito

      buddha does not ‘explain how anything works’. he didn’t make predictions about the results of experiments or measurable real world outcomes. he was a good guy, but not a scientist.

  • Pingback: The Mind – Brain paradox « the art of Free Will()

  • petrossa

    The only ones who find ourselves astonishing are us. Which makes it rather suspect as a thesis. There’s nothing astonishing there to be found.Just a brain that does what it does to guarantee the survival as a species like any other animal on earth. And does a lousy job at it at that. After a mere 100.000 years or so the species is on it’s way to extinction, breaking the world record for fastest self destructing species ever.
    A croc with a brain the size of a walnut outsurvives us by 200 million years, raise hands those who really beleive that homo sapiens will last a million.

    Hubris anyone?

    For an in depth explanation how Bhuddism works out see:

    • Michael Cook

      Judging the entire faith and teachings of Buddhism on how one group of people at a particular time and cultural place chose to practice it is fraught with difficulties.

      I could choose to judge the ethics of scientist by looking at the recent spate of psychology fraud cases.

      Take a quick look at this, everyone is human:

      We need to be careful of letting personal judgements in the way of judging what exactly the given sample we are drawing from can tell us about the population as a whole.

      • petrossa

        It’s not 1 group. It’s centuries of masses of different groups and still goes on. Sri Lanka was a nice genocidal mess.

  • Jayarava Attwood

    Excellent. Thanks for this and the previous one as well. I’m looking at this very issue now. I believe that we have a kind of matter/spirit dichotomy very similar to what you describe. This is not explicit but comes out in the kinds of metaphors people use for matter especially. Even those of us with no explicit believe in spirit understand the metaphors without a second thought – they structure the way we think (and I’m invoking George Lakoff here rather than Ben Whorf).

    Having studied chemistry I know the idea that matter is cold, lifeless, inanimate is false. I don’t need a spirit concept to animate the matter of my flesh because I see matter as animate anyway. Watching Henry Markham’s TED talk on the Blue Brain Project simulations reveals images of astounding complexity modelling about 10% of one millionth of a brain. The actual brain itself is incomprehensibly complex!

    So now I wonder what you’re take on “the hard problem” is. I start to wonder if centuries of philosophy unrelated to empiricism have created an impenetrable tangle of legacy words and concepts that make it hard to see what the mind is and does? Will it come down to untangling wrong views as you do here?

  • Elmar Veerman

    Yes, the brain is matter, the mind is a process taking place in that matter.

    • Buddy199

      Where exactly is cognition within the brain. It is not directly observable the way neuroanatomy is. If the personal experiences of “blue” or “sweet” cannot be seen under a microscope, as opposed to the anatomy associated with them, they are not matter. To say cognition is just an “artifact” dodges the question. An artifact made of matter or energy that cannot be observed? That makes no sense, unless cognition itself is of a type of energy or matter completely unimagined at present, or something other than either which we cannot fathom yet.

      • Jayarava Attwood

        This view is what I’ve started to think of as the myth of subjectivity.

      • Megan Anderson

        We are beginning to develop the tools to “see” the brain’s representation and thus our state of seeing “blue” or thinking something is “sweet”. At one point in history, we did not have the tools to see cells, but just because we couldn’t seem them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Similarly, it doesn’t mean that personal experiences are not manifested in neural connections just because we can’t seem them yet. I don’t think Veerman was saying that mind is an artifact. Mind emerges from the physics, chemistry, biology, the system of physiology of our brain.

        • Budgie Mitchell

          “We are beginning to develop the tools to “see” the brain’s representation”

          No, we’re not. Tell me what tools can non-destructively intercept electrical signals running down the optical cords to the brain, or taste buds to the tongue – in a human.

          If you mention FMRI I will scream.

          When I think of the optical cord I think of how TCP/IP works on a cable modem, as in packets of info being sent from the eyeball to the brain.

          Then I’m confounded. In TCP/IP packets are sent as binary, in order, have error correction, and in a standard structure. With a brain, you have electrical pulses and that’s it (unless quantum effects are at work). Please tell me how the brain takes these pulses, re-orders them and translates them into a visual representation in the mind?

          There’s no-one who knows about how the brain binds what we see, taste and hear into one conscious experience, and no-one’s near it either, by the looks of things. If you tell me there is, I’ll set the neuroscientist Raymond Tallis on you ;-p

          PS I’m an atheist, so don’t dismiss me as some creationist wacko….

          • Jayarava Attwood

            The analogy with TCP/IP is false for several reasons. It is digital rather than analog. It is serial rather than parallel. Representation is incredibly complex – many orders of magnitude more complex than packet switching.

          • Budgie Mitchell

            Yes, I know TCP is digital, that’s why I said binary, but I was using it as an analogy…. you will see I am saying the brain is NONE of those things.

            You can send X “gigabytes” worth of information across the synapses per second, but something has to reassemble them into an order the brain understands, and what’s more sync the inputs.

      • Jayarava Attwood

        Asking “where” as though it must be located in a subsection is self-defeating. Cognition is an emergent property of the whole brain operating. It happens everywhere and nowhere.

        Indeed when you phrase the question this way you mistakenly over-simplify cognition. It’s not a thing you can locate. Cognition is very far from simple.

  • Buddy199

    In the materialistic view, the brain is a structure receiving, processing, and storing sensory information. Cognition is nothing more than the sum of those functions. If that’s the case, a complex machine such as the Mars lander which autonomously performs those same functons at least as intelligently as an ant or wasp must be conscious as well. If not, why not? Taken a step farther, any living thing or machine that reacts to its environment must be conscious on some level, if that’s all consciousness is. My house thermostat is conscious – somehow that doesn’t square with common sense, from a materialistic point of view it must logically be so since consciousness is nothing more than an electrical process within matter.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Indeed, but why should we trust our common sense on this point? I see questions like the thermostat example as cases of trying to reconcile two mental images – this time, the two images are “thermostat” and “mind/consciousness” and the problem is that our model of the latter is the human mind.

      Of course a thermostat cannot have anything within a million miles of a human mind. But we mustn’t assume that all possible minds are within a million miles of ours.

      • Buddy199

        Animals have the quality of “mind”, though different (in most cases) from humans, just as their anatomy differs from ours. Animal minds evolved to fit their circumstances. The cognition of a honey bee, a migratory bird or a sonar using whale include types of consciousness we cannot appreciate, any more than a blind person can understand the experience of sight. I’d take a step farther, plants reacting to their environment are cognizant though in a way entirely different from animal experience. It’s not that much of a stretch to then include bacteria and viruses, which en masse during an epidemic exhibit many characteristics of an intelligent single organism. Taking one more step, consciousness is probably an inherent elemental property of matter itself that manifests itself in greater complexity the higher up the ladder you go. Personally, I think it will take a complete paradigm shift in our view of the mind, on the order of what Einstein did with physics, to really get an insight as to what consciousness actually is.

        • Neurobro

          easy there tom nagel

          • Buddy199


          • Steffen Nestler

            Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review, 83(4), 435-450.

      • Jayarava Attwood

        In terms of parts and complexity the Mars Rover is somewhat less complex than the average amoeba. Certainly it is less capable of independent action. A thermostat is somewhat less complex than a single protein in one cell.

        This is the sparse-rich problem in action. We simply can’t imagine the level of complexity required. Thus you are right that we should not trust common sense. As in most matters of complexity common sense leads us astray.

  • Semigrounded

    The problem is that the brain is a poor analogy of the mind. It doesn’t blossom when an introvert finds a medium to excel at, and a whittled and circuitous Brodman’s twenty-five doesn’t have the punch of a hat and scarf adorning a parking meter as multitudes rush past unseeing. It’s all about mental templets.

    As I’ve learned about the brain, that lump of organic matter has developed an intricacy and nuance that I can more easily attach to my intuitions about people. Without a more detailed mental image of the brain, the mind/body divide can’t be reasoned away. It’s not a deficit of imagination or an error in logic, it’s a paucity of the ingredients needed for a proper analogy.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      “Analogy”? That seems a very poor description of the relationship between the brain and the mind. You’re asking the wrong question.

      • Semigrounded

        Analogy is the process of finding the common links between seemingly unlike things. If there are fundamental laws to bind two things, then there should be words to marry them conceptually. At the end of the day, science will always need to find a way to worm into daily life, to work it’s way into our tools and social structure and eventually our vocabulary, spreading weblike into the foundations of our understanding of human kind and it’s surroundings and of our individual selves.

        Here’s the definition of an analogy via

        1. a similarity between like features of two things, on which acomparison may be based: the analogy between the heart and apump.
        similarity or comparability: I see no analogy between your problemand mine.
        Biology . an analogous relationship.
        Linguistics .
        the process by which words or phrases are created or re-formed according to existing patterns in the language, aswhen shoon was re-formed as shoes, when -ize is added tonouns like winter to form verbs, or when a child says foots for feet.
        a form resulting from such a process.
        Logic. a form of reasoning in which one thing is inferred to besimilar to another thing in a certain respect, on the basis of theknown similarity between the things in other respects.

  • Vijen Julian Wood

    Brains are objects, even minds are subtle objects, yet the existence of a subject is known directly with a certainty which no objective knowledge presents. My true nature may be obscure, but I am not an object.
    The attempt to reduce subjectivity to an object is as ludicrous as any other religious dogma: to see this clearly explore your own subjective experience.

    • Jayarava Attwood

      Part of the myth of subjectivity is that it cannot be an object. The basis idea is as old as the hills. The world is absolutely divided into two substances: matter and spirit. Thus studying matter can lead to no insight into spirit. Spirit stands apart. But this is medieval thinking.

      • Trottelreiner

        Actually, the idea of seperate mind and matter is somewhat post-medieval, see Descartes.
        If you go with Aristoteles, there is no soul without matter, but some dead matter without soul. Don’t know what medieval scholastics did with that.
        Also see the Ancient Greek 4 humour theory of mind, which has some similarities to the notorious neurotransmitter imbalance…

      • Vijen Julian Wood

        Apparently you conceive of yourself as another concept. I am not an idea.

        • Jayarava Attwood

          Not an idea, no. But you are an experience.


    I think a single blow to the head can actually lead to an increase in intelligence a year or two down the road. I think this actually happened to me. A guy hit me on the side of the head near the temple with a beer bottle a couple of years ago. I had trouble with depression shortly after that, but I’ve been off my anti-depressant medication for about two months now ( thanks to n-acetylcysteine ) and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so smart.

  • Pingback: Brilliant summary of what my work is all about « the art of Free Will()

  • Pingback: deus ex machina and narcissism | notessimple()

  • Pingback: The (sigh) Psychopath Brain : Neuroskeptic()

  • Lady of the Snows

    There’s no such thing as the mind, its just a user illusion. All that there is is observable behaviour, be it the organism’s behavioural phenome or the firing of neurons.

    By the logic that a “mind” is there in either oneself or others just because its percieved to be there, the delusions of schizophrenics and UFO abductees would have to be considered genuine as well. After all the bran generates them, the brain thinks they’re really there.

  • Sunny Parmar

    You people are so bored with your lives.

  • Pingback: Big Red Tour - 'A Sense of Urgency': MMA Races to Learn More About Brain Injuries()

  • Pingback: Looking Askance At Cognitive Neuroscience : Neuroskeptic()

  • R.A.Fisher


  • Pingback: How To Avoid Neurohype - Neuroskeptic()

  • Pingback: How To Avoid Neurohype – NewsKon 新聞控()

  • Pingback: From the Community: How To Avoid Neurohype by Neuroskeptic | PLOS Neuroscience Community()



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.


See More

@Neuro_Skeptic on Twitter


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar